Tag Archives: composing

Hey Band Nerds!

All you squeakers and squawkers out there, reed, double-reed, no reed, brassheads and trash can bangers, looking for some help here. I’ve been asked to write a piece for symphonic band, which is a genre I haven’t touched since … let’s call it 20 years. So, here’s my question for you:

Is there a piece of literature for symphonic band that really, deeply moves you? Anything you’ve listened to that just left you breathless? The only one I can remember is Bukvich’s Symphony No. 1 (In Memoriam, Dresden, 1945). Anything else that comes to mind?

Do You Hear?

What time is it?

Do You Hear?

Awwwww yeah, it’s that time! This is the orchestral interlude to the epic Christmas opener for this year. The sound is straight out of Sibelius, so … be gracious. I’m including the score for those who wish to geek out. The section you hear starts on page 5, bar 48.

XMAS-OPENER_11x17_SCORE

What’s That Stank? Oh, It’s Just This Christmas that I’m Laying Down

To me, my men and women of valor! To me, in my hour of need! To me, and aid me, so that I don’t have to do my own work!

I’m writing a big epic opener for the 2010 APU Christmas Concert, with soloists, handbells, orchestra, choirs, the whole shebang. The piece opens with “Do You Hear What I Hear” sung by antiphonal choirs, and then into the final verse of that song:

Said the king to the people everywhere
Listen to what I say
Pray for peace people everywhere
Listen to what I say
The child, the child
Sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
He will bring us goodness and light

The piece is not quite epic enough to sustain the energy through the end of the piece, so I’m looking to transition from the song “Do You See” to something else. This is the part where you help me out. Any suggestions?

Boudicca

For those of you who missed the 2010 New Music Concert at APU (and heavens, what else could you possibly have been doing that’s more important than driving 7 hours to hear a 6 minute piece I wrote?), here is the recording of the piece I wrote. You’ll have to excuse the quality of the recording, especially when the speech comes in.

Boudicca
by Michael A. Lee

And for those who want to totally geek out, here’s the score.
Boudicca – Score (this doesn’t include pencil edits made in the final rehearsal)

New Notes

I took a risk yesterday, and it paid off in a huge way.

I met with the Dean of the school of music, and we negotiated a big shift in my responsibilities in the School of Music. I am stepping down from my role as Director of Small Groups, and taking on the role of Staff Composer. A big chunk of my job from now on will be to compose new music and do some arranging for the ensembles in our school. In the last year, I’ve had several ensemble directors come ask me to write or arrange something, and I’ve had to say no to some of them because of the time constraints, and because they didn’t have room in their individual budgets to pay for new music. This solves both problems in one glorious swoop. I now get to say “yes!”, they get to have new things written specifically for them, I have time to do it, and they don’t have to decide between paying for new music or paying for scholarships (or whatever else they spend money on).

I have loved my role at APU since day one, and I didn’t think it was possible for it to get even better, but this is like a dream come true.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Okay, let’s get one things straight. Addison Road isn’t going anywhere. All this awesome has permanent staying power, and no upstart rag of a 10 billion dollar social network site is gonna shut this party down.

Let’s get another thing straight. Don’t text me at 2 am to ask me when I’m going to start writing again. The answer is the same as it’s always been. Whenever the hell I feel like it, Dan!

Let’s get a third thing straight. I missed you all this summer. Well, not you, Dan. But the rest of you. So, in fine back-to-school tradition, here’s how I spent my summer vacation.

May

All of this obscene wealth and technical progress has conspired to gift us, the blessed generation, with something of inestimable value: time. We luxuriate in an excess of time. No previous generation has had to devote so little of their time to acquiring the basic necessities of life, and yet we squander this gift like it’s gutter trash. These were my thoughts in May, when my wife and my University conspired together to give me the gift of three days. I spent them on a mountaintop in Malibu, at a Catholic retreat center, writing music. The result was a new composition for trumpet, piano, and laptop titled “Serra”.

I also played keyboards on a trashy j-pop album for Sony Records, which was actually much more fun than it sounds.

June

Not the artist, the month. Although the artist did visit. June and Stick and the munchkins made the trip down to LA to stay with us at our new house, which has plenty of room for guests. Plenty of room. Except that a few days before they showed up, Gretchen’s sister also made the trip out to LA to stay with us at our new house, which has plenty of room for guests. With her 3 kids. Our house does not sleep 5 adults and 7 kids comfortably. Also, it was that weekend that we decided to throw a Princess Party to celebrate Sophia’s 4th birthday. All in all, it was 3 day of unmitigated chaos. It got to be so much that Stick even had to drown his sorrows in 1/3 of a glass of wine!

Also in June, I got commissioned by an amazing photographer in New York to compose a piano piece for the gallery opening of his next show. His manager somehow heard “The Science Project” from The Dailies record (I know, crazy, right?) and wanted something similar. (We think we know how this happened. If you google “The Dailies”, our band is the first hit, and this photographer is the second)

July

Ah, July. July, July, July. I learned so much from you, July. I learned that I can punch my liver 16 times in a night without passing out. I learned that the women who are hitting on you at the Hard Rock Casino are not amateurs (to all my bosses and my students and my wife, I know this only from observation, not from experience). I learned that disposable income tends to get disposed of. I learned that a good steak is improved by excellent company. I learned that Zack is a very quick study. I learned that the occasional 3-day fling of bachelor excess is fantastic, but that I am very glad to come home to my life.

At the end of July, the APU small group came back off the road, and we stepped into the studio. I was utterly, marvelously blown away. I can’t wait for you all to hear this album. It’s the best thing, by far, that has come out of that school. And yes, I am a little biased, but still. You gotta hear it.

August

On Thursday, at 3:15 in the morning, we got up, broke camp, strapped on our packs, and hiked 2 hours up and out of the wilderness in the dark. We had spent the week backpacking through the southern range of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, some of the most beautiful wilderness anywhere. It was me, my father-in-law Phil, my brother-in-law Brian, and 4 other guys that were friends of Brian. I can’t really explain what a life changing experience this trip was for me. It was the first time in 10 years that I left my cellphone behind, had no email connection, nothing to distract me from being present in the moment. I spent long hours talking with Phil about life, work, family, priorities, and had some extended times of solitude to reassess the things I value in my life. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the next scene of The Michael Lee Experience: An Unauthorized Autobiography started that week.

We hiked out of the wilderness and got to the cars just as dawn was starting to break, and we drove to the trail-head of Redcloud, a 14,000 foot peak. We hiked up above the treeline, then above the scrub meadows, and finally got up above all vegetation. At about 13,000 feet, the air is so thin that you can only take one or two steps at a time before gasping for breath. Unless, of course, you are my inhuman stud of a 68-year-old father-in-law, in which case you just sort of jog your way up the trail, stopping every once in a while to make sure we’re still following. A thousand feet from the summit, we stood on the saddle between two peaks with the mountain range spread out before us like a painting. As we watched, thunder clouds started rolling over the peak, and a dozen people came pouring down the trail warning us off the peak.

One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was to turn around that close to the summit, and head back down. The reality of Colorado weather is pretty brutal though, and you just can’t be the tallest thing standing on top of a bare granite mountain when lighting comes crashing down out of the sky.

The next day, I got on a plane and flew back to my family. On Saturday, we celebrated the marriage of Zack and Sara. On Sunday, I threw up twice.

On Monday, Gretchen and I left the kids with Linda (my birth-mom) and Thom, and headed to Napa to celebrated 10 years of wedded bliss! We drank wine, ate food, drank more wine (I threw up zero times), stayed at the best little inn anywhere, stayed at another place that smelled like cinnamon, drank more wine, and just generally luxuriated in each other’s company. We rediscovered our marriage, not just as a business partnership, or a baby-raising club, or as roommates, but as husband and wife. It was fantastic.

We ended the week by heading to Sharolyn and Jason’s house (they picked up our kids from Linda midway through the week), drank some more wine, and then home.

Also, in August, I started writing a musical with one of the artists I play for, who has an uncanny ability to make things happen. Think Stephen Sondheim meets Jon Brion.

August was a good month.

This was a good summer. Great, even.

We are a blessed generation, and I am a blessed man.

Audio Auditions

Hey there, roadsters. I need some help.

I’m finishing up the final edits and mix on “Our Father, Vindicate”, and I’m having a hard time deciding on the final ending solo. I have three options from 2 different singers, and I’m looking for input on which to choose. Take a listen to all three (the clips are about a minute each), and then tell me which ending solo (the very last phrase) you think is the best fit.

Try to ignore volume and reverb, and focus just on the vocal itself.

Here are the three options:

Option A
m1.mp3

Option B
b1.mp3

Option Salty
m2.mp3

Option 4
ml3.mp3

Leave your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks!

Virtue – Oh So! (get it? Like a pun)

I was introduced¬† last week to the musical work L’Histoire du Soldat by Stravinsky. It’s a theatrical setting of a soldier’s story, there’s a narrator, the soldier is making deals with the devil, there’s a fiddle involved, and several un-marchable-to marches. I guess I probably should have encountered it sooner, but let’s be honest, I spent most of my time in music history class drawing dirty pictures of buxom ladies in superhero costumes (this was before wifi, and WAY before facebook).

I loved it. I loved it even more when I realized, about mid-way through the second piece in the work, that I was not listening to two violins, but to one almost unplayable violin part. The work is written for a small chamber ensemble, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, percussion, violin, and bass (acoustic bass, not awesome bass). Every part in the ensemble calls for a virtuoso; it’s some of the most difficult writing you’re likely to every see for those instruments. You can watch a full version of it online, conducted by Esa-Pekka and played by an amazing collection of musicians.


(the work begins at 10:40. Direct link here)

It’s technically challenging, it’s also hauntingly beautiful and musically thrilling. I’ve been talking to different players about it, and the reaction is almost always the same; a wistful look of longing, some combination of words that boils down to, “I’d love to be able to play it. I’d love to be able to play it.”

It was the perfect time for me to encounter the piece. Earlier in the week, I did a reading workshop for my own piece, Our Father, Vindicate. The reading workshop is where a bunch of musicians get together, perform the work, let me stop and start them at whim, let me make changes to the score, basically they become a huge sequencer for me to work through some final decisions in the piece before committing to final ink. It was a wonderful experience (that’s a whole other post), with a group of our best students and a few professional singers reading down the parts. As good as they were, the piece was still almost unsingable at times.

I am not Stravinsky. Clearly.

But the combination of hearing great singers struggle through my piece, and then hearing world-class players grapple with the fist-full of notes in Stravinsky’s piece made be think about the obligations of the composer to their players.

I think there are three obligations that a composer has to their instrumentalists, when they decide to write technically challenging material.

First, it should be only as difficult as it must be to achieve the desired musical effect. This is the obligation not to write difficult music for the sake of the difficulty. There is no virtue in awkwardness, only in the musical effect.

Second, and this is where most young composers fall short, the composer has an obligation to understand the instruments they are writing for. If I am writing for violin, I should understand the instrument well enough that I can physically mimic how the player will approach the part, and can identify technical hurdles before the player ever sees the piece. This allows the composer to make informed decisions about the first obligation, to only write difficult passages when they are required. If moving the piece up a whole step places my violin double-stops on open strings, I should know that, and should be able to give a musical justification for why I decided to leave it in the more difficult key. Technical difficulty should never be the result of the composer’s arrogance, ignorance or apathy.

Finally, and most importantly, it is the obligation of the composer to ensure that the work justifies the challenge. This is the obligation to write well. If I’m going to give musicians a piece that requires substantial rehearsal, mental and emotional effort on their part, I better make sure that the end result justifies the work they are investing. Performing virtuosic passages requires the musician to internalize the music, to prepare it so well that it no longer comes from the page, but from the player. A musician who agrees to perform a work at that level is giving me access to their musicianship, allowing me to weave my musical ideas into them. That is a deep level of trust, and it obligates the composer to write up to a level that deserves such trust.

Toward the end of the week, I sat in and listened to a composition jury, where student composers preset the works they have written over the semester. It reminded me of how badly I’ve broke all three of these obligations in the course of my writing career. These thoughts have been rolling around in my head for a while, but the combination of these three experiences, Stravinsky, the reading workshop, and the juries, crystallized them into something usable.

I’m writing more difficult music today than I have before, but I hope I’m doing it for the right reasons. I hope I’m meeting these expectations myself.

I’m interested in hearing from those of you who are composers and performers. How does this fit with your experiences performing technically difficult works, or with writing challenging pieces?

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