Welcome back to Piano Sonata Movement 2 and How it’s Made! So far you heard me talk about the writing and editing process for this piece. Today you will hear the other side of the story. Ethan Valentin, one of my closest friends and longtime collaborator, graciously agreed to write about his side of the process, and how he looks at New Music. He already played the first movement, The Arrogance of Time, which you can buy at 

nebalmaysaud.bandcamp.com

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This is the first time I’ve been asked to contribute to something like this, and I’m so flattered that Nebal asked me to write for his blog. I’ve struggled deciding how to approach this and what I hope a reader will take away from this, and to be honest I’m not really sure I’ve figured anything out. If nothing else, if you haven’t listened to Nebal’s music or if you don’t consider yourself particularly interested in new music, I hope that after reading you’ll listen to his album and check out other composers like him.
We’ve known each other for about three years now, and we’ve been working together for about two. I’m majoring in Piano Performance with an emphasis in Collaborative Piano at Lawrence University, and in the last few years here I’ve had tons of amazing opportunities to work with extraordinarily talented instrumentalists, vocalists, and composers. Of all the projects that I’ve been a part of, working with Nebal has been the longest lasting and most frequent. I remember that he asked me early in my sophomore year if I’d be interested in looking at his Piano Sonata, originally written for our good friend Joey Arkfeld. It was more than a year before I would play it in his senior recital, and in that time I would get to work with him as an assistant on a piece for two organs, and perform on the premiere of his opera scene.
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It was when Nebal first gave me the score for the first movement of the Piano Sonata that I realized how ambitious he is. I didn’t know better than to ask “are you serious?” when I flipped through and looked over the first four pages, mostly just repeated octaves on C and to the last page, which those of you who saw the concert or listened to the recording remember, is a minute and a half crescendo of forearm clusters. What?
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I remember I approached it and encountered several passages in the piece which baffled me. I didn’t see a way around these jumbled, confusing textures and my go-to response was to ask Nebal to change it. He’s a busy guy, and he didn’t always have time to look at it right away – that didn’t mean I necessarily had time to stop practicing it. After weeks of looking at the same passage and playing around with it, some things started changing. My fingers were tripping over themselves less, I was hearing connections I hadn’t been before, and I was making it to the end of the passage before stopping to skip over it.
I recall an admittedly childlike moment of “fine….you were right.” That’s one of the things that I’ve grown to love about playing Nebal’s music, he gets so. damn. close. to the line in the sand where I can ask him to change something. He gets so close to unplayable, but it’s juuuuust enough on this side that I’d feel like I was doing a disservice to the creativity and originality to ask that he change something that he likes and is physically possible. I feel like that aspect of his music has taught me a lot, I can’t just not play it or demand that he change it because it’s “too hard.” I’ve learned new ways to approach difficult passages to make things comfortable and relaxed when at first I didn’t even think it was possible.
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I can honestly say that I’ve typed more than I’ve sent messages that say “Damn it Nebal how many fingers do you think I have” or “I think you forgot to notate ‘middle arm’ here because I’ll definitely need one.” I take pride in the approach I’ve learned to find ways I can make things work when I didn’t initially see a way. Two bars from A Psalm of David, where wrote a very difficult run for the left hand are a perfect example of that. The quarter note pulse he suggested here was 120 bpm, and my questions ranged from “Why the octaves” to “Why is the left hand….like that?” It took me a long time, but it ended up being really fun to play and very effective musically.
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Dealing with these technical issues in Nebal’s music taught me a lot about how I play, and how easy it can be to practice healthy habits when the music is ergonomically friendly. Nebal mentioned in one of his blog posts that he didn’t normally send performers rough drafts, but I think I’ve learned enough through looking at his other music to help him reevaluate his approach to make passages not only possible but easy for me to play well. When we Skyped and I walked him through my impressions of a rough draft of movement two of his Sonata The Arrogance of Time, I tried to structure my feedback in a way that I could say: I have an issue with this passage – it is possible/not possible because ___, – since ___ is the specific issue, you could probably make it work if you ___. In one particular measure of the new movement, I discovered a few hurdles that Nebal will probably want to address. It’s a really climactic moment, that’s pretty clear to me by the wide range, loud dynamic, and filled in harmony. When I played it though, I found that the texture was muddy and indistinct, and it wasn’t possible to play everything that’s notated in the left hand. I suggested that if he were to remove some of the thirds in the lower octaves, the sound might be more clear – we would be rid of that muddiness. Similarly, a consistent rising accompanying pattern as opposed to the repeating rising pattern would allow the bass octave on the last beat to stand alone and display its power and momentum, with no question of that role.
The last thing I want to do with feedback is respond to my emotional connection with the music, or respond to anything general. He’s not done with his creative process in the same way that in the half hour I looked at the music I didn’t finish my interpretive process. I hope that my involvement in the new piece can help Nebal convey the sounds he’s looking for to the performer with less room for the performer to misinterpret the music; to help minimize the time that future performers spend “woodshedding” an inefficient passage while maximizing the time that we can spend approaching the big ideas that Nebal’s sharing with us through his music.
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Thank you so much for reading! Keep supporting your local musicians and composers and don’t forget to download Nebal’s album.
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Welcome back folks! Last time we were popping champagne bottles celebrating the end of our first working draft and getting ready for the collaborative process. I’ve been thinking about what this blog means and how to make it most useful, as well as how to best document my collaboration process with Ethan, which is frankly not very well established. We mostly just send each other a heads up on FB messenger. So, in this shorter installment, I will reflect on the process so far and what I would like to do differently next time.
 
Anyone here knows I’m not very much “established” (whatever that even means) but am still very much in the beginning of a much longer journey. I did, after all, only graduate from undergrad three months ago. It’s quite apparent that I am quite under qualified to talk about any process that “works” or that would be “most effective” for any composer. Instead, I think this is valuable to show my own learning process. I want to share with you my (often many) mistakes to not only document my progression towards becoming a full time professional composer (again, what does that even mean?), but to allow anyone interested in trying their hand at composition insight into the learning and self-evaluation process that must be constant throughout the compositional process.
 
The first thing I learned is that it’s not necessarily helpful to just give someone a copy of a first draft without acknowledging specific problem spots and what you plan to do in revision. And even though I told him this draft’s a mess playability wise, I didn’t tell him how or acknowledged specific parts where I knew it would be impossible. I just let him figure that out in sight reading it, and that’s very frustrating for the performer.
 
What’s the solution then? In writing, many editors ask the writer for a few guiding questions so they can best edit the draft. For example, they might ask “What are you really having trouble with? Which parts do you want me to pay most attention to? What kind of problems are looking to fix and how can I help?” Performers, if you want to make a collaboration process smoother with a composer, ask them these questions if they don’t say anything when they give you the draft, I promise it will make things much smoother for both parties.
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How would you suggest re-writing this to create that same effect while being playable for one player?

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With regards to this sonata, my issues are mainly with playability. There are some parts, particularly in the rising quintuplets that are much more suited for 4-hand piano instead of 2-hand. I got a very predictable response from Ethan which was just “how many hands do you think I have?!” I could have avoided getting him frustrated about my obvious disregard for human’s lack of ability to grow hands if I had asked him: “Many sections of this piece were composed to be more playable in 4-hand piano than 2-hand. I was going for a very full sound and trying to capture the entire range of the keyboard. I know the way it’s written now is not feasible, but how would you suggest re-writing this to create that same effect while being playable for one player? Is there something we can do with the pedals that would help create this effect?” That way, I acknowledge to him that this spot specifically is a problem, why I originally wrote it that way, and asking for his input as a pianist on how to create the desired effect.
 

For a lot of these sections, I was imagining a play with sostenuto pedals, but I don’t know how to best write them in.

I knew that pedals were going to be used extensively in this movement. Yet I didn’t write in any pedal markings, making this movement look ridiculous. That’s because I wanted to work about playability issues first, and add in pedals as we make it more playable. I should have asked Ethan, “for the secondary theme, with the quintuplets, would it sound that full if I got rid of the thirds in the quintuplets and put down the pedal half-way while the sostenuto pedal is put down for every downbeat. Is that feasible?” For all I know, that could be ridiculous, I honestly have no clue, and it’s fine for a composer to be clueless in the editing stage, that’s what collaborators are for! Our responsibility as composers is to not know everything about the instrument we’re writing for right off the bat, but to learn as much about the instrument as we write for it.
 
There are a few other issues, there’s a major chord slam at the end that’s way too quick. I should have told Ethan I just don’t know how long to wait before slamming it, but there will be a pause before it. This way, with these few guiding questions (and notice it’s not a lot), hopefully our collaboration will be a little more fruitful and a little less stressful.
 
Next week will be a very exciting update on this series. Instead of me writing about the collaboration process again, Ethan Valentine will be writing about his experience looking at the music, and hopefully answering some of these guiding questions for everyone. I’m exciting to see what he has to say about the movement and his advice on making it a much more doable composition, and I hope you’re exciting to see his side of things as well.
It’s time for a little honesty, I procrastinated in getting this update to you all. All my life as a musician I have been told to never procrastinate, yet out of all the conflicts in learning composition, the desire to let a project linger continues to go strong. Good news is that I still am able to make deadlines, the schedule is just not consistent, and that is something I will continue to work on.
But there is a specific reason why it is at this point in the piece I procrastinate. On my last post, I was talking about timing and how the form is the most important aspect of a piece, and must be handled first in editing. Well the rest is kind of boring. I listen to the MIDI repeatedly until I spot something that sounds wrong and then I fix it. This process is much more complicated than it sounds, and there’s not really a way to describe it properly in a blog post. Basically, listening with the intent of finding ways to make it sound better, is its own skill. Like any technique on an instrument, years of practice is the only real way you can master this. I go through the music and make notes of any spots that are uninteresting, boring, or just not to their fullest potential, and I alter it in a way that it won’t affect the form and maximizes its own potential.
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For example, this section towards the end sounded boring, and the form demanded that there be a swirl of energy there, so I sat for a bit and wondered, what compositional technique which I have learned over the years would be best to maximize the potential of these few bars.
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bars 93-100 of Piano Sonata Mvt II, before octave displacement
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The issue is that while the left hand is super active to the point where any composer should be questioning if it’s even playable, (don’t worry I’m taking care of that), the right hand is pretty stagnant on a melody we’ve already heard, not to mention that we’ve also heard running quintuplets for a while now so even the left hand is not as exciting as it looks. So what’s the best way to improve a melody that’s stagnant? Two words, and possibly the most influential two words I’ve ever heard in my life:
Octave displacement
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Simply take certain points in the melody, and displace them by an octave, and not only that but I like to use the entire range available to me, because why not? It’s super dramatic and frankly really fun to watch and listen. So I moved some things up an octave, and moved things down low, I listened then shifted things, listened and shifted again until I got a melody that created a huge burst of excitement. And here is the finished product!
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mm. 93-100 Piano Sonata Mvt. 2, after octave displacement
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While I was looking for ways to make the music more interesting, I would occasionally run out of ideas. That is when I go back and add articulations, then dynamics. The reason why I don’t do it beforehand is because I need to listen to the music a couple times and get an understanding of how the energy of the piece should flow so that I can place articulations and dynamics accordingly. At this stage in any composition is when I procrastinate. Because I have already finished the music as best I could. Timing seems right, I have my dynamics in place and every note has the proper articulation. Given how much time I spent on the piece, it just about seems done. But it’s not.
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My experience with my music is vastly different from any listener’s. I have every little detail perfectly arranged in my head. The issue is, did I communicate all of that in the score? That is a question I can’t answer. It has to be someone who would have no idea what to expect when sight-reading the piece. This is the point where I might share the music with a close friend or another composer, and if I already have a good relationship with them, the performer. In this case the performer’s one of my best friends so I just sent him the music and currently waiting on feedback.
I don’t usually go to the performer first because I had a few instances where one might look at an early draft and not understand exactly who different the first draft is from the final. Of course, many performers, especially those who have worked with many composers before, wouldn’t do that, but I don’t’ want to risk creating any needless stress on my performer when it can be avoided.
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So, this leads to an important question, why is this piece so darn difficult? I will admit I don’t account so much for playability in my first draft, and that would be a valid criticism to make of my process, and I don’t recommend it for everyone. But personally, I find that my technique and range of exploration greatly diminish if there’s not room to push boundaries from the beginning. You can restructure ideas later to fit performance practice, but if you set the performance standard from the beginning then the idea would have to be abandoned outright. Especially with this piece, my goal is to explore just how much I can do on the piano. Exploration is necessary, and I’m very fortunate to have a pianist who can frankly do just about anything I ask him to (a few times he would tell me a passage is unplayable and before I get to fixing it he would come back a few days later and say he got it down). I wouldn’t do this for every piece, if I know there will be 2 rehearsals and concert, I would work hard from the beginning to make it easy for the performers from the start. But one can’t object to a lack of experimentation in a piece they expect to sight read.
You may also have noticed that while I didn’t confront playability until now, I have mentioned it in my previous posts, showing that it was always in my mind even though I wasn’t confronting it. No matter what, playability does need to be in the composer’s mind at all times, and they should be aware that what they’re writing may not be playable. A composer is also allowed to give themselves permission to work it out later with someone who is better able to help.
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Anyway, time to get the champagne because we have completed the first working draft! Party hard and invite all your friends! From here I will get into more detail on collaborating with the performer and how I might incorporate Ethan’s notes. Will I follow his advice? Will I blatantly ignore it? Who knows! Join me next time and find out!
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Many of you have already heard the first movement to The Arrogance of Time, performed wonderfully by Ethan Valentin. But did you know it was originally conceived as a three movement sonata? I had a 2nd and 3rd movement outlined, but the first movement ended up being so big, it worked best as a stand alone piece.

But then I looked back at my sketches, and decided to make a second version, with all three movements. I will have to shorten the first movement, and rewrite the ending, but don’t worry, the one movement version will still be here. (Don’t ask how I plan to differentiate the two via titles, I haven’t worked that out yet).

I decided then, that this would be a good opportunity to show you how I do my work, and bring you along my as I write, edit, and finalize the second movement. Currently I have a mostly-completed first draft, written out by hand. I always do sketches and first drafts this way, since it helps to be on a piano when writing for piano, it’s a lot easier to focus, you’re writing slower so you’re more attentive to what you write, and it just feels more natural to me.

So let me talk to you about the beginning.

One thing that is very common in my music is the use of Baroque themes and finding unique ways to play with them in my music. This is the opening theme of the 2nd movement of my piano sonata, but it’s hardly original. For baroque listeners, one would probably expect a set of variations to follow, perhaps even improvised, as that was a common practice for musicians back in the early 1700’s. It looks bland now, but there’s some exciting variations up ahead.

Arrogance of Time: Movement 2-theme
     The theme for the 2nd movement of Arrogance of Time, a classic Baroque style introduction.

This is still the first draft, so there’s still a lot missing. For first drafts I usually try to just get as much on paper as I possibly can. This is usually the hardest part for me, since I’m very easily distracted and get pretty excited when first thinking about music. Not only that, but I have to write my ideas down without and judgement, because as soon as I question whether or not what I’m writing down is actually good, I become paralyzed by that thought, and end up barely writing anything at all. Everytime I write a first draft, I think of Hemingway’s famous quote (which has frankly been more meaningful to me than his books) “The first draft of anything is sh*t.”

So I will show you the sh*t I wrote as I copy this first draft into Sibelius, but eventually I will also walk you through my editing process, before I finish the final draft.

Join me next time where I take this theme from the style of Bach, to something closer to Ligeti.