Thursday, September 3, 2009

Blogging for the MCE: Nuts and Bolts (and Strings and Pedals)

Here is a blog entry for the people who don’t want to know where the composer’s inspiration comes from. It’s for those who want to know what the process of writing is like. I can only answer for myself, of course. I remember reading Ned Rorem’s diaries and snickering at the bit where he gets in trouble in a hotel in Utah because a guest in another room complains about his sitting in his room, with the window open, orchestrating in the nude.

That’s not a part of my process. But I respect it anyway.

So, not long ago I am sitting on the train and looking at the text “What Cheer?” as a good place to start writing this carol cycle. I know I want the music in general to sound icy, silvery, exalted. I also know that William Walton set this text, and that I find the chorus in his setting vaguely irritating. In his version, everyone sings the words “What Cheer?” homophonically, starting with a pickup from which the high voices leap up a third, followed by a half-step descent. The music is in 6/8 time throughout. I decide to change things. I will start on the downbeat, do a big leap up followed by no descent at all, and, rather than have everyone sing the rhythm the same way, I will stagger the entries. Also, why not make the music in 7/8 time, which basically creates three pulses per measure instead of two? I end up with this:

So far so good, at least as far as the women go, and at least for two measures. Questions remain: do the men do exactly the same thing an octave lower? Do they do something else in the same rhythm? Do they enter after the women and echo them? I haven’t answered those questions yet. Stay tuned.

We are assuming for now that the accompanying instrument is a harp. The first thing I do is imagine the general sound and feel of the instrument. This gives me a sense of what the rhythm might be like, and I come up with this gesture:

I’m still on the train and need to figure out exactly what pitches I want to have happen on those rhythms, but I can’t quite get the music going in my head, so I write a couple notes to myself, including: “careful not to do unworkable repeated notes” (because you can’t really pluck a string well if it is still vibrating) and “check Mark Adamo’s blog about writing for harp” (which is fascinating, because Adamo is very wise and expresses himself well). This is the link, btw:

And then I was at my stop.

Later, I played around on the piano and came up with the following harmonies to enjoy underneath the “What Cheer?” vocal bit:

They sound pretty cool, especially the unexpected shift to A-flat major underneath the chorus’ sustained Dmin7 chord (it makes an A-flat 13 chord, for those of you into extended tertian harmony and jazz chords). Unfortunately, there is a problem. When a harpist has to change the accidental on a note, she (or he, but much more often she) has to use a pedal. And in the measures I wrote, she’d have to change both the E and the A in a 16th note’s time. This would be bad enough if the two pedals were on opposite sides of the harp, but no, they’re both on the right, as we know from the mnemonic, “Did Columbus Bring | Enough Food Going (to) America?” (the pedals on the left are DCB, those on the right are EFGA) … there’s no way in heaven or elsewhere that any harpist could make the change fast enough.

So, that sketch presents music that won’t work. So I’ll write something else, or tinker with what I’ve got …

Many, many constraints shape what you do when writing music;
composing requires a little bit of inspiration and a whole lot of negotiation.

More later. Please tell me what you like about this blog, what you don’t, and which of the carol texts you’ve seen so far interest you the most! Remember, I will buy beer for MCE members who express opinions … and I know you actually have opinions. I’ve heard them …


  1. Theme of those first three carols = drinking for Jesus!? (what, too obvious? there must be something way more subtle...)

    I find the mix of sacred and profane in texts like that appealing - brings the lofty ideas down to earth a bit, where they belong, amongst the humans that think them up. Maybe for the same reason, I enjoy the 3 poems that mix Latin and English. I like to imagine a time when Latin was so ubiquitous (in the life of the church) that bits of it snuck into daily expression ("with, ego dixi, have good day!").

    To the question of which style of writing I want to read in your blog, Martha - both, please! Your story about the meteor shower reminded me of how powerful that experience was the first time I had it, plus I'm glad to know that you think about what listeners will feel when they hear your music. (and curious to know what inspires you - stars? great! Whitey the skunk? ok, let me in on that sensation, too, why not?)

    And the nuts and bolts are endlessly fascinating, but then I was a music theory nerd. I love that composers have to learn a mnemonic for the harp pedals - who knew?? And what a serious constraint - does that mean it's nearly impossible to write chromatic music for harp? Does octave displacement get you around the pedal problem, or does the E pedal change the accidental on all the Es? How the heck does a harp work, anyway?? (I guess I should go look at Mark Adamo's blog!)

    Thanks also for sharing some sketches - though while I can "hear" that treble melody in my head, I'm not good enough to imagine the harmony you laid out. Will have to wait til a piano is near to check it out...

    Keep it up, this is fun, Martha - hope it's not distracting you *too* much from the actual composing!

  2. Hi, Deborah!

    You definitely win the beer.

    Yep, I like the latin/english macaronic texts a whole bunch, and I also like wassails. "Drinking for Jesus" works for me.

    Re the harp: nerdy composers go around trying to memorize whole tomes of orchestration and instrumentation information. You're clever to think of octave displacement, and smart to ask the question, "does the pedal affect all the strings of that name?" ... to which the answer is, yes, it does. Chromatic music is not impossible; it's just a nuisance to write and play. Some chords would be impossible (anything that had a G, G#, and A, for example, b/c the G# would have to spelled as either G sharp or A flat), but enharmonic spellings can usually work wonders ...

    Okay, back to writing new blog entries!