Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Top 10 Tips for Composing and Arranging

In Quadre, Nathan and I create a lot of the original music and arrangements that we play. The process of creation can be the most agonizing and exhilarating experience at the same time. Below are some of the tips and stories that I've gathered along the way.

Feel the Beat Concert
In March, 2008, we did a concert with percussionist extraordinaire Jim Kassis at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. As part of that concert, we performed 2 premieres: one by Nathan called Midlife Crisis and another by me called In Time. Nate wrote a wickedly hard marimba solo that was accompanied by a not so easy horn quartet background. The piece was written in two movements: 44 1/2 and Fresh Beat. The first was rather introspective yet soaring at times while the second was a kind of "hold on to your hat because this is going to be a wild ride."

Nate got the parts to all of us in plenty of time. I, on the other hand, was having a very difficult time with my work. I knew how I wanted it structured as well as the moods I was going for, but I just wasn't satisfied with the motives I was coming up with. Needless to say, it was the week of rehearsal prior to the concert and I still wasn't done with it. At the last rehearsal before the concert operating on less than 2 hours of sleep, I presented the missing movement. With minimal "woodshed" time, we did it. I thought it came off well and as far as the audience was concerned, I don't think they could tell that it was considerably newer than the other premiere.

Later, before we went to record it, I realized why I was getting so unstuck writing it for the concert. The work loosely captures my personal history with women - in particular, my ex-wife. We were only married for a month and a half, so it wasn't much of a marriage although it did create some angst. However, angst for a composer can be a good thing. Before I revised the work for the recording, the movements were titled Luck, Love, Loss and Laughter. The movement I had the most trouble with was Love. Surprise, surprise. When I revised it, I realized that Love was really a fifth movement called Lies. I wrote a new movement titled Love, which was now easy, and the work finally came together as Luck, Love, Lies, Loss and Laughter. You never know when inspiration is going to strike.

Valentine Concert
About a year later, Nate wrote for a huge collaborative concert we had with a flute quartet, Areon Flutes; flute soloist, Molly Barth; and four combined school choirs. He composed three brand new works for horn quartet and choir called Mother's Chocolate Valentine, Skeleton Hiccups, and To the Groundhog. As you have probably already surmised, they were all written with holidays in mind. Unfortunately, they turned out to be kind of difficult to sing as well. So, Nate, true to form, sang all the parts so that the choirs would have a tape to sing along with. He has a nice voice you know. Hearing him belt out those Soprano parts was pretty amazing.

Horns for the Holidays Album
I leave you with one final story about our Holiday CD. It is kind of a Nate/Daniel story, so you get two for the price of one here. Now, this album has a lot of our arrangements on it with even one original holiday carol by yours truly called Hug Santa for Me. (I guess I did my job well since the first time Lydia played it she asked, "Where is this carol from since I haven't heard it before?" I also got Amy Jo's son, Norty singing the melody endlessly. BEWARE - it can get stuck in your head.) Besides that tune, Nate and I arranged 30 of the other 48 minutes on the album. That is a fair amount of music.

Nate really likes the tune Infant Holy, Infant Lowly. So we talked about it a lot. We finally settled on having him arrange it for bell choir and horn quartet. That created the additional issue of finding a bell choir. Our recording session fell on a busy Saturday and a few ringers had to cancel last minute. Fortunately, Lydia knew a few people and we were able to get a full bell choir by the downbeat. Certainly is easier coordinating schedules with just four people!! Not much easier, but easier.

As for me, when we rehearsed Hug Santa for Me with our guest soloist, Jim Thatcher, the pacing just wasn't right. We had three hours between the rehearsal and the session. I took off to the local copy center and came back with new parts for the evening. Nothing like a deadline to spur creativity.

Now, I wasn't trying to go with a moral with all of these stories, but I guess all of it can be summed up in a top ten tips for composing and arranging:

10. Write it with plenty of time to spare for revisions and compositional angst.
9. Make sure you know where the nearest copy center always is.
8. Write for what you know and learn as much as you can.
7. Deadlines can help give you a kick in the pants.
6. Make it easy enough to play, but hard enough to keep it interesting.
5. Have a backup plan in case the musicians forget to show up.
4. Think about what you write, but let your ear be the judge.
3. Make sure you can sing/play/express your music if there is a question.
2. Mistakes can be new opportunities.
1. Remember the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Stupid.

Oh, and if you want to check out that holiday CD I mentioned above, more info about it is here. Thanks for reading.