In Their Shadows: Finished (Except…)

This is a follow-up on a music notation project I’ve mentioned recently. (I’ve been inputting the scores for pieces I still have handwritten manuscripts for. Some are lost, so this is the last one I have on hand.)

So, I finished inputting In Their Shadows into Musescore. It wasn’t that tough: 20 minutes here, thirty minutes there, and before I knew it I was done. It’s a 42-page score. If you want a look at it, feel free. Click the link below to access the PDF:

I have seriously mixed feelings about it, which is one reason I’m not sharing an MP3 of the piece. I can see clearly what I was trying to do in parts of it: not just grappling with the anxiety of influence, as Harold Bloom called it, but also with the difficulty of writing for instruments I didn’t play, in an idiom I didn’t have a natural feel for. Besides, I don’t think the built-in soundfonts in Musescore are doing the piece any favors. 

The most interesting part is how I was playing with “shadow” lines of music here. There are bits where pairs or trios are playing lines together, slightly out of time and slightly out of tune, as if there’s an image and a fuzzy reflection of it juxtaposed against each other. Of these, I think the most successful is the trio of glockenspeil, vibraphone, and piano: there are moments where I it feels like the musical equivalent of seeing objects beneath the surface of water disturbed by ripples, and it’s a cool effect. There are also, however, some longer bits where quarter tones are juxtaposed in ways that probably just make it sound like someone is out of tune, and a lot of portamento glissandi that I’m not sure add much to the piece. (A few of them are great, but some of them just make things sound a bit muddled.)

Still, I can’t help but think back to what one of my classmates at a writing workshop once said: he felt a little bit like a lot of the students had been trying to show what awesome writers they were to their peers, instead of taking risks and writing things they were not comfortable with yet or maybe even ready for. Those risks, of course, are exactly the kind you need to take in order to learn and expand and improve. While I think this piece wasn’t a musical success, I think I learned a lot from writing it. My notation alone is a lot tighter here than in previous scores, and that was something I took from my lessons with composer Robert Lemay: notation needs to be clear, idiomatic, and explicit. 

Is it a piece I expect to ever see performed again? Absolutely not: at best, I’ll try put together a recording sometime after I upgrade my Mac, when I will be able to run Spitfire Audio’s BBC Orchestra samples from Musescore. (That isn’t a small job, though: there are some extended techniques and some improvisatory passages I’d need to re-record, or possibly to just notate in an alternate score, in order to emulate the improvised bits in some parts.) That’s not a really high priority for me, though. 

One other thing I noticed is that I was a big fan of kaleidoscopic walls of sound, especially using woodwinds for this effect. (Brass, for me, was for solid walls; woodwinds, for swirling and prismatic ones.) I had a huge interest in jamming together polyrhythms so thickly that they just bled into one another, something I doubtless picked up listening to a lot of Steve Reich’s “phase” works. This is one of those things that sounds cool in theory, but which needs to be done exactly right in order to be compelling in practice. I didn’t get there with this piece… though with notation playback, who knows, maybe I could have? 

Having reached the end of notation for this project, I’m going to set it aside until there’s resources and time to make a recording, and take up a new and very different musical project. The nature of that project isn’t set yet—I’m still trying to decide between two options—but I’ll let slip some more details once I’ve got a better idea what I’ll be doing. 

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