2010 November at John Mackey's Blog



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  • November 14, 2010

    Grade 3 = difficult

    I’m chugging away on a new piece — a piece for young bands (like, middle school band).  In “the biz” (I’ve always wanted to use the wonderfully-pretentious term “the biz”), this level of music is called a “Grade 3.”  There are either five or six grade levels — depending on whom you ask — that indicate level of difficulty.  A Grade 1 piece would be for players who can play a Bb (I don’t mean they can play in Bb, I mean they can play a Bb); a Grade 6 would be something like “Turbine.”  (After hearing Steve Bryant’s new “Concerto for Wind Ensemble” — perhaps the most difficult work I’ve ever heard for winds — I think somebody is going to have to allow a new Grade 7 ranking.)

    I tried writing a Grade 3 piece about a year ago, and I failed miserably.  I put it in an awful key (A minor), and even though it was all in 4/4, there was so much dissonance that I think it was pretty much impossible to ever get a middle school band to play the thing in tune.  (I don’t know for sure; I’ve never actually heard a recording of the piece, and I probably never will, as I won’t be releasing the piece.)  The whole thing ended up sounding like a dirge — and writing it was a real slog, so it’s not surprising that the end result ended up as such a downer.

    Well, I’m at it again.  The new piece (like most of my music) comes from an idea of AEJ’s.  She thought it would be an exciting revelation for a percussionist when they first realize that they aren’t limited to playing snare drum and bass drum and cymbals.  At some point, they’ll actually be expected to find non-traditional instruments, too.  Why not write a piece for young players that’s designed to introduce percussionists to that reality?  A piece with lots of “found” percussion.

    Initially, I was going to be specific about what I wanted the players to find, but a few weeks ago, I read about an old piece by Magnus Lindberg.  Lindberg, in his orchestra piece, “Kraft,” describes sounds that the percussionists must produce, but doesn’t tell the players exactly how to make those sounds.  The players are directed to find materials (often at a junk yard), and every performance of the piece will sound a little different because the instruments will be different.

    I’m going to go kind of midway on that.  I’m going to describe what kinds of sounds I want (“a metallic ‘clang,’ with quick decay”), but I’ll also give a specific example of an “instrument” that might produce the sound I’m after (“such as a brake drum with a heavy piece of metal on top”).  Hopefully the players will be creative enough to try to find alternatives, but if creativity isn’t their thing, they can use my example.

    The result, so far, sounds like a simpler version of “Asphalt Cocktail” (perhaps a “Virgin Cocktail?”), but as performed in a machine shop.  It’s HVAC duct parts, pans, a box cheese grater (or a guiro, if you must), and steel rails and pipes, all with power chords on top.  It can be played by anywhere from 8-12 percussionists.

    The biggest challenge in writing music for young bands is writing music that easy, but it doesn’t sound simplistic or dorky.  It still needs to sound like I wrote it, but it needs to sound like the piece just happened to be technically easy — as if it happened by accident.   (“Oops!  I accidentally wrote an easy piece!  How did that happen?”)  I think it’s turning out pretty well this time around, but we’ll see how difficult the piece turns out once it’s done.  So far, it’s all in 4/4, just about entirely diatonic in G Minor (looks like Bb major!), and with nothing faster than an 8th-note.

    On Facebook this morning, I mentioned the difficulty associated with writing “easy” music.  (It’s appropriate that I’m discussing the process on Facebook, since I funded this entire commission via a consortium organized through a Facebook post.)  In response to my post, fellow-composer Bruce Richardson wrote the following response:

    Easy music is a trap, because it’s the hardest to play. There isn’t really even any such thing as easy music. That’s why most times a decent high school band will sound semi-good playing upper grade literature, and will utterly fold on something like Elsa’s Procession.

    Basic craft aside, getting one’s voice on paper requires a suspension of consideration for the player. The player must also suspend a certain amount of consideration for the score, because a true player expresses only himself, through the vehicle of a piece.

    When you’re dealing with people who write well, and play well, this synergy results in the uplifting of both player and composer. The composer hears his idea taking birth, that is, developing a life of its own he could not have conceived. The player is programmed at a basic level by the composition, but then enters the realm of performance and risk, and makes split second decisions along the way that result in performances we call “inspired,” that is, transcending what anyone, including the player, could have intended.

    So, when you’re applying an artificial construct (in this case, music education) to that composer/player agreement, it changes everything. That’s where things get trite, because it makes the composer’s job different. Do you write a pure piece that might be hard, and pixelate it in a manner of speaking? Certainly that’s how orchestral reductions are handled at times, and it works to a degree.

    I would speculate that perhaps the most useful Grade 3 pieces would be written in such a way that they “hook” the technical and emotional ability of the player of that age, so that with the tools he has, he can perform the music the same way a professional does…by taking his current toolset, and plunging into the act of musicmaking.

    That’s why I’m always a little sad to hear some superhuman middle school band playing the Persichetti symphony, or Lincolnshire Posy. To borrow a phrase, it doesn’t smell like teen spirit.

    So, there’s the challenge: taking the “current toolset” a young player possesses, and giving them material that allows the player to make actual music.  Jeez, good luck.  I don’t know if I’ll reach that lofty goal, but whatever happens, we’ll know around December 1.  That’s my deadline.

    Staying on deadline will be tough.  We discovered “Dexter” about a week ago, and have already watched two full seasons.  Season 3 comes via Netflix tomorrow.  I’d better get back to writing before the mail comes…


    November 9, 2010

    Harvest – studio recording coming Friday

    Wow, I have not been a good blogger at all.  We’ve been renovating both bathrooms here at the house for the past five weeks, and that’s been all-consuming.  (Pictures soon, of course.)  Things are returning to normal now — the renovations were completed yesterday — and I have a lot of blogging to catch up on (plus, a new Grade 3 piece to write).  Briefly, though, I wanted to announce that I’m finally posting the studio recording of “Harvest: Concerto for Trombone” this Friday, November 12, at 12:00 EST.  The recording — with New York Philharmonic Principal Trombonist Joseph Alessi, soloing with the West Point Band, conducted by Timothy Holtan — is, well, insanely fantastic.

    You’ll see.

    Check this page on Friday at noon.