Spun... cart before the horse?

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about my recently finished commission for the OU Percussion Orchestra, The Cry. Even before I was commissioned to write the piece, I was sitting on the poem by Federico García Lorca on which it is based, thinking it would make the perfect backdrop for a composition. It helped immensely with the organization of the musical form, as well as the harmonic language I would end up using.

Such was not the case with the percussion ensemble commission I just finished on Sunday night, titled Spun. In fact, the piece didn't even have a title until I was about 50 measures from completion (out of 322). Instead of starting with some sort of extramusical source of inspiration (such as a poem, painting, book, etc.), I began with a melodic motif (D, A, Bb, F#, C, Eb) with turned into the pitch material for the entire piece. The first 59 measures utilize only pitches from this set before exploring other chromatic key areas. As the piece progresses, the rules set forth are quickly broken and the theme expands, becomes the accompaniment, acts as the root for the chord progression, but it is always moving forward. 

The title Spun is derived from the term Fortspinnung ("spun out" or "spinning forth"), which was a term employed by Wilhelm Fischer (1915) to describe the developmental, often sequential middle part of the ritornello in Baroque music. The composer would take a short musical idea or motif and spin it out into an entire phrase or period. It may be used to expand the pace or accelerate the pace of the piece. 

Okay, I've probably bored you to tears by now, but I assure you that the piece is not boring. Take a listen for yourself...

Spun Recording

Spun was commissioned by Dan C. Armstrong and the Penn State Mallet Ensemble and will receive its premiere on November 30, 2010 at Penn State University.

it was a strange dream: artist & storyteller brian andreas as muse

Strange Dream by Brian Andreas
It was a strange dream, he said,
& I don't remember a thing except
it kept my attention the whole time.

(*Disclaimer: There will be many links in this entry, as I do want to share as much of Brian's related work as possible.)

Sometime during my undergrad (um-teen years ago-ish), I became aware of the works of artist and storyteller Brian Andreas. He creates StoryPeople (http://www.storypeople.com) – sculptures made of found objects, such as wood and wire – covers them with vividly colored paint, and prints short little quirky, poignant & inciteful stories about life, love and the general pursiot of happiness & goodness. These stories are also available as colorful prints, furniture, books, postcards, and wherever else your imagination might take you. Scanning the walls of my home, you might discover five or six of these prints sprinkled about creating an air of whimsy.

When I first started composing during grad school, I was constantly in search of new forms of inspiration. I was about to start writing a duet for alto saxophone and marimba to enter in a composition contest (which I subsequently lost) and decided to turn to a couple of books of Brian's stories. The name of one of these books was "Strange Dreams" which immediately struck me as the perfect title for a collection of these 4 little vignettes for sax & marimba. Then I read the corresponding story to the title (above) and immediately thought it captured how I wanted people to perceive my music. I mean of course I want them to remember it, but capturing their attention so they are living 100% in the moment for at least the duration of the composition.

The stories I chose for each of the four movements were Unheard Music, Ballerina Mom, Mermaid Song, and Pools of Light. I encourage you to follow these links to read each of these stories. The RoseWind Duo (University of South Carolina professors Clifford Leaman, alto saxophone and Scott Herring, marimba) recently released a fantastic recording of the piece on the Equilibrium label and it is available on iTunes.

I have since returned to Brian's stories as the source of inspiration for two more of my compositions. One was a duet for marimba and vibraphone titled Edge of the World, which I gave as a wedding gift to two of my former students and now friends, Michael & Sara Wood. It is based on the story True Things ("They came to sit & dangle their feet off the edge of the world & after awhile they forgot everything but the good & true things they would do someday."). The other is a duet for piano and marimba titled Almost Beyond ("She laid on my chest & her breathing filled me to almost beyond what I could hold.")and commissioned by another husband/wife duo, Una Duo.

Something tells me this will not be the last time I use Brian Andreas and his writings as my muse, so stay tuned. I'm pretty excited about a future collaboration with him, but more on that when it actually comes to fruition. In the meantime, I highly recommend following him on Twitter (@briandandreas). Every time he tweets, another one of his little stories flows right on out of him, usually in the same vain as his StoryPeople, but if you're lucky, occasionally you catch a much edgier Brian Andreas giving him even more depth. I've been fortunate enough to become long-distance friends with him as a result of the mutual admiration of our respective artistic offerings.

Summary of Places to Find Brian:
StoryPeople website: http://www.storypeople.com
Zen Bandit (his personal blog site that hasn't been updated for a while): http://www.zenbandit.com/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/brianandreas

Climbing out of the dark compositional abyss

Wow, that’s quite dramatic. It does actually feel like I’m emerging from cave or something and my eyes are still taking some time to adjust to the brightness. After experiencing a little more loss than someone should in the span of 4 months, I did fall into a 1-year compositional abyss in which I could not see to write a thing. Zero. Nada. Not a good thing when you have several commissions looming over you. As 2009 rolled around, I started a 365 Project that accomplished two things – helped me deal with the loss of my mother and got my writing again, if only little 1-minute arrangements of someone else’s melody. A series of original pieces and arrangements followed, but I still wasn’t in “that place.” That place where ideas flow seemingly out of nowhere. That place where composition & creativity is effortless and does not feel like work.

Since it was loss that set this void in motion, it’s not surprising at all that the addition of new surroundings/people to my life would help to guide me back out of it. All of a sudden, my mind was open and free and welcoming new ideas. On one of my early morning runs, I found the main theme for the first movement of my newest commissioned work, Concerto for Vibraphone and Percussion Ensemble. This movement, “Night’s Song,” will be premiered in November at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention in Indianapolis. I went into a lot more detail about that one in the previous post.

Thank you for allowing me to drone on a while. All I can say is that I’m happy to be back in “that place,” as I have several more compositional obligations to fulfill over the coming months:

  • 8-10 minute work for Percussion Orchestra (10-12 players)
  • 5-7 minute work for Wind Symphony (Grade V)
  • 8-9 minute work for Keyboard Percussion Ensemble (Grade V-VI)
  • 4-5 minute work for Middle School Percussion Ensemble (7-8 players)

Should be a fruitful winter & spring!