I’ve been plugging away for the last couple of weeks at the “Prelude” movement of Glass House Concerto. It’s coming together nicely: in a block form typical of some of my recent works. The hardest part has perhaps been coming up with enough for soloist Matthew Coley to do. Still, the somewhat spare, reflective nature of the solo material is apropos, since I really want the listener to catch only sonic “glimpses” of the timbres that will be used throughout the work. A small stone xylophone gesture begins the movement, while glass gongs, temple blocks and wood blocks dominate most of the movement. With the exception of the stone instrument, the solo battery in this movement is unpitched. Behind that, brass and woodwinds present alternating pastoral and forceful ostinato-based/canonic gestures. In a process somewhat similar to Postcards from Laramie, I composed a majority of the ensemble material first, then went back and layered on dollops of solo cadenzas and ostinati here and there. Matthew has been good enough to send along video of himself playing several of the instruments I’m using, so I’m getting a much clearer picture of what they both sound like and look like when played. The glass gongs, for example, are much larger and spaced farther apart than I’d imagined, so getting around on them in a virtuosic way in not just a matter of coordination, but also one of downright athleticism!
I’ve also been looking a lot at techniques employed in some of the standard repertoire for wind band (and some orchestral rep, too!). How does one achieve the “Gillingham sound?” What about the “Copland sound?” The “Holsinger sound?” These are hard questions to answer, and often times they’re not simply ones of doubling or register. One of the things that intrigues me about each of these composers is that their ideas of color, instrumentation, texture and so on are tied inextricably to the nature of their raw musical gestures. In other words, it’s difficult to create a Copland-esque ensemble texture without Copland-esque harmony, melody and rhythm. In terms of Glass House Concerto, orchestration will need to be about lightness of touch, transparency (for both conceptual and practical reasons), judicious doubling, and staying out of the soloist’s “bandwidth” of register, something made especially difficult by the fact that the solo instrumentation is, for the most part, non-traditional and non-standardized.
After working at the piano for a couple of weeks, I felt a strong need to see the whole thing, finished or not, laid out in full score. Being a pencil and paper kind of guy, I’ve spent the last couple of days writing out 15 pages or so of full score, leaving plenty of room to layer on more solo material if it’s needed. This time-consuming, laborious process has several different goals: it allows me to become even more intimately familiar with the implications of my scoring decisions (especially in terms of doubling), it provides one more pass over the piece to make minor revisions, and it allows me to lay the whole passage out in front of me and conduct my way through it. Thus I am able to give myself a kinetic, physical understanding of the work, and I’m able to see quite easily how material is passed from one combination of instruments to another.
It’s also occurred to me as I’ve been writing out page after page of score that my interest in the “craft” of composition probably runs in my blood. Men on both sides of my family have always been handy: one grandfather was a master bricklayer, while another was about as avid a hobbyist as they come, dabbling in everything from woodworking to beautifully wrought custom fishing rods. Women in my family have always been involved in knitting, crocheting, needlework , sewing, and so on. When I stand up from my desk covered the detritus of a day’s erasings, sharpenings and writing, I am reminded of sawdust, soil, or the red hot metal shavings that used to burn through my father’s work shirts as they flew off the lathe he operated as a machinist. The more I work on projects like Glass House Concerto, the more idea of craft I mention so frequently takes on multiple meanings and comes more clearly into focus.