Category Archives: Music Composition

Three Things I Learned from Gregg Smith

Driving on Broad Street

The best lane to drive in on Broad Street is the other one.

There are tendencies, but they are slight, and you cannot trust them. Above Roosevelt Boulevard, for instance, heading north, hie thee to the left lane because the cars peeling northwest onto Belfield clear out the left, and you can sail.

Except when you can’t. Because more often than you’d think, there’s a 1971 Ford Galaxie 500 four-door, medium blue metallic with white roof, in front of you — I mean, immediately in front of you — who decides, oh, maybe, he, too, would like to scooch into that Belfield left-turn-only lane, but because it only just occurred to him, like, right now, instead of, oh, ten, five, seconds sooner, he can’t get over, and so he decides it’d be perfectly meet, right, and salutary to sit there fat and happy and block you — with Broad Street an open runway in front of him all the way from Belfield to Rockland.

Bermuda Triangle

You sit and steam and cannot move; everyone streaming by you on the right is grinning. Their cars are grinning, too, their front grilles curling up at the corners, and it’s a conga line of traffic on balloon tires bounce-bouncing up Broad while you have a muted trumpet over your stationary vehicle playing wah-wah-wah-wah-wahhh.

Southbound, approaching Glenwood, you’ll want the right lane because traffic heads off there. Except when you don’t. It’s because Glenwood-Broad-Lehigh is the Bermuda Triangle. Buses appear out of nowhere. Camaros with bungeed trunks pull out from Rush Street, and nobody ever pulls out from Rush Street. Except when they do.

So you jog to the left, but you forgot: Traffic in the Bermuda Triangle always slows down in the left lane, for no reason. Nobody’s pulling a U-turn for a burger joint because there are no burger joints, nobody’s turning left on Lehigh — well, you can’t turn left on Lehigh — well, you’re not supposed to turn left on Lehigh, there’s a Not-Supposed-to-Turn-Left-On-Lehigh sign — although that didn’t stop the guy who veered into the northbound lanes and turned left from there, which you must admit is an admirable maneuver. And anyway, those cowboys don’t slow anybody down. They kill people, but when they’re not doing that, they don’t slow anybody down.

What congregations can’t do

So, tendencies are ever thwarted on Broad Street, and percentages are overturned, and if you think this is like composing music, you would be correct. At least it is for me. Writing an hour-long piece or a short hymn, it’s all the same. Whatever lane I’m in is the wrong one.

The hymn I just finished gave me fits immediately. I was writing it for the dedication of new organ pipes at our church, and the text had a well-defined rhythm to it, which stayed the same through all four stanzas. This practice is indispensable in hymn-writing. In songwriting, not so much, since songs are for individuals to sing and they can bend the words as they wish. This:

He came from somewhere back in her long ago
The sentimental fool don’t see…

in “What a Fool Believes,” sung by Michael McDonald with the Doobie Brothers, would have to match rhythmically with this:

She musters a smile for his nostalgic tale
Never coming near what he wanted to say…

which, of course, doesn’t match, which is why Michael McDonald can sing it and a congregation — theology or grammar aside — can’t. Many church songs called “contemporary” (what’s my hymn, chopped liver?) follow this textualization. Such rhythmic disinterest can work with one singer and a microphone, but not with a hundred people or even five, no matter how loud the band is.

So, I had a solid rhythm: so far, so good. It sounded like it was in four — that is, four beats to the bar — so I started sketching out a tune in four. I got halfway through and realized that it wasn’t in four. Hmm. Must be in three, then.

So I switched lanes and put it in three. But that didn’t work either.

Getting to the end

Now, wait a minute. Hymns are either in four (more usual) or three; they’re either fox-trots or waltzes, if you forgive the worldly reference. Mine was neither. I was stuck. Time was whizzing by, grinning at me, and I couldn’t figure out something simple like what meter is this in?

So I broke it down into little bits. This phrase was in three, but that one… kind of three with a long middle. Did it have to be long? Well, I think, yes. Call it four, then. But then right back to three, then four, then three for a while. The very first syllable, the pickup, was an outlier, didn’t fit anything. Figure that out later. And near the end, right before the last two bars of three was a not-three and a not-four. It was a bounce: a whomp before the last phrase… no, a whomp-whomp before the last phrase. OK, it’s in two.

The hymn is all of 14 bars long; the music barely lasts 30 seconds (times four verses). It starts with a pickup, then a 3/4 bar. Then 4/4, 3/4, and 4/4 again. Then a straight run of seven 3/4 measures, the 2/4 whomp-whomp, and the final two 3/4s. The pickup eighth-note I take care of with the notational trick of robbing an eighth beat from the last bar.

Now that I think of it, there are hymns like this.

The composing of my hymn, off and on, took two weeks. I finished it today. I was still figuring out meters today, still changing lanes today. I felt like I was on Broad Street. But with all the changes, I got to the end only because of one reason:

I kept driving.

Melody and Myth

[First published in Broad Street Review, 27 Oct 2015.]


Feral rooster on Kauai (jaybergesen via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

The sound a rooster makes is the sound a basement door makes when it is earnestly trying to open, and the sound a car makes when it is vainly trying to stop, just before the crash. It is jackals at night. It is the soul abandoning all hope as it enters in, it is Goofy tobogganing recklessly down the Alps, it is Pentheus being rent limb from limb by the Bacchanals — it is all these and more, but since there is now a rooster living near us, I can tell you with precision that the one sound a rooster does not make is “Cock-a-doodle-doo.”

Another myth is that the rooster is the herald of the dawn. Oh, he announces 3am and calls our attention to 4am, and is pleased to let us know when it is 7:13am; he sends out alerts an hour before noon and 47 minutes after midnight and every blessèd time in between. He may even crow at dawn, truth be told, but as the cry is only one among a series of updates, dawn has long since been emptied of meaning: the message is not “Here is dawn,” but “Here is a rooster.”

We live under myths. I was taught in grade school that people feared Columbus would fall off the edge of the earth. I was taught in college that music has three parts: rhythm, melody, harmony. But no people ever believed that the world was flat (least of all people with boats and oceans; “flat-earthers” were a fiction invented in the 19th century), and music has only one part.

That part is melody. It is melody first, melody last, and only melody.

Yeah, but . . .

Some say that rhythm, the segmenting of time into smaller bits of time, is a part. But we always experience time as bits of time. Bits of time are not music. Some say that harmony is a part, but harmony is just two tunes, or tunes layered, or tunes echoed. Rhythm is a tune tapping its foot, and harmony is a tune stroking its chin.

Then there’s what some call melody, which is what I call the tune:

This is the opening of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. It is the top line, so is easily heard, and it is good and beautiful, so is easily recognized. Here it is, below, with another voice added (actually, the accompaniment boiled down to one voice):

The top line by itself is recognizable as the Barber, and the bottom line by itself probably isn’t, but it doesn’t change the fact that we experience and remember all of this — and more — as the Adagio.

Attention to detail

Tune, rhythm, and harmony are indeed parts of music, but they are not the parts. They also have sub-parts. The top line has its own rhythm; we could divide those black notes into groups of four, two, three, or a mix. The bottom line is an exquisite voyage of durations, just as much in rhythmic counterpoint with the top as it is in harmony (waiting for that third arrow to land is one of Barber’s genius moments). The best music has this attention to detail in bottom and middle lines just as much as in the tune.

But there are even more parts than tune, rhythm, harmony. There are high and low, loud and soft, and instrument choice, for example. Meter itself (the 4/2 at the beginning of the examples) is more than an instruction, it’s a silent beat that’s as much a part of the music as what we hear. Then there’s the psychic counterpoint of what we hear against what we remember having heard, against what we are expecting to hear. There are phrases, breaths, movements, time-outs.

All of these together, and more, are the Adagio, and all together they are more than parts. They become one overarchingmelody that drives the tune, the rhythm, the harmony, and everything else.

The ultimate source

The fact is, the deeper we hear, the more parts we find. The parts either drive the music forward (which is what good music does) or stop it (which is what bad music does). Whether it’s Barber or “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or Milton Babbitt, all the innumerable parts — including main tune (wherever it is), rhythms (micro- and macro-), sublimated or attenuated tunes (harmonies), textures, memories, colors, expectations — all flow from the grand melody.

All the parts are one melody. Composers construct them together as one melody and guide our attention by one melody. Our ears hear from top to bottom to arrow to middle to back again. That path is the melody beckoning and beguiling us and carrying all the parts as one. Music is the art of sound moving through time. Melody is what drives it.

River and flow

If it seems that I’m equating music with melody, I suppose you could say that, with only the difference that music is the thing and melody is the drive. There is no edge between melody and another part; melody is the only part. There is the river, and there is the flow. There is the ocean, in fact, and composers always knew that while they could bump into land and stop, they would never fall off the edge of the world, because there is no edge. “Here is a rooster,” says the rooster, and the rooster keeps no time, as I have found. Dawn or no, there is just the rooster.

What I've Learned from Church Music

HymnListNewMusicBox, the online publication of New Music USA, handed the guest-blogger reins over to me for the month of September 2014. Of all the things we pondered wherein I might contribute, church music was an underserved area I could help fill in, NMBx thought, for this blog of composers writing, basically, for other composers. So I slid Twelve Things I Learned from Church Music through their transom, three per week.

This page at NMBx gathers them all together.

I might more accurately have called them Twelve Things I’m Still Trying to Learn from Church Music and Wonder If I Ever Will So That I Can Be a Better Composer Whether I’m Writing for Church or Not, but while I hope that I may always learn more, it’s not a point of pride to say that I have learned these, or at least about these, or at least imperfectly.

In starting a new piece I always wonder if I have, in fact, learned anything at all. I’ll revisit these twelve to see what foolishness I’ve committed myself to in writing.

I’ve already posted the four parts individually:

Part 1: Start where you are; Write what you know; Write for people you know
Part 2: Make them sound good; Follow the rules; Break the rules
Part 3: Write faster; Hear it, change it; Churches do tons of new music
Part 4: Stick to the text; It’s all about the music; It’s not about the music

Rehearsing Psalm 46 in Montana

not this time...

not this time…

Having a great time with Allan R. Scott, Music Director of the Helena Symphony & Chorale, and with baritone Ron Loyd, preparing for the performance of Psalm 46 on Saturday, October 18 at the Civic Center in Helena. A piano rehearsal earlier today, followed by an interview on Montana Public Radio, and off to a full orchestra and chorus rehearsal tonight.

Ron Loyd sounds perfect for this, such a beautiful, intelligent, big, thrilling voice—a Verdi baritone is what singers call it. Opening the concert will be selections from the Old American Songs of Aaron Copland. Yet again am I reminded of how good Copland is, I mean, really, honestly, fully engaged and original. It’s the old problem of appreciating popular repertoire. These are sung all the time. There’s a reason.

Anyway, I’m reveling over the perfect match of Ron Loyd to the Old American Songs and to Psalm 46. Allan Scott is on top of every detail and is brimming with energy, imagination, and commitment to the music and the Symphony. I’m thrilled to be working with them. (Though no Dodge Ram for a rental car this time!)

The notes, choral score, text, and a recording of Psalm 46 are here, along with an explanation of how and why it came to be composed. I’m glad to report that I’ve forgotten most of the theoretical business behind the harmonic language of the piece, and I think it works just fine without anyone else knowing that, either, but since I went to all that trouble, that’s in the notes, too. If you read it, don’t say I didn’t warn you, but my hope is that it may be appreciated simply as a meditation on this Scripture.

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

12 Things I've Learned from Church Music (Part 4 of 4)

AlleluiaVerseExample1My last of 4 posts is up at New Music Box, the website of New Music USA, where I’m their September guest-blogger. I’ve had a great time writing these, and my thanks go to editors Frank Oteri and Molly Sheridan for their help. I work in just a little composer terminology—a mixolydian here or there—but that’s because the immediate audience is other composers. Generally, for my Fleisher Discoveries or Broad Street Review essays, I try to avoid lingo.

New Music Box is the website of New Music USA, the composer service organization created from the merger of the American Music Center and Meet the Composer. Some folks have already commented on the essays at the New Music Box site, so feel free to join in the conversation.

From the 12 Things I’ve Learned about Composing from Writing Church Music, this last batch—with an assist from Earth, Wind & Fire and an Easter Alleluia—is:

10. Stick to the Text
11. It’s All About the Music
12. It’s Not About the Music

Part One is here:
1. Start Where You Are
2. Write What You Know
3. Write for People You Know

Part Two:
4. Make Them Sound Good
5. Follow the Rules
6. Break the Rules

Part Three:
7. Write Faster
8. Hear It, Change It
9. Churches Do Tons of New Music

12 Things I've Learned from Church Music (Part 3 of 4)

Photo by Bin im Garten via Creative commons on Wikimedia

Photo by Bin im Garten via Creative Commons

My 3rd of 4 posts is up at New Music Box, the website of New Music USA; I’m their September guest-blogger. From the 12 Things I’ve Learned about Composing from Writing Church Music, this 3rd batch—with an assist from a drummer—is:

7. Write Faster
8. Hear It, Change It
9. Churches Do Tons of New Music

Part One is here:
1. Start Where You Are
2. Write What You Know
3. Write for People You Know

Part Two:
4. Make Them Sound Good
5. Follow the Rules
6. Break the Rules

The plan for next week, to finish the series:
10. Stick to the text
11. It’s all about the music
12. It’s not about the music