The following are my 2009 "composer's diary" entries that captured my experiences composing a rather large work (for me at least!) for the combined ensembles of the Corvallis-Oregon State University Symphony Orchestra and the MPG Big Band (a talented high school band based in Germany).
Here's a balcony-cam video shot of the debut which was on May 19, 2009 at LaSells Stewart Center on the OSU campus - only the first 8 minutes or so were captured. (And obviously the sound quality was much better than the video rendition here!) Bravo to all the amazing musicians who played so wonderfully on each and every piece!
This is sort of a milestone for me as I've written for both types of ensembles before (orchestra and big band), but never as a combined ensemble. It's also been a while since I've written for a large "symphonic" type group, at least a non-virtual one! I'll try to be as honest as I can with these "diary" entries - maybe these logs will be of use for my teaching...or maybe just for posterity - either way, it feels like I should document something of this little adventure. So here's a glimpse into the making of A New Day, a glimpse into the process, the excitement, the mundane, some of the angst, the joys, anticipation, and how it all came to be, at least from my perspective:
March 15 - at this point (on a rainy Sunday morning) I've reached the "coda" section in my score (which is still in sketch mode) as indicated in my blocking. I've got a multi-staff sketch going and am trying not to over-think the mountain of orchestrational tasks that lay (lie?) before me. I "think" it might be possible to play all these sounds back once I start orchestrating, but that still remains to be seen (or better yet, heard). My "coda" hits at about mm. 291 (subject to change - I'm assuming I'll end up trimming some early measures for simplicity/sanity- still, this is getting to be a monster - not my usual 32 measure bon-bon!). My deadline seems close - must have the Big Band parts pretty much all orchestrated and detailed and ready to post by about April 15 (one month from today- taxes, yikes! Forgot about those!) so they can start rehearsing in Germany before they come to Corvallis. Then get the orchestra parts finalized and ready before the Monday April 27 first rehearsal (correction: the actual first rehearsal is April 20 but I didn't know that yet), of which this chart is merely one of several that will need to be rehearsed. In other words, I shouldn't be blogging right now!
Good thing there are deadlines - nothing would get done otherwise!
Overall, I feel good about the piece and hope to remain so. Some things are still being distilled to their essence. But I think it has a pretty good flow, lots of contrast/contour and emotionally, we'll just have to see. Every time I hear orchestras on TV (like the PBS Chris Botti special or Andre Rieu and his orchestra) I'm always amazed at the, I don't know - call it elegance or simplicity of the arrangements...I see a lot of players, but it sure does seem like a lot of "goose eggs" (whole notes) being played (layed...laid...lain...?)...and maybe that's all the TV world needs. (I'm not being critical - there's more to the music than that of course!) Usually there's a featured performer or two - and arrangers can get get away with large spans of the orchestra sitting around looking pretty, waiting for their entrance some minutes later, which consists of nothing more than, you guessed it, a giant "goose egg" played softly. Pay must be the same either way. For this work, I'm hoping to keep everyone somewhat engaged...sure there will be spans of rests where certain players aren't playing, but hopefully nothing like some of the orchestral 3rd trumpet parts I've had the pleasure to count through! (count with me: 83, 2, 3, 4...84, 2, 3, 4...yawn...uh, oh, where are we?)
I might have mentioned this, but this piece is called A NEW DAY. And Just yesterday I was perusing a section of The Week and glanced an article on Celine Dion (the theme was sentimentality and schlock - themes that I struggle with (or embrace?) when dabbling in the art of music and composing)...anyway, turns out her sold-out Vegas show is called "A New Day" - oh well...I knew my title wasn't going to be particularly original, but just for the record, my titling was in ignorance of the Dion show, and was so named because it just seemed fitting in this day and age - a new president (Obama), hope for the future...and (the pay-off) if you say the title fast it sounds like "A NUDE Day"! But again, that's really more of a fringe benefit and nothing intentional, consciously at least. I can only guess that the Dion team must have realized this too when they went with A NEW DAY as the title of their Vegas show.
March 31 - the last day of March! I've been busy orchestrating. Not without some setbacks (mostly technical). But thanks to an updated sound card (I went with the E-MU 1616m PCI card with the breakout box) and a slightly better video card (well, actually much better) I've been able to work in Finale very productively, save for the intermittent crashes anytime I use the note-mover tool for copying/merging notes from one staff to another. Finale support was helpful and I still have one more thing to try (removing the .ini files...naturally!) ...but the days when I couldn't narrow the issue down were not as productive as they should have been. Oh well - many more things are working right!
I'm up to page 20 of 25 in my orchestration (around measure 242!). There are many more details, but I'm blasting through pretty fast now. My main goals are to get this thing printed out again so I can put on my editor's hat and ruthlessly make some simple changes that will hopefully make it even better.
A day ago I was feeling so relaxed - I was thinking, yep, I'm gunna finish this thing, yes sirree...well of course I am. But my good feelings are constantly muddled, what with a bunch of other stuff going on (faltering economy, these darn dark and tough times, etc. Cue up REM's "end of the world as we know it..." - surely there's some good news out there?) - well, none of us live in a vaccum - each of us are affected personally and professionally by these tough times...all of these things are inextricably linked to what we strive for and work for... tough times either inhibit the creative process or fuel it. I'm trying for the latter.
My revised plan is to be through with the "macro" orchestration by the end of this weekend. That will be a good milestone, marking a point in time when it's just about done - save for about a million little details!
April 5 - it's been a busy weekend and lots of stuff going on. My oldest daughter gave a fantastic dance recital and my parents visited. Our Pacific Northwest spring weather has turned unmercifully beautiful....naturally, just when need to hunker down in my bunker. My trumpet practice schedule is off, but I try to play while the computer is rebooting after a crash...so my chops are holding firm! My family have all been very supportive - I'm working just about every spare minute I can now!
I learned on Friday that the first rehearsal is actually April 20, and not the 27th like I'd thought. Yikes - that set off a thunderstorm of work. It really forced me to fix what needed fixing and get on with it.
This morning I re-wrote about 15 measures in order to make the transition into the "chaos" section better...or maybe I made it worse! No, I'm pretty sure what I had was going to be a train wreck and even though it's chaos, the section needed some sort of setup and a bit more, well, "structure" - I've thought long and hard about adding a section of "chaos" into the piece. It's a challenge on many levels. The natural question is: why? Why put something into the score that's potentially so ugly and out of control? Well, why not? So much in our lives are ordered. We're always trying to keep on the rails. I'm certainly trying to keep the piece flowing - and a bit of chaos is merely one part of the flow.
As an improvising musician, playing off the cuff is more or less the norm for me. I also realize that when the notes on the page turn to slash marks, there still needs to be some motivation and intent serving as a "guide"...so setting up that section was sort of a priority. And although I can't say for certain how it will all play out, I'm glad I've got this little section in place. It makes sense to me - it's part of what I do. And now I'll get to hear what happens when about 60 musicians go into the wild for just a bit.
There's lots of stuff in the score that I know will work just fine. It's those unknowns that interest me most these days.
I'm orchestrating the last bit tonight. Reaching the end - wow, it seemed a long time coming, but this is really just the end of what I call my "macro orchestration" phase. Tomorrow morning (April 6) I'll once again go go to Kinko's to get another 11x17 score rendition- my last before the final (rehearsal) score printing. That will really help me mark things up, fine tune things and get me away from the computer for a while. I'll have lots to do - finalizing parts, finishing some parts (piano, percussion, string bowings, yikes!) - and then blasting through the parts!
April 17 - well, it's been a busy couple weeks during the final push, but the score are parts are now printed, the parts have been zipped up and sent to Martin in Germany (MPG Big Band) and on Monday we'll rehearse with the orchestra in Benton Hall for the first time. I must say this: composing is very easy compared to the work involved in putting the score and parts together. Still, I don't mind the grunt work. Hey, it's all grunt work and every little thing really does matter. But coming up with the settings and putting it all into a simple piano sketch - man, the guys who do that work have it easy. I want that gig! Musical orchestrational giants like David Metzger who orchestrate and produce hours of music are, well, just way beyond mortal.
I met with Marlan today at OSU to give him the parts and review the score. We were a couple minutes into it (listening to the score rendition on his computer) and was following along with his eagle eye and ear when the phone rang and he said he had to take the call...it was from Germany. It was Martin calling to say he received my score/parts and had listened to the score rendition. Marlan put me on the phone and I got a chance to chat with Martin. He had some very nice things to say. Wow, that was nice.
I mean, I feel very good about this piece, and know full well the thought and creativity that have gone into it. I've been very deliberate about what and why I wrote what I wrote, and feel that at this stage in my life I can just go for it, write what I want and not be too precious about it (to borrow from the Dave Storrs book of phraseology). Musically, I know what works and what could probably be "better" or whatever...but seriously folks, years can go by without much feedback (good or bad) on my work. I get feedback at gigs when I'm playing in the form of some clapping once in a while - hey nice solo, nice to hear you play, hey that's a cool little tune, yada, yada, but very little nibbles in the streams I fish in when it comes to large scale composition. And I'll confess that it's been a bit of a deterrent to writing more large scale works. With the cost of entry so high (time, not money), I've often questioned whether it's not better to bake bon-bons instead of a these gianormous symphonic cakes. I can create a few bon-bons in a few days. These symphonic ditties are like running a marathon.
So to hear some positive things about a score I worked pretty hard on today was, well, very, very nice. I don't necessarily expect to hear positive things but I won't lie and say I'm not moved and inspired when they do come.
Working on this piece reminded me just how fun larger works can be. And that I'm actually capable of writing beyond the "2 minute wonder" or 32 bar lead sheet.
April 20 - first read through/rehearsal of A New Day with orchestra only. They are such good players - truly amazing. No percussion tonight, so it was all bare naked. After my piece, I sat in on Trumpet but felt like I couldn't even play the instrument! But that's okay - I can, it's just that sight-reading is always humbling. So it gave me a great appreciation for just how well everyone was reading my piece down. There's much to interpret and there are many little stylistic things. I'll review the recording. I'm going to be adding a 3rd and 4th part to the horns I & II parts. There's five of them - I know 4 of them pretty well and that was their feedback. So yes, I'll add in some rich stuff. (I really wasn't sure how many horns there would be - assumed there might only be 2, but what luck with 5!). All things considered, it was a good first read through. But now I really need to focus in on how best communicate some of the stylistic things I want to hear - I think I'll slow things down. I must also work on my conducting - once the orchestra starts getting how it all fits, I want to be there to see if we can eak out just a bit more polish.
I really enjoyed listening to the other pieces - Coolen's piano concerto & Xia's Eulogy. It's always a wonder to see a creative thing, whatever it is, undergo the rehearsal process and eventually turn into something that transcends the page.
(Note: here in my diary process I slacked off a bit - mostly because I was so involved in the rehearsal process, out of "writing" mode, and simply not spending time at the computer!)
May 21 2009 - we did it! The "Around the World Extravaganza" concert on May 19, 2009 was a great success - so much fantastic music. A New Day had its debut and I was very pleased - and that's sort of an understatement. Meeting Martin and the MPG Big Band players was so nice. Such warmth, enthusiasm and talent. Martin expressed that the music was the bridge that allowed us to connect and share our lives with each other and I couldn't agree more. What a great experience for the MPG players to tour the country a bit. Hey, I want that gig!
As for the actual performance, I wasn't so much nervous for myself but rather for the musicians, both in the MPG Big Band and Orchestra...hopeful that they would feel good about their performance, knowing that if they did then it would be great all around. And from my vantage point everyone was spot on - I even felt good about my conducting...didn't get in the way too much or mis-cue (at least not while anyone was looking! That has sort of been my little joke - how amazing it is when the players actually see me make a conducting mistake - because I make so many!) Listening back to a balcony view video recording, the tempos seemed pretty much in the pocket...if anything, I may have been on the sunny side of the beat, but the energy felt really good, and that's just what she was on this night.
Marlan Carlson gave an eloquent introduction about the meaning behind A New Day (which he quite correctly inferred, presumably either from the music or my sparse comments here and there) - Marlan's impromtu introductory words are the perfect summing of what I was trying to express musically and emotionally:
"A New Day - a new day signifying new hope for peace in the world, for reconciliation, and for understanding between all peoples of the world with different ideas of how life should be lived."
Yes, yes, yes...that's exactly the sentiment!
I took the stage along with Dave Storrs (who added his wonderful percussion touches along with his valuable feedback and insights throughout this entire process) and the MPG Big Band vocalists and percussionists (who did a fantastic job). I was a bit late getting on stage at first because we were sort of bunched together off stage and I couldn't hear what was going on until someone said you better go now...so I took to the podium, not really nervous, but definitely feeling a bit naked out there in my little no-tails tux (I really must invest in some tails - I shouldn't be trusted with making fashion choices - clearly the "modern cut" like a business class suit to me!).
When I arrived at the stand to conduct, I immediately noticed that my score wasn't on the stand yet (a prevous piece was!) - so there was a bit of clumsy, but funny, business as John (the assistant who did a spectacular job on everything - there was just way to much for one person to do) promptly came on and we exchanged scores and I then got situated. And a bit more time while the solo mic in front was set up. Then finally the moment was right, and, well, we simply performed the piece.
And it's not an earth changing moment of course, but for me writing and performing "A New Day" was the culmination of many things - mostly just the satisfaction of getting to be involved in the creative process of writing and performing music. I love music - and I love being a musician and I have a love for my fellow musicians! Sounds cheesy, but I never tire of being involved in the process of making music - of talking about it, creating it, talking about it more and sharing what was learned. That's all I've really wanted to do for the last 20 some years. Well, that and have plenty of time to do all the other things in life that are fun to do (family, travel, learning and experiencing new things, etc.)...so to have these weeks of writing, rehearsing and then finally to have a performance in front of so many of my dear family, freinds, peers and the many special folks in the community...well, it was all a very rich.
Thanks to everyone for their personal feedback, comments, well wishes, and hard work. This was an experience I'll always treasure...I've enjoyed connecting with so many talented and creative folks, working together and sharing in a common purpose. It was such a joy to meet, work with a bit, and watch the MPG Big Band perform along with their director Martin; and also to get a bit of an inside look at the many hats and skills Marlan summons to shape and make a program like this one come together.
I'm inspired and look forward to the next thing...
Rob Birdwell (May 2009)