Musical Multi-Tasking

Has it really been almost two weeks since my last post? (It sure seems that way.) I have been busy working on several pieces both old and new, and on top of that my lovely fiancée came to visit last week which added even more to the pile of distractions keeping me from my blogging duties.

But I am certain that you, dear reader, are more interested in learning about what I have been working on than how much coffee me and my fiancée drank while she was here or what movies we watched. (However, I am almost as certain that you wouldn’t object too loudly to the odd dog photo. Prove me wrong.)

I am making great progress on Den stora gåtan (“The Great Enigma”), my suite for voice and accordion based on a selection of Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer’s haikus from the poetry collection of the same name. Two weeks ago, I workshopped much of the first movement with Jerry, the accordionist to whom I am writing the piece. We discussed matters like how to notate certain passages, special playing techniques and registration. Similar to a pipe organ, you can alter the sound of an accordion with different registrations. While it is not possible to dramatically change the sound in the same way as on an organ, it is still a valuable resource for a performer and for a composer.

Bb. 85–87 from “Den stora gåtan” for voice and accordion.

Regard, for instance, a passage like the one above. (Both hands are written in bass clef.) An earlier version was written slightly differently – the same notes, but divided differently between the two octaves – whereas this notation relates specifically to one of the registrations on Jerry’s instrument. He gave me a couple of suggestions that we tried out and ultimately settled on this version. (I have not added the symbol for the registration yet.)

I really enjoy working on music in this way, trying it out with musicians to see what works and what doesn’t, or what works but not in the way I had imagined. Later this week I will meet Jerry for another round of workshopping, this time working on the second movement, as the first is all done!

Also, I have come a fair way along with a new art song for voice and piano, a companion piece to Trädet och skyn (“The Tree and the Sky”), my first ever musical setting of Tranströmer’s lyrics. Both songs will be performed on August 3rd in the beautiful Gustav Adolf’s Church in Sundsvall alongside my Sonata for bassoon and piano; the new art song, the title of which I will not reveal just yet, will get its premiere performance there.

The poem I selected for this new art song I am working on was published in the same collection as “The Tree and the Sky”. While I don’t know if Tomas intended them to, I feel like these two in particular share a sort of imagery, and that each broadens the meaning of the other when coupled like this. I mean, I assume Tomas chose very deliberately which poems to include in each collection, but singling these two particular poems out made them even more striking to me.

Knowing from the start that the new song is connected to the older one, I want to include suitable musical references to the older song in the new one. However, I want to be very careful not to overload the new song with quotes and references to the point where it sounds almost like a mere retread. Ideally, the new song will work just as well as on its own as paired up with the older one.

Whole-tone idea
Modal idea

Compare these two melodic ideas. The whole-tone idea is one of the main motifs from Trädet och skyn, while the modal idea comes from the art song I am working on right now. At first glance they might seem entirely unrelated to each other. Like a parent and a child, however, while certainly not the same they do share some underlying characteristics. There is a steady downwards motion in both ideas and both move in a sort of zig-zag pattern up and down.

Neither song is based entirely on just these two ideas, of course. I employ tone painting rather liberally in both so the two motifs presented here would lose their intended meaning if I just pasted them all over the music. That is in fact one very clear difference between programmatic music and absolute music: In the former, musical ideas have extramusical meaning so you have to think carefully about how you structure the music. Conversely, in the latter, getting the most use out of a small number of ideas through variation and manipulation is key.

In fact, the piece I am writing for saxophone quartet is a great example of absolute music. It is based primarily on a small number of ideas that appear and reappear in different guises throughout. Next week, I will share details on how that piece is coming along as well as the reworking of my Christmas oratorio. Maybe I will have something else exciting to share as well. Keep your fingers crossed and, as they say, watch this space.