The composing of Red-tail and Hummingbird, Part 4

[First published 19 Feb 2013 in the Broad Street Review and reprinted with permission. This is the last of the 4-part series; read Part 1 herePart 2 here, and Part 3 here.]

lydian1I compose almost exclusively in modes, and I mention this bit of shoptalk only to hint at Red-tail’s harmony. Modal music sounds very like tonal music. The technical difference I could describe negatively (and ham-handedly) as a disregard for chord changes. Positively, though, I might say that the line, the singing line, is almost the only thing I think about. Harmonic analysis—determining the path from one moment to the next—never interested me. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Harmony exists, of course. To disregard it would be foolish. But I understand harmony always and only as something that springs from the line. The harmony of Red-tail happened this way.

The highest note on the soprano shawm—and a strong note, happily—is the A above the treble staff. So I made A the highest note in my favorite canon. That happened to put it into C major, which the ancients called Ionian mode.

I chose for the others (after some experimentation) Lydian on F (it’s a brighter major, with a raised fourth) and Aeolian on A (minor, that is). The pitches for all three modes come from that C major scale, but with different centers of gravity.

Avoiding slush

I decided to juggle the modes; if the top line played Ionian, the others would play Lydian and Aeolian. When I switched the top to another mode, the others would switch also.

Now, a danger in having three modes or keys sounding at the same time—especially three using the same seven notes— is that it’s easy to end up with harmonic slush. Depending on the choice of modes, it can be harsh or mild, but slush is slush, and to me it gets old, fast. The way to counter that, I believe, is to write singing lines, to avoid too many similar harmonies in a row, and to concentrate tonal weight somewhere.

So much for harmonic theory; now to finish the piece.

Wright’s dark hallways

My greatest inspiration for music may be another piece of music, but it’s not the only inspiration. The beginning of Red-tail comes from a short vacation trip my wife Jackie and I took to Western Pennsylvania, and a side trip to Fallingwater, the famous house Frank Lloyd Wright built over the waterfall. It’s magnificent, but one aspect of it disappointed me.

The hallways are dark, tight, claustrophobic—seeming charmless oversights slapped into the plan at the last minute. But the tour guide explained that Wright built them that way on purpose. He didn’t want people standing around in hallways; he wanted them in rooms, so he compressed the halls.

And it’s true: You can’t wait to enter the burnished rooms, your spirit flying out through the large windows over terraces, water, trees. The hallway is the dark matter from which a universe explodes.

This experience gave me the idea of starting Red-tail in the hallway, as it were, with the lazy afternoon, cooing birds and a gentle breeze. Only then does the hawk fly in. I should have known this from so many Haydn symphonies, but Frank Lloyd Wright got it through my skull.

That was the mood. But how about the notes?

Grab that sound!

A day or two later we were watching a film adaptation of George Eliot’s Middlemarch: a dead man, outside, is slumped over his writing desk under a tree. A bird sings. Dada dahh, minor third—dada dahh, fourth.

I grabbed those sounds. This is the first thing you hear in Red-tail.

It was now turning into a piece.

I remembered from Vespers that on these soprano shawms the low F natural doesn’t exist. As long as I avoided that note, I’d be fine. The top F, I recalled, was good. I chomped through the remaining canons.

Instrumental kibitzers

The lower four instruments I wrote quickly, intuitively. This happens on occasion—and when it does, it’s best to run with it. These lower four instruments became kibitzers, rhythmically commenting on the top canons, staying within whatever modes they had at the moment. They weren’t two duos any more as much as one quartet with two sides.

Most composing is grunt-work, but when you’re riding a wave like this, it’s fun. You still need to see where you’re going and adjust, but it’s as if you’re writing downhill. I composed a tango but didn’t realize it was a tango until a day later (a tango is in 4/4 and I was writing in 3/4; this was a tango sliding over bar lines). It built to an over-the-top waltz, saved from too much kitsch (I hope) by churning counterpoint underneath.

The hawk and hummingbird waltzed together in the sky. They hadn’t done any such thing, of course, but music will have its way. This is when it’s great to be a composer.

And then I had my head handed to me.

Fatal feedback

The piece was pretty much finished when I sent it to both of the intended performing groups: Piffaro and Orchestra 2001. Anything that’s a problem, I wrote, let me know while I tidy this up.

Piffaro wrote back: Those shawm F’s won’t work.

Yes, I replied, I think I got rid of all the low F’s. Did I miss any?

They said: High F’s don’t work either.

Bricks, about a ton, fell on my head. The canons bristled with high F’s. Didn’t I… I thought I had… high shawm F’s in Vespers?

I was about to check, but instead picked up the phone and called our daughter Priscilla, who’d be playing one of the shawms.

“Oh yes,” she said, “High F’s are a problem.” Wham.

The shawm players can play those high F’s, in tune, if they have time, but the character is different. They have to do some finger shenanigans to get them to speak. It’s playable but tricky, so I must give them nothing fast, and nothing spotlighted.

Holding my breath

As I talked to Priscilla on the phone, I was staring at my score, watching all those 16th-note F’s whizzing by. Um, I said, I’ll fix it.

What to do? Rewrite everything? No time for that. How about… No, it’ll completely change the mode… It throws the entire harmonic scheme off… Oh, do it, nothing to lose.

I changed the F’s to F-sharps. That was it. Then, holding my breath, I played the piece.

It sounded beautiful. It was a different sound, of course—spikier, being in C Lydian now instead of C major—but it made the top duo soar wonderfully over the others. I adjusted a few notes underneath and a couple in the canons themselves. Some well-prepared F’s without sharps remained; Priscilla said those were fine.

Dumb luck, an hour’s work, and it was fixed.

Now for rehearsals

Able to breathe again, I shored up the ending. That actually took a couple of days. Endings are hard to get just right. Then I tweaked the music a lot, tweaked the layout of the notation a lot, sent off the score, got OKs from everyone, extracted the parts the musicians will play from, and sent those off. As I write this, I’m waiting for the first rehearsals.

From start to finish, I’d been working on Red-tail and Hummingbird for five months, off and on, while writing other things. But the heavy-duty composing was accomplished over about a month, writing just about every day.

Red-tail and Hummingbird is six minutes long.

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