The Sounds You Grow Up With

As I mentioned recently, I’ve been sick with the flu lately. I was lucky to get a rapid-acting treatment (though I had to pay extra for it!) in the form of a medication administered intravenously, but it’s still been necessary to rest, and I’ve been isolating from the rest of my family as we’re trying to avoid anyone else catching it from me. I’ve been too muddled-brained to do much writing, but I have gotten some reading done, and also started studying some music theory again. (Randy Felts’ Reharmonization Techniques, specifically. Like all music theory books, I find I need to go one chapter at a time, slowly, because sometimes it takes a while for the ideas to really get absorbed… for me, anyway.) 

However, mostly, I’ve spent time working on music. Since I got sick, I’ve:

  • written the last movement of that string quartet I was working on. 
  • written a new (short) piece for orchestra. 
  • done an extended mix of a song I put together back in August/September.  

With productivity like that, maybe I should get sick more often? (Er, no thanks.) Some of that productivity has to do with the kind of music I have been writing. While the first movement was clearly minimalist—though inspired more by kalimba music I’ve heard than by any western minimalist composer—the middle two movements of the string quartet were all a lot harder to write in some ways, because I was doing linear writing—things were unspooling from a starting point, with melody and harmony going off in unexpected directions and with me trying to avoid too much repetition… or to make repetitions sound unrepetitive. (To some degree, the forms of jazz songs and popular music have embedded themselves too deeply in my brain for me to every totally abandon a formal loop structure for very long, I guess, but I come pretty close in parts of this.)

The final movement of that string quartet, though, is unabashedly minimalist, to the point where it doesn’t surprise me when people don’t know what to say about it. (If you want to “get it,” let go of your ideas of what music should sound like and listen for cool sound-patterns that emerge out of the musical collage.) 

The orchestra piece is also repetitive in song-structure kind of way, though it’s more along the lines of a TV-soundtrack type piece than a minimalist vibe. (One friend compared it to Star Trek music, I think maybe because of the string harmonics I used, as well as the bit that sort of sounds like a military brass band coming in.) But it’s also somewhat easier to write than a “linear” piece because it’s aggregative: you copy what you’ve written already and add to it, then copy that and add to it again, making adjustments as you go. (I mean, you have to make some, unless you’re really a lazy sod.)

But a funny thing hit me when I was listening back to it, right in the middle of the process of writing it… 

The first instrument to play (other than the strings) is the horn in F (the “French horn), and the second is the bassoon. It’s not the first time I’ve written for that pairing. In fact, in the old days when I was in my Renaissance music phase, I wrote a Latin mass and the main accompanying instruments were horn and bassoon. Looking over what I’ve written for over the years, there’s often—not always, but often—a horn and a bassoon. 

That’s not a coincidence, since I grew up hearing the instruments every day. While I started out on saxophone and stayed on it (though I learned contrabass for a while too), my sisters started out on flute, but quickly ended up on other instruments. My middle sister still plays bassoon, while my youngest sister doesn’t seem to play horn anymore. (She’s since moved on to bagpipes.) As kids, we heard one another practicing all the time. Hell, for a few years there we even practiced sometimes together: our music teacher would arrange pieces for bassoon, horn, and alto (or later, tenor) saxophone, so that we could enter music festivals as an ensemble. 

I guess all these years later, that sound still hangs out in my brain: I often feel the instinct to start with horn and bassoon, and to paint melodies with their very different, yet somehow complementary, timbres. 

Anyway, I’m also quite pleased with the orchestra piece. It’s the first new thing I’ve written for a large ensemble in many years—I’ve edited some old scores, but not written anything new. And while it sounds TV-soundtrackish, that’s something I was aiming for. I could say more, but I’ll end this for now. 


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