Tag Archives: composition

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?

The Swamp Effect

I have a horrible habit. At some point in every project, things start not sounding … right. Good. Emotional. Whatever. The train has jumped the track, and is off wandering through antique stores on State Street. I’ve lost my way.

At this point, I do the same thing, every time.

I do more. I do everything. I take every idea, and make it louder. I double it. I do it in octaves. I do it with a triplet backing rhythm. I add 3 string samples and 2 pads, on top of 3 more loops and a delay. I start putting out frantic midnight calls for friends to play overdub parts, stacked, with overdrive and double-stops.

I add piano, add flamenco guitar, add horn swells and swirly synths, a B3 solo, 6 passes of backing vocals, and a Taiko. With reverb. Then a reverse Taiko with even more reverb.

Then I put a limiter on the main bus, a 6:1 multi-band compressor, then another limiter. Then I turn my mains up. I turn on the sub, then add another low string sample.

The swamp effect takes hold, and whatever spark of inspiration birthed the process has been completely, utterly, horrifically buried in a morass of crap.

Save as.

Rename.

Delete.

Repeat.

The Sound of Light

I was recently a guest in a classroom (not at APU) and listened to a fantastic composer and beloved professor tell a room full of eager students that the reason florescent lights buzz when they start to go bad is because some of the light is slowing down, and the frequency of the light is getting so slow that it becomes a sound wave instead of a light wave, which is why the buzz is at 60 Hz.

Nobody in the room contradicted him. Nobody. After about 30-second of dumb disbelief, I protested, and the whole class turned on me as if I were an idiot, daring to argue with this obviously brilliant man.

This brought to mind 3 things:

1. An expert in one area is not an expert in all areas. If you are a teacher, be sure you communicate to your students when you are speaking from your area of expertise, and when you are speaking out of your nether regions. If you are a student, become critically aware  of the difference. 
2. Intellectual authority comes from being right, not from being in a position of authority. Don’t be afraid to challenge professors when they are wrong.
3. In a room full of 20 people, I can’t believe nobody knew enough about light, or sound, or electricity to contradict an obviously absurd assertion. I’m worried that we’ve come to just accept general ignorance about how the world works.

So here’s today’s extra credit question. Help me restore my faith in the world. Without heading to wikipedia or google, with just your general knowledge of physics, what would you have said to the man to demonstrate his error?

Sing, Ye Christmas Choirs

Working on the opener for the big APU Celebrate Christmas concert. It’s going to be a big epic choir & orchestra setting of “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, building up into a new anthem that I just finished last night. I’m kind of loving this.

Sing, Ye Christmas Choirs

Sing, ye Christmas Choirs
Ring, ye wild bells ring while darkness flees

Sing the Light of Heav’n
Sing of peace o’er all the earth while darkness flees,

O sing, ye choirs
O sing, ye choirs
Ring out, ye wild bells ring

Ring out Christmas bells
Ring out songs of joy for God has come

O Son of Israel
O Zion’s Daughter, sing! our God has come

Brightest of Adam’s wandering sons
Joined with the light of the holy one,

O sing, ye choirs
O sing, ye choirs
Ring out, ye wild bells ring

Client Management

How do you get your creative work to the client when you’re working on a project? Email? iDisk? FTP server?

Most of the time, I hand off to a client via a webpage, where I can jot down some text and link large files for them to download or preview in their browser. For a few years, I’ve been building each page for each client individually.

After messing around with several different options, I finally decided that what I needed was a WordPress website, where each client project was a single post, and could only be accessed by linking directly to that URL (in other words, no “Front Page” to the site listing recent posts). You can check out one of the recent projects that uses this method here:

http://michaelleemusic.com/clients/my-hands/

I think too many people ignore clean client hand-offs. It matters whether or not they feel like their are being handled professionally. If the data gets to them in a sloppy or inefficient way, it’s like cooking a 5-star gourmet meal and serving it in a paper back with a spork.

So, that’s my thought. How do you guys (folks, fools, ustedes) handle it?

Sappho 31, The Demo

One of my favorite things that has ever happened in the world, ever, happens at 40 seconds into this demo.

Ever.

So, Sappho 31 is done, I’m off to rush it into an envelope with the final version of the score, but I stopped first to drop it here to you good people at the Roadhouse. The demo is unmixed, thrown together at the last possible second. Many thanks to Rebbecca (Brannon) Ginzink, Gretchen Lee, and Ashley Morgan for helping me sing the female vocals.

Sappho 31
sappho-demo-mix.mp3
download

The Score:
Sappho 31

Sappho 31

My God, how incredible is it that we get to simply pick up a pen, or click open a file, and out of nothing but hubris and time create something that didn’t exist just a few hours, or days, or months before? How fantastic is this soul that hums along beneath the surface of our human machine!

But enough of that crap. Yes, I’m composing again. Or still. Whatever. I am making notes go. I am writing for a young (Ha!) composers competition, where the prize is cash money and a debut of the piece by a pretty kick-ass professional choir.

The theme is “Romantic Love”, and I thought, what better place to start than with the dawning of fiercely bitter lesbian political love-hate poetry, Sappho. If you don’t know about her, go check it out. Awesome stuff. If you really want to get into it, check out Anne Carson’s fantastic new translation, “If Not, Winter“.

So, I settled on one of the best known fragments from Sappho, Parchment 31, sometimes called the Poem of Jealousy. Sappho is watching another man woo her beloved, and she is jealous not of her attention to him (much), but of his ability to just sit calmly in her beloved’s presence, just sit! and not be utterly consumed with desire.

The last line of the poem is tantalizing – it is cutoff, but the fragment that remains seems oddly appropriate. It is, in various versions, either “But I endure” or “But even in poverty” … you can see below how I chose to render it, but that’s almost certainly not what was intended. As I said, tantalizing.

If you’d like to see just a sampling of how people have reconstructed this poem, you can check it out here. Below is my own translation, with little attempt to be literal to the original:

Sappho 31:
He is as a god to me
That man
who sits to face you and
simply listens to
your sweet speaking

and your sweet laughter
makes my heart pound
hovering in my chest
for when I look at you
my words are fleet and away
and away

my tongue breaks
and thin fire runs beneath my skin
and eyes lose sight
and I hear nothing but
this
this
pounding heart

and cold sweat grips
and shaking grips
and pale as the summer grass
I pass
from life
to death

bereft of you
I endure

Hosanna (In Round)

Need a spiffy little call to worship for your church choir? Wanna teach your high school choir about modern composition techniques in a way that’s accessible and singable? Wanna grow thicker hair faster, and lose those last 20 pounds? Try all new and improved “Hosanna (in Round)”.

Check out the Sibelius Music page (link below). It’s free, so do me a favor and try downloading it, just to see how it works. If you end up performing it somewhere, let me know.

Hosanna (In Round)

Our Father, Vindicate – Finished!

On May 28th, 2008, I jotted down the first few notes of Our Father, Vindicate. I stared with the melodic theme (E – D#, F# – D#), and the sound of that flat 6 suspension in bar 26. One year and one month ago today.

A few minutes ago, I just finished the final mix of the recording. It’s such a huge feeling of accomplishment to see this thing come together, and to have something solid in hand, something people can hear and respond to. I’ve loved writing this piece, I’ve hated it at times, I’ve put more hours into it than anything I’ve ever done, and I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a musician because of doing it. I’m glad it’s behind me, but I’m very glad to have done it.

So, here it is.

Our Father, Vindicate
By Michael A. Lee
our-father-vindicate.mp3

Downlod the chart: Our Father, Vindicate.

The vocalists are, in order of part from top to bottom:
Anthony Maglione
Brent Froelich
David Loucks
Jessie Bullock
Kyle Campbell
David Kress
Lucas Short
Phil Nash

Additional vocals by Michael Lee, and Harold Clousing.

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?

335149139_21240cc7a3_b

Your Will Will Be Done

I’m working on a new composition, a setting of The Lord’s Prayer for slovenly pirates and bellicose ne’er-do-wells. Or, I guess they just go by “Men’s Chorale”, but you get my point.

The Lord’s Prayers (the Matthew version, which all the cool kid use) is traditionally understood as 7 petitions:

“Our Father, who is in heaven,

  1. Make holy your name,
  2. Bring your kingdom,
  3. Manifest your will on earth, as in heaven,
  4. Give us our daily bread,
  5. Forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors,
  6. Do not lead us into temptation,
  7. Deliver us from the Evil One.”

In writing this piece, I’ve been thinking about the theological implications of composition. I know, I know, make fun of me later. For now, just smirk to yourselves and read on.

I’m working out the 3rd petition in the piece right now, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

This is no great mystery to the songwriters in the crowd, but that phrase can be sliced and diced and setup across the music in dozens of ways, and each one shifts the weight around on the ideas contained in the phrase. The words are the words, and they carry their own meaning, but the shades of emphasis are mine to play with.

If I make your a pickup, and land the word will on the downbeat, the emphasis moves. If I shift the phrase over, and begin with your on the downbeat, again, the emphasis moves.

When Albert Malotte write his well-known setting of the piece, he chose to put a strong divide between be done and on earth. I think that one choice has made a permanent shift in how most English-speaking people understand the prayer. Malotte made “on earth as it is in heaven” a descriptive supplement to “thy will be done.” In his rendering, there is almost an implied “(so that it will be) on earth as it is in heaven.” It makes the petition wistful, almost mournful.

Matthew’s greek text does not have that same grouping. It places the break (as nearly as we can tell; this kind of thing is always a bit subjective) between on earth and as in heaven. With that reading, the emphasis is on the present, immediate manifestation of God’s will, here, now, on earth, in this place. It’s not a far off vision of some future transformation, it’s a call to arms for the establishment of the Kingdom (in line with the first 2 petitions).

I’m sensing, as I write this piece, the power of setting words to music. There is actually the ability to shift theological meaning in the mind of the listener, and the performer, based on choices we assume are merely aesthetic.

It’s the mind of the performer that’s been heavily on my own mind as I write this piece. This is not a pretty piece of music. It’s an epic, Fortissimo! final judgment, second coming kind of piece. It emphasizes the prayer as an eschatalogical petition, a subversive rendering of the Hebrew Kaddish to invoke the overthrowing of the world, and the establishment of God’s Kingdom. It’s a call to arms.

The men’s chorale that will be performing it has a special place in my heart. The conductor has made it a workshop for turning awkward boys into godly men. They come in, adrift and insecure, cut loose from family and friends and home church, and are thrown together on campus with 10,000 people they don’t know. Men’s Chorale becomes a band of brothers, a sanctuary, and a training ground for how to grow up into a man. The way they sing reflects that.

When I finish this piece, I will hand it over to them, and they will learn it. Any given audience will hear it once, but they will sing it dozens of times, they will memorize it and perform it with passionate intensity. The meaning of the words will not be lost on them – I talk to these men frequently, and they are thoughtful and articulate. They chew on things.

As I spill ink on this new composition, I’m very aware of my obligation to these men, to take care for the ideas I hand over to their repetition and consideration.