Blades of grass: Arvo Pärt, Joan Miró and musical detail

A few weeks ago a composer-friend posted a wonderful video of a composition masterclass with Arvo Pärt. He takes a tiny phrase from his piano piece Für Alina and separates out its components with beautiful precision. Playing each line separately, he shows that each on its own is musically nothing much, but when put together, the detail of the intervals created and the motion of one part against the other suddenly makes that special Pärt soundworld happen and it’s just gorgeous. In his words, ‘a blade of grass has the status of a flower’ – even the tiniest detail is as important as a big theme.

I haven’t been able to get this idea out of my head. It turned up at about the point I’m up to in my Work in Progress series of posts – I was very focused on the held chords and notes in Carrion Comfort and my teacher was encouraging me to pull out my tiny main theme and work with inversion, augmentation and diminution of intervals to see how it might be transformed and gradually expanded to take it into new territory. It seemed like just the right idea at the right time.

This weekend, I went out to the Tate Modern with another friend to see the big Joan Miró exhibition they have on at the moment. We were both entranced by the details and distillation of his symbolic language, which you could see happening right from some of the earliest paintings in the exhibition – a naturalistic or semi-naturalistic object gradually became a symbolic mark, which then evolved to take on characteristics of other objects-become-symbols. So a ladder-of-escape symbol also reflected the symbol of the Catalan peasant, representative of the painter’s national identity.

Exploring the tiny details in the paintings in the exhibition, I was reminded of Pärt’s remarks. And then afterwards I had a Facebook message from my friend with a Miró quote from a letter the artist sent to JF Rafols:

“Joy at learning to understand a tiny blade of grass in a landscape. Why belittle it? A blade of grass is as enchanting as a tree or a mountain.”

When I looked further into this quote (thank you, Google) I was delighted to find that he goes on to say:

“Everyone looks for and paints only the huge masses of trees, of mountains, without hearing the music of blades of grass and little flowers and without paying attention to the tiny pebbles of a ravine”

I love that some tiny gesture can have so much significance. A twist of an interval, a series of small dots can completely change the way you view the whole. These artists delineate and show only the essence of the work. It makes me wonder what in my own work is really needed and what is just clouding the structure – how does one effectively work with a large number of instruments but still pare the music back to only what is needed?

A blade of grass has the status of a flower.

Work in progress: Carrion comfort 2

The last work in progress post on Carrion Comfort looked at the beginnings of the piece – the first composition session I spent on it. Today I’m going to skip forward a bit and look at the next point of major change to the music. Obviously, there are small tweaks going on all the time and new bits continue to be composed but mostly those are a bit dull to write about 🙂

The piece is longer now, which is probably not too surprising. And the new part introduces some new elements to the sound, most notably glissandi in the strings. My composition tutor recommended a bunch of listening for me in between the last version and this one – including Elgar’s Serenade for Strings and, more significantly for this version, Malcolm Arnold’s Trumpet Concerto.

I didn’t get around to doing very much with the Elgar, but I did give the Arnold a good listen to. Overall, I wasn’t that taken with the outer movements, but the second movement, the Andante con moto, I really liked. Again, it’s a space issue – he makes beautiful use of barely-supported solo lines in this movement, especially in the trumpet and flute, and the whole thing is wonderfully still and aetheral. I haven’t been able to find a video or other generally available audio file online of this piece, but it’s on Spotify, if you have access to that in your country. There’s also a deeply inadequate 20-second snippet on iTunes. Anyway, after listening to this piece several times over, I became somewhat enamoured of the idea of the solo line and barely-there accompaniment, which resulted in, in particular, the flute line at the end of today’s version. I’m not 100% sure it works in context, but it achieved a few different things, simply by writing it.

The first thing was to pull me away from the stop-start nature of what I’d been writing before it. It’s the first time where a part has a section of any length to play and got me thinking a bit more about permutations of the thematic material I’d started with. It also made me start to think about which instruments I wanted to be prominent within the piece, why and how they might interact. As a flautist and singer my thinking tends to run in lines, and harmony is something that happens more or less by accident. I don’t think this is an ideal situation, and it’s one I’m working on, but nevertheless, it’s how I work right now.

The big change to this version though, was to do with the text. While Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Carrion Comfort was perfect for the mood I wanted to create, and the opening words had fitted into my opening vocal parts perfectly, I pretty soon ran into difficulties: My setting was becoming a bit stop-start and not terribly effective; Also, at the rate I was setting it, the piece was going to be 2 hours long unless I did some serious text-cutting, which I didn’t want to do; and I was beginning to feel a bit hampered by it because I didn’t want this piece to be epic (except in the sense of ‘awesome’ 🙂 ), I wanted it to be small and passionate and concentrated. Being the first real orchestral piece I’ve ever written, too, I wanted to be able to work within a manageable canvas and have a hope of being able to finish it during the scope of my lessons – which were supposed to end at the beginning of June – so that I could reap the benefits of having a teacher guide me throughout the whole of the piece’s composition. I also had dim hopes of maybe being able to use it in a portfolio for a Masters degree application, which would mean having to have it finished by about August.

So I thought a bit, and re-read the poem and thought some more about how I could fix this and finally came up with the decision to delete the voice and replace it with a trumpet. I wanted a sound that would cut through the other timbres, and I also wanted to have a bit more of a brass “choir” in there, rather than the horn and trombone duo I started out with – it just gives more possibilities, I think, when playing the different sections off each other, to be able to at least use 3-part harmony in an all-brass bit.

I’m really very happy with the vocal replacement. The trumpet I think works really well. I’ve also been a little daring (for me) and included a moment with mute, which I’m hoping to draw on more later, and the stridency of the muted trumpet harks back well to the agonised passion of the poem.

The poem’s still there, still a big influence on the piece – and I’m still planning on calling it Carrion Comfort – but it’s more of a background to the piece rather than having any specific interaction with it, with the exception of certain rhythmic elements which have been taken from the text rhythms.

I’m changing format to use video today because I wanted to start to show you the score as well as the audio, just because I think it makes things clearer. The video is best viewed full-screen to be able to see the detail of the notes. If it’s a bit fuzzy, and your system can handle it, you’ll need to switch to HD: Switch to ‘Watch on YouTube’, then click on where it says “360p” or “480p” or similar, and choose “720p – HD” then go to full-screen again – this should clear it all up.

I hope you enjoy it and look forward to your gentle constructive criticism in the comments 🙂

Liking this series? If you don’t want to miss the next one, be sure to join the email list!

Work in progress: Carrion Comfort 1

This post comes with a disclaimer: it’s taken quite a lot of courage for me to put this online – not only does this post contain the very first moments of the composition of Carrion Comfort, but the piece itself isn’t finished yet – by quite a long way. Please be gentle in the comments and don’t judge what the final work will be based on what you read and hear here. Also, the sounds are straight out of Finale – don’t expect miracles!

I’ve talked myself into posting my work-in-progress online for a few reasons. One is that people seem to like me talking about my compositional process; another is that I’ve reached a point with this piece where I’m feeling a little bit uncertain of where it wants to go. Often analysing what I’ve already done and how I got there helps me to work out how to move forward. Doing this in public, though, is a little scary…

And so to begin

Work in progress: Carrion Comfort 1 by caitlinrowley

Carrion Comfort is a work for chamber orchestra that started as an idea for a song for tenor voice with chamber orchestra. Single winds and brass, strings, maybe some percussion.

Before I started writing, I’d been listening to Nicholas Maw’s Life Studies I pretty solidly for about a week. That’s a fantastic piece. So subtle and spacious. I knew I really wanted to explore a sense of space like I was hearing in the Maw in whatever I was going to write next, so I sat down with the score and started analysing how he achieved that.

The opening of Carrion Comfort is very much about exploring some of the techniques Maw uses. I’ve written about these in an earlier blog post, Making space in music, so I won’t go into detail here, but that’s where it begins.

The first minute and a quarter just wrote themselves in one big blurp (technical term). I had all these sounds in my head from the Maw and sat down to try to make some sense of them, but without much clear idea of exactly what I wanted to do. I just wanted to explore some ideas around the spaciousness in that work. Next thing I knew, I had over a minute’s worth of music solidly sketched. It is very much a sketch – later progress has filled in a lot of detail and given it more form – but it’s a sketch which (I think) shows clearly the form it’s going to take.

The piece started writing itself before I even had a text, which is most unusual for me – the first three notes of the vocal part just put themselves in. I knew I wanted to find a text which explored a crisis of faith, and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Carrion Comfort was just what I was looking for – not only did it express exactly what I was hoping to explore, but its first words exactly matched the pattern that had written itself.

There’s not really a lot more to say about it at this point – it just wrote itself out of what I’d been listening to and thinking about, but this is the starting point – 16 March 2011, 11.23pm.

Next week I’ll dig out a later version to look at. If you want to be sure not to miss it, please do join the email list!

I’d love to hear your comments and your own experiences at starting a new piece – but please be gentle and remember that this is but an egg of the piece yet-to-be-finished!

Listening diary: Musical flow in Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3

Right now I’m working on my first real orchestral composition – a chamber orchestra piece based on Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Carrion Comfort. One of my aims with the writing I do on this site is to reflect a bit on my composing practice. I want to assess what I learn, how I apply it, how I work. I hope that this will help me to understand my process a bit better, and that it might be of interest to – or possibly even help – others.

In the past few weeks, my composition tutor has been introducing me to works which demonstrate particular concepts that he thinks might be helpful in solving problems I’m finding with the music I’m writing, and I’ve found I’m listening more closely, and that I’m getting more out of the listening experience when I take notes while I listen. So in spite of feeling that posting a listening diary could be a little self-indulgent and possibly dull, I’m going to give it a go.

I guess this is also a way of me sidling up to actually posting a report on the work-in-progress itself with a soundfile or score, which is something I’ve been considering for a little while – is anyone interested in seeing this? Please say something in the comments if you are – or if you aren’t!

The music so far

So far my tutor’s recommendations have seen me listening to:

and of course each has had different lessons to impart – I may come back to some of these later. The Nicholas Maw in particular has had a huge effect on this piece.

Listening to Prokofiev

Last week’s recommendation was Prokofiev’s 3rd Symphony, 3rd movement. This whole work has me fascinated at the moment. Starting with the 3rd movement, listening to that several times over with the score (no mean feat – parts of it go at a hell of a pace!), then just listening to it, then listening to the entire symphony. What a buzz! Just so gloriously dark!

The specific thing he’s highlighting in this piece is how to incorporate different rates of movement into otherwise fairly static passages. Carrion Comfort is focused on trying to create a real sense of space within the sound, but the problem I’m having with that, dealing with slow harmonic movement and limited thematic material, is that all too often, change happens in multiple instruments at the same time, which creates a sort of clunky disconnect.

His suggestion is to use different rates of movement in different parts, so that the points of change aren’t all happening together. Prokofiev has an absolutely fascinating divisi strings texture here which is used in the 3rd movement several times – at first listen the impression is of pulse and flow – it drives the music forward and while you can hear there’s a lot going on underneath that, it’s not until you look at the score that you can really see what he’s doing and understand what it is that you’re hearing and how he manages to make it all sound so smooth. (Well, you might. I couldn’t the first time round.)

From about 26 seconds in:

Prokofiev 3rd Symphony, 3rd movement extract - small
Click score for larger version

(The score sample is the last few bars of this clip. It will open in a new window so you can view and listen at the same time.)

I think I can see how I might use this. Or at any rate I can feel it. I’ve been experimenting in various places where I feel there is bareness and a sense of discontinuity. Rhythmically I think it’s working. It’s just that I haven’t worked out what needs to be done with the pitches yet. It’s a harmony problem, I guess, rather than a conceptual one. I just need to keep experimenting to see where it wants to go…

Interested in seeing more work-in-progress posts? Leave a comment!