Thursday, May 21, 2009

A New Day - Notes on an Orchestral/Big Band Composition by Rob Birdwell


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!

Diary Prelude

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:

Feb 6 - around this time I first learn about a group called the MPG Big Band from Germany through an email from Marlan Carlson, the symphony director (and head of the music department) at Oregon State University. They're coming to Corvallis in May. MC asked at first if I might arrange something for orchestra and jazz band...that would be fun...and as the idea of that took hold I thought: "wouldn't it be fun to write something new, especially for the two groups?" MC said that sounded good and gave me the thumbs up. Uh oh...what have I got myself into?

Feb 10 - materials are being sent to me from MPG Big Band director Martin Drechsler in Germany. Recordings of his MPG Big Band, some sample scores, etc. Received them - a great sounding band for High School. These kids can play. They lean towards the funky stuff but they can swing. They should certainly be able to play whatever I can throw their way. Now what should I throw their way?

Feb 18 - my first sketches start coming out. I just start writing - some of the sketches make no sense. I'm fishing for sure, but there's something magical about just starting to write, even if it's not particularly high quality stuff. It gets the wheels spinning. I know that I can always fall back on some devices, but this exploratory process is interesting so I embrace it and just write child-like, without regard for any of the normal rules of the road or the logistics involved in working with the material later. That's the other "me's" problem. I wouldn't say writing for a "big band" (jazz ensemble) comes super easy for me, but I'm comfortable in that space...it is, however, easy for me to fall into pattern mode and pull the same tired rabbit out of the hat: a bit of swing here, some solos here, a shout chorus here, end it all on a big fat chord, etc. And that's fine and good. But with a whole orchestra there, the situation seems to call for perhaps something more - and that will mean moving into material that's not necessarily safe, tried or true for me. For years, I've wanted to write works that delve, at least for a bit, into the "serious" or "compositional" territory, unbounded by conventional constraints and expectations, going simply for sonic qualities, effects. But alas, I'm simply not a hired film composer junkie, and most of my compositions to date tend to be straight forward smaller combo settings that serve as vehicles for live performance and soloing...

Feb 22 - still sketching...man, where am I going with this thing? Feels like I've written a drop for what should be an ocean of material. Am I on the right track? What if I can't come up with something? What if the players hate the piece...what if my peers, friends, family shake their heads in disbelief at the horrid monstrosity I thrust upon their tender ears....well, all these thoughts and worse go through my mind at various times...as do the fantasies of writing something so stunning that everyone (picture multiple clones of me in the audience on their feet cheering, a la American in Paris) applauds wildly when the final notes are played...ho hum....I simply try my best to ignore all of that head chatter and get on with writing my piece. It will be what it be. And yes, it will be my piece. It won't be Bach...it won't be Bernstein...it will be Birdwell (oh, boy! now I am getting a little worried!)

Feb 24 - been using Finale for years and I'm using it to score this Orchestra/Jazz Band mash up. Suddenly though I wish I wasn't so reliant on it - wish I had ability (dedication?) to write it all on paper first and hand it to the copyist! I used to write the paper way, but never had the privilege of copyists. As I charge forward, my computer/hardware seems to be choking....playback of even simple stuff isn't smooth. I'm long overdue for a hardware upgrade. And of course money is too tight to mention, as the lyric goes. I suppose I will simply have to use my imagination. Never mind those dropped beats...never mind that what I'm listening back to sounds clunky and clumsy at best. I will be using more eye and inner ear for sure.

Feb 25 - heading to to U of Idaho for their annual Lionel Hampton Jazz fest for a few days. I went to school there for two years. I studied composition with Dan Bukvich and Trumpet with Bob McCurdy and was fortunate enough to see both of them while I was there, but just briefly. It was so nice to re-connect, even for a brief moment or two. Met up with some good old friends too, particularly Tom Garrett. Anyway, the festival was great. Bobby McFerrin was a highlight for me - watching him compose on the spot...his comments on improvisation and motion (and this applies very much to composing my new piece!) ...watching him teach and allowing himself to be so vulnerable...that was all very inspiring.

March 1 - I returned home and late that very evening I start to envision a totally new direction for the piece and decide to basically throw out all my 4 or 5 sketches in favor of a new fangled theme or setting. On this day I receive an email from Marlan inviting me to conduct the piece. Cool. Now all I need is 10 to 12 minutes of music to conduct! (The Panic wants to envelop me, but I laugh at it instead and tell it "not yet...check in with me bit later dude...I'm on to something now....")

March 2 - I wake up early and realize that abandoning my initial sketches (and vision) for the the piece is a really BAD IDEA! What was I thinking? Not that my new idea was bad (I don't really think I had a clear idea of what the "new" idea was - maybe I was just anticipating my next piece?), but just that after singing through my initial themes I came to the conclusion that they were, in my opinion, pretty good - they were "me"...and although it was apparent that putting it all together was going to be somewhat challenging, it just seemed like it was a better to go with the devil you know and love...if I'm going to have something stuck in my head for a couple months, well, I guess I want this stuff...and besides, it just might work. And if it doesn't...NO. It will work - it has to. I decide then and there to fully commit to my sketches/theme/vision.

March 3-5: I'm waking up at 5:30 or 6:00 am now to do the work and it's going slow but well. Writing music late at night can be miserable for me, especially if I'm under some sort of self-imposed deadline. It works okay for mundane tasks and that's what I use the night hours for. At the end of the day my senses are usually dulled and my judgment is generally poor. I fumble around way too much at night with technical/creative things, get side-tracked, get frustrated, then sleep is never good. So forget that. I'll go to bed a little earlier, and shift into early morning mode which should comprise all of March and the better part of April. Rehearsals for this piece start at the end of April. I need to get parts to the MPG Big Band kids/director in Germany sometime in mid April. My sense is that I'm on track - but who knows? I'm writing a multi-staff piano sketch. I'm scoring from a single page of "blocking" notes and various little sheets of paper on a clipboard - it's a technique started using while at the Dick Grove School of music. It has worked for me in the past - hopefully it will this time too. Almost up to the initial main "swing" theme that features (mainly) the jazz band. But a sketch is not a score - it's very thin and un-orchestrated. One has to have faith or whatever that this wire-frame will eventually hold water. There are a billion details and things to work out it seems. There are sections I will need to fully flush out and perhaps re-write. Wouldn't 6 months be a better deadline for this project? Would even that be enough? I have about 6 weeks. Yikes! "No Panic, you keep away from me dude." With my morning work done, I review the situation, start this diary of a blog and look forward to more early mornings.

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 24 - this weekend I went to Kinko's and had them print a rendition of my score/sketch on 11 x 17 paper. Since the sketch is somewhat thin (sometimes just a simple melody, bass, and percussion sketch) and there are so many parts, I just wanted to shift gears back to paper for a bit, see the entire score at a glance (my computer monitor is good, but not that good!) and pretty much mark up everywhere I want stuff to happen. I like working like this - so nice to just have a pencil in hand and say things like: "okay, english horn, you play this nugget, clarinet 1 & 2 you've got this ditty, and bass trombone I want you to go low...", etc. Sometimes I stick to these mini "work-orders" but often I deviate and improve things even more when it comes to actually entering things into the electronic score. The point isn't to get all the details on paper - it's to get the overall concept. The details can and will be worked out. (I saw evidence of this technique being used for a large scale musical orchestration project in 1996 called Kristina from Duvemala.) The technique is simple: save a temp version of the score; apply "blank notation" to all the stuff not currently scored (and for me that's just about everything except some percussion and my sketch staves); then group sections so each main section is on about a page or two, then print the sucker! My score is about 25 pages - to date, I've orchestrated fairly completely up to about page 6, depending on who you believe (the "optimistic me" or the me that is shaking his head saying, "dude, you've left so many stones unturned...snakes are going to bite you!").

It's amazing what a slow process this seems to be (and just how much I'm actually getting done in a relatively short period of time) - work, family, fun, loafing, sleeping (or mostly not for me!) taking out the trash, working out, playing catch, eating, birthdays, practicing, recitals....all these things and more must and do happen...and still, somehow this little matter of writing the music must also stay its course.

I've had some computer crashes (think it had something to do with corrupted RAM) - even though I've got 4 gig - and/or the sheer number of VSTs and/or the Kontact2 plugin...not sure...either way, Finale 2009 unkindly crashed while making a backup but allowed me to enter notes for an hour or more, the progress bar was frozen on around 44 percent, but somehow I never got the memo that my original .MUS score file was completely trashed...bad Finale, baaaaad....that set me back a couple hours and was no fun. Now I'm pressing CTRL+S after just about every new little change I make. I also run a batch file to move all autosaved and backup Finale files to another drive daily and after every writing session in case my computer decides to self-destruct on me. Did I mention this writing process seems to be going slow? Am I behind? Have I tried to do too much? No time to panic yet - it's simple really. If I orchestrate "N" number of pages per day then I'll be done by "X" date - at this point "X" is floating around April 5 or so, well ahead of any looming deadline - that would be pretty good. As with all types of creative projects, you always want to get your creative stuff to the point where you have a "deliverable" at any point in time. Even if it lacks some of the details. There's seemingly no end to those. And let's not forget about the invariably corrections, adjustments, and possible re-writes.

After the orchestration process, I'll spend some hours reviewing yet another draft print out (printing out 11 x 17 pages is surprisingly cheap at Kinko's - only 20 cents per page! I thought it would be more for some reason...) of the score, mark it up, finalize things, etc....then start creating parts! I'll prioritize the big band parts first as they need to be printed first, and then I'll finish up the orchestra parts. Lots of percussion stuff in this one - lots of every thing in this one!

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)






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