Assignment 1 – Advanced Music Composition

Structure & Ideas
Receiving the documentation for my final year music composition course, I wasn’t prepared to discover that the course structure and ideas were down to me to generate.

However, this was actually a very liberating and exciting prospect. I firstly needed to consider the structure of my work and map out my six tutorial dates which is when I would be submitting my assignments.

This was my initial starting point and the following dates have been set out with my tutor for tutorials:

  • 23 March 2015
  • 18 May
  • 13 July
  • 07 September
  • 02 November
  • 14 December

I then spent some considerable time considering the type of orchestral piece that I wanted to compose. My initial thoughts lay with writing a symphony as I had recently been listening very closely to Tolga Kashiff’s ‘Queen Symphony’, his orchestral setting of the songs of Queen. I considered whether I could achieve something similar with Elton John songs, but my tutor reminded me of the copyright pitfalls of incorporating somebody else’s works into my own.

I also spent time considering the subject matter. I have always ‘heard’ a soundtrack in my head when I’ve read stories and books, and I have recently been studying ‘Writing for Children’ as one of my Year 2 OCA courses. One story immediately came to mind and kept coming back to me every time I looked at these course materials; Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. Little did I know that 2015 was the 150th anniversary of its first publication and I began seeing references to it everywhere! The decision was made; this would be the foundation of my final year work.

I particularly liked the structure of the story; there was a definite ‘journey’ that I could base the structure of my piece around. It had a solid, identifiable lead character that could act as my main theme, which could be varied throughout, and also lots of different characters within many weird and wonderful environments that I could interpret and experiment with both harmonically and rhythmically.

I continued considering a symphony as the setting for my piece, but as soon as I had my subject matter finalised, I realised that this was probably going to be too restrictive for me. A traditional symphony has four movements, the first being in Sonata-Allegro form. The second movement is usually a slower Adagio or Andante section. The third movement is in dance form like a Rondo and the symphony concludes with another quick movement.

I didn’t want to be hemmed in; I realised that I needed to rethink this and after discussing this with my tutor, I realised that I could come away from any traditional orchestral form and go my own way, which was a huge relief.

There would still need to be structure, but I knew that I would build this from the different sections of the story, and thus, be a representation of Carroll’s infamous tale.

Meeting Alice
The most obvious starting point to get me underway having set my tutorial dates was to get Carroll’s books read; that is to say, his first title ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and his follow-up book ‘Alice Through The Looking-Glass’.

I spent a couple of weeks carefully reading the books, noting down the characters and the story ‘curves’ to establish the key elements. I then started to identify which parts of the stories I would want to feature in my composition.

I didn’t enjoy the second book at all and felt that Carroll really drifted away from the original adventures that Alice enjoyed during the first title. And so I settled upon the first book as my focus and read it through a second time to be sure that I knew the storyline thoroughly.

My second read through helped me to identify that areas that I felt an affinity to musically and in turn, this gave me a structure and some ideas to work to:

  • Alice by riverbank – set the scene, establish ‘Alice’ theme
  • The White Rabbit is seen – introduce the White Rabbit theme
  • Alice falls down the rabbit hole – an opportunity to experiment to convey the sensation of descending down for a length of time
  • ‘Drink Me, Eat Me’ – another experimentation section with a varied ‘Alice’ theme
  • Meeting the Dodo & the Caucus Race – a comical, circular theme representing the race
  • Hookah-smoking caterpillar & mushroom eating – this needs to represent Alice getting taller and smaller again; perhaps a variation on the ‘Drink Me, Eat Me’ section
  • The Cheshire Cat – a mysterious theme
  • Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – a comical, quirky theme based upon stride piano technique
  • The Queen of Heart’s Game of Croquet – a heraldic theme with a variation on Alice’s theme woven in
  • Back on the riverbank – a reprise of the opening theme

The Composing
I have to be mindful that my composition must be a maximum of 20 minutes in length; it could be very easy to write too much with all the elements that I have identified above and this will be something that I have to be mindful of as I start to compose. I was also glad that I had settled upon the one book!

My composing has started, albeit in short snippets within a sketchbook. I’m notating themes, ideas and motifs and I start playing around initially with a few notes, some chords, and occasionally, I find that it’s a perfect starting point for one of the elements above; a character motif, a scenic setting.

I’m taking my time, letting the music find me. I’ve been quite stressed with composing in the past and created quite a ‘block’ for myself; I’m enjoying taking my time at the moment and as such, I’m discovering ideas sooner and being more creative. I’m even starting to hear the arrangement of instruments as the ideas come to me, which I feel is the legacy from my Year 2 composition course; my ear is more tuned into a broader sound instead of being solely working within a piano environment.

I want to start practicing flexi-time recording with Sibelius, something I didn’t get to grips with in Year 2 as I have been quite intimidated by quantising issues.

I have not yet started upon any specific lines of research for my project because much of my time has been taken up with getting the two books read and then determining the piece’s overall structure and themes.

However, I do want to start listening to as broad a range of material as possible. I am keen to listen to J.S. Bach and Gerald Finzi amongst others for harmonic inspiration. I want to explore what constitutes a quintessential ‘English’ sound by studying Vaughan Williams, William Byrd, and Purcell; this will be important for my riverbank setting.

I also want to study theme and variations by Elgar and Rachmaninoff to see how they took a simple melodic motif and re-worked it; this should help me to develop Alice’s theme.

I need to inject some experimentation into my work for a couple of the sections and try to move myself away from my usual comfort zone. I want to study more contemporary composers such as Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, and Ludovico Einuadi to understand more broadly what is being written now and see if this can inspire me to write differently.

I am also keen to listen to more film soundtrack material because I am constantly fascinated by how such music conveys a story, mood or emotion. I also think that listening closely to more scores in general will help shape my ear for arranging my short piano scores into the final orchestrated piece.

Critical Review
A natural choice for this review is to explore how music can tell a story or act as a narrative for a particular topic, item or event, and I therefore intend to study programme music to do this. In particular, I want to analyse one or two orchestral pieces of programme music from different periods, to identify how the composers achieved their element of story-telling, and discuss whether they are successful examples of programme music.

I haven’t selected the music that I want to study yet but I hope to confirm the title of my review, together with the music, by my next assignment.

Aspirations for Assignment 2
I now have some music to write. I’ve got a structure to work within, a selection of characters to get to know and a journey to take them on, and so I need to really start getting the sections roughed out. Therefore, by assignment 2 I hope to have at least a third of my piece written in short score, hopefully more.

I will have started my listening research in earnest by Assignment 2 to help shape my writing.

I also hope to have the Critical Review more clear in my mind with a working title and a choice of music to study.


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