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.

How would you suggest re-writing this to create that same effect while being playable for one player?

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.

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