• Josh

Little Pieces, Big Results


Since I'm a composer, it shouldn't surprise you that I think about music a lot. Maybe even constantly. (Definitely constantly.) My mum often says that I have a one-track mind... and that track is whatever music I'm writing on that given day.

One of the things I think about the most is how to construct interesting music that gets its message across clearly to the listener. If someone listens to something you've written and they walk away with it stuck in their head, you know you've done your job appropriately.

But how do you do this?

Chiefly, I think the answer lies in economy of material--that is, keeping the skeleton of your piece from becoming too complicated. Even in an extended work, there are usually only a few thematic/harmonic/rhythmic ideas that keep cropping up that serve to bind everything into a cohesive whole.

Think about some of the most successful music of all time: Beethoven's fifth symphony, for example. The entire first movement is built out of an instantly-recognizable motive:


That major third/three eighth notes followed by a half note will haunt your ear for days. But it goes even deeper than just the first movement; indeed, the entire symphony is bound together with that rhythmic and harmonic idea. It shows up everywhere and every time it does your ear latches right onto it.

These sorts of cyclic ideas, as we musicians call them, are extremely useful ways of catching your listener's attention and continuing to hold it.

In my latest piece, Sacred Dreams, I really wanted to explore this concept a bit more than I have before. I've written a few larger pieces that all have cyclic themes or motives to help them fit together, but I hadn't ever really built an entire large-scale piece out of a few very small pieces. I knew I had a solid concept from a programmatic standpoint (you can read about that here). It's like my own personal Divine Comedy. But musically, how on earth was it going to jive?

To me, a multi-movement work needs to be cohesive. In today's musical landscape three or four disparate pieces slapped together under the moniker of a symphony doesn't cut it. As business owners chant the mantra "location, location, location," the composer must chant "cohesion, cohesion, cohesion." So I sat down and thought about my overall concept and how to audially glue it all together. As I usually do, I started by writing a bit of prose about the overall shape and character of each movement, which is always the best place to start: with an end goal to accomplish. Then I sketched out a little visual to help me stay on track. And by sketched I, of course, mean scribbled...


Since the first movement is about St. Peter opening the gates of heaven, I immediately thought of the Doxology that pretty much everyone who's ever been to any Christian church knows. I took that theme and broke it down, rearranged some intervals (and changed a couple into tritones because tritones make everything better). I ended up with this:


This appears during the introduction. (Speaking of the introduction, that whole tone cluster that happens right at the beginning? It's everywhere. It never shows up in the exact same way after the first movement, but if you take a look at the score, you'll notice it cropping up all over the place.)


The other idea that's central to the piece's construction is the trichord [0,1,6]. This first appears in the trumpets (see left), immediately following the sort-of-tonal Doxology theme.

And there you have it. By measure 11 you've heard all of the building blocks for the entire 15-and-a-half minute monstrosity. From here it's all development.

In the first movement the two ideas are bit more hidden. Especially since I knew I was using the Doxology, I didn't bother with using first idea I mentioned (I call it the "Dox theme" in all my notes) because the listener is getting their ears quite thoroughly boxed with it. But in the second movement it makes a couple of notable appearances like this one (mvt. II, pg. 18, mm. 75 - 80):


(Also note that little bit of [0,1,6] that sneaks in there in m. 80...)

And this one (mvt. II, pg. 19 - 20, mm. 96-100):


In movement III it's used as a transition (mvt. III, pg. 31, mm. 27 - 29, horns 1 - 4 and trumpet 2 & 3):


As a way to end phrases (mvt. III, pg. 40, mm. 93 - 94, piccolo):


And it's even the way the entire piece ends (mvt. III, pg. 54, mm. 182 - 184, all trumpets and cornets):


And these are just the obvious iterations. In a sort-of-Schenkerian way it dominates the harmonic motion of the piece: pitch centers move in relation to the intervals contained within this idea, and several other motivic and harmonic devices are built out of it.

[0,1,6] asserts its importance about halfway through the second movement, as the tonality begins to dissolve (an angel is, perhaps, dreaming about falling from grace). By the time the recapitulation of the main theme rolls around, [0,1,6] has taken over and the theme and its accompaniment are completely atonal. (If you look carefully, you might also notice a touch of the Dox Theme hidden in there, too...)

The third movement is mostly constructed out of the [0,1,6] trichord. The main thematic material is built out of it (though the six is often interchangeable with seven, making it a perfect fifth instead of a tritone). I also took the opportunity to move the harmonic centers through each of the pitches in an [0,1,6] based on A-flat (so A-flat, A-natural, and D-natural), even if it does happen briefly.

TL;DR: I took a couple of little ideas and used them to bind together a long and complex piece. I used every opportunity I had to use these two motivic pieces to influence the overall harmonic and melodic construction of the entire work.

So where does this leave you (and me, as I embark on future compositions)? The most important thing to remember about creating engaging music is that once your listener has noticed something once or twice, they're subconsciously on the lookout for it. Which means that you've got their attention--so make sure it shows up once and a while so you can hold it. Interesting music doesn't have to be traditionally tonal music, nor does it have to be simple. It just has to take the listener on a journey they can follow.

Check out the score to Sacred Dreams or listen to the computer realization (it begins on track 11 of the large ensemble music). I'm really looking forward to having this one performed!

#Composition #MusicTheory #SacredDreams

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