In between working on learning to play the second movement, the next movement I’m writing in this five-movement piece is the third, which is very slow, and very serious.
The seriousness is almost a hindrance in composing, since it means that each note will have much greater significance, and so I’m experiencing a tendency to avoid writing at all in order to avoid writing a wrong note. Extreme seriousness comes close to the fine border it shares with ridiculousness – an over-dramatic performance with an apparent lack of genuine sentiments shared with the audience can sometimes be the object of sniggering.
Potential joking aside, my hesitance in writing notes doesn’t mean that composing isn’t happening – it’s more part of a phase of how the ideas, the global structure, the materials and their relationships are clarifying themselves. I usually find that at a certain point I get a sense of definiteness about when something is right, and as soon as that comes, I write. This happens at every level, from the general idea, macrostructure, choice of instrumentation etc. to the microstructure and choice of notes.
In this case I’ve written a beginning (some of which you can see in the picture above), not necessarily “the” beginning, and I have an idea about how I want it to develop. Soon enough more details will come and eventually I’ll be satisfied enough to call it finished. Luckily enough I don’t have any fixed time limitation like deadlines, other than not wanting to wait too long for the finished piece, so I can take advantage of as much patience as is necessary.
Depending on the nature of the piece and how clear things are, sometimes I’ll write loads, and sometimes I might not have any ideas or hardly progress at all. As one of my teachers Juan de Dios García Aguilera quite rightly often used to say though, the time you spend thinking about your piece is counts as working on it, not just the writing.
I heard a podcast with the composer Dale Trumbore in which she highlights the importance of “just showing up” to compose every day. I liked this because there’s not really a lot you can do to make ideas come other than making the time and space for them. Of course, studying, listening, reading, travelling, experiencing life or whatever is always good, but showing up for the daily meeting with the manuscript paper gives the music the chance for steady growth.
I find sometimes just looking at the piece with a certain investigative curiosity can clarify and develop things. Sometimes questions help, like:
What is the main idea?
What are the materials?
What is the structure?
What do I like or dislike about this or that?
Often, however, I like to just look at or listen to the piece and allow the mind to react to it. It may find aspects it’s happy with to build upon. If it finds parts it’s not satisfied with, the dissatisfaction implicitly contains the nature of the problem, thus clarifying the solution.
This week my musical efforts have gravitated towards guitar playing and learning the piece I composed. I had hoped to play some more of it for you this time, but it’s a complicated piece to learn, so I’m afraid it’ll take a little longer. The good thing is, I’m enjoying the learning process, which I’ll tell you about instead.
On the compositional side of things, I’ve also finished off the digital version of the score, which I might consider posting once I’ve learnt it and made the necessary follow-up adjustments, and I’ve been looking more at other movements, especially the third, which I’ll tell you about sometime soon.
A topic I often think about is practice, and because this week I’ve been working relatively hard on learning the piece, I’ve been getting more and more into ideas about practising musical instruments.
This stuff goes deep, so I’ll have to spread this over more than one post, and it will certainly be a theme I’ll come back to in later posts on this blog.
This time I’ll give you a general overview of some of this week’s thoughts on practice, which I’ll expand on in later posts, as well as some incidental odds and ends of interest.
Playful and experimental practice
The aspect of my practice I’ve been delighting in most this week is taking a playful and experimental approach. While this is something that I usually do anyway, there have been some concrete areas and parameters involved in my experimentation. These have fundamentally been variations on how I’ve used attention, repetition, as well as the content of what I’ve been practising:
There are a lot of points in this list that I’d like to go into further, especially the last two, but that’s all I’ve really got time for this week.
The place of focus of attention:
Body, e.g. left or right hand/arm
Feeling of movement of the arm, hands or finger(s)
Feeling (and releasing) tension inside the hand/arm
Feeling of the weight of the fingers and consciously using it, moving the weight of the fingers around the guitar, rather than just moving the fingers
Refining positions of fingers on fretboard
The above with varying focus between the senses, sight, touch, and hearing
Intensity of focus attention
Intense focus to create precise movements
Relaxed focus to assess whether the necessary movements are able to happen naturally
Observing discomfort and ease
This discomfort is very general, and arises when there is a lack of security at any level, be it a hand movement, or how well memorised a particular passage is.
The ease comes once this discomfort disappears, often after repeating the passage in question several times with careful attention.
Repeating single motions, passages etc. and experimenting with how many repetitions, seeing if and at what point the feeling of ease develops, whether they appear to be committed to memory, or happen automatically.
Which passages to practice using a “spaced repetition system“.
Attempts at skilfully using the struggle between interest and boredom.
A bit of a nasty topic, but I’ve also been trying to develop some all-essential calluses on my left-hand finger tips and right-hand thumb. The piece playing is pretty rough on them with all the heavy hammer-ons and pull-offs, and my thumb is taking a serious bashing in this piece from all thebass notes, so some tougher skin would be a bonus. The pain is bearable, but it’s just a question of whether blisters are counterproductive.
Other than that I’ve also started to include a little a-m-i scale exercise from Tengyue Zhang at tonebase.co to warm up and get my fingers moving before I tackle the piece. I’ve been using it to pay attention to developing more smooth legato playing, as well as good tone. The a-m-i scales also give my right thumb a rest, which it sorely needs at times.
To suit my purposes and keep things relevant, instead of the C major scale that TY uses on tonebase, I used my own, developed from my piece:
While this isn’t necessarily the scale used, it has the character and flavour of the interval structure used in the piece. I’m planning to learn to improvise using the styles and materials of the pieces that I write, so having something like this to practice is great.
Since last week I’ve mostly been practising this second movement of the guitar piece I’ve been writing. I haven’t made enough progress since what I showed you last week for it to merit another video, but I’m a lot more secure with it, which is nice.
That’s the thing I like about practising, it works. Progress can vary, but you always notice a difference, however small.
I haven’t played or practised my own music this much before. The piece is within my capabilities but also challenging, plus I like it, so it’s fun and quite motivating, both in guitar playing and composition.
I haven’t quite had the occasion now that it’s Christmas to make much written progress in composing the other movements, but they continue to develop little by little in thought. I’ll hopefully be able to show you the beginnings at some point in the not too distant future.
Notes on the notes
After last week’s preview of what the guitar piece I’m writing sounds like, I’d like to show you some of its harmonic aspects. With respect to harmony, I’ll also discuss some thoughts on writing for the guitar, and what I see as the problem of flexibility of musical material. Lastly I’ll show you the tuning I’ve used, and how I’ve designed the melody.
It might get a bit technical, so let me know how you find it, and feel free to ask me anything.
For this piece, I’ve chosen to use a harmonic and melodic scheme, i.e. how I’ve chosen the notes, that affords me a good deal of flexibility. There are reasons for this, so I’ll explain why and show you my solution.
The problem of flexibility
The guitar has all too often presented me with the problem of allowing me to write harmonies and counterpoint that sound fantastic to me and are wonderfully playable for a couple of bars, but alas, it rarely lasts. I try to take the idea further, develop it in some way, but the idea is too complex; the chords I’ve chosen are impossible to play in different positions, or I can’t play combinations of melodies in the configurations I want.
,This is obviously not the guitar’s fault, but the instrument can often handle a variety of textures and harmonies well, so it can be tempting to try and write things that just end up being too complicated. It’s somehow easy to forget that I’ve only got one left hand to fret the notes with. The onus is therefore on me as the composer to know the instrument and what works on it well enough to allow me to compose the music I want.
Here’s what I’ve done in this piece to solve this problem.
The harmony is essentially fairly simple, I just used intervals I wanted around open strings to define the sonority, mostly minor 2nds and 3rds, rather than particular chord schemes, to give me the freedom to make things technically a lot easier.
It often serves the function of providing more notes when the tension in the music requires it, and since the rhythm is very important here, it’s used for punctuating rhythmic accents, or at a climactic point.
The fingers dictate the harmony
The harmony I’ve used is very much dictated by what was comfortably available to my fingers and didn’t require much effort for me to play. I just worked with whatever notes were easy and comfortable to play, and if they didn’t sound too classical, that was enough.
I’ve heard a similar theory to describe flamenco harmony, such as when a barré (a technique which can requires a bit of effort for some) is left out of an F major chord, adding an extra augmented 4th and major 7th (the open B and E strings). The result is a very characteristic chord, and thus less effort equals better music. Hurray!
Open strings – tuning
I wanted to use certain intervals more than others in the harmony, so I used a scordatura of Eb (semitone lower) A D F# (semitone lower) Bb (semitone lower) E. If you don’t want to write in the classical harmony that the tuning was basically designed for, then it makes sense to change it.
I must admit I didn’t experiment all that much with it in terms of finding chord shapes and scales, I just chose some notes I liked and then started writing. The intervals were important in my choice though.
The two tritones between the top and bottom pairs of strings at an interval of a minor 9th are quite characteristic here, with the D a major 7th above the lowest note.
I like the mood the open strings have just by themselves. The three bass strings also sound pretty fat together. Have a listen:
The open strings are also very important notes in the grand scheme of things, especially the three basses. Why? On the one hand I could say that it’s because the harmonic scheme relates these pitches in the global structure of the music, the A largely functions as the tonal centre of the piece, with the Eb as a kind of Bartokian dominant, and the E#/F#, D as other tonal centres. But on the other, it’s because open strings are easy and don’t require much effort, and because they worked in ways that I liked at particular points in the piece. Basically I worked with what’s there, meaning what the guitar, as well as me, can do. Thus the musical material comes out of what’s there first, rather than imposing preexisting theoretical ideas.
Rather than a singable melody, I’m looking more for faster rhythmic movement, something towards spoken language. For me, this doesn’t mean there’s any sacrifice of expressiveness. I like the qualities of phrasing that can be found in the articulation of a minimal amount of notes, with sparing and careful use of certain notes.
As before, flexibility through simplicity is key here. I’ve basically used groups of four notes, which are a minor second, major second and minor second apart, as in the first couple of pages: E# F# G# A, with a sort of base or tonic of E#/F#, tension with G#, and a climactic on the fourth note, A:
I obviously go beyond this four-note range and change it slightly. For example the major second in the middle becomes an augmented second. There are also a few runs, with one from the lower register to the top; to maintain the sonority I used a scale with a few rules:
Never two whole tones in a row
Never more than two semitones in a row
About one augmented second (three semitones) per octave, always with a semitone on either side.
Phrasing the with minimal notes
I should mention that György Ligeti’s Musica ricercata II (as well as the analysis of my teacher Francisco Martín Quintero from when I studied in the conservatoire) was very important in guiding the phraseology of the first page, and how to use two just notes to good effect. I swear I didn’t choose the same E# and F# on purpose. Honest! They just fit nicely in relation to the open tuning and their position on the bass strings, and I like the slap of the strings against the fretboard with the hammer-on from the open string. Plus they’re two of my favourite notes.
Right now it’s the holidays, so it’s difficult to predict what I’ll have been able to do by next time. Hopefully I can play you some more, show you some of the other movements, or even something else… Watch this space!
Comments and questions
As always, let me know if you have any comments or questions with the box below, or find me with one of the round icons right at the bottom of the page.
Here’s me practising the piece I’m working on right now.
It’s only the beginning, just so you can hear a little bit and get an idea what it sounds like. And it’s as far as I’ve managed to learn how to play, complete with fluff-ups. It could probably go a couple of clicks faster too.
You can find the first draft of the score here if you missed it last week.
What you hear here essentially comes from the first 25 seconds of what you heard in last week’s video. You’ll hear what the other 16 seconds have turned into in a later post – when I’ve learnt to play it.
Context of this preview within the piece
What you hear is probably about a third of the whole of this second movement. Structurally, it’s basically a first theme, a transition, a second theme, a transition, and then right at the end there’s a return to the first theme, although modified.
Learning the piece
Since learning this piece is not easy, I’d like to talk about how I’m learning it, and maybe help anyone else who might want to do me the great honour of having a go at playing it.
The piece is actually technically pretty simple, I haven’t really used any very difficult chord shapes or big stretches (well, not too many), and there aren’t any really fast scales.
The hardest aspects
Confusion and spinning out
The technical side of things is not exactly easy, but the hardest thing I’ve found is mentally coordinating each tiny element of the piece.
Many passages use few different pitches, but played on different strings with different articulations – plucked, hammered-on or pulled-off. With limited variation in pitches, this means you’re playing similar things in different ways, and it’s easy to get confused about what goes where.
When practising a passage, you make a mistake, try again, make a mistake, try again, all the while with quite similar sounding notes ringing in your ears. This can be a bit of a spin-out. I’ve often had to stop and have a few seconds of silence to reset and re-centre myself, as it were, before carrying on.
After a while the confusion passes, and I’ve found that after a while you get the sense of the flow of the music and it comes through the fingers more naturally. It is taking me some practice though.
Pain, blisters and callouses
The right-hand thumb plays an essential, as well as loud, role in this piece. The flesh just under the side of the nail does take bit of a beating. A bit of pain never did anyone any harm, but I suggest stopping before you get a blister so the callous can form properly. Nice. I’ve decided to spare you pictures.
Because there are a lot of forceful ligados (hammer-ons and pull-offs), the left-hand index finger gets pressed against the strings in ways that can hurt a bit while practising. You get used to it. I reckon players who are more careful than me won’t get this problem as much though.
Interpretation of the piece
There is no room for interpretation! I play the piece exactly as the composer intended. Well, of course I would if I could play it properly. Hopefully with some more practice. You might have other ideas though, and that’s cool. Just make sure the character of the music is there.
I do, however, have the opposite problem, which is that I need to make the character clear in the notes. I haven’t used many words in this first draft, except the Italian brutale towards the end. That’ll take some more thinking.
Next time I’ll explain some more theoretical stuff on how I’ve made the piece – how I’ve designed the melody, and harmonic aspects and their close relationship to the guitar. Let me know what you think!
This time I’ll show you how I’m writing some of the second movement of the guitar piece I told you about in the last post, and let you see the first draft:
This blog is LIVE, that means you see what I’m writing as I’m writing it. So far I’ve done a first draft of the second movement. You can see it, warts and all, here. It’s not the finalised thing, so you can see bits of annotations about plans, corrections or uncertainties around the notes.
I’m showing it for general interest, and if anyone has any questions or comments (see below), it would be great to hear from you.
I imagine some of you would rather hear it first, but usually nature dictates that learning to play a piece comes after it has been composed, especially if the piece ain’t that easy. You can hear a tiny bit of me messing around with the basic material below, but I’ll do my best to try and play some for you properly next time.
The state of play
As I mentioned, this is a first draft, and it’s as far I’ve got on paper. A few things need to be sorted:
I need to be more sure that I’m happy with the use of the thematic materials, and there are some that I think could be developed more, either by adding more music, or reworking some bits.
The notation – the duration of notes could perhaps be more consistent. I might also add some barlines, time signatures and phrase markings to make it easier to see the structure of things. I’d do this when I do a computer version.
General checking of finer details.
Composing the piece
Starting with the second movement
I’ve started on the second movement, basically because I intended the first and last to be related to the other movements in some way and carry a fair amount of semantic weight, so I began with a different movement to see how things grow from there.
The musical idea of the beginning came to me first, and I felt from its character that it wanted some kind of prelude before it.
As I began to mention last time, here are some of the ideas I have in mind about the character of this movement:
Rhythmic, with a strong sense of movement
An improvised quality
Smoother and with more flow than the other movements
I intended to write a very “guitaristic” piece, which for me means one that is natural and comfortable to play on the guitar and minimises the awkwardness that can arise from technical difficulties of a musical idea played on an instrument that it is not necessarily made for.
This essentially means messing around with the instrument and using ways of playing that I like the sound of. Of course, an instrumental technique is not music, but there is no reason why you can’t make a good piece of one.
I was basically just doing something along the lines of this:
and decided to make a piece out of it.
With the left hand, there are ligados (“hammering-on” or “pulling-off” without plucking with the right hand).
With the right hand, there is the use of notes mostly played with the thumb interspersed with open strings, in much the same way as the famous “Asturias” by Albéniz, or Leo Brouwer’s Estudio Sencillo No. 1.
Putting these together, I was able to design an interesting line using just two notes, but varying between ordinary plucking with the thumb, ligado, and an open string. I like how the articulation can be used to vary the accents to rhythmic effect. If you are a guitarist, you’ll know that with a ligado you usually hammer-on or pull-off with the left hand straight after you’ve played a note with the right hand. Here, however, I’ve put other notes played with the right hand between the ligado notes to facilitate the flow of the articulation.
The resonance of the open strings in the melodic line also edges towards the campanella effect, in which notes are played on different strings to allow them to continue to resonate, as bells might. Church bells obviously aren’t as fast as this piece – here I’ve used it for the articulation and the atmosphere it creates.
To be honest, it’s actually a bit confusing, because often the pitch of notes is not in the order of the pitch of the strings. I’m hoping I (and whoever might do me the honour of trying to play this piece) will get over with time, and that it will help to increase mastery of where the notes are on the fretboard.
Next time I’ll play some of it for you, and talk a little bit about how I’m going about learning to play the piece.
Comments and questions…
… are very welcome, so help yourself to the box below, or send me a message with one of the icons below.
If you’re a guitarist, you could have a go at playing it yourself… do be sure to let me know how you get on!
Right now what I’m writing as I’m writing this blog is a solo guitar piece.
A longer piece
I’m basically writing it because I wanted to compose a longer piece for the guitar than the ones I’ve often seen. I used to feel that there were too many short pieces of not much more than a page or two, or pieces like suites with several shortish movements. While the guitar’s repertoire has expanded greatly and become enriched with all manner of styles in the last decades, my desire for longer pieces still remains.
I think I mentioned in a previous post that I thought it was time write some serious guitar music. This is more or less the beginning of that.
The most important thing here then is to write something – this means that rather than taking months to go deep into my artistic psyche and soul, contemplating how to explore the timbral qualities of the instrument and brooding upon what this piece might say about me as a composer in this world in 2018, I’m going bash out something that has more of an improvised quality and is fun to play. We’ll see. Sometimes preventing rumination on single notes is impossible.
I also want to write pieces I can play, which helps to add a dimension of technical realism to it, i.e. not write things that are too difficult, and thus increase the chance of other guitarists being able to enjoy it as well.
I found myself thinking “multi-movemently”, with the urge to compose a piece with about four or five separate parts that were different in character. I’m not about to write another suite though, I hope, and I reckon there are enough already – at least four that were good enough not to mess with. A sonata might be closer to how I was thinking, but I wasn’t about to start meddling with sonata form – there’s probably been enough of that too. The important thing is just to compose with the sort of musical character and materials I had in mind.
Four or five
The structure of all the movements in terms of their character will basically be:
Fast and rhythmic, brutal
Quite fast and rhythmic, smoother
Slow and intense
Humorous, somewhat erratic; moderate tempo.
Faster and rhythmic, brutal
You might have got a sense that the element of “force” figures here, you might have noticed that the word “brutal” appears twice. Probably something to do with the fact that I like music like that, but also with the intention of going beyond the intimate, delicate, nice and gentle character that the classical guitar tends to have. Not that I want to stop the guitar being like this, it’s just I want more badassness in the repertoire.
In the next post I’ll tell you about some specifics of how I’m composing the second movement, which is where I’m starting, with some of the sheet music too.