Sunday, July 27, 2008

Hatikvah (Traditional)

This is a choral arrangement of Hatikvah I wrote for my a cappella group, Techiya. It's mostly a reharmonization. I think I'm starting to have a style to them. It's homophonic, generally, and I generally go for complex harmonies rather than simple ones. If the last four bars sound like Grainger, by the way... Well, let's just say I have learned the importance of the b7 in major. (:

Listen to Hatikvah (right-click to download)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Carinhoso (Pixinguinha)

This was made as a present to someone wonderful. (: You can find more information on this song here, since I also made an arrangement of it for a flute quintet (where, following Classical convention, "flute quintet" denotes a clarinet quartet -- three soprano clarinets and a bass -- with an added flute). The present version, however, consists of me singing all of the parts, and I actually wrote notes on paper this time instead of just improvising it like Basic Blues, so it sounds much better. Also, it has words in Portuguese! It's a bit annoying that my singing range and my whistling range are incompatible in this song, but it doesn't actually hurt anything. All of it was sung (or whistled) directly as you hear it in the recording, except, like in Basic Jazz, for the bass notes, which were kicked down an octave, and the bass drum, which was kicked down two octaves. There is one run in the bass that kept getting really distorted when transposed, so that run was recorded a fourth higher than it ended up instead of an octave.

Listen to Carinhoso (right-click to download)

Basic Blues

I named the album this is in (well, in the ID tag, not in real life) "Alkaline Jazz", because I suck. Basic Blues is just that. It won't take a proton, but it is basic. It's a 12-bar blues, because I figured that would be the easiest thing to put together. A couple of hours later, possibly less than one, actually, out came this piece of crap. I clearly wasn't listening too well to the metronome (Garage Band is cool like that and has a metronome) on the cymbal at the end there, but I figured that being totally off-tempo then rushing to catch up gives the piece, uh, authenticity. Consider this a demo of a cool thing you can do using a recording program and a microphone (my Mac is cool like that and comes with both). By the way, the bass is my voice down an octave, and the bass drum is my voice down two. Everything else is totally acoustic.

Listen to Basic Blues (right-click to download)

Friday, July 11, 2008


Full Band

The Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals, has a very fun traditional melody (which apparently dates to 80 years ago or so), so I decided to set it for band. On Shabbat and festivals, the Birkat Hamazon is preceded by Psalm 126, labeled (like many others in that section of the Tanach) "Shir Hamaalot", or "Song of Ascents", where the meaning of "ascents", according to my JPS Jewish Study Bible, is unclear and possibly refers to steps of the temple or something similar. Here, then, I have set this Song of Ascents for wind orchestra, with an attempt to emulate, to some extent, Percy Grainger. The Birkat proper will follow.

Listen to Grace - I - Song of Ascents (right-click to download)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Irish Tune

I have before me the score to Percy Grainger's vocal setting of the Irish Tune from County Derry, set in 1902, and published in 1912, the same year as a songwriter first published some words he had written earlier with the same tune, the words being named "Danny Boy". Apparently, the song is not so Irish:

That's a very interesting explanation of the history of this song known by Americans everywhere as Danny Boy and connected to Ireland, and it attempts to explain why it's so completely uncharacteristic of Irish music at the time it was collected. But say what you will about Percy Grainger and his personal beliefs and habits, this is a frickin' masterful setting, and I really want to learn how to write like this. Here's one version played by a string orchestra. It's exactly the same as the choral version I'm looking at, except it's played by strings instead of voices (the voices actually do some cool stuff with humming and vowels, but that's not the relevant point), and the first half of the second time through the melody is up an octave.

Anyway, Grainger is awesome -- he's very particular about writing directions in English. No "cresc." or "dim." Instead, you find "louden lots" and "slow off lots" and "much to the fore" and "accompanyingly". I just thought that was exceedingly cute. The point of this is that I actually want to learn to write like he does and compose a similar setting for other music, namely a particular melody for Shir Hamaalot. The tune's apparently by a P. Minkowsky. I can't tell when this recording is from, but the cantor in it died in 1933, so it's got that beautiful grainy sound you get from old music.

The eventual goal here is to compose a wind orchestra setting for the entire Birkat haMazon, the Jewish grace after meals, and while the Shir Hamaalot is not exactly part of the Birkat itself, it's sung before it, as part of the ritual, on Shabbat. The real challenge will be to make the chanting in the body of the Birkat playable by an ensemble and not boring. The Birkat haMazon is a rather long series of blessings, about six to seven minutes in total, mostly split between chanting and very upbeat major melodies with motifs that repeat throughout. Apparently this is generally due to Mordecai Kaplan in the 1920's (, though there's one section in there that's often sung to a tune very different from the rest of it -- it's got a minor mode, unlike the rest of it, and sequences, which suggests a more modern Israeli style. You can see the Pesach version in the Harmoniot shel Pesach:

Anyway, I'll post when it's completed, if ever. The Shir Hamaalot will be first, and separate; to make the analogy even further, and this isn't exactly out of emulation but because it's just working this way, it will be like Grainger's publication for band, with Irish Tune from County Derry and Shepherd's Hey (a much faster and upbeat tune) on the same sheet of paper, like a B-side, if you will. I also want to learn how to write like he writes his fast music, but that's for later. (:

Friday, March 28, 2008

Oro y Tomates

2 trumpets (in C), horn, trombone

My brother asked me to write a brass quartet, STAT, and to make it sound Spanish. So I did it. I tried to also make it sound a little Jewish, so you can actually pick out some Jewish notes in there (if you think you've heard that snippet before in synagogue, well, you have). Oh, and the first measure is (seriously) based on Jungle Hijinx! from Donkey Kong Country, or whatever the actual name of the song is. The inspiration really went no further than the rhythm of the first measure, but it's what it is. But there's some neat stuff in there; it's a fun piece.

Listen to Oro y Tomates (right-click to download)

Monday, February 11, 2008

Suite of the Undead

2 trumpets, 2 horns, trombone, euphonium, tuba

The 2008 entry to the BCMW contest. The idea of a march of the undead had been floating in my head for a LONG time, and I had a little tune for it, so I figured that this time, this time, I'd actually write it, and it ended up as the second movement in the suite. The requirements were somewhat different -- many movements, 13-15 minutes total, rather than three movements of around 5 minutes each -- and I, uh, well, it's too long by about a minute and a half, but I imagine it could be sped up. Oh, the creatures mentioned in the piece are Exile/Avernum-style undead -- a zombie is supposed to be a magically reanimated corpse that can be killed in a few hits (a few WEAK hits) rather than a horrible-virus-infected supermutant that zombifies on contact, though I suppose a lich may be powerful enough to do that. Or a zombie dragon (GAH, FF5!). Oh, cool note: LOTS OF SPECIAL EFFECTS! You can't really hear all of them faithfully, but the horns will do some, uh, surprising things. (: And there's some rather creative orchestration at times, with trombone down in the pedal range, euphonium an octave higher in the low range, and tuba an octave higher than the euphonium, playing fairly high. High tuba is generally underexplored, I think. At least by me.

Listen to Suite of the Undead - I - Awakening: The Lich (right-click to download)
Listen to Suite of the Undead - II - March of the Zombies (right-click to download)
Listen to Suite of the Undead - III - The Vampire's Lullaby (right-click to download)
Listen to Suite of the Undead - IV - The Werewolves' Hunt (right-click to download)
Listen to Suite of the Undead - V - Ghostly Lament (right-click to download)
Listen to Suite of the Undead - VI - Finale: The Lich (right-click to download)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Three-Body Problem

Whenever I read harmony books I get ticked off at the sophomoric explanations of harmonic phenomena that are ever present. I should correct that and use the past tense, actually, because the harmony books in which I find these tend to be older, apparently before the concept of observation was developed. Hindemith, in particular, talks about combination tones and their overtones to discuss consonance, and I find that rather silly. He also says that intervals have roots.

What is the root of a given interval? For the major third, for instance, it's the bottom member; for the minor sixth, its inversion, the top member. How does he know? See, I disagree with him, because one would have to consider the interval in a vacuum to identify a root, and an interval is never in a vacuum! I hold that context is critical, and that the tonal center forms a third note around which the two notes of the interval gravitate. When trying to figure out the "meaning" of an interval, the (local) key is an inseparable part of the problem. Hence we have a three-body problem, which complicates the simplicity of a two-note interval with necessary ambiguity.

My favorite example is the major sixth, because either note can be the "root". What's worse, if the major sixth is G E and the key of C is well-understood, the root is the C, a note not even in the interval! If an E minor harmony is implied, E is the root; if a dominant function in the key of C is implied, G is the root. If the interval is present by itself, without any context -- or, rather, with itself as its context -- a trick of the ear can change the root, like the spinning dancer or the cube that looks like it's either coming out of the page or into the page. The beautiful simplicity of the analysis of only two tones is, sadly, not to be.

I hope that this helps dispel the notion that the overtone series has much to do with harmony beyond providing the fifth. That notion needs dispelling, and any little bit counts.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Interval of the Moment

Diminished octave. In particular, in Villa-Lobos's Suite Popular Brasileira, V - Chorinho, where there's a held low E in the bass, struck D G# B in the middle, and struck G natural in the melody. It's obviously a dominant 7th chord to A minor, even though it doesn't actually resolve that way; the G natural goes down to F then E. It's the clash of the two natures of "traditional" melodic minor that sounds so great.

Another great interval is the diminished third, especially between the raised 7th and lowered 2nd, as used melodically in Tarrega's Recuerdos de Alhambra (which, unlike the Villa-Lobos, I have not yet attempted to play; the right hand figuration is HARD). One phrase ends on the G#, the 3rd of the dominant 7th of A minor, and the next one begins on Bb, the b9th of the secondary dominant to D minor. The melody: C B A B A G#; Bb A G A G F... The first few times I heard it, I couldn't identify the interval. It's just so remote -- a diminished 3rd -- and it was THAT interval that led me to realize that a diminished 3rd is NOT the same as a major 2nd. Ah, context.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Value of Planning

Every year I participate in a great competition that requires a composition for brass ensemble of varying size (this year, a septet) of around 15 minutes. It's a great chance to write something with a deadline, since it's due February 1st, and I do something different every year. I've been working on this year's entry lately, and I realized something everyone already knows: planning is GOOD. Editing is GOOD. Showering is GOOD.

The problem is that it takes a lot longer to write something than to sing something or think about something, so sections end up being too short. I get bored writing even short segments because it takes so much longer than the segments themselves, so my writing ends up all over the place because my ideas change much more quickly than the music. I'm finding, then, that it's a good idea to think about how things will develop in the shower, try to remember them, and write them in. Things sound much better in my head than they do once I've written them, but also, once I've written them, I can't really think of them any other way, so this is hard to do.

One thing that I used to not understand until very recently was how composers could write music that doesn't sound great throughout, with some boring moments. I think I understand now that it's for pacing reasons, because otherwise the piece isn't balanced. There needs to be time with nothing important happening so that important things are more important. Filler material, if you will, that serves to continue the piece until what needs to happen can happen. It's also a great time to introduce new motifs, or to quote old ones. There's an art to writing "boring" music as well.

Everyone already knows this, but that's what I figured out today. (: I'll hold off on details of the piece until I hear back from the competition to maintain the anonymity of my piece.