Timpani Forces – from conception to publication part 2

Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3

Having decided that “False Waltz” (as it was still titled at the time) belonged at the end of the whole piece, i started working on the second movement “Chaconne”.  I quickly discovered that there was probably good reason why chaconnes weren’t written on timpani.

Since Dave and I had decided that the piece worked better with four timpani rather than five (which had been my original intent), it created a limitation in my head on what i could use as the structural chaconne material.  Most of the bass lines that i wanted to use for the chaconne would have necessitated the use of two timpani, and that left two timpani to be able to come up with the melodic variations that would make up the main material.  True, with careful planning i could maybe use the third timpani at times when it wasn’t being used for the bass line, but that felt impractical, an idiomatic nightmare to map out, particularly after having gone through such a trial with mapping out the gradually rising pitch-bend stuff of the last movement.  After wrestling with it for a week or so, i eventually decided to nix the idea and started brainstorming alternatives.

The effectiveness of the pitch bend section in the last movement was fresh in my head, and my brain started leaning towards that for ideas.  Eventually a new kind of pitch bending idea started to form in my head – one where a note on the timpani was struck once, and then the pedal wobbled back and forth on the resonant tail of that note’s decay.  I called Dave and asked him if he thought that something like that would work or if he thought that the movement and the decay would happen too quickly for it to be useful as a technique in the music.  Dave’s answer was basically “I’m not sure” – he told me that he’d get me an audio sample of the idea on his timpani and tell me what he thought about it.  The first sample he gave me was promising – moving the pitch back and forth definitely made the decay happen faster, but it still had a good amount of resonance to it that i thought i could shape the movement around it.  I gave Dave about eight different variations of the “pitch bend trill” to try – lowest drum in eighth notes, lowest drum in triplets.  highest drum in eighth notes, highest drum in triplets.  then i asked him to strike other notes while the trill was happening.

The audio samples he gave me of those variations helped a great deal in shaping the movement’s creation, which at the time i had titled “To and Fro”.  As i started to write both the A and B section – with constant drafts to Dave asking, “is this possible?  what does it sound like, do you think it works?” and sometimes making adjustments along the way – a part of me realized that in some weird way i had actually achieved the writing of the chaconne that i thought wasn’t possible with the trills/glisses being the chaconne part.  But at that point, my conception of the piece overall had already shifted – while the last movement could be conceived of a “False Waltz” and this movement could be a “chaconne”, the first movement “Rising, Falling” had no dance context to it whatsoever, and trying to find a way to cram some sort of dance concept when that wasn’t in its original intent felt like trying to push the circle peg in to the square hole.

I toyed around with alternate concepts, and eventually came across the idea that the “To and Fro” gliss idea functioned very similarly in my head to an aural pendulum, and coupled with the first movement’s title and conceptual musical idea of “Rising, Falling”, i could conceive of each movement of the piece having to do with different forces in physics.  Timpani Physics and The Physics of Timpani rolled around in my head, as well as a few other similar titles before i eventually landed on Timpani Forces, which is what then changed the final movement’s title from “False Waltz” to “Momentum”.

TFPage3The final result of “Pendulum” felt pretty special even before i heard it in person – Dave had expressed that he had never used or heard of timpani pedals being used in this way before, and the way that i put it all together did a lot in convincing me that the five year break i had taken from composition and music altogether didn’t make me lose my skills or edge as a composer entirely.  I think that “Pendulum” is probably the strongest piece of music that i’ve ever written, and it remains my favorite movement in the entire piece.

As i was finishing the final draft of “Pendulum”, i started to run into another issue – the tempo of “Rising, Falling” and “Pendulum” were both very slow, and the second section of “Rising, Falling” was too similar to “Pendulum” in that the left hand was basically providing an ostinato in which the right hand was doing something melodic.  I started thinking that i needed to insert a fast movement in between the two to help break it up, but i was hesitant to do that because the piece was starting to become pretty long – with the three movements i had written, we were talking 16ish minutes already.  Dave and i had a few discussions about it and eventually decided that a quick middle movement was a good idea.  To help with that, i ended up trimming some of the first movement and the third movement and decided that the second movement should be 2’00”-2’30” tops.TFPage4

Now that i had retitled and reconceived of the piece as having to do with forces of physics, i tried to start writing the second movement with a physics concept in mind first that would then inform the musical material.  The first version of this was a movement called “Impact”, something that i had about 60 measures plus the ending written.  The concept behind it was fast crescendo rolls of one note that would land on another note – the fast rolls represented an object in fast motion that would then “impact” the resolving note.  In my head i think i had pictured the idea of meteors hitting the earth, fast baseballs landing in baseball mitts.  harmonically the pitches went an eight-measure phrase that repeated, with each repeat adding some new element to it – an expanded roll or the introduction of a fast syncopated rhythm instead of the roll that would add more depth to the harmonies or adding some octaves.

The material was a struggle – i had problems trying to pace the material properly and figuring out how to get it to develop in a way that would make sense when it reached the end that i had already written.  But more than that, i just didn’t like the way that it sounded and the direction it was going.  It wasn’t turning into something that i was looking for nor what i thought the listener would be looking for to break up the slow movements around it.  For a while i tried to overcome those difficulties but as i kept trying, i became less and less convinced about it.  it wasn’t making as strong of an impact (haha get it?) as i wanted, and eventually i came to the conclusion that i had to scrap it altogether and start over.

The next idea that i had was based around an exercise i had written in my undergraduate years.  During a composition seminar, we had just listened to Charles ives’s quarter tone piano pieces, and Larry Nelson, the comp professor of that seminar, had gotten one of the practice rooms with two pianos tuned a semi-tone apart so we could experiment and write some quarter-tone pieces ourselves.  One of the pieces i wrote for that was called “Slow Explosion” which essentially started with middle C and expanded slowly outward in quarter tones – starting first with the quarter tone above C, then the quarter tone below C, then C#, then B, then the quarter tone above C#, then the quarter tone below B, and so on.

TFPage5I decided to take that idea and use it in this timpani movement with half steps – have a sixteenth note “tremor” in the middle that provided the rhythmic basis for pitches on the top and bottom end to slowly expand outward to extreme ends of the timpani.  The end result was a quick and dirty movement that didn’t take me that long to write that i christened “Explosion”.  I don’t think that there’s anything particularly extraordinary about this movement, but it serves a particular purpose, functions as a flashy interlude that sets the stage for “Pendulum”.  To me, it’s also the relaxing “fun” movement – one where all you need to do is take a deep breath, relax, and say “go!” with your legs spread awkwardly apart on the drum 1 and 4 pedals which do most of the changes.

I remember very clearly the sense of relief I got when i finished writing the piece – a monster of a work that had taken me about a year and a half to two years to write.  There were a few revisions i made towards the end – the most significant one was to add a pitch-bendy thing to the first movement as a foreshadow to the fourth movement, and to make some minor adjustments to pacing of sections, some of which moved too fast and others of which moved too slow.

I also remember very clearly that although I was pretty happy with the sort of work and thought that I put into the piece’s composition, I wasn’t sure if the piece was actually any good.  It definitely felt bold, and I was pretty confident about what i had done with the third movement and the very ending, but I didn’t have a good idea of how this goliath of a piece would be received by my peers or by the community as a whole.

to be concluded.

(As an aside, the melody in the B section of Pendulum is inspired and loosely based on the song “Gwely Mernans” by Aphex Twin.)

Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3

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