One of the most rewarding feelings I've had from writing this concerto is finishing up on writing all of the notes. Now you might say, "Well, that's ridiculous. The piece isn't finished yet!" And if you did actually say that (I'm hoping one of you did or this would be really awkward...), you'd be right. There's orchestration that has to be done, I have to go through the process of creating every single part, mix and finalize an audio realization, etc. Fellow composers know this process all too well, and it can take hours or days - EVEN DAYS - before I'm completely satisfied with how everything looks and sounds. On top of this, there's a little bit of extra work that has to be done with the piano reduction I've also created.
The good news is that everything is actually finished and I made my deadline! The score and parts are cleaned up, there's a decent MIDI audio file for Matt Gibson so he has an idea of what the piece sounds like, and all of the files have been sent to him! The bad news is that much of the process I wanted to show here isn't possible because, well, everything's already finished. On top of finishing all three of my summer commissions and preparing for grad school, I've had to crunch some time in cleaning up the files for the concerto. I'll show as much as I can, but this will be a little more text-heavy than picture-heavy, so the TL;DR version is:
The third movement's a sea shanty, the fourth movement's a wild and crazy night in the city, and part extractions are only fun with reliable software, reliable computers, a good playlist, and maybe alcohol.*
*The composer does not endorse young composers under the age of 21 to drink alcohol when doing part extractions. Or other activities. Or anything at all.
Ahh, part extractions - a composer's best friend and worst enemy. My best method is putting on a good playlist and, sometimes, there'll be a drink or two involved if the going gets tough. I love me some classic rock and prog rock.
Symphony X and Rush are also my go-to artists for part extractions. I didn't grow up listening to Tool that much, but will listen to them every now and again because I like what they've done.
The first - and most important - part of formatting parts is... well, formatting them. Most notation softwares tend to pre-format parts based on a number of factors programmed in the score. This leads to fun formatting issues like this.
The example above is actually tame compared to other part extractions I've done before. Basically, the grocery list I follow for part extractions is triple-checking (and I mean triple-checking) for:
Sometimes, compromises have to be made when something like a page turn doesn't work, and I've had to put in one or two blank pages in the parts to guarantee a good page turn. I'm hoping that this works smoothly for rehearsals and the performance.
On a good day, and depending on the length of the piece, I can get a draft of all parts done within a day. What's important to know, though, is that the first draft of completed parts isn't the official draft that should be sent out! Something is always bound to happen when the parts are exported to PDF, so that's why I tend to triple-check (again, TRIPLE-CHECK) EVERYTHING before I think the parts are completed. This can get tedious with longer pieces. Usually there's a drink involved. Usually.
So the final two movements of the concerto take the piece in a different direction on this trip the soloist undertakes. The third movement, "The Sea," is exactly that - a sea shanty. It's meant to be light, fun, a little comedic, and a relief from the darker nature of the second movement.
I've chosen to include some form of nostalgia in this movement to conjure up the feeling of "seeing" history unfold again in a different part of the American landscape. Though not technically discovered to be a sea shanty when it was first heard, "O Shenandoah" was later sung by sailors around the world in various forms. The song was thought to have originated from voyageurs and fur trappers sailing the Missouri River to do their trade in the 1800's. There's a sense of youthfulness, spirit, and adventure in this movement that I imagine young sailors would have going out to sea for the first time, so I thought it would be appropriate to include "O Shenandoah" within the framework in what I hope will be an organic way of introducing the song.
There's also a lot of pretty and magical colors in this movement. Celesta (or piano sounding an octave higher if celesta isn't available for use), metallic percussion, woodwind flourishes, and the like. It all makes for a light-hearted sea shanty.
The fourth movement, and final movement, is anything but light-hearted. There's a reason why I've decided to call it "Never Sleeping," the famous nickname for New York City.
As I've mentioned dozens of times before, this movement is raucous and wild, portraying the bustling energy of the city and its inhabitants. I've visited some big cities before, and now living in New York for graduate studies has helped me bring to life the vision I have for this movement in particular.
Much of the energy from "Never Sleeping" comes from several elements: a lot of extended techniques in the double bass (see my previous post about some of what I've used and are still testing with Matt), meters (time signatures) constantly and unpredictably changing at various moments, a little dose of fast-paced jazz, and a percussion section on overdrive that's meant to bring out the chaos and almost-unbearable nature of what an outsider's perspective of city life could be.
This percussion-driven movement includes a jazz-style drum set (briefly heard in the third movement, too!), a "workshop" consisting of more toms and more cymbals, and muted detuned timpani in passages like the one above. A lot of almost-overbearing power is happening here, and at times it may seem like too much, but again, that is the very chaotic nature of the movement.
Now I realize that this idea screams "ensemble balance issues." Literally. To compromise with this insanity, I've done as much as I can to balance the orchestration, the texture, and form so that this movement has some sense of cohesion to it. More importantly, the bass is very often playing on their own in a call-and-response role with the chamber group. The bass is still the foremost authority figure on the energy and tone of this movement. Finally, I've assigned the dynamics in such a way that should help put the soloist more at the forefront in places where I think is important.
I can only say "should" and "hopefully" for a lot of these things because I haven't heard any of this material live yet. Balance will be the #1 thing I'll be listening for extensively when I'm able to participate in rehearsals on this piece for the chamber ensemble version. It's likely there will ultimately be balance issues, and if that's the case, then I go back and tweak the parts as needed.
I won't give away anything about the cadenza just yet. That'll be for another time. Just know that the fourth movement ends as you would probably expect it to - still wild, but adventurous and fun like the rest of the concerto.
Next time, I'll talk more about the piano reduction, some of the challenges and obstacles to writing it, and other related details. For now, some much needed R&R.