Assignment 4 – Advanced Music Composition

I have used the Assessment Criteria to help me reflect and evaluate my fourth assignment:

Technical Presentation:
This, my fourth assignment, sees me completing my short score:

Alice in Wonderland Short Score – Revised for Assignment 4

It sounds like this:

Having composed the first 9 minutes and 15 seconds by my second assignment – and having not composed any new material by my third assignment – there was an enormous but necessary expectation to pull out all the stops and complete the short score of my composition for this assignment. That meant writing nearly 11 minutes of music.

It’s fair to say that the period leading up to my third assignment witnessed me experiencing a crisis of confidence and a complete lack of direction, and it wasn’t until I had forced myself to work out the structure of the piece in its entirety that I had a better sense of what I needed to do.

For the notation of the rest of the short score, I worked in Sibelius in ‘panoramic’ mode, which enabled me to move backwards and forwards throughout the music with ease. Within this mode, I entered freely the descriptive story elements, the dynamics and phrasing, and gave little thought to how this might end up ‘looking’ in a different viewing mode for printing.

When I came to print the entire score at the end of composing so that I had a ‘hard copy’ version to start marking up story descriptions, dynamics, phrasing, articulation (which I prefer to do away from the screen), I realised that this panoramic viewing mode skewed the formatting of the staves. I had no room between stave lines; everything looked out of alignment somehow.

In order to re-format the layout, I needed to stay away from panoramic mode from hereon in so that what I saw on the screen was representative of the printed version. The horizontal spread mode was the one I needed to stick to from now on. So, from a technical point of view, realising that the different viewing modes had various pros and cons to the end result and the finished presentation of my score was a huge learning curve.

I also need to learn how to present the score so that Movement II (this is the section that I have written for this assignment) appears on a completely new page.  I also need to give due consideration to page turns for musicians when it comes to the arrangement score.  I will undertake some specific research for this and record my findings on my log.

I very consciously didn’t go back over the first section that I wrote to incorporate my tutor’s feedback. I really did need to focus solely on this second movement. However, for assignment 5 I will be taking into account all feedback and applying it where I think is appropriate.

Compositional skills:
For the first time, I approached the composing of my score differently and took more time to undertake research prior to writing the music. The first section that I needed to write for assignment 4 – the hookah-smoking caterpillar – initially had me stumped creatively; how could I be inspired to write music that described an insect?

After some head-scratching, it dawned on me that I had a very obvious clue in what the insect was actually doing. Smoking. And smoking a hookah. I had my inspiration right there! This lead me on a quest to research what a hookah was and where it came from (Middle East). From here, I was able to then research Middle Eastern music, the instrumentation and the style of music written (based on modal scales).

This approach really helped me to establish a more authentic feel for the caterpillar section and I did my best to incorporate a very ethnic sound.

I also checked what instruments were available to me on Sibelius that I could write for; the Nay and the Santur were two, and I knew immediately that I would also write for the harp and the strings to try to replicate the eastern sound.

The other sections came to me in a more traditional fashion but were again written very instinctively and with no prior research or listening work. I felt that the Cheshire Cat needed to sound mysterious and sly. The Mad Hatter’s tea party needed to sound quirky and humourous; as such, and in accordance with my composition plan, I wrote a ragtime-inspired section that had a suitably off-beat, slightly syncopated rhythm, and a harmonic structure that was chromatic.

I undertook some research prior to writing the Queen of Hearts, because I wanted not only a strong regal feel but also quite a Gaelic sound, too. Thinking about our own monarch and her love for the Highlands, I felt I wanted to hint at this, hence this section departs from the initial fanfare opening to a more lyrical, open-chord (bagpipe-esque) motif.

All the while, throughout the process of writing this second half, I have been conscious of trying to keep Alice’s theme ‘appearing’, either literally or as an under-pinning accompaniment part to other motifs. This was highlighted by my tutor after submitting my third assignment, and I realised just how important it was to maintain a thread of continuity throughout the piece. As I discovered, though, this was really hard to execute. Getting the balance right between new sections and re-workings of existing themes was very difficult, and I’m still not sure whether I have achieved this yet.

I knew instinctively that for the last section, ‘Return to the Riverbank’, I wanted to recap each main theme from the piece, because I visualised Alice ‘coming to’ on the riverbank and her mind wandering through her adventures as she questioned whether any of it had been real or not.

My third assignment saw me thinking more carefully about potential instrumentation, and I suppose more importantly this time around, I have been more attentive and mindful to being more considered about my composing. At times I have been careful to undertake specific bits of research to give myself a firmer starting point to work from, and I think this shows through in my music.

I see this as quite a development in myself as a composer. Rather than just sitting at the piano and letting an idea ‘come to me’, I have found myself doing more groundwork, doing more research to seek guidance and inspiration. And given that I have aspirations to write professionally for film and TV, I have felt a shift in me creatively over the last 3 months.

I suppose it’s felt more of a ‘prescriptive’ way of working. That’s not to say that some elements of this second movement haven’t just come to me, but most times in the past 3 months, I’ve deliberately started the section away from the piano and looked more thoroughly at what it was I needed to achieve.

At the third assignment, I said that I had started to orchestrate the piece. This didn’t last, sadly. Time was very much against me and once I realised how much composing lay ahead of me because I was effectively playing catch-up, there was no time for orchestration. This will be the work for assignment 5.

Critical Review:
Once again, there has been little time for any work to take place on this review. With only one more assignment left for the composition and my sixth and final assignment available to concentrate on this review, I do need to use the 5th assignment as a head-start; I need to get as close to a first draft of this essay as possible.

As far as the structure is concerned, I have had some early thoughts about it:

1) The first paragraph will discuss what programme music is and put into historical music context the two pieces that I am looking at, i.e. the baroque period of Vivaldi, and the late Classical/early Romantic period of Beethoven.
2) I will then discuss in more depth the history of each piece, where they sat within the composer’s other works, and what were the influences behind them.
3) I will then take each piece in turn, starting with Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ and then Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral Symphony’, and identify what it is about each piece that justifies them being an example of programme music. This is where I will not only need to research what others have said about the works, but also identify key examples of programme music style from each score and cite them within the essay. This will help me conclude whether they are indeed worthy of being classed as an example of programme music.
4) The last section will need to offer a conclusion to the question raised in the title and draw upon the research and analysis undertaken.

Stylistic Awareness:
I have undertaken more research over the course of the last 3 months to assist me with my composing, both to inform me of particular styles but also to broaden my understanding of orchestral scores and sounds. My listening work has a dedicated post on my learning log online (link to this is detailed below).

Assignment 5:
Assignment 5 is essentially the last chance that I have to go through my composition with my tutor prior to assessment. Therefore, I have some serious arranging to get done over the next couple of months. Indeed, for this reason, I want to give myself at least four months to complete this, given that I don’t have a huge amount of experience in arranging. This timeframe works on the basis that I can get 5 minutes of music arranged per month. This will also hopefully give me enough study time to start work in earnest on my critical review, which I must get started with some seriousness now.

Undertaking a degree whilst in full time employment, whilst holding down two jobs and doing various other projects on the go, is no small feat, and I should take more time to congratulate myself on how well I am keeping things together. I can’t deny that I am fearful of the next few months; I have a large amount of dread regarding the arranging of this piece because once I have written something, I find editing and going back over it painstaking; it really challenges my patience. However, I’ve come to realise that if something doesn’t scare you, you shouldn’t be doing it, and this is a journey that as a composer I need to take.

Online blog:
The address for my online studying blog is:








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