Assignment 1 – Revision and Reflection

I was very pleased to read my tutor’s comments on this assignment, particularly that he liked the way I transitioned the music between sections and that I used the combinations of instruments well.  As this was my first assignment, it was also good to hear that he thought the structure I developed was effective, as well as the tempo and time signature change in Section C.

Most of the feedback was on technical presentation, and so I have now revised the score to:

  • Add explicit dynamics at the end of crescendos and diminuendos
  • Make the general pause places clear in all instrument parts
  • Rectify some editorial issues e.g. extraneous time signatures

 

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Assignment 1

Overview

The brief for this assignment was to take an existing beginning of a ‘Wild dance’ for untuned percussion, and continue it for a short composition of around two to three minutes duration.  I used the structure I had already planned in Project 4, which was an interesting experiment – I wasn’t necessarily expecting to enjoy working in this way, but in actual fact I found it was very helpful to have the scaffolding already in place.

Breakdown

In the sections below I have summarised briefly what I was trying to achieve in each part of the composition.

Sections A+B

In the continuation of Section A I kept the same basic rhythm sequence, introducing the temple blocks and adding tambourine shakes for some variety.  In the development (Section B) I decided to stretch out the meter changes a little.  I used the sequence of [5/8 3/8 6/8] on each of the primary instruments (representing dancers) to introduce their themes – first on the woodblock, then the snare drum and finally the bass drum.  Then leading up to the bridge section there are elements of the different motifs playing at the same time to create a thicker texture.

Bridge

In the bridge section I am using the [4/8 3/8 4/8] sequence as planned, and decided to use an accelerando to help build towards the mini climax before the next section.  The instruments are mostly playing the same rhythms as each other here (or very close to), which was also done to help drive towards the climax.

Section C

I enjoyed the change in tempo and dynamic in this section, and it was fun trying to work out how to use the percussion instruments to create a different mood.  At the beginning of the 5/8 bars there is an accented quaver followed by a rest which I think helps to keep the suspense going.  When the temple blocks are introduced they are given a fairly long decrescendo which is to give the impression of the dancer moving slowly away from the chief demon.  I tried to keep this section fairly simple as a break from the chaos of the principal section, but I’m not sure if I went too far with this as my feeling is that it is possibly a little too repetitive.  To transition into the finale I started off by introducing occasional beats on the snare drum, which alerts the listener to ‘something about to happen’.  I then used an accelerando and crescendo to build up the tension and changed the tambourine back to its primary rhythm from Section A in preparation.

Finale

In the final section I am repeating the initial sequence as planned, and also combined the individual instrument motifs from Section B so that they are heard simultaneously – I was worried this might sound too messy but I think it just about came out ok.  The bar’s rest wasn’t pre-planned – it was initially there as a placeholder until I decided what to put in it, but on playback I thought it worked well as a rest so I left it!  It ends on a climax as you might expect with a big crescendo on a tambourine shake and temple block roll.

Summary

While I was working on the piece I found it quite difficult to decide how well it was going.  I think when you are embedded in something (especially with frequent meter changes like this) it is difficult to imagine how it sounds to someone who hasn’t heard it before and isn’t familiar with the rhythms.  This is probably something I need to develop with experience.  After getting to the end of the piece, I had about a week’s break before going back to refine it and I found that it didn’t need as much altering as I expected – though I’m not sure how much that is due to the ideas having been cemented in my head already!  My other uncertainty with this piece is whether I got the right balance between repetition and variety and so I will be interested to hear my tutor’s feedback.

Project 4

Introduction

The task for Project 4 is to design a compositional plan for the assignment at the end of Part 1, which is to be a short dance scene for untuned percussion.  I considered the possibility of choosing a real dance sequence to write this for, but eventually decided against it.  Seeing as the start of the composition has already been written for us, I think it would be impossible to find a choreography that fits well enough into the existing material, for my satisfaction anyway – I’m too much of a perfectionist!

Overall structure

Having made the decision not to use a real dance sequence, my first step was to develop a high level idea of how the dance might play out.  The piece begins with the stage directions: ‘Enter a group of demons’ and after a brief introduction we’re straight into a wild, demonic style of dance with a very fast tempo and rapidly changing time signature – let’s call this [A].  I decided to continue this with the following simple structure for an imagined dance scene:

  • [A] – Demons dancing
    • Pattern of rhythmic meter established
  • [B] – Development of the dance
    • Individual dancer/demon motifs introduced on each instrument
  • [C] – Chief demon enters, worshipped by the other demons
    • Contrasting slower section, building up the tension
  • [A/B] – Demons dancing again to complete the ritual (possibly a sacrifice?)
    • Some combination of the original dance and development sections
    • Instruments all playing together to final climax

Section [C] should provide a break from the very fast tempo and relentless changes in meter, and hopefully help to make the final climax more effective.

Detailed breakdown

An analysis of the already supplied start to the piece reveals a 9 bar sequence which changes time signature every bar:

Bar no:                   1       2      3      4      5     6      7      8      9
Time signature:  5/8  3/8  6/8  5/8  3/8  4/8  3/8  4/8  6/8

I’ve highlighted bars 6, 7 and 8 because they add a disturbance to what would otherwise have been a sequence of only three bars, and I think create a slightly chaotic sounding effect which is in keeping with the ‘wild dance’ theme.  I might play around with this in my extension of the piece, but for the purposes of planning the overall structure I’ll assume that it will be based around the full 9 bar sequence.  I decided to slightly reduce the tempo to 140 crotchets per minute – this retains the sense of urgency in the dance but I think allows the listener to more easily latch on to the changes in rhythm.  At this tempo, the 39 quaver beats in the sequence take approximately 9 seconds.

Principal section [A + B]
A – Repeat the 9 bar sequence twice with minor variations: 18s

B – Development based on 4 repeats of the sequence: 36s

Bridge section
My idea here is to repeat the 4/8 3/8 4/8 pattern as a hook towards a mini climax leading into section C.  Approx 10s.

Contrasting section [C]
I want this to be a complete change of mood, with a much slower tempo. Longer bars should fit better for this part of the scene but I also want to maintain some sense of the irregular dance feel so I’m thinking of alternating bars of 6/8 and 5/8 at a tempo of around 100 quavers per minute.  18 bars: approx 1 minute

Finale [A + B]
Main theme and/or development, repeated/modified 4 times: 36s

Total time: approx 2 mins 40s

Composition for percussion ensemble

For my second composition for several percussion instruments, I wanted to try something a little more dramatic.  For the first time I am using the bass drum and cymbal, both of which lend themselves to this effect.  I have also now installed the full sound library for Sibelius, so have been able to make use of the range of sounds for each instrument, e.g. the distinctive accent on the bass drum and the tambourine being shaken as well as hit.

This is still only a fairly short composition (20 bars): the main idea is played out over four bars, repeated with a minor variation, then four bars of ‘bridge’ followed by the main idea again and a closing section.

project3-2 – Full Score

Project 3

Still on the theme of percussion and rhythm, project 3 asks us to write two pieces for three or more instruments.  For this first example I have chosen five: the shaker, bongos and wood block are each given their own mini motif, the tambourine is used to add texture towards the climax and the triangle is also given a small part.  The instruments introduce their parts one by one, all play together for a short time and then fade out until the end – reminiscent of a passing street band perhaps?

project3-1 – Full Score

 

Percussion ensembles

Today’s post is another delve into the realm of compositions for percussion ensemble. I found it particularly useful to watch video recordings on YouTube; it’s helped me to identify the instruments being played as I was not that familiar with the percussion family, and also given me a better feeling for how they are actually played in practice.

Varese – Ionisation

This is an interesting piece supposedly inspired by the process of molecule ionisation in physics. It is composed of rhythmic sections interspersed with sections which have no clearly identifiable pulse or rhythm (more like sound effects than music, to me at least). The unusual use of sirens gives it an eerie feel and the sudden, loud entries e.g. on the bass drum are quite startling. At the end of the piece there are some dissonant harmonies on the piano which add to the spooky effect. In the rhythmic sections there are some recognisable, repeated motifs on each instrument which give the piece some overall cohesion; the woodblock was particularly noticeable and really stands out above the other instruments. I think it could be very effective in setting a creepy mood in a theatrical setting but it’s not a piece I would personally go back and listen to again for its own sake.

Michael Burritt – Fandango 13

This was a good one to watch the video for as it uses a variety of instruments – between the six players they handle several marimbas, a vibraphone, xylophone, bongos, toms, bell tree (vertically nested bells that can be used to create a glissando), crotales and a suspended cymbal. The marimbas have a much larger range than I had imagined; I thought the descending passages were quite effective. The texture stays much the same throughout the piece (apart from a section on drums) but I enjoyed the overall sound of the instrument combination.

Joseph Schwantner – Concerto for percussion

I’d never heard of a concerto for percussion before but I really liked the concept, it’s very dramatic. There’s some pretty nifty xylophone playing going on here! There appears to be some use of variable metre in movement 1 which I think I have identified as 3 groups of 4 beats followed by 4 groups of 3 beats (though I’m not sure how it’s scored).  I love the contrast between the wooden and metallic instruments when played simultaneously, and also like the use of the crotales which give quite an unusually resonant sound.

Project 2 – exploring time signatures

The instructions for the third and fourth studies in this project are to create percussion duets with less familiar time signatures – 5 and 7 beats to the bar respectively.  I have made notes on my research into this area in my learning log here.

In this first example in 5/4 time, I decided on a regular pattern to the beat groupings: a bar of 3+2 followed by two bars of 2+3.  As I noted from my reflection on Boris Blacher’s music, my ear tends to be drawn to patterns that can be easily distinguished.  I tried to achieve this here by emphasising the grouping arrangement from the start with a grace note on the castanets in the appropriate place, and reinforcing it with the sparse accompanying line on the Iya drum playing on the same beats.  I also decided to use dynamics to further highlight the pattern (louder in the first bar of each repetition of the pattern).

A note on the instruments: the Iya is a type of Bata drum, a cylindrical shaped instrument traditionally played in Cuba and made from leather.  At the end of the piece I made this instrument the focus of the music and experimented with some rapid changes in dynamics.

project2-3
Project 2-3

 

My second study is in 7/4 time, and this time I experimented with a closer relationship between the two instruments (i.e. the individual lines only make sense when played together), which I found harder to achieve to my satisfaction.  Every second bar is a repeat of the previous bar with the two instruments swapped over, as they though are doing a dance with each other.

project2-4
Project 2-4