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Nov 12

Timpani Forces – from conception to publication part 1

Timpani Forces recently became a part of the tapspace percussion catalog. I’m very proud of the piece and also very humbled by how far the piece has taken me – it feels good that this is my first piece of published music, as i feel like it’s a good representation of both my musical voice and my personality.

To celebrate its publication and its promotion at PASIC this coming weekend, i thought i’d write a series of entries about the journey of the piece from conception to publication.  This will be in three separate entries – the first being about the piece’s origins and the creative and collaborative process as the piece first started to take shape with the first two movements that i had written, which were movements I and IV.  The second will be about what led the decision to make the piece into four movements from its originally intended three and specifics about the last two movements i had written, which were movements II and III.  The last will be about the aftermath – the performances (and how that led to nienteForte), the feedback i received, and how it established my relationship with tapspace.

It was 2009 when Dave Constantine asked me to write him a piece of music. Dave was one of my former students when i was TA’ing at the University of Oregon and we ended up striking a friendship and an informal working relationship when i hired him to help me teach drums every now and again with the high school marching band i was contracting for.

Years after we both had graduated from that program, Dave, who had a secured a job as the Assistant Principal Percussionist of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, had just come from a timpani competition in france where the panel loved how he played, but they thought that everything in his repertoire was too “drummy”. Dave, unsatisfied with any timpani repertoire that he knew about which tried to explore melodic ideas, called me out of the blue and asked me to write him a solo timpani piece that emphasized melody and harmony more than rhythmic virtuosity.

I was still pretty fresh in my new life in New Orleans – I moved in 2008 to become the drumline instructor of the Tulane University Marching Band after doing corporate work for a few years after getting my master’s degree. When my life went corporate, music ended up getting cut out of the picture – my job occupied a lot of my time, especially during quarter-end periods, and i started to devote my free time to dance games and poker, not feeling that music writing was going to take me anywhere i needed to be financially.

As a result, the last real piece of serious music i had written prior to Dave’s request was about five years prior in 2004. I felt honored that Dave approached me, and I was pretty excited to write for the idiom and get my feet wet in composing again now that i was at least somewhat back in the music scene – i had a lot of creative energy to burn.  It felt like a good way to start too – although solo timpani music can be challenging, it seemed like something that would come naturally to me given my background in percussion and particularly as a marching tenor player.

Early on, i had put some thought into accessorizing the timpani with gongs or crotales to help me make the piece more melodic, in addition to giving me the ability to use that stuff for extended sound effects in a George Crumb or Schwantner-esque kind of style.  I nixed that idea fairly quickly for practical reasons – it was the sort of thing that Dave would have to spend extra money on, and theoretically the same would hold true for anyone else who would be interested in it who didn’t have access to academic resources.  Even before i wrote the first note on the page, i knew i wanted the piece to have market potential, and that made me conclude that the piece should be just about the timpani.

TFPage1The first movement, “Rising, Falling” was written pretty much on pure instinct.  I started writing it with the idea that i wanted it to be about big open fifth chords – something i’m very fond of from my love for Debussy, having played a lot of his piano works growing up – and about the gradual movement of those open fifths from one position to another.  the first half of the movement is devoted to the eventual arrival of the low timpani’s D in that context, and then the second half of the movement is devoted to the eventual arrival of the low timapni’s C.

When writing towards those arrivals, i employed the principle of not landing on those pitches until absolutely necessary – a technique that stems from a composition lesson i remember very clearly during my undergrad years from Larry Nelson – there was a piece i was writing at the time that was building towards a climax in C minor, and at one point before that climax, i had the piano hit a very low C at a cadence point with the rest of the instruments – a clear C minor foreshadow that didn’t stay there for long, but was obvious nonetheless.  Larry strongly encouraged me to change that low C in the piano to a C#, arguing that the implication of C minor in the upper voices with the clear C# dissonance in the bass would aid in the tension that led to the C minor arrival point and that saving that strong C minor seniority for the climax would make it that more meaningful.

I made the change very reluctantly.  I was trusting that Larry knew better than I did, but when i made the change, i really disliked it, and fought in my head about it for a couple of weeks.  I told myself that if i still disliked it after a month or so, i would change it back.

About a month later, i loved it.  Changing that note made it into one of the most significant moments in that piece of music.

That lesson and its result made a strong impression on me – more than a handful of the works i’ve written use that principle in varying degrees. The entire structure of my recent work beauty…beholder is contingent on this principle, creating a listener expectation that the piece is clearly in Bb but never actually arriving at Bb until the very end of the piece.

After the first movement was complete, I started writing the second movement – which eventually became the fourth movement.  At some point after going through a few drafts of the first movement, a movement that was built around space and slow tempos, Dave commented that even though the main premise of the piece was about lyricism and melodicism, i could still make some of the piece flashy and more percussive.  I started the second movement with that premise, wanting it to be fast, loud, and bombastic in stark contrast to the first movement.  The original title for the movement was “False Waltz” under the initial idea that i was going to be calling the entire piece Timapni Dances, and that the piece was going to be three movements – slow/fast/slow – and that the last movement was going to be some sort of chaconne, because i really liked chaconnes and because it seemed like an interesting and neat challenge to try to write one for timpani.

TFPage2The initial melodic/harmonic idea for the movement that would eventually be called “Momentum” was similar to the first movement –  a gradual transformation of open fifth chords.  At the time i had the idea that this would be the glue that bridged all of the movements together somehow, to take that concept and just find different ways to treat it in the context of different dance forms.  It was a deliberate choice that i started with the same pitches as the first movement and ended the first section with the same sense of arrival on the same low D that i ended the first section of movement I.

I remember that once i got to the end of that first section, i had no idea what i wanted to do next.  I felt like i was burning out on how i had approached the whole “gradually evolving open fifth” idea between the first movement and the first part of this movement, and I also felt like i needed to change the energy that i had built thus far in the movement which was all very loud and percussive.

The arrival at the low D in this movement was different than i had done anywhere else because i used pitch bend – i had fast running notes of (from high to low) B-E-A#, and i gradually pitch shifted the lower A# to A to create open fifths that would then “cadence” to the D.  I liked the effect of the pitch bend had on the sense of tonality and the sense of resolution once it got there, and this idea started to spurn in my head – what if i did that in reverse, and gradually moved myself from the bottom-most possible four-note open fifth relationship to the top-most possible four-note open fifth relationship?

I remember taking a piece of paper and writing down the ranges of the four timpani i was using and then building a roadmap of multiple gradual pitch shifts that i thought would make sense idiomatically.  I then pitched the concept to Dave and asked him what he thought about it.  His response was very positive, so i started sketching out the actual notes on paper.

Dave and I went back and forth on this music for a few weeks – the music for this section was probably rewritten about 15-20 times as i tried to get the pacing right as well as the pedal logistics right based on his feedback and rough recordings that he would give me.  It felt kind of like i was trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle for a picture that i was drawing at the same time – it was very challenging, but also very invigorating.  As the revision process kept moving forward and the section started to solidify, i started to hear the section in a peculiar way, associating it with a record player that would start at a slow rotation that would gradually get faster and higher in pitch as the record itself started to spin faster and faster.

Somewhere towards the end of this revision period, i took a step back from what i had done with the piece so far and realized that because of the excitement of the material and the explosiveness i was building towards, this movement clearly felt like a final movement of the piece rather than the second movement.  I simply had no idea how anything else i wrote could possibly top what i was currently writing, and that made it a no-brainer that this movement belonged at the end.  When the final draft of that was finished, i assigned it movement III and started working on what i thought was going to be the last movement i would write for the piece – the chaconne.

to be continued.

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  1. Timpani Forces – from conception to publication part 2 » mendel lee . com

    […] « Timpani Forces – from conception to publication part 1 […]

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