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Writing Songs

By | Vocal Music | No Comments

I’m rare among composers in that my instrument is voice. Historically many composers have been pianists but I can barely play—but I actually studied Voice Performance at the University of Toronto and am a half-decent singer. (Samuel Barber is the only other singer-composer of note that I’m really aware of.)

When I was young, I told myself that I would be like Chopin, and focus on composing exclusively for the instrument I knew best (for him:the piano, for me: vocal music). I imagined becoming the world’s best vocal music composer just as a result of my focus and specificity.

In reality I’ve ended up writing for all kinds of instruments and ensembles. I love writing for orchestra, and I’m still working through writing sonatas for all solo orchestra instruments.

But there is still a soft spot in my heart for solo vocal music, and more recently I’ve put my attention and my hand to writing in one form I was always drawn to as a performer: the song cycle.

A “song cycle” is just a collection of songs that are designed to be performed together as a group, unified by some kind of theme. Famous song cycles include Dichterliebe by Robert Schumann, and Die schöne Müllerin by Franz Schubert.

When I returned in earnest to writing music again after a hiatus, one of the first things I wrote that I was really proud of was a song cycle – my Bleach Cycle, written for my friend Glynis. Inspired by that accomplishment, I’ve been writing cycles for other singer friends.

This eventually led to writing a “big deal piece” – Lavender Fields, a song cycle for which I also wrote the words, related to my experiences living with cancer. But that subject needs its own article.

Here are the song cycles I’ve finished so far:

The Singing Will Never be Done – Song Cycle

April 15, 2019

Baby Boy – Song Cycle

March 25, 2019

Gieb mir die Hand – Song Cycle

December 17, 2018

Songs of Absence – Song Cycle

November 11, 2018

Sheet Music – Song Cycle

October 23, 2018

Lavender Fields – Song Cycle

October 11, 2018

Sins of the Father – Song Cycle

August 14, 2018

The Reason Is Love (Four Duets)

December 7, 2017

The Bleach Cycle – Voice & Piano

July 14, 2017

Orchestral Suite #2 – Mythical Beasts

By | Children's Music, Concert Music | No Comments

Since I had optimistically titled my first orchestral suite “Orchestral Suite #1”, I felt I had a certain obligation to follow up with an “Orchestral Suite #2”. Plus the writing experience was so enjoyable that I wanted to try my hand at it again.

For this next suite, I decided to take inspiration from various mythical, magical creatures. I sought advice from my son and together we compiled a list of interesting creatures about which I will be writing movements. These beasts include the Phoenix, the Hydra, the Griffin, the Banshee, and the Sirens, among others.

It’s a mythical twist on Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, and like Saint-Saens, I am also writing my suite to appeal to children. This is in line of my long interest in writing music for and by children.

I love the Orchestral Suite format. It allows me to practice writing lots of good short melodies (and melody is something that is a constant obsession of mine, in direct opposition to most classical new music which vehemently eschews melody).

It also allows me to experiment with various orchestral colours, trying them on briefly, like a fashion show. And I find that part really fun.

Here are the movements of my Orchestral Suite #2 that I’ve written so far:

Centaur (from Orchestral Suite #2 – Mythical Beasts)

September 23, 2017

Pixies (from Orchestral Suite #2 – Mythical Beasts)

September 23, 2017

Sonatas

By | Concert Music | No Comments

Recently I’ve tried my hand at writing sonatas: multi-movement works for solo instrument with piano.

It’s a bit intimidating to write sonatas, since they are very “Serious Music” – basically the solo instrumental equivalent of a symphony. Still, I’m determined not to get too hoity-toity. As with everything I write, I want the music in my sonatas to be beautiful, and enjoyable to listen to, and a pleasure to perform. I am constantly reminding myself to write like Handel, who was able to write beautiful, serious music, without letting it get stuffy or academic or esoteric.

I’ve approached a few Niagara-area musicians and asked them if I could write them a sonata. My most enthusiastic response so far has been from Gordon Cleland, principal cellist for the Niagara Symphony Orchestra, who responded very positively and has since programmed my Cello Sonata #1 in a recital in October. He’ll play it along with a Bach and a Beethoven sonata (it’s a little terrifying to have my work programmed with Bach and Beethoven!!) so I’m obviously very excited about hearing a musician of his caliber performing my work.

Here are the sonatas that I have written so far:

Dandelions: Chamber Opera

By | Concert Music, Vocal Music | No Comments

More vocal music!

I wrote a short (20 minute) chamber opera based on a short story by the American turn-of-the-century writer O. Henry (you know, the guy who wrote the Christmas story about the husband who sells his watch to buy combs and the wife who sells her hair to buy a watch chain).

It was a great experience making a foray into writing opera music. I guess it counts as my second opera effort if you include the opera for children that I wrote while I was an undergrad (‘Hans in Luck’).

I decided to have real musicians record a scene, just to have a better preview than my usual computer-generated fare, so I found a soprano, a tenor, and a pianist on Fiverr (Caroline Joy, Jonathan Matthews, and Jongsun Lee). All three of them were remarkably professional and a real pleasure to work with! It was really interesting having them each record their parts separately.

I submitted my opera to a Chamber Opera Company in Hartford, Connecticut (Hartfort Opera Theater) who have an annual contest for new chamber operas. We’ll see what happens!

In the mean time, here is the scene I had recorded.

Just So Stories

By | Children's Music, Vocal Music | No Comments

I started setting a few of Rudyard Kipling’s classic Just So Stories a long time ago – probably some time in 1998 – and completed a piano & voice version of ‘How the Whale Got His Throat’ around that time. This was before I had kids.

Now that my own kids are really to old for the Just So Stores (I know, I have impeccable timing), I’ve finally returned to the work. I orchestrated ‘The Whale’ in 2015, and picked up where I left off on the other stores (‘The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo’ and ‘How the Camel Got His Hump’). As of the writing of this article, I just finished ‘Kangaroo’, and I anticipate ‘Camel’ will not be far behind.

My goal was to be as loyal as possible to the Kipling text (I only made very minor tweaks). I set the pieces for Baritone and Orchestra, and envision a few of them being performed together for an Orchestra’s Family Concert Series, with the singer/narrator also using simple giant props/puppets.

This idea and these tunes have been knocking around in my head for almost 20 years. I hope one day they will be performed by live musicians in front of real children (instead of my own kids being forced to hear the preview files over and over again!!)

How the Camel got his Hump – Just So Stories

March 24, 2017

The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo – Just So Stories

March 9, 2017

How the Whale got His Throat – Just So Stories

January 7, 2017

Orchestration

By | Random Thoughts | No Comments

I get an indescribable simple joy from solving compositional problems. My family think I’m crazy when I play one of my pieces (or a section of a piece) over and over again, but for me there’s a wonderful pleasure in basking in the glow of a musical phrase or chord progression that elegantly gets the piece where I wanted it to go, especially if it contains something a bit surprising or different.

When I orchestrate other composers’ music, I have found this kind of satisfaction is especially high. When starting with a piano piece that I want to expand to the full orchestra, I face all kinds of problems and questions that I have to solve. Which instrument plays what line? What if the melody won’t fit elegantly in any instrument’s range? How can I replicate the unique percussive qualities of the piano? What do I do with rolled chords? PLUS you want to solve all of these problems in a beautiful way!

Here are my recent orchestration projects, where I took another composer’s piano music and set it for orchestra. In each case, I have also posted the original piano score so you can compare what I started with.

Spectres by Jason Yu – Orchestration

February 14, 2018

Suite by Emiliano Manna – Orchestration

February 25, 2017

Suite by R. Lezrich – Orchestration

January 19, 2017

Vespers

By | Concert Music | No Comments

I’m working on a new large multi-movement choral work loosely using the Vespers framework. I initially envisioned the work as a companion piece to Fauré’s Requiem, which has a running time of 20 minutes, or so (so it is paired with other works when it is performed to make a full concert length).

Musical ‘Vespers’, like those by Monteverdi, Mozart, and Vivaldi, usually are made up of the psalms and hymns in the Vespers liturgy (a church service that takes place at sunset), and, like the Mass or the Reqiuem, would be entirely in Latin. Those songs traditionally include the Magnificat, Mary’s annunciation song.

My ‘Vespers’ will be a mix of sacred and secular. While it will include some bits of the traditional Latin psalms and hymns (including the Magnificat), it will also include songs in English, centered around the theme of night—some of the emotions and thoughts that nighttime can bring. I want to write a piece that is beautiful to listen to, like Fauré’s Requiem.

I am referencing or reworking other great classical works into many of the pieces. For instance, in one of the more direct references, I’ve done a reworking of Purcell’s ‘An Evening Hymn’ for choir and bassoon obbligato. Other references are more obscured—in the background at one point I quote Dvořák’s famous aria ‘Hymn to the Moon’ in the piece about loving the moon (‘Selenophilia’).

In traditional Vespers, each hymn or psalm ends with the Gloria Patri (‘Glory be to the Father, and to the Son…’), so I am using variations on the same thematic material for each Gloria Patri. I am also going to write a full-length Gloria Patri where I fully explore that thematic material, maybe as the last time the Gloria Patri is sung, like a final reveal of where all the other Gloria Patri musical material came from.

As I finish pieces I will post them on my portfolio – although I will probably keep tweaking them. These are the ones I have so far:

I love the night (from Vespers)

February 7, 2017

Deus in adiutorium (from Vespers)

January 27, 2017

Sanctus (from Vespers)

January 24, 2017

Nyctohylophilia (from Vespers)

January 23, 2017

Selenophilia (from Vespers)

January 22, 2017

Evening Hymn (from Vespers)

January 20, 2017

Speed Composing for Orchestra

By | Concert Music, Random Thoughts | No Comments

So I had this great idea that started as a dream.

What if, at the start of a concert, a composer were to get up in front of the crowd and take suggestions: a time signature; a tempo marking; a minor or major key; some featured instruments; maybe even a scene or situation to describe. Then the concert would begin with whatever works were programmed. Intermission. Second half. Then, finally at the very end, the composer bounds up to the stage with newly printed score and parts: a brand new piece has been written specifically for the audience while they have been enjoying the concert.

The orchestra premieres the piece by sight-reading the music, maybe playing it through a second time (if they feel so inclined).

Of course, I immediately wondered if I could actually pull it off. Could I write an orchestral piece in 2 hours? I gave it a try the next day.

The first piece I speed-composed didn’t make it to completion. Two hours go by awfully fast.

But I wrote six more pieces in the next six days, and each of those was pretty okay, I think. Here are the best ones out of the pieces I’ve speed-composed so far:

Horn Trio

November 26, 2017

Aground – Orchestra

January 8, 2017

Two Birds – Orchestra

December 23, 2016

Rain on the Promenade – Orchestra

December 22, 2016

His Final Dogfight – Orchestra

December 21, 2016

Hiking to the Top – Orchestra

December 20, 2016

…but I cannot feel love — a Robot’s lament – Orchestra

December 19, 2016

Now the wish is one day to do it in real life, with a real orchestra!