Thursday, 17 December 2009

John Williams and Star Wars

Been busy with the day job and haven't had much time to play anything lately. I've decided that while I'm slaving over a hot keyboard, I'm going to listen my way though the whole of my music collection. It'll take quite some while!

The most recent stuff I've been listening to has been Star Wars soundtracks.

I know a lot of people get very sniffy about film music, they think it's not real music, that it is merely derivative. Well maybe it is derivative at times, but the best of it (and John Williams does write some of the best) is extremely good.

For the most part the instruments used are straightforward romantic symphony orchestra stuff, an orchestral line-up which would have peen perfectly familiar to Mahler or Stravinsky or Richard Strauss. He doesn't often go in for electronic instruments or other effects.

Williams clearly knows his classical music repertoire and composition techniques. In listening through the soundtracks, I have heard Wagnerian leitmotifs, Mahlerian orchestration techniques using harp and celeste for a "magical" effect, marches obviously inspired by Elgar, passages which are definitely a homage to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, bits which could easily have been a Tchaikovsky finale, battle scenes that sound reminiscent of Shostakovich, references to Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, a couple of choral passages that remind me of Rachmaninov's Vespers, references to Neptune from Holst's The Planets, even a passage or two which sound as if they could have been taken from Ligeti. (You may not think you know any Ligeti. But if you have ever watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, then you have heard passages from at least 2 of his pieces which were used in that film.)

And of course Williams writes some stonking good horn tunes - romantic tunes for solo horn, and heroic ones that sound as if they are being played in unison by a section of 8 or 12 horns. And he is also clearly familiar with the technique of creating composite tone colours by combining several different instruments in different octaves on to a tune.

Marvellous stuff. It is possible to hear all these references but still recognise the whole as being authentically original Williams. It has brought a smile to my face from hearing all those good tunes, and especially each time I recognise another classical reference. It wouldn't surprise me at all if he has deliberately slipped in an occasional direct quote from another piece as a sort of musical joke just to see if anybody will notice.

People have asked me whether it spoils my enjoyment of music that I find myself analysing it while listening to it. The answer is not at all. The fact that I know something about music doesn't any any way impair my enjoyment of a good tune. I wince at a bad or unmusical performance, but in that respect the only difference between me and somebody who doesn't have musical training is that I'm in a position to put into words why I'm wincing. I'm able to appreciate the performance even more because I understand something of the effort and artistry that has gone into it - both from the composer and the performers. And recognising references and quotations in pieces adds to the enjoyment of music - it is like unexpectedly meeting an old friend!

EDIT: Doh! After this post was up for a month, I realised that I had said "Lutoslawski" when I meant "Ligeti". It is 2 of Ligeti's pieces which are in 2001. I've gone back and changed it.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Accompanying in concertos

Hounslow Symphony Orchestra had their autumn concert last weekend. One of the pieces we played was the Hummel Trumpet Concerto, with Hilmar Hauer as the soloist. The Hummel is a very spectacular piece for the soloist, especially with all the cascades of notes produced in the last movement!

During the final rehearsal in the afternoon, our conductor John Andrews made a very good point in respect of how the orchestra should play when accompanying the soloist. He said that we shouldn't follow the soloist, because if we follow him, inevitably we will be behind him.

Instead, we have to accompany him, i.e. remain alongside. That involves anticipating to some extent what will happen next in order to make sure that we play at the same time. It is a very good point, and in fact can be extended more generally. When playing in a group, you don't just follow the conductor (if there is one). Instead, if you don't have the tune, you accompany whoever does, just as if they are a concerto soloist. You have to listen and anticipate.

It takes concentration, but if instead you rely solely on following the conductor, you are also hoping that everyone is following the conductor the same distance behind. That's not a safe bet. Conductor or no, you have to listen, and anticipate, and accompany.

Only when you have a solo can you stop accompanying, you take the lead and express yourself by deciding how to shape the phrase, in terms of speed, articulation, dynamics and style. And everybody else then has to accompany you! You want the other players to do that right, so they deserve the same courtesy from you when they have the tune.

And be aware that even when you have the tune, you are not necessarily solo. Another of the pieces we played was Haydn's 104th "London" Symphony. The horns have the tune in a few places, but only for 2 bars in the slow movement are they actually solo. In all other places in the piece, the horns are doubled by other instruments. If you have the tune but are not solo, then you still have to be thinking in a semi-accompanying sort of way to make sure that you are matching with the rest of the players sharing the tune.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Christopher Irvin on composing his horn concerto

Christopher Irvin has just finished the first draft of the concerto, the third movement is in the post to me. Now all I have to do is get is transcribed on to the computer, and eliminate all the inevitable typing errors!

Here is his description of the process.


From the moment Jonathan tentatively requested a horn concerto at the rehearsal for SEA BREEZE in Edinburgh this summer my mind was immediately activated!

The first stage was to rough-draft the entire three-movement piece. This is worked out at the piano in an improvised format directly on to manuscript. Some of the ideas are from previous efforts - this acts as a springboard. Once a theme is chosen, the journey begins. New ideas, or variations on these themes, follow on quickly. Often a new theme appears from nowhere. On a good day there is real joy when a memorable melody materialises.

From these doodlings it is then necessary to create a three-line short score (instrument + piano). First-idea jottings (usually the best and often quickly forgotten) are then preserved. Selecting the better ideas is creative, and requires me to listen to the piece imagining myself as a member of the concert audience. The short score is orchestrated and chord symbols added.

Using landscape format manuscript paper, the score is then framed : horn placed above the strings and below the percussion. I work in 2B pencil which is ideal for subsequent photocopying. I know much erasing is par for the course.

The thirty-two pages (movement one) of score are laid out with a melodic through-line divided between the instruments. The solo horn is written as played. Previously, I'd written horns in concert pitch. However, I'm now learning about the best register for the horn and transposing as I go. I try thinking like a horn.

Key progression is another important consideration. I create a short-score only to find the orchestra is in an uncomfortable six flats. I do this section again but it's still in five flats. However, the tempo at this stage is slow and there should be no problems for the players.

The first page is orchestrated - a whole morning's work. Experience has taught me that on a normal day (with other things going on : e-mails/business/telephone calls) at best three pages of full score are manageable. A concerto requires less orchestral writing, of course, but progress still is on a similar pattern. The mornings are best, or the small hours, when total quiet is possible. The acoustic piano is nearby, and a keyboard with headphones. The scoring and harmonisation are a fused process.

I'm not able to work on the score (beyond my obligatory one page) every day in depth, so progress seems slow. However, a weekend of four days does the trick and I can live and breathe the piece. There is a musical blockage, when a change of key just doesn't work, but by coming back to it after a few hours the impasse is resolved.

The draft score is 'completed'. Bar numbering is added. A thorough read-through is now essential before photocopying - phrasing/dynamics/missed bars and so on. Hopefully nothing too awful! Movement one done. Two
more to go!

The response to the first movement has been very positive ('tuneful' and 'playable'). Enhancing the part by re-aligning the horn to its 'singing' register requires a few adjustments. Articulation issues are also discussed. The end doesn't work, so a new one is composed and sent by post (alas the postal strike still lingers on).

Start gathering my thoughts 30 Oct. for second movement, and framing the entire piece the next day. On this occasion I have a complete piano short-score to follow. First four bars take ages! Slowly build up the movement a page or so a day (if I'm lucky!). Adjustments to refine the harmonic structure is very time-consuming. Dynamics checked as I proceed.

Other musical projects crowding in : I started a choir at the Little Theatre in Hebden in October and we're working hard towards our annual Christmas Concert. A four-horn version of a new orchestral piece to be performed in June needs to be proof-read, and other pieces are in preparation requiring attention!

Draft score completed 11 Nov. and despatched the next day. I describe this movement as a 'wistful lullaby'.

No time to pause : straight on with movement three! This is to be a 6/8 rondo-type, with a core 4/4 slavonic-like 'heroic' tune followed by a cantabile theme. I've upped the horn part, being more confident of the required register.

I map out the form of the movement in my head whilst waiting for a train at unlovely Littleborough station (near Rochdale). The next day (Sunday 15th Nov.) the entire third movement is drafted - simple melody line, chords and orchestral jottings. The draft is then transposed for suitability for the horn. I'm working in keys that, for me, are unusual e.g. A-flat minor (which is very sonorous).

Start framing movement - but deciding on the keys causes a delay. Modulating from one theme to another requires much trial and error! A sense of classical key relationships helps. From Nov. 20th framing is complete, and the slow orchestration of pp50-79 starts. I try hard to make the opening page matter! Have to break off to arrange Sullivan's 'Yule Log March' for oboe, clarinet, violon and piano (for a rehearsal and concert I'm organising on Jan. 10th). After days of work I've completed just 45 seconds! I need to press on. The central section requires very careful treatment, so the (hopefully moving) rather melancholy theme can speak simply with just light accompaniment.

I have a day school (I play oboe) on Beethoven's 5th with the Leeds Summer Orchestra (!) so no work possible for a little while...

On the Sunday I get bogged down, and only complete seven bars.

However, despite a sudden head-cold, I'm on a roll and the concerto is completed over the weekend of Dec.5th/6th. I check the horn part carefully, making sure that tacit sections are kept to a minimum. I'm at the stage of photocopying and despatch.

After the actual despatch I have a holiday feeling!