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New Band Commission, part 5: First Movement

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

I woke up this morning with a secondary motive in my head, to pair with the “Are you trying” motive. And as I spun those around in my head it started to turn into more of a rock groove. This will be interesting…

Sunday, December 26, 2021

I sat down to put on paper some of the ideas that have been spinning around my head. I was planning on a short opening section that would be like the end of a dream, but since I want to reference later musical ideas in it, I’m going to have to compose that later (after the other ideas exist). So I started with a loud unison B-flat that would be like an alarm waking you up from a deep sleep. (It seems cheesy to write a band piece that starts with a big B-flat, but that’s the key that the groove in my head had been playing in, so that’s where we’ll start for now.) The next sound I heard in my head was steady quarter notes on a marimba. The more I thought about it, the more I liked this as a beginning, so I may just leave out that opening dream bit completely.

I have a pretty clear mental image of the high point of this movement, so the task is now just to figure out how to get there. It seems like it wants to be a steady build, with short melodic fragments repeating and layering on top of each other. The music that’s been playing in my head for about a week isn’t really a melody, just motives that loop over and over again with what I’d call “riffing” over the top of it. So I guess this first movement will be pretty minimalist.

As I was trying to imagine what would happen after the opening couple bars, the breathing idea popped up again. I imagined the whole band taking several slow breaths together (4 beats inhale, 4 beats exhale) before I introduced the “are you trying” motive. It occurred to me after I sketched that out that if the breaths continue through the whole movement (so that anyone who isn’t playing is just breathing), then the piece could be counted in terms of breaths instead of measures. (Instructions for player: Take 16 breaths, then start playing this figure…The trumpets come in on Breath 24.) That’s a novel idea in terms of thinking about a band piece, but it’s also cool that it would basically end up being a breath meditation for the band as they rehearsed and performed it. You could have a conductor up there showing what number breath they’re on, but you could also theoretically perform this mostly without a conductor.

Worries right now: Spinning out this first movement very slowly runs the risk of making the piece boring for the players and the audience. It also may take a while, which will eat up minutes in the piece. Of course, if the piece got longer without getting more difficult (like if the majority of the band was just breathing) maybe it would be okay to go a little longer than the 4-6 minute limit.

As I tried working out things like the order that the motives would enter, and how many repeats of each motive would happen before the next one started, I found myself having a lot of trouble concentrating. My brain seemed impatient, because it kept skipping ahead to the high point of the piece so that I couldn’t just hear the beginning in my head. I gave up after maybe 90 minutes of struggling with this. I’ll pick it up again tomorrow. Maybe my brain just needs to sleep on this idea some more.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Made lots of progress on the first movement today. I spent a couple hours playing around with the entrances of different instruments until I found a sequence I liked. It was rather painstaking but I think what I settled on works. (Will have to listen to it again tomorrow to see if I still think so!) Made it all the way up to the full group entrance, a short spoken-word passage, including the “are you crying” bit, which in context makes the thing feel REALLY dark, if anyone even notices it—which maybe should be the point? I don’t know how realistic it is that the audience will hear it and then say, “Wait, did I hear that right?” but that would be cool and maybe a little less melodramatic. Maybe I should also include the instruction that all the spoken parts should be performed emotionlessly? I had originally thinking “Are you crying?” would be one solo voice, performed however the soloist wanted to interpret that line (accusatory, sympathetic, confused, etc.) I may still try that idea out with the group.

Next task is to figure out how to end this movement. I had been thinking earlier today it would be cool to try and achieve an effect where it sounds like we slam a door closed and all the sounds get muffled. (The percussionists lay a cloth/towel on their instruments? Saxes are replaced by horns? Might need to workshop this idea with the band to see if it’s even possible.) Will start there tomorrow.

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