Assignment 5 – Reflective Commentary

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

Technical Presentation
I chose to write for this last assignment an extended piece for dance band, which presented me with another new set of instruments to write for. The immediate technical challenge was the increased number of staves on the screen.  Having initially written the piece in short score for the piano, I pasted this part into the score as a reference but initially found the continual scrolling down to read these staves disorientating.  For the final version, once all the parts had been arranged, I realised that I needed to reduce the 48 pages of music down!  I found the stave size in Layout, which allowed me to double up staves on each page.  Once I had increased the stave spacing, it looked smaller but far easier to read and saved some trees, too.

This also helped me to apply the ‘finishing touches’ to my score; I printed the entire piece off and then worked through where I wanted the phrasing, articulation and dynamics to go.  I was able to get a better overview of the piece this way because it was much longer than anything else I have written before.

I am really pleased with the finished presentation and feel rightfully proud that I have concluded this year’s course writing for this unique group of instruments, something that would have seemed impossible when I enrolled.

Compositional skills
Completing the work for Part 5 – An Exploratory Finale was difficult given that I also had to write the Critical Review for the same deadline, which in itself was a challenge and hard to get going with.  As such, I had to prioritise which project I composed for straight off rather than completing each of them in turn, which would have been my normal journey.  However, I do plan to look at these other projects retrospectively.

I chose the Charleston because I’ve always loved the 1920s, the culture, the Art Deco design and of course, the music.

I wrote the first eight bars at the piano, but then continued it in Sibelius, which I’ve never done before but the length of the piece made it too impractical to hand-write and would have taken too long.

A lot about this piece was already known and I had a really firm basis to start from.  The Charleston has an established 5-chord ragtime progression, which I wrote first.  This helped to establish the character and set the rhythm, which again is well-known and easy to ‘get into’.  The Charleston follows the first bar of a 3 2 clave pattern where the chords are played on every first and 2.5 beat. Once I started arranging it, the melody line then took shape, which I was mindful to move between sections. This in turn helped to change the texture.

Creativity
It didn’t take me long to write this composition and this was in part because it was a known format.  However, this assignment required a considerably longer piece than I’ve written before and it took more work to plan and structure with enough interest and variety.  Initially, I wrote the short score for roughly 2’ 20 but realised it needed to be longer and so had to re-visit the short score and develop it further, which was frustrating and difficult to do retrospectively given that I felt that I had reached the piece’s natural end-point.

This group of instruments was a great challenge to write for and I didn’t feel daunted by it like I did previously with my fourth assignment because I knew the sound of the big band.  I also had more of an instinct as to what effect certain combinations of instruments would create.

I was acutely aware of creating as much contrast as possible, which has been a recurring issue for me when developing my work post-tutor feedback. To this end, I worked on writing a couple of different themes, which I moved between instruments.  I also tried to vary the texture despite wanting the piece to sound predominantly homophonic throughout because following my listening research, none of the pieces had polyphonic lines; if other instruments played during the melody line, they were either as an accompaniment part or as a decorative ‘interjection’.

I opened up the texture between bars 73 – 105 where I wanted the tenor banjo and piano to come through. I did add the trumpets and saxophones occasionally throughout this section, either as a unison melody line or as brief accompaniment.  From bar 89, the texture is really open, and gives a completely different feel, contrasting completely to the full tutti arrangements of the start and finish.

The opening theme sets the scene between bars 1-16 and then reprises at bars 41.  It makes a final appearance to conclude the piece at bar 141.  For contrast, I also wrote it in a minor key at bar 89 before I allowed the music to modulate back to a major tonality at bar 117 with a new theme.

I also varied the instrumentation throughout to ensure there was enough interest and movement within the piece.  A brief overview shows full tutti at the beginning progresses to an alternation between the saxophones and trumpets at bar 15.  I let the saxes take over at bar 26 and strip the trumpets away until 7 bars later when they provide a harmonic, rhythmic support. The piece continues to ebb and flow between these two groups, opening up at bar 73 to allow the rhythm section more space.

Stylistic Awareness
Listening, reading, research: 
I didn’t have as much time to undertake as fully my research for this assignment but have undertaken some reading and listening. These are my references:

Books:
Jacob, G (1982). Orchestral Technique: A Manual for Students. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pgs 62-63.

Kennan F, Grantham D (2002). The Technique of Orchestration. 6th ed. United States: Prentice Hall. Pgs 340-343

Sadie, Stanley (1998). Grove Concise Dictionary of Music. London: Macmillan Press. Pg 146.

Scholes, Percy A (1992). The Oxford Companion to Music. 10th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pg 177.

Websites:
Lambros. (Unknown). The Charleston. Available: http://www.thejazzchameleon.com/lessons/comping/the-charleston/. Last accessed 25/04/2014.

Unknown. (Unknown). Charleston (dance). Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charleston_(dance). Last accessed 27/04/2014.

Unknown. (Unknown). Charleston (song). Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charleston_(song). Last accessed 27/04/2014.

Listening:
Shostakovich: ‘Jazz Suites No.1’ – played by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra
1. Waltz
This opened with piano and banjo as the accompaniment with trumpet playing the melody line.  I recognised the piece as one that I have always enjoyed but never known who had composed it.  The melody line is very scalic and quite decorative.  The clarinet takes over from the trumpet which lightens the texture and creates a humourous, cheeky atmosphere.  A virtuoso violin line takes the melody line which lends a sophisticated moment.  What surprised me was a xylophone coming in lightly in the background; it really changed the texture and I loved it!  I must remember this for future arrangements.

There was a lot of instruments playing at once or alternating, and the tonality changed as much as the instrumentation.  It was a lovely, characterful piece and I enjoyed it.

Shostakovich: ‘Jazz Suites No.1’ – played by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra
2. Polka
This had a trumpet opening with piano and xylophone accompaniment.  Again this tuned percussion instrument is used and I really liked the way that it defined the accompaniment but subtly; it helps to maintain the rhythm whilst echoing the pitch of the piano, so offers the best of both worlds.

We then hear saxophone and trumpet, the latter being muted I believe.  The piano continues to accompany but with the addition of a banjo.  The piece is very comical and has bags of character created with glissandos at the ends of phrases from the saxes and trombone.  A side drum joins in after the first minute which adds more strength to the rhythm and a clarinet and double bass make an appearance, too.  The tune moves around all the instrumentation throughout and the piece, although short at 1’ 36 is really fun and a joy to listen to.

Shostakovich: ‘Jazz Suites No.1’ – played by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra
3. Foxtrot (Blues)
At 4’ 17, this is the longest of the first jazz suite pieces.  It opens with a bold, dramatic, homophonic texture with all instruments playing.  It is rich and powerful.  Initially in a minor key, this foxtrot oozes sultriness with formality.  A side drum beats rigidly throughout every bar to every crotchet, providing the disciplined rhythm.  After 20 seconds, a solo saxophone enters with the melody line, softly accompanied by piano and banjo echoing the side drum crotchet beat with chords.  At 55 seconds in, a cymbal crash heralds a change in texture all at once to loud, strong and powerful again, with full homophonic playing between all the instruments.  A violin takes the melody at 1’ 13 with the piano and banjo continuing their accompaniment.  A big surprise was the appearance of a Hawaiian guitar taking the melody line 16 seconds later. It really did feel like Shostakovich was sending the piece up.

Teddy Wilson: ‘Handful of Keys
This was a very fast-paced piece with a virtuoso piano part that opens the music.  A clarinet and saxophone play together with the opening melody line with a frenetic drum kit accompanying.  With plenty of cymbal crashes and the occasional xylophone part, this piece is completely ‘full on’.  It doesn’t sit still for one moment.  It optimises the jazz era; lively, loud, brash and fun.  I enjoyed it immensely but admit to feeling quite exhausted upon listening to it.

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