Assignment 3 – Reflective Commentary

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

Technical Presentation
I had hoped to be able to use the click-track and midi keyboard for inputting my composition into Sibelius for this third assignment but the demands of the project forced me to use my existing approach to manually inserting the notation into the score. This is an on-going skill that I want to grasp going forward.
However, that said, because I wanted to keep an eye on the phrasing of the parts (plus it was easier to read all parts during playback), I used the panorama view during the scoring and arrangement of the final assignment and it was a revelation.

Compositional skills
Part 3 – Adding Strings was by far the most challenging part of this course for me so far. Being a pianist, flautist and singer, string instrumentation was an area of composition I had never attempted to write for and I found it extremely daunting to approach. The guitar exercise took much longer than I wanted, purely because I didn’t feel confident writing for an instrument I didn’t play. With my deadline for assignment getting closer, I pushed myself and I hope that the exercise worked. I spoke to a few guitarists and they all felt it could be played, which was comforting. It was also reassuring to know that I hadn’t pushed them into unrealistic territories.

For all the exercises, I listened and followed various scores, which helped enormously to understand stylistically what types of techniques I should be including. I could also hear the tonal variations and colour changes within each instrument so that I knew what effect I could create by writing them in different pitches and with different performance directions (pizz, arco, divi, etc).

When I studied the string quartets, it dawned on me there seemed to be a ‘stylistic format’ that they all followed; they all had imitation, part-pairing, variations in performance techniques (pizz vs arco), rich thick textures for all parts contrasting with sections for only a couple of instruments which thins out the texture.

I wrote the short score very quickly for the assignment and was inspired by the course notes, visualising in my minds eye a camera swooping across the British landscape. I wanted a first and second theme that could weave it’s way through the parts and when I arranged it for the string orchestra, I initially split the short score out between the parts. I just wanted the notes on the paper. It was after this that I went back and listened in sections (every 4 bars) and worked out firstly the articulation, then the dynamics. I also decided where I actually wanted to remove the double basses or perhaps move the first violins into a high range. These are changes from the original short score that I felt the arrangement needed.

Creativity
Composing original music takes me a matter of minutes usually to secure the main structure, starting initially with harmonic structure and then following with the melody. What I did struggle with this time, though, was getting my head away from a piano piece and hearing it as a guitar, violin or cello piece. All the listening I did, however, was a fantastic help and it tuned me into the instrument in question.

The revised version of this assignment witnessed a couple of changes, which I’m confident has improved the composition in various ways:

1) I delayed the first violin until bar 9 and instead, transferred the line to the 2nd violin and put the accompaniment into the viola and cello. This gave suitable emphasis to the 1st violin’s entry and varied the texture.
2) I checked through the length of the phrases and reduced the opening 8 bar phrases to 2 x 4 bar phrases. Throughout the rest of the score, I made sure that the phrases were reduced to ensure the players were not fatigued.
2) I made sure that each instrument scored was a solo one; there was some question around whether I had originally scored for groups of each instrument.
3) The rhythm of the melody in bars 17-18 was changed to add more variation; the melody was also placed in the 2nd violin, too; again – more contrast created.
4) In bar 17, I moved the off-beat accompaniment to the cello, freeing up the viola for a different, more improved line which contrasts more with the melody line.
5) I revised the notation of the accompanying parts in bars 22 and 23 so that the semi-quavers were written out in full.
6) I removed the viola and cello’s instructions to change from ‘arco’ to ‘pizz’ at bars 24-26 because on reflection, there wasn’t enough time for the player to change technique without compromising the parts.
7) I moved the melody line in bar 24 from the 1st violin to the viola as well as moving it up an octave. Given that the viola has such a different tone to the violin this was a good change; raising it up the octave gave more interest and thus, a good contrast to the overall texture.
8) I added more dynamics and expression throughout, in particular at the start and end of all crescendos/decrescendos.
9) I notated how I wanted the 1st violin should play in bars 9-10 to add clarity.

Stylistic Awareness
Listening, reading, research: 
I have read various articles in books and on the internet to help me with Part 3. These are my references:

Books:
Dvorak, A. (1955). Movement 1: Moderato. In: Bartos, F Serenade for Strings, Op.22. Prague: Unknown. Pgs 1-11.

Haydn, J (1982). String Quartet in D minor, Op.42. New York: Dover Publications. Pgs 1-5.

Jacob, G. (2004). The String Orchestra. In: Unknown Orchestral Technique – A Manual for Students. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pgs 6-18.

Mozart, W A (1882). String Quartet No. 23 in F major. Leipzig: Breitkopf and Hartel. Pgs 2-8.

Sadie, S (1988). Grove Concise Dictionary of Music. London: Macmillan Press. Pg 109.
Unknown.

Taylor, E. (1991). String Instruments. In: Unknown The AB Guide to Music Theory. Amersham: Associated Board. Pgs 198-205.

Tchaikovsky, P. (c1920). Movement 1: Pezzo in forma di Sonatina. In: Unknown Serenade for String Orchestra. Leipzig: Unknown. Pgs 1-19.

Websites:
Gibson, D. (Unknown). Douglas Gibson: Music Blog. Available: http://www.douglasgibson.com/blog/how-to-write-for-guitar/. Last accessed 15/10/2013.

RK Deverich. (2013). Violin Bowing Directions & Special Effects. Available: http://www.violinonline.com/bowingeffects.htm. Last accessed 23/10/2013.

Unknown. (Unknown). A Matter of form. Available: http://www.quartets.de/articles/origins.html. Last accessed 22/10/2013.

Unknown. (Unknown). Composing for a string quartet. Available: http://www.homerecording.com/bbs/general-discussions/singing-vocals/composing-string-quartet. Last accessed 23/10/2013.

Unknown. (Unknown). How to compose music on the guitar. Available: http://www.funmusicco.com/uncategorized/how-to-compose-music-on-the-guitar/. Last accessed 15/10/2013.

Unknown. (Unknown). String Quartet. Available: http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/String_quartet. Last accessed 22/10/2013.

Unknown. (Unknown). Thomas Britton. Available: http://www.en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Britton. Last accessed 30/09/2013.

Unknown. (Unknown). Write for string quartet. Available: http://www.gearslutz.com/board/songwriting/787964-write-string-quartet. Last accessed 23/10/2013

Listening:
Harry Gregson-Williams: ‘Smiling
The first piece I listened to I am going to include as a Youtube clip on my online blog because I discovered it from a TV advert for an Omega watch:

The piece of music is ‘Smiling’ by Harry Gregson-Williams, who trained to be a composer by Hans Zimmer, one of my favourite contemporary composers.  The piece opens with a solo piano.  A solo string note accompanies the beautiful, simple melody line and at 0′ 17, the string note changes to harmonise a little more with the piano.

The strings take over from the piano at 0′ 27.  It is beautiful, pure and we get to hear the four string parts easily, given that the tempo is slow and the lines homophonic.  A long pause held over a suspension in the strings takes us back to the piano part.  It’s a lovely piece, exceptionally beautiful and one that I wanted to make sure I included here.

Hirschfelder’s ‘Elizabeth’ Original Soundtrack: ‘Love Theme
I have enjoyed this soundtrack ever since I saw the film when it came out in 1998.
This piece conveys to me love, unease, unrest, war, and everything in-between.  Forbidden love perhaps. He opens the piece with a high piercing single note from the violins that sustains against a lute or harp.  The string note creates an immediate sense of menace and unease against the otherwise very gentle, almost lullaby feel of the lute/harp.

The motif descends chromatically and sequentially to 0’ 31 when the strings open up to full accompaniment role with long, sustained lines, often peppered with suspensions; it’s a very rich texture.

At 0 ‘ 59 the tension mounts and the strings are playing loudly; their prominence now cannot be mistaken.  They play with the flute, lute and harp in unison.  The strings (2nd violins, violas?) also provide rhythmic support, rocking between minor 3rds.
At 1′ 26 the strings take over the melody line with a crescendo to forte and they are now in control of the piece.  My favourite section of the piece commences around 1′ 53; a very low unison of the strings plays a sequence that moves through a couple of different keys. A military side drum joins in and we now feel as though we’re going into battle; the danger is palpable; your heartbeat falls in time with the drum.

We hear a french horn pierce the texture playing the accented passing notes in the melody line, which emphasises them and adds even more tension. When the atmosphere dramatically changes again at 2’ 28, Hirschfelder drops the dynamics and strips the orchestration back to strings and harp/lute again.

The strings are once again a lot higher and thinner; they sound as though there’s still something to be worried about despite the calm of the harp and lute.  A wonderful piece that I listen to a lot.

Elgar’s ‘Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36’ – ‘Enigma – 9. Nimrod
This also features on the Elizabeth soundtrack, but I have sung this and listened to it for many years and I think it typifies how beautiful and how moving the string section of an orchestra can be. The piece is predominantly strings but brass, bassoon and solo soprano also join the texture to make it one of the most achingly beautiful pieces of music ever written.

It opens with the slow, homophonic string texture with diatonic tonality and simple, clean lines that move steadily through the chord progressions.  Elgar doesn’t do anything complicated with the harmonic progressions, but the string parts move very subtlety and in some parts chromatically between the chords. It’s one of the only pieces I know that sounds like it was written specifically to highlight the beauty of the strings section; it was made for the strings. I’ve heard it sung before – and indeed I’ve sung it too – but it doesn’t come close to this setting.

Elgar’s ‘Introduction & Allegro for Strings’ – Serenade for Strings
The minor tonality makes for a dramatic opening to this piece. The strings play arco and a strong homophonic texture sounds thick and rich.
A solo violin then plays with the other parts joining in polyphonically. Elgar soon changes tonality to a major key and the piece feels more gentle.

Simple melodic motifs move between the parts and we get some dramatic moments with large chords sounding together homophonically to reiterate the opening theme. The solo violin plays more often than not to the mid-range sounding very rich and warm. The solo viola’s tone is also as rich, perhaps slightly warmer. The accompanying strings are reminiscent of bees buzzing with tremolos and multiple strings moving together. The melody line moves around quite a lot and is very sequential and scalic. There is much variation in the rhythm throughout the piece also, from steady to quick scalic runs. A nice piece but it did meander.

Dag Wiren: ‘Serenade for Strings, Op.11′
Movement 2 – Andante expressive
The piece opens with very low pizzicato strings and the double basses provide the rhythmic foundation early on. The feel is subtle and very soft. Things gradually get louder and a legato melody line moves over the top of the cellos by the violins, but being in a low register, it feels ominous.
The rhythm remains steady as the diatonic, chromatic harmony moves along and the texture is homophonic. The harmony does start to move chromatically, though, and this shifts the feel of the piece to a darker more threatening feel.
The harmony then becomes very atonal and the music feels very ill at ease with itself. Lots of diminished chords. Pizzicato basses continue to form the foundation of the piece, which is in ternary form.

It is hard to hear a tonal centre during this piece and I wasn’t sure that I enjoyed this piece like I did the Hirschfelder. The strings during this piece gave a real sense of ominous threat – they’re a very powerful section of the orchestra.

Bartok: ‘String Quarter 1, Sz.40
Movement 1 – Lento
This piece is very atonal, very polyphonic and somewhat disorientating when trying to analyse it. Immediately sad and sorrowful, each instrument joins in, gradually, chromatically, slowly. Lots of contrary motion between these parts which offer occasional moments, fleeting moments of diatonic harmony.
I really disliked this piece. It felt very uncomfortable to my ear and I struggled to engage with it, hence the short analysis.

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