The national anthems process

So i’m a little behind in some of my project work because of Hurricane Isaac, but i’ve started the process of listening to all of the national anthems i was able to get a hold of for my wind ensemble commission. It took me a little while to decide what and how i wanted to go about the listening process. It went something like this:

  1. Download all of the national anthem MP3s as is available on The Navy Band website.
  2. Have one of my friends create a script to rename all of the files (because the files were all named the country of the national anthem) into a random 1 to 5 digit number.
  3. Put all of the mp3s into a playlist on my iPhone, listen to them whenever i get a chance on shuffle. Make notes on interesting things by file number via a note in Evernote.

I opted to rename the anthems to random numbers and have someone else do the randomizing because i wanted to be able to listen to and evaluate the music without bias as to where the music originates from or what it represents. Clearly there were a few national anthems that i recognized (US, UK, Canada, France, for example), but for the most part I have no idea what i’m actually listening to.

After having spent probably a few hours listening to the playlist (i’m not sure if i’ve actually gotten through all of the anthems since i’ve had to start the shuffle over at times) and mostly passively (as background as opposed to paying attention), i think i’ve come to the conclusion that my original idea of having all of the national anthems get their spotlight isn’t going to work. Although the piece is going to have a medley sort of feel to it by default, i still want it to be feel more compositional than cut-and-paste-medley.

So what i’m working out in my brain now is making it a little more “Ivesian” for lack of a better made up word – i want to mash anthems together, but in a complementary way as opposed to a clashy way. I may also take some anthem themes and stretch them out rhythmically to provide some sort of slow moving bass line or something, and maybe do some other “masking” to give some of the anthems a unique sort of feel, but without losing the integrity of the anthem itself (so i’m not planning on playing any of them backwards or doing set inversions or silly things like that).

I still have several days of constant listening before i’m going to take some serious notes, and then a few days of listening after that to see if i can start to get a feel for the shape of the piece. That’s really the key – how to take the key material in my head and give the piece a big picture shape and form – once i have that, all of the details can be filled in pretty easily and/or get morphed. If after all of that i can’t get a feel of the big picture shape, i’ll probably go back to the drawing board.

Wind Ensemble Commission Possibilities

So recently I got commissioned to write a wind ensemble piece for the Xavier University Symphonic Winds. While i’ve been going a little batsnuts with marching band season rapidly approaching, i’ve been mulling in my head what the piece is going to be about.

The first idea i had was to steal one of my favorite sections of an old orchestra piece i did for an orchestra composition class in my grad school days because it’s a pretty great section and find a way to expand on it. That’s still the backup plan. But the second and now primary idea that i’m going with is a piece that i’ve been thinking about for the past four or five years now, which is a “anthems of the world” kind of piece, as in i want to incorporate all of the known current national anthems of the world into a huge fused hybrid that’s meant to arrive at some sense of global unity.

The potential backfiring of doing a piece like that is that it’s a pretty big undertaking. If this website is comprehensive as it seems, there are 212 national anthems that exist, and to find a way to journey across all 212 in an eight to ten minute piece that’s due by January 1st when i haven’t written a large ensemble piece in almost a decade seems like i could be biting off more than i can chew. i don’t want to suddenly have to cancel my Christmas vacation plans because, say, i still don’t know how to incorporate the Senegal national anthem into the piece and i don’t want to exclude them because then they could take me hostage or something.

It all boils down to timing. After my two long weeks of band camp are over, i basically have four months to write the piece. Is that enough time? Probably. Is it enough time on top of my full time job, the WSOP satellite event in early December and potentially writing a winter show for Hermiston that would be due around the same time? Maybe.

The one compositional stumbling block that i’ve already been trying to address in my head is how to end the piece. Is there an anthem that can serve as the Big Ending, one anthem that can serve as a climax over any other? As a citizen of the United States i could use that as an obvious answer, but this piece is meant to transcend any personal sense of patriotism i may have; the idea is that no nation is more important than any other, we are all one globe and one world. In that sense, creating an ending climax that resembles *any* of the 212 anthems is problematic, so chances are the music will have to be original and maybe derivative.

The other compositional challenge is how to fuse the anthems together in a way that can ensure that all of the anthems have some time in the spotlight. It’s easy enough to use some of the anthems as background material and i’d probably rely heavily upon that to give the piece depth, but to have an anthem *only* exist in the background is also counter to the philosophy of the piece.

Probably what the plan will be is to stick all of the anthems into a playlist and listen to them ad nauseum for the two weeks following band camp. Next would be to spend a day in a very quiet room or at a park or go on a walk or something and let the ideas buzz of their own accord around in my head, and then spend the next day with staff paper, a pencil with a very big eraser, and a computer, and see what manages to come out. If what comes out seems promising, i move forward with the piece. If what comes out seems strained and difficult and stupid, i start over.

putting musical pieces together in my head during a walk.

Typically i drive to the grocery store despite it being walkable distance. Mainly this is because i go to the grocery whilst on the way home from work and/or i don’t want to have to carry around 3-4 grocery bags for the walking trek between home and the store if i’m buying a lot of supplies.

Sometime last week, i decided to walk instead of drive to the store. The main reason was that i was in the throes of trying to figure out how to arrange Hermiston’s ballad, which is My Immortal by Evanescence.  I didn’t know the tune before it was brought up, so i had to listen to it a few times to get a feel for what the tune was about.  I put the whole framework into the computer, but i was dissatisfied with it for some reason; the pacing felt weird, or the climax felt weird, or something else entirely that i couldn’t identify.

I played the original tune a couple of times, then played my version.  Then i had both of them fixed up in my head pretty well so i didn’t need to physically play either back anymore, and i started pacing my living room, running both versions in my head, experimenting in my head with different variants of my own arrangement to see if i could figure it out.  I think at one point i stood up on my chair and looked down from “higher up”, as it were. It was the first time i had ever really done that; i’m not sure why it was a part of my thinking process.

At some point i realized that i should get something to eat/plan out the whole dinner thing.  How to make the ballad work was still in my brain and i knew that if i drove i would have to lose some of that focus, so that’s why i decided to walk.

Along the walk i ended up running into a friend of mine who lives close by named Gavin. He’s originally from San Francisco and basically works as his own construction company. He’s also a fairly talented guitarist who back in his heyday recorded a punk version of the entire musical “West Side Story” that developed a small cult fan base. He was out walking his two dogs.  We exchanged pleasantries and a couple of brief stories of our recent travel, and then went our own separate ways, and i went back to running music in my head while i walked.

I stopped thinking about the music briefly while i was actually in the store trying to figure out what my dinner plan was.  I think i ended up defaulting the salad bar which i’ve been doing usually these days, but i also bought some ground beef for cooking the next day.  My time in the actual grocery store was maybe ten minutes max, and then i started walking home.

The kind of focus i had during the walk and being in that particular creation space is an incredibly exhilarating and zen-like sort of feeling. My brain felt like it was working out some very intricate and fine details, fragments and pieces of this larger puzzle that i was slowly putting together in a way that would hopefully make the music sparkle.

Somewhere in the middle of the walk on the way home, i figured out how to make it work (take the chorus out of the middle, swap it with the B section that currently resided at the end, move these four measures to there instead).  I ran it through my head several more times before i got home. Once home, i put the groceries away, then immediately went to put the changes i made in my head into the Finale score so i could play it back and see if i liked the pacing and the general new intent.

And yeah. It was much, much better.