I come bearing great tales of my travels in the last six months! Well, actually... I haven't really traveled anywhere, but I did get a whole lot of writing done! Oh, hey, let's talk about that!
So first of all, the first movement of Bedtime Stories is D–O–N–E, done! A fancy-schmancy perusal score is up for all of you to... well... peruse. I won't sugar coat it—the piece is insane. Very, very hard, especially for the vocalist. The piece isn't completely atonal.... I mean there are tonal sections, and the whole thing ends with a very clear cadence in G, but octatonic and chromatic scales abound, not to mention a ton of arpeggiated augmented chords and four-against-three patterns (or three-beat superquadruplets, as Dr. John W. White would say).
Now, I'm not the kind of guy who's gonna write something incredibly hard for the sake of it being hard. There are a few reasons I decided to write the piece this way. But before I tell you about those, here's a reason why it makes no sense to write the piece this way—and to all you budding composers out there (or anyone writing for voices for the first time), take this as a rule of thumb. Heck, let's even give it a fancy-sounding name. How about The Fundamental Theorem of Vocalists? That sounds pretty math-y (or maths-y, for all the British folk out there). Anyway, the Fundamental Theorem of Vocalists states:
The amount of expression a vocalist gives to the text is inversely proportional to the difficulty of the music being sung.
- For most pieces that include text, the text is the most important aspect of the music, and if you cannot communicate the text, then what's this all been about!?
- Vocalists stereotypically have poor aural skills.
A third reason, however, deals with point number two in our short, clear, and attractive list above.
Now, it's true—everything is generally harder on the voice. On a clarinet or piano you can just press a button, and the right note comes out. Unless you have perfect pitch or extremely good relative pitch, you're generally not going to be able to grab notes out of thin air. But that's not what I have a problem with.
What I have a problem with is this: vocal performance majors go through a series of ear-training courses that teach them how to read music from the simplest notes and rhythms to the most complex Viennese trichords and metric modulations. Then, as is wont to occur, when they finish the courses, they slowly begin to lose their skills. For most people, they keep their skills somewhat fresh by performing literature that uses those skills. Maybe you're playing a some Bartok that gets a little crazy, or maybe some Boulez in chamber orchestra, or a Berio sequenza, or a Lutosławski orchestra piece. But for vocalists—and once again, this is just a generalization—they tend to stick to music that does not use the hard skills, and so the skills whither and die.
To be fair, it's not to say that vocalists don't perform hard music. The music many of my advanced peers tend to perform is difficult in other ways, especially when it comes to solo literature. No one can deny: Puccini. Is. Hard. Still, anyone who has passed third semester ear-training should be able to audate all of the rhythms and pitches of a Puccini aria. That doesn't mean it needs to sound good or that it's performable, by any means. But they should at least be able to read it. Still, I find that most of the collegiate singers I talk to tend not to perform music that helps cultivate their more advanced aural skills, the skills they learned way back in Sight-Singing IV. Moreover, many of America's choral ensembles tend to stick to music that's more... what's the word... accessible?
As a chorister, it's disappointing at the beginning of the year when I open up our new octavos (octavi?) and in almost all of them I see straight quarter notes the whole way through. Maybe an eighth note here or there just to spice things up, but generally no intra-beat syncopation. Diatonic the whole way through, modulates once, once and then back, or not at all. To be clear, I'm not condemning this kind of music. I've written this kind of music. Just look at Heart-Fire, or Lullaby of the Iroquois, or Cantata Solaris (heck, the almost the whole bass part is one note!). This kind of music can be very beautiful, and can be very meditative, and easy to listen to, and—once again—they can be challenging in other ways. But if every song on the program is like this, then as a director, you're blatantly neglecting a certain skill set. And if you're teaching the syncopated stuff by traditional count-singing, or worse, by rote--
Ahh... anyway... what ends up happening is that directors choose easy music, so singers sing easy music, so they don't continue to cultivate their advanced aural skills, so those skills go away, so they can only sing easy music, so composers write easy music because it will get performed more, so directors choose easy music, etc., etc. It's a vicious cycle, that ends up leaving a gap in the literature of contemporary choral music.
It was in the spirit of filling this gap in the literature—a gap that is starting to be filled by some wonderful composers such as Judd Greenstein and Abbie Betinis, who I've mentioned before, and who proved to me, that music can be original, challenging, and accessible—that I began to write vocal works that would help singers cultivate these skills that they might not be getting elsewhere. That idea helped inspire works of mine like Songs of the Madman, and Bedtime Stories.
Which brings us back to the story of Jim, who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a lion. The third reason why it's a pretty tough piece is because it's meant to help cultivate those really tough aural skills, so that stereotype of surrounding vocalists can hopefully get just a little bit weaker.
Phew. That was some heavy stuff. Anyway, what else was I gonna talk about...? Oh right! So there's this woodwind quintet. After finishing Jim, I took a break from writing the other movements of Bedtime Stories, and decided to write a woodwind quintet. The piece is called Experiments in Lucid Dreaming, and it's about ten minutes in length and four movements long, though it might end up being a bit longer if I decide to redo some stuff in the third movement. Which I probably will.
You can read all about each movement on the piece's page, and once I'm really satisfied with the third movement I'll get a perusal score up there. I'll also probly do a blog post about the piece in the future—this one's getting a bit lengthy.
Things to look for coming up, I'll be writing a set of holiday carols with my buddy Adriel Miles. Our plan is to do fifty each for a total of one-hundred. There is no deadline for this, so don't hold your breath. Members of the Distractfold Ensemble will be coming to Ithaca to do some readings in April, so there might be a piece for string trio and some sort of clarinet in the near future. I'm also working on a piece for clarinet and piano following the Fingertänze genre that Adriel has been pioneering. This'll probably be the next piece you see from me. I've also been craving writing for chamber orchestra, so that might happen. And I haven't given up on that opera idea, either. In fact, I'm found some Alan Watts lectures that I'd love to get permission to sample for it. Also Sara's piece. Which I promise I'm working on. We also might get a recording of Jim from Bedtime Stories soon.
All in all, lots of exciting things on the horizon! Looking forward to sharing them all with you!