Assignment 4 – Revision and Reflection

This is the last of my assignments to revise for formal assessment – I waited until the end of the course for this one as I decided to post it on the OCA forum as an exercise in asking for feedback from my peers.  NB: my log entry containing an analysis of this piece and the original Soundcloud track can be found here.

I received one response from the forum:

I really liked listening to your piece!  Flute and vibraphone is a good combination.  Lots of nice counterpoint here and I particularly  enjoyed the  changes in tempo.  I am not a flute player, but my flute-playing tutor has drummed it in to me to be sure to allow sufficient space to draw breath between phrases.  Bars 31 – 43 look particularly challenging in this regard.  This section has a nice flamenco feel to it.   My only other thought is whether  a change of key for one or more variations might be good way to introduce even more variety? 

I definitely appreciated having my attention drawn to breath considerations; I decided that the performer would benefit from some breath mark indications in the long phrases of the middle section and so have now added these in.  The suggestion to modulate to a different key was also an interesting one, and definitely one I would consider if I was to develop it into a longer piece.

From my tutor’s report I was glad to see that he thought I had been successful in achieving the aims of this assignment and created a musically pleasing piece.  One suggestion he had was to consider augmenting the score to make use of some different vibraphone techniques or ornamentation.  I was aware of the versatile capabilities of the vibraphone from my research but had initially stayed away from anything very advanced in order to let the music be focused on the intensity of the counterpoint itself.  However on reflection I do agree with my tutor that there is room in the piece to explore at least a few of the vibraphone’s techniques, and so have experimented with this just a little by adding the following enhancements:

  • Additional octave passages to create a fuller sound at certain points, such as bar 49 and 67
  • A sudden roll in bar 46 as a more effective ‘announcement’ of the last section
  • A glissando in bar 38

The final result can be played below:

On the technical presentation front, my tutor drew my attention to the rhythmic notation of the main theme.  By using the dotted crotchet originally I was trying to create a clean score with minimal use of ties, but I can see that it is more important to indicate the 4 crotchet beats in each bar and so have revised it as per his suggestion.

Finally, I also decided to make a change to the vibraphone part in bar 40 as I wasn’t happy with the pedalling: I didn’t like the gap in the bass notes but pedalling the whole bar was too  muddy.  I decided to utilise the multiple voice notation and created two separate lines, playing the bottom melody twice which I think works better.

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Assignment 5 – Revision and Reflection

The focus of my tutor’s feedback for this final assignment seems to be on providing clear and unambiguous directions to the performers on how it should be played.  Aside from one notational correction (using a dotted semibreve to fill a bar rather than two tied dotted minims), his suggestions were mostly related to phrasing, particularly to assist the interpretation of piano pedalling.  I had already started to use multiple voices in the piano part, but his suggestions of additional places to use this technique were very helpful and I have taken them on board in my revised score.  On the same theme, I also modified a few places with rests to become longer notes so that it is consistent with the intended pedalling.  Finally, I also followed his suggestion to notate the double flats enharmonically for ease of reading – I had been unwittingly editing the saxophone parts in the non transposed versions and so had not noticed these.

With regards to the final decrescendo that he spotted was missing on the tenor saxophone part – in the end I decided to remove this as I don’t think a complete fade out to nothing (‘al niente’) is quite right for this piece.

I was also glad to see that by the end of this first module, my efforts to improve my score presentation had finally been successful!

Assignment 5

Overview

As in previous assignments, I followed the basic structure I developed in my plan.  I think this mostly worked well, although it ended up being slightly longer than I intended (3′, 30”) due to quite a few rits and pauses at various points, which I will bear in mind for future work if I need it to fit exact timings.

Structure

I decided early on in the planning of this piece that I wanted each cycle of the chord progression to have a slightly different mood or character.  I think I have managed to achieve this through varying dynamics and melodic lines, and by changing the emphasis between the instruments.

Cycle 1

After a short piano introduction which sets the overall tempo and key of the piece, the first section introduces the chord progression with the alto saxophone playing a calm, fairly subdued melody, joined by the tenor saxophone half way through.  The piano part plays arpeggiated  chords; mostly in root position, but I chose to use first inversion in bars 14-16 because I think the repeated bass note (G#) makes the chord progression more effective as it is less anticipated (similarly in bars 22-24 with B as the bass note).

As this is the very first time we hear the full cycle of the chord progression, I felt that the music needed some breathing space before going straight onto the next, and so I decided to re-use four bars of the piano part from the introductory material to prepare the next cycle.

Cycle 2

The second cycle sets  a more energetic mood using both saxophones from the beginning; the alto saxophone plays in a higher register which creates a brighter, louder sound, and the tenor saxophone plays a repeated rising quaver phrase.  There is a crescendo and sudden caesura at the ‘resting point’ in bar 12 of the cycle, and so it seemed natural to use the remaining four bars as a piano only transition to the next cycle.

Cycle 3

As planned, the melodies used in this cycle are quite chromatic and wandering, and the dynamics come down a level to reflect the change in mood.  It ends with a ritardando and a pause, preparing the next section.

Cycle 4

This is a lengthened version of the cycle; instead of making each chord last for two bars as planned I decided to switch to a 6/4 time signature which I think fits better as the second chord falls on a weak beat instead of a strong one.  This is the piano’s turn to have the melody, with the left hand playing an accompanying bass-chord-chord pattern – this time using first inversion in bar two as well as later on.  I initially intended this section to contain the main climax of the piece, but as there is a whole cycle still left to be played I decided it worked best to delay the climax until the last one.

Cycle 5

Since the final section is a change in time signature to 12/8, it needed a couple of bars introduction, and this also served well as an accelerando phrase to take us from the slower tempo of the end of the previous section to the new tempo.  This time the tenor saxophone has the main melody, and the alto saxophone gradually increases in dynamic to join it, with a running quaver melody leading up to the climax.

Ending

To anticipate the ending of the piece, I delayed the final cadence by extending both the penultimate chord (II) as well as the final dominant chord, both by an additional bar.  Rather than end on a single tonic chord, I decided to return to the introductory phrase based on I-VI-I, and also moved the piano part back up to the top of the keyboard where the piece started, bringing it full circle.

 

Performance and Presentation Notes

I experimented with the saxophone’s glissando effect in Sibelius whilst working on this assignment but felt in the end that it wasn’t in keeping with the style of the piece.  I did however use some trills, and a combination of long notes and fast passages which I think make good use of the capabilities of the instrument.  The alto saxophone part goes as high as concert G# 5  which is at the top of its range, but as it is in a loud section of the music I believe it should be playable by a competent performer.  I think the phrasing is generally a clear indicator of where the players should breathe, and I have added some explicit breath marks in particular sections where I feel they might need guidance, such as in the alto part from bar 81.

In the piano part I put pedalling in for the play-back (as I have indicated it to be played ‘con pedale’), but have hidden the marks from the printed score as this is more usual for piano music where the pedal is used throughout the piece in a fairly obvious, consistent way.  The piano part uses a good range of the piano, particularly at the treble end, and so I have used a combination of 8va notations and clef changes to avoid large numbers of ledger lines.  I also sometimes indicated different dynamics in the right and left hand; this is something that a good pianist will usually do without prompting (e.g. to bring out the melody) but I thought it was worth being explicit in some cases.

Finally, I tried to take on board my tutor’s comments from previous assignments about presentation, in particular with respect to staff size, spacing and dynamics.

Jacques Ibert: Concertino da Camera

This piece is a concerto in two movements for alto saxophone and chamber orchestra, written around 1935.  The first movement is fast paced, with the saxophone moving swiftly and virtuosically around its full range.  The introduction is quite dramatic – pizzicato off beat rhythms in the lower strings, trills in the woodwind.  It changes tack when the saxophone comes in a few bars later, turning into a jazzy melody in a major key.  This sudden change in direction occurs many times during the course of the movement, creating a sense of restlessness.

The second movement is a complete change of mood, starting with a melancholy, chromatic solo on the saxophone.  When other instruments come in they play a simple crotchet rhythm so the focus in this beginning Larghetto section is really on the unusual harmonies (sometimes dissonant) and wandering melodic line.  The second section in this movement is entitled ‘Animato Molto’, and is reminiscent of the restless mood of the first movement.  Towards the end Ibert employs an unusual technique – audible key pressing/slapping (a slightly percussive effect).

Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms

Continuing on the theme of counterpoint, I listened to Stravinsky’s ‘Symphony of Psalms’, the second movement of which is written as a fugue.  It starts with a single oboe line, adding in flute, then second flute, third flute, second oboe, fourth flute, and finally piccolo, bassoon, cor anglais and trombone, before the voices and finally strings.  As the different instruments come in they take turns at playing the fugal theme on the tonic and the dominant.

It’s a very chromatic piece; it starts off being identifiably C minor, but already the third note (B natural) played without the context of any adjacent notes takes you by surprise, and creates quite a tense and atmospheric mood.  I really like the instrumental introduction, the individual lines although chromatic work very cleverly together, and the rests at the beginnings of the phrases are effective in building up the tension.

When the voices come in, the fugal theme is played by the lower strings and the whole mood of the piece starts to become more and more threatening in the build up to the climax.

Assignment 5: Plan

Introduction

The final assignment for the Level 1 course is about harmony; we are asked to use a cyclic chord progression in a piece for keyboard or group of instruments.  I have decided to write for two instruments I haven’t used in my assignments yet – the alto and tenor saxophones, with piano accompaniment.  I have composed a 16 bar chord sequence:

chord_sequence
Chord sequence, shown in root position

My idea is for a waltz, changing the chord on every bar.  The dominant chord first appears at the end of the first half of the sequence, in bar 8.  The ‘expected’ transition back to I is interrupted by chord III, a minor triad, which is also repeated two bars later to underline its effect.  Chord VI in bar 12 is a sort of natural resting place, after which the last four bars take us back to the dominant, thus preparing for the sequence to be played again.

Instruments

Of all the wind instruments I have composed for so far in this course, I particularly enjoyed the clarinet for its versatility and large range.  For my final assignment I have chosen to write for the saxophone which is a similarly versatile and agile instrument, capable of large jumps, both fast and sustained passages, and a high dynamic range.  The tenor sax in Bb is one of the mainstays of jazz bands with a characteristic breathy sound, and the alto sax  in Eb complements it nicely with a brighter sound towards the higher end of its range. I have written about some saxophone music on my listening log, including Michael Torke’s ‘July’ and Ibert’s Concertino da Camera.

One effect often associated with the saxophone is the note bend (sliding up to or down from a note), and I might try to experiment with this in my assignment.

I have chosen the key of B major with the saxophones in mind – they both sound good in this range and the alto saxophone is able to get down to the dominant note (a bottom F#) which is important for the melodic line.

Planned structure

At a tempo of around 100 bpm, in this time signature to aim for a 3 minute long piece I need 6 cycles of my chord progression.  However I have decided to double the duration of each chord in the penultimate cycle so will have just five in total.  My rough structure is as follows:

  • Introduction – 8 bars, based on the first two chords of the sequence
  • Cycle 1 – 16 bars, with alto saxophone playing the main melody
  • Cycle 2 – 16 bars, developing from the first and using both saxophones equally as a duet
  • Cycle 3 – 16 bars, with a more wandering and chromatic style
  • Cycle 4 – 32 bars, the piano now takes the focus, with the saxophones playing accompanying melodies in a drawn out version of the harmonic cycle.  This section will be the main climax of the piece.
  • Cycle 5 – 16 bars of 12/8.  Switching from a simple triple to a complex quadruple time signature, I want the last cycle to provide the biggest contrast and indicate that the piece is coming to an end.  I plan to finish with a perfect cadence, by drawing out and repeating the final few chords.

Michael Torke: July

This piece is written for saxophone quartet – I really like the sound this creates, the instruments blend well together.  It’s quite jazzy sounding, with syncopated rhythms and unusual harmonies.  For much of the piece there is a fairly continuous sound, with two of the saxophones providing a running melody contained within a fairly small pitch range. Over the top of this the baritone starts with a really catchy bass line, the soprano doesn’t have much of a melody as such but picks out key notes from the harmony.  As the piece develops, one thing that struck me was how expressive the different melody lines sound – there are a lot of soft accents on the off beat rhythms and crescendos/diminuendos through the long notes which is quite captivating.