Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Lehigh Choral Composers Forum: Day 2

Oh, how to work in these conditions....
Monday morning, day two of the composers forum (although it kind of felt like the official start), and after being thrown into the deep end with a speedwriting assignment at the welcome dinner, our first seminar was about reading through and sight-singing everyone's pieces, all of which were setting's of the same text; one stanza of a poem by John Logan. An amazing two hours of music, I have to say, a real insight into people's working minds, the type of music they enjoy creating, and also who they are as people! Particular highlights for me were the pieces created by David Neches (who really highlighted the circus themes of the text), and Andrew Bonacci and Michael Fairbairns, who both used some beautiful harmonic chord progressions. I've also got to praise Michael for the absolutely stunning tenor solo he performed for my piece!
- Throughout this first seminar, we also spent a lot of time talking about compositional process, what types of things free you up and get the creative juices flowing, and equally what your compositional roadblocks are, and who we are as composers. There's several types of composers people lean towards;

  1. Structuralists: composers who create in very methodical and structural ways
  2. Timbralists: composers who create via harmony and colours 
  3. Melodists: composers who create via melodic lines
  4. Contrapuntalists: composers who work predominantly with interweaving melodic lines
  5. Homophonists: composers who work predominantly with block chords of harmony 

For myself, I would most definitely say I am a melodist and timbralist, not quite in equal measure, as usually the melody would come first. For me, a beautiful melody surrounded by stunning 'crunchy' chords (or what us musicians like to call, "chord porn") is the ideal. I would say I lean a little more towards contrapuntal writing over homophonic, and that a structure of a piece is something I don't necessarily think about, it just tends to sort itself out as I'm figuring out all the harmonic language I want to use! Thinking about my own process, I am definitely an intuitive composer, and will write melodically, usually by sitting at a piano and just 'noodling', or creating vocal ideas.

After lunch, we had our one-to-one sessions, 18-minutes sessions with either Dr Steven Sametz, or Dr Sven-David Sandstrom. Today, I was with Dr Sandstrom. At this particular point, I hadn't decided what I wanted to do for my piece for the Princeton Singers, but I mentioned that I was planning to write for SATB, and had a few choices of text I was thinking about setting. Dr Sandstom suggested that I don't pick anything 'too easy' as a text, which got me thinking? What would you define as 'too easy' as a text? Because, in my opinion, a text is as easy as you want to make it! You don't need to use all the words, you can rework a text to suit your melodic ideas, and you can repeat ideas as many times as you want. A text I might find 'easy' to set would be another person's nightmare. And I guess that's the joy of this forum; discovering your own strengths and weaknesses.

One of the things I'm enjoying in the forum is definitely the social aspect. It's not so much 'social' in what people would normally think of, but rather, just talking to other composers about what you each do, and offering either advice to a composer who expresses similar ideas/interests to you, or asking questions to someone who is completely different to you, so that you might understand other people's processes (and thus, your own) better. One composer who I've bonded with pretty early on is Michael Fairbains. We're the same age, but I'm several years ahead of him compositionally, having studied composing early in my musical education. As composers Michael and I speak the same language: we're melodists and timbarists, our favourite composers are the likes of Debussy and Holst, and we both like to write music that we, as singers, would enjoy singing. For me, that's definitely very important. When working on a piece I will sing through every line of music to make sure that it is an enjoyable performance for the singer, and not just the audience or composer! Michael and I had a very enjoyable and nerdy afternoon sat in Molly's Irish Bar a few blocks away from the Arts Centre, where we drank whiskey, shared our music, and helped each other decide what text we wanted to use for our pieces - Absolutely awesome!

All the tools in the right space
After dinner was the main bulk of 'composing time' - well, for me, this is optimum time. Some people like to create in the morning... I can't do that! My most productive time is in the evenings, or late at night. Settling in to my little piano pod practice room, I had a supremely productive evening, and actually managed to write pretty much my entire piece. There's a few bits that, when listening to the Sibelius (the software program I use to score music) MIDI sounds of my piece I was left thinking, 'is that actually what I want?', but I decided to leave them for the session with the Princeton Singers. Normally I slug away and try and work the notes out, but this is a situation where I actually have live singers to try these things for me so I can hear things properly. It's a luxury I don't normally have, I figured I better good use it!
- Making my way home (home being a university dorm about 10 minutes walk from the Zoellner
Arts Centre we're based in), I ran into a fellow composer at the forum, Jacob Gelber, who was simply sitting outside and enjoying the night air (24C with a light breeze, FYI). I decided to join him for a while, and we had a great discussion about vocal technique, another topic of my absolute delight! I recently started studying for an Advanced Diploma in Teaching Contemporary Singing, and it was great to be able to impart the knowledge I've been assimilating recently to someone else outside of a teaching setting. And even more lovely on a warm and clear summer's night!

All in all, an incredibly productive day spent creating, discussing, learning about myself, and helping others - as well as many, MANY mentions of the phrase "chord porn"!

The home of creativity for the next week! Zoellner Arts Centre at Lehigh University, Bethlehem PA 

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