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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