Getting close

I blogged about two weeks ago that I’d written the end of the sax concerto. I wasn’t clear about it, but I meant that I had written the end — I wasn’t finished. I had written only the end of the last movement — not the beginning of the last movement. All I had two weeks ago was the last 30 seconds.

I had set a deadline for myself of August 15 to finish the short score of the finale — and somehow, I made it. So, for the curious, here it is: a PDF of the short score of the entire last movement, cadenza included. (I still have to write the short first movement — so I’m not totally finished yet.) Please note that this is the short score, and it’s entered for MIDI playback, not for practical notation, so they dynamics are for my sampler. No note spellings have been corrected, and there are MIDI and tempo commands all over the place. It’s really more to show the process than the finished product.

This piece is wicked hard, but I’ve been assured that it’s doable. And really, isn’t that the point of a concerto? — to feature an instrument, and to make most people, even those who can play the featured instrument, think, Wow, that doesn’t seem humanly possible. You don’t want some concerto that anybody can play, right?
So that’s this movement: just on this side of what’s possible, and hopefully only possible for the best of the best.

To tie the piece together structurally, this movement pulls material from two earlier movements, “Felt” and “Metal.” It also contains a quote from one of my favorite pieces of all time, and, in my opinion, the best concerto written for any instrument in the past hundred years. No worries; I asked for permission, so hopefully there won’t be a lawsuit. It’s only 4 bars, but it’s the best 4 bars of my piece.

In a nicely-meta way, it’s a quote of a quote. I quoted John Corigliano’s Clarinet Concerto. The quote I pulled is, in itself, a quote — of Gabrieli’s work, “Sonata Pian e Forte.” Corigliano quoted it because it was likely the first work written for antiphonal musicians, and his concerto fully exploits that technique. I quoted the Corigliano because, well, it’s brilliant, and that piece has been a shadow hanging over me the whole time I’ve been writing my concerto. Before I started my piece, I said that the bar should be set at the level of Corigliano’s concerto. I, most certainly, failed to even approach that, but it was good to have a goal, right? And I have to say, the measures of my piece that quote Corigliano’s piece are pretty damn sweet. Who knew that Corigliano would sound so good with a soprano sax on top?

To thank him, here’s a picture of Corigliano in my mirrored aviators.


Kevin Howlett says

Being a clarinetist myself I've been wanting to write a full-on concerto for the instrument, and at Travis Taylor's urging I checked out Corigliano's Concerto.

Not so sure I want to write one now.

Kevin Howlett says

Oh, while I'm here:

How you do orchestrate your music? I guess a more precise way of asking is "how do you come to the decisions you make when you orchestrate"? For me, 90% of the time when I compose I have a very clear idea of what I want and how I want it to be orchestrated. Is it the same for you or do you work on getting the notes down first and then concern yourself with orchestration? If that makes any sense.

John says

Great question, Kevin. The short answer is that it depends on the piece. When I wrote "Metal," I mostly orchestrated as I went. With this final movement, though, I knew that the beginning was brass, and I knew where I needed timpani and bass drum, but the rest of the scoring isn't determined yet. All of that stuff that appears to be a piano -- that'll be, well, not piano. I know, based on the texture, whether it'll be winds or brass, but I've no idea what, say, the sax section is doing at any given point.
If, though, while I'm working on it, I think, "oh, this needs to be a clarinet solo," I'll make it that way in the short score. I did a lot of that with "Felt" -- orchestrated, at least generally -- as I went. With this finale, though, I just needed to get the notes out quickly -- and there are a hell of a lot of notes.
Orchestrating this movement will be a bitch, because balance is really difficult. I have two big climaxes, and I don't know of any way to make them as aurally satisfying as they need to be without covering up the soloist. I might try some tricks like doubling the soloist with piccolo an octave above and maybe alto or tenor sax an octave below, hoping to give the impression to the audience that they're still hearing the soloist.
Orchestration is kind of the most fun part because although it's creative, the really excruciating part -- finding the right notes -- is already done.

And yeah, I was talking to AEJ last night about Corigliano's Clarinet Concerto, and the fact that because of that piece, I don't think I could EVER write a clarinet concerto. It makes me think, Why bother?

Kevin Howlett says

Awesome--and I would have never thought of something like doubling the soloist's lines with someone else's to help with projection issues. God I need to go to college. Oh, I and gots a website up now!

Kevin Howlett says

Arrgh. Here it is I think

Cellist Caroline says

Do you have a soloist in mind yet? We had an amazing sax player with us in Bakersfield last season. His name is Ashu, and after hearing his monster chops, he only needs one name. Here's his info:

-- Caroline

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