I recently started writing a piece for full orchestra, which is part of the curriculum here at CMU, with the School of Music's Philharmonic playing the piece in a concert. I had a discussion with my composition teacher Nancy Galbraith about the 'bureaucracy' of writing a piece like this.
I'd like to believe I just write music that is as good as I could make it for the specifics given, inspired by the world around me. However, there are so many other factors which influence music writing, consciously and subconsciously. It's an amazing opportunity to have an orchestra of sound at your disposal, and the possibility of an additional reading of the piece by the Pittsburgh Symphony. But both orchestras have limitations of instruments, rehearsal time, and even union obligations. The judge of the Symphony submission is the incredible John Corigliano, who I greatly admire. Then there's the chance at cold hard cash for the winner of the 'competition'. As I continue to write, to what extent will the work appeal to one group of people with a certain aesthetic sense? Will I make the work for my own personal growth, not caring about whether other people like it or not? I decided I'm not going to write a purely 'pop' piece, like I might be tempted to do. As fun as some dance-club beats would be, interspersed with clapping and pop music fragments, I'm here to write a more 'academic' piece and grow from that process. (Later, once the Icelandic Symphony gives me a call, I'll write them the dance-club piece on commission.) But I also don't think I want to write a purely emotional work, because it won't win the prize for being robust enough in form and development. As heartfelt as a 'lamentation' could be, it won't win any money because emotional works are not really 'competition winners'. And frankly, I'd like to attempt to win some money and pay back more student loan. I don't think there are any composers out there who'd rather not try and win the money, nah, that's okay, I'll pass. I'm gonna go home now and tape up my cardboard box for the winter.
My starting idea was Lake Myvatn, in Iceland (quel suprise), and the sounds that I might hear in my head that come from the changing weather there. Covered in ice in the winter, the lake is also a hotbed of volcanic activity. There are also millions of different birds on the lake in summertime, so I'm hoping to have some sort of sound representation of a in the orchestra, without using actual bird noises or bird calls (though I may pay a little tribute to Olivier Messaien, the composer king of birdsong). I think the drums will be busy with a lot of flapping wing noises. And maybe there could be some airy, distant chirps or something. The buzz of millions of mosquitos.
Fortunately, after our theoretical chat, I played what I have so far and Nancy liked my beginning work. I think I'm off to a good start with music that seems both Impressionistic/emotional, and intellectual and (hopefully) fun to play. I'm also writing the piece in a way I haven't done for a long time, writing a reduction down on paper from start to finish so that it can organically 'grow'. Usually, I come up with some snappy ideas and then plop them into the computer, and more or less piece them together, which has resulted in varied levels of success. This time, I don't want to write down the ending of the piece, and fill in the rest to catch up to it. I want the end to come on its own time. We'll see how that goes. I'm impatient when it comes to endings.