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“In Their Shadows” Notation Notes: The Halfway Point

Well, I decided to notate one of the last pieces of music I wrote as a student. It’s the last one I still have a manuscript for that is worth notating, so I figured, why not?

This was in my senior year, after I’d walked away from the music department for unrelated reasons. Our department had only had one composition professor at any given time: the one who was around when I was a freshman left by the end of the year, embroiled in scandal without my ever having suffered through his class, but I did study with the next three composition instructors. It was with my last one—Robert Lemay—that I wrote “In Their Shadows.” It was, to be honest, a bit of a mess, and that was on me, not my patient and thoughtful instructor. 

When I spent an afternoon with Robert a few years ago, he commented about how I had always been creative, but he’d thought I’d  lacked discipline. I can see why he would have perceived it that way, though I think really it’s just that my heart was in other kinds of music, and I’d decided to try write the kind of thing I thought I was “supposed to” compose within the music department. Why and how is a long story, but the short version of the story was that I thought I had to do it, and was long accustomed to staying in situations that were a poor fit (such as a department focused on a type of music I wasn’t into or… well, you do the math), rather than seeking out a situation that might fit better. I had too much discipline to walk away, or, I guess, the wrong kind of discipline to bail even when that department wasn’t a good fit to my goals. (Familiar story.)

Anyway, “In their Shadows” was a triple play on words: 

  1. I was using pairs of instruments, and having them sometimes “shadow” one another—that is, play lines that were very close and sometimes intersected or could be considered a close pseudo-canon. 
  2. Like with the Jungian idea of the Shadow as a psychological archetype one must find peace with instead of forever rejecting and resisting, this piece was about reconciling opposing musical tendencies and forces to achieve a kind of stable unity and wholeness. 
  3. The piece was built around quotations from other musicians whose work I found interesting and compelling… and in whose shadows I felt I was working as a composer. (In my introductory text, I mentioned Charles Ives, Messiaen, John Coltrane, and Igor Stravinsky.)

Unlike some of my pieces, this one actually got performed at a recital! I don’t have a recording right now, but I’m told there is one at my sister’s place. (My mother suddenly gave the tapes I’d left with her—and which I’d assumed had been thrown out—a year or two ago, to everyone’s surprise.) If I ever get a copy of the recording, I’ll consider posting it, just for posterity, but… all told, I’m not utterly crazy about the piece, so I also might not. Even so, I wanted to notate not just as a way of revisiting the work, but also of divesting myself of the old handwritten score. Once I’ve backed up the digital file, I won’t need to hang onto the manuscript paper anymore, though I’ll probably keep scans of the originals someplace. 

I’ve notated the first 17 of 40 pages so far, in about a week of mostly spending an hour or ninety minutes at a time on it—not every day, but most days. 

This was one of my more ambitious works when it comes to orchestration: two flutes (one doubling on piccolo), two clarinets (one doubling on bass clarinet), two horns in F, two percussionists (playing everything from vibraphone, tam-tam, and woodblocks to chimes and a suspended cymbal), a pair of violins, a piano, and a bass guitar. Yes, you read that right, bass guitar. 

So far, I’m not crazy about some parts of it, but there are little flashes where things seem to come together for me, odd little sonorities that catch my attention and feel like things I would have explored more deeply if I’d heard them before the first rehearsal. Yet again, I think I would have done a number of things very differently if I’d been using notation software with even rudimentary playback, but since this is more than anything just a record of a moment in my past, and since I don’t really long to have it performed again, the only things I’m updating are a few notations where I didn’t follow standard conventions. Unlike “Monk Suite,” it would be very hard to output a good audio file from this score, since some sections contain nothing more than some notes and instructions for one or more performer to “freely improvise” (sometimes with some style guidelines or dynamics sketched in). But all in all, the piece was maybe a bit of a blind alley for me. Well, I think so. Maybe the last 23 pages will change my mind about that. 

Once this one’s done, I’ll have notated everything I still have in my possession. I’ve lost the manuscripts for a number of pieces that I thought I’d kept, including many of the ones I have recordings posted for. Ah well, live and learn. I’d swear I had the manuscripts in Bucheon, but they’re gone now. Ah well… I’m not about to try transcribe them now. Well, except maybe that Latin Mass. I thought it was actually pretty good.

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