Tips for composing and arranging music

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dmu3tem
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Re: Tips for composing and arranging music

Post by dmu3tem » Tue Mar 22, 2011 4:11 pm

New Mass settings

Recently, to my great surprise, I started composing a Mass setting of the new translations. The experience was surprisingly informative:

(1) Because the stuff would have to be approved by a panel it forced me to tighten up on lots of details (I am congenitally careless as a copy editor). Attention to details of text and punctuation inevitably spilled over to attention being paid to melodic line, rhythm and harmony.

(2) Elsewhere there have been many posts about 'repetition of words and phrases'. Thinking this through afresh I came up with two (not necesaarily contradictory) standpoints:

either: The need for repetition suggests that you have not thought about the musical material with enough rigour.
or: 'Good' material tends to be recalcitrant. If adapted to suit text it is marred. In turn this suggests that absence of repetition in a work might mean your music is dull and uninteresting!

This fits into the distinction between composers who think 'melodically' and those, like myself, who operate 'motivically'. Motivic composition, because you are shuffling around and developing smaller units, means you are more likely to avoid problems with repetition; and it enables you to cross-reference material more subtely and imaginatively across several movements. The effect is less striking initially, but in the long run might prove deeper.

(3) The guidlines produced by the Liturgy Office assume that instruments can be employed, but only as embellishments to a congregational melody and keyboard accompaniment. This is interesting because it shows how Taize-St Thomas More methods have become common currency. The present scenario though offers the opportunity for a rethink. My own setting is scored for Congregation (with Cantor/Priest), keyboard and an optional melody instrument. The keyboard provides the necessary backing/shadowing for the congregation, but ideally the melody instrument is needed to really secure things for them (it does not supply additional descants). This means the keyboard is released to do a greater variety of things. Moreover, I have not written a 'general-purpose' melody instrument part, but provided a series of alternative parts exploiting the qualities of particular instruments: Flute, Cornet/Trumpet, Clarinet (and Cello), Violin (and Cello). Note too that it is only used in certain parts of each movement.

(4) Looking at the keyboard, I have planned for a keyboard with a sustaining pedal. In every movement except the Gloria however it can be played satisfactorily on a Pipe Organ. With the Gloria I supplied a special Pipe Organ part. This enabled me to use a wider variety of technical devices.

In short, even if I do not submit my setting to the panel, the experience of writing to a specific brief - that is what this amounts to - is a very good compositional discipline. It helps you 'know yourself' as a composer.
T.E.Muir

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Re: Tips for composing and arranging music

Post by presbyter » Tue Mar 22, 2011 10:49 pm

dmu3tem - can you post an extract - just melody lines perhaps? Now you've described your Mass I'm sure I'm not alone in the hope of seeing it.

dmu3tem
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Re: Tips for composing and arranging music

Post by dmu3tem » Fri Apr 01, 2011 10:35 am

I have received tips from Admin on how to do this, so I will try attaching the first sample; which gives the Kyrie. I hope this works!

Yes, despite saying it is not downloaded yet, it does come up.
MinSamples1.pdf
Kyrie of new Mass
(86.5 KiB) Downloaded 376 times
T.E.Muir

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Re: Tips for composing and arranging music

Post by dmu3tem » Fri Apr 01, 2011 10:39 am

Encouraged by this I will now try attaching the keyboard version of the Gloria (introduction and first verse)
Minsamples2.pdf
First part of Gloria of new Mass
(72.73 KiB) Downloaded 352 times
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Re: Tips for composing and arranging music

Post by mcb » Fri Apr 01, 2011 2:56 pm

Thank you, Thomas. May I ask whether you're wedded to that key? A minor third down might make the Gloria an easier ride for the assembly, especially first thing on a Sunday morning!

Martin

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Re: Tips for composing and arranging music

Post by dmu3tem » Mon Apr 04, 2011 10:00 am

Yes, you are quite right. It is jolly high - and sustained up there - for a congregation. It can be taken down a tone fairly satisfactorily (though some tweaks are necessary on the Pipe Organ version so that the fingers 'do not fall off the keyboard'; alternatively on a digital organ one can use the automatic transposer!)

The trouble is that taking it down a tone means doing the same with all the other movements, which are set much lower in the congregation's range; so here they would be 'growling' a bit. The Gloria is therefore most suitably sung by a unison choir as (to my surprise) appears to be permitted in the Guide for Composers notes.
T.E.Muir

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Re: Tips for composing and arranging music

Post by dmu3tem » Thu May 19, 2011 11:52 am

In the liturgy section there are two threads (one very extensive) discussing unaccompanied singing by congregations (The New Texts: Implementation without accompaniment. Unaccompanied Singing 2).

Aside from everything else that is discussed the act of composing a single line by itself is a very good compositional discipline. I remember that both at York University and on 'Contemporary Music' courses people were encouraged to do this. Often it was their very first introduction to composition.

The reason such approaches are recommended is that it concentrates attention on just a few aspects of composition - in particular on 'line', articulation, dynamics and rhythm.

Recently I had another shot at this by writing a modal congregational Mass. Maybe it exposes my lack of originality but certainly I found it more difficult to produce music that was anything other than anodyne. I suspect this is because one is limiting one's resources even further in the following ways:

: You are tied to a text
: You are limited by the vocal range of the congregation
: A Mass setting for congregation has to be quickly learnt, so you are driven in the direction of using the same 'root' material for each part of the service. The musical material therefore has to be exceptionally 'arresting' and 'deep' to withstand this sort of treatment.
: If you use an 'equal note' Solesmes plainchant system you limit your options even further.

A way round this is to use a wider array of more sophisticated devices - changes to dynamics, articulation, rhythm etc - but this tends to make the music harder for a congregation unable to read music to learn. If you go down that avenue you are effectively asking for a 'congregational choir'. In other words you often end up striking some sort of compromise between using devices that may (or may not) make the music more 'interesting' and music that may be 'more banal' but easier to learn.

In turn this throws an interesting light on Plainchant. Many expect it to be learnt by congregations; but some Plainchant is complex and difficult and clearly designed for proffessional calibre (or very experienced) singers (i.e. monks who sing it every day!). Many people today find even 'simple' plainchant hard to learn. Is this just because it is for them an 'alien' form? Or is it because the exact nuances required for effective performance and the Solesmes monastic tradition of self abnegation create significant obstacles?

Tonality presents interesting questions:

(1) In one sense a Diatonic (Major-Minor) system of scales limits your options. After all you are 'only' dealing with two 'modes'. However if your 'line' is not so much a 'melody' as a sequence of arpeggiated chords then you are, in effect, giving yourself the option of using the language of very sophisticated harmony with the great contrasts that can be achieved from switching between major, minor, diminished and other types of 'chords'; and, of course, you can use these as 'levers' for changing key.

(2) Modes, at first glance, widen your options, because you are dealing with at least four (or eight if you include the Plagal versions) scale systems. On the other hand, if you stay in your selected mode (as I did), this tends to weaken the contrasts you get from shifting 'chords' in the way that happens with the Major-Minor system of scales. It also limits scope for melodic invention. A way out then might be to change modes; but even here I noted a certain 'sameness' between all the modes; or, to put things more charitably, you are dealing with something that is by definition rather nuanced. You do not get that sense of firm harmonic 'direction' that can be achieved with the Diatonic system. Note also that the major-minor system gives scope for nuanced (as well as more contrasting) 'chordal shifts' anyway.

Another way out is to use a greater degree of 'chanting' on the same note, relying on rhythmic patterning, dynamics and articulation to produce creative results. Again, though, this is something that can be done in the Major-Minor system of scales.

Finaly there is the question of notation. 'Modern' notation - if used to its full extent - is much more exact than neumes (whose symbols have to be learnt), let alone stemless dots. This is particularly important for defining rhythms, articulations and dynamics.
T.E.Muir

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Re: Tips for composing and arranging music

Post by dmu3tem » Fri Jul 15, 2011 10:49 am

Here is a compositional technique I recently tried. It produces quite interesting effects.

The brief was to write something for congregation supported by 3 'melody' instruments (Flute, Clarinet and Viola) only with only an optional possibility of adding a keyboard.

So, instead of writing a setting for voices with keyboard and then bolting on instrumental parts afterwards I did things the other way around viz:

(1) I started by writing the voice and instrumental parts ensuring that the latter would 'stand up' without keyboard support.

(2) Then I added in an optional keyboard part.

I found this had three effects:

(1) It tightened up my choice of chords; since the act of adding a keyboard part led me to look more closely at the underlying harmonic sequence in the rest of the score.

(2) Because the instrumental parts had (if necessary) to 'stand up' by themselves I wrote parts that were less static with a bolder and more 'spare' texture.

(3) By contrast the keyboard part tended to be more in the nature of 'washes' of sound, especially if I broke away from just producing a basic four part harmonic 'skeleton' and used the keyboard 'colouristic' effects. (in particular writing passages within particular ranges of notes - High, Very High, Middle, Low, Very Low).

Thomas Muir
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