Scenes from a Heroic Story

Jul 25, 2018

The coming season brings a unique challenge and opportunity for me; our October subscription concert will feature, among many other exciting pieces, an original commission I have written over the summer!  I am equal parts honored and terrified.  The piece is entitled “Scenes from a Heroic Story” and is meant to be an open canvas to the listener’s own imaginative storytelling.  By setting the piece in obscure languages and not providing translations, I hope to give the listener an opportunity to create a unique narrative upon listening.  The piece reflects my obsession for different mediums of storytelling from film to literature, and hope it will stir the audience to inspiration.  The work is broken up into vignettes that resemble cinematic scenes such as “Flyover”, “Journey”, and “Conflict”.  


I thought I would take this opportunity to explain my process of composing as I get asked this often.  Each time the question is posed, the less of a consistent answer I seem to be able to produce.  The truth is that every opus I have produced has been born from different circumstances and was written in different processes.  There have been a few things, however, that have been consistent in my limited experience as a composer:


1. Germination of the idea: this is the catalyst for a piece.  In my short career there have only been a couple instances in which a commission has been proposed to me with an assigned text or theme.  I have been lucky in that I have been able to choose my own topics and subjects often.  Many times the germination of an idea comes as a product of being outside in nature.  Even just recently when I was hiking in Vermont, new ideas sprang into my head.  The combination of slowing down, being in a quiet place, and witnessing incredible natural beauty has a way of re-energizing my creative output.  Another very common way that an idea for a piece begins for me is as a result of improvisation on the piano.  My composition teacher Scott McAllister advocates for this and often says that your improv sessions become your pieces.  The third main avenue for creative inspiration for composing is when a text strikes me as powerful or worthy of setting to music.


2. Improvisation, collecting and organizing ideas: After the beginning stages of an idea have formed, I immediately set about thinking of themes, chord progressions, etc, by sitting at the piano and simply messing around for awhile.  Often several interesting ideas will take shape immediately and a couple of gold nuggets are fleshed out enough to start writing.  Before I get too far in the writing process I attempt to plan the form of a piece.  Most often this simply means jotting down on a piece of paper the broader form (A section with two main themes - B section that is in a closely related key with one new theme and a developed version of A section themes - back to A section - Coda, etc).  Most recently I tried something from Bruckner’s playbook; before I wrote more than four of five measures of this new piece, I charted out the form by planning out how many measures each section would be and even what key areas and themes these sections would utilize.  This turned out to be helpful this time, but I can see that it will not always be the case.


3. Writing: After a reasonable plan has been worked out, I start writing.  If the piece is for a larger ensemble, I go ahead and start with the full roster of instruments rather than doing a piano reduction and going back later to orchestrate.  I try to adhere to my predetermined academic form as much as possible unless a great idea strikes me.  If this is of interest, I usually start on manuscript paper by hand, then give up about three pages in and write on Finale (music notation software on the computer).


4. After getting to a “double bar” (the end), I usually put the piece down for a period of time.  When I come back to it I always feel like I am taking a fresh, less biased view of the piece.  At this stage I usually end up re-writing 20% of the piece.  


5. Editing and cleaning up the score: after polishing the rough draft to a level that I am happy with, I go back and add slurs, tempo markings, clean up anything that looks disorganized on the page, etc.  Usually this process also leads to a couple of re-writes.  When I am happy with it, I usually send it to a trusted friend to look at.  This usually yields a few minor improvements.  At this stage, I have to be done with the piece and I usually don’t ever revisit it for changes or improvements after this step.


As I mentioned, there is no one way and I think every piece I have written has gone through a slightly different creation process.  Perhaps this lifts the veil back slightly for you to see how an original composition could possibly be created.  You’ll have to come to our opening night concert on October 28th to see the piece come to fruition and to find out if the process has worked!  

To learn more about our October 28 concert, click here.