Hymn to a Blue Hour – demo

I thought I had finished “Hymn to a Blue Hour” last week.  I posted the blog entry about the piece and sent the initial MIDI demo to several people.  There were a few tiny things that still bugged me about the piece, though.  The “notes” were right, but there was one note in particular that just seemed risky: written high-D (above the staff) for the trumpets.  The piece was also barred in very slow rhythms — 4/2, 5/2, etc., with a few bars in 9/4 — and I thought that might be a lot to ask.  Sure, it looked like the score for Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, but was that style of notation going to be more problematic than it was worth?

My first thought was, Why not have two versions?  There would be the original version with the long meters and high D in the trumpet (and high C in the euphonium in the same measure!), and an alternate version with a modulation removed (taking the whole last third of the piece down a whole step, meaning that every presentation of the theme would be in the same key) and all of the rhythms cut in half, so 4/2 would become 4/4, 3/2 would become 3/4, 9/4 would become 9/8, etc.  I posted this plan on Facebook:

John Mackey is considering offering two versions of the new piece, “Hymn to a Blue Hour” — the “difficult” version, plus a slightly simplified “medium” version with a modulation removed (to keep the parts from entering the stratosphere as they do now) and time signatures simplified (2/2 becomes 2/4, etc.). Thoughts?

This generated more responses than I’ve ever had on Facebook — more than 75 comments. Some of the conversation follows:

Daniel Haysuskristo Snell nooo keep it hardcore-only.

Chris David Westover Nope! Offer what you envisioned. I’m excited to see the score and hear this new work. The last thing we need is simplified stuff. We need inspired works, so give us that version!

John Mackey Daniel & Chris — I’m talking about offering two versions. I imagine most people would order the “original,” but it makes sense to offer a slightly more-playable version that’s still the same piece.

Zac Brunell I don’t think it’s necessary to do anything like that. An ensemble should have to work to play good music. Not to say that all bad music is easy, just that I think the slightly less attainable material is that much more interesting in terms of the composer’s intentions.

Daniel Haysuskristo Snell or perhaps a version of it thats even harder? like mario galaxy 2 or something =P

Don Nathan Excellent idea as long as the music isn’t compromised. More John Mackey that is accessible to high school bands is a great thing! Do you think changing 2/2 to 4/4 is really necessary? Do you think it will effect the “feel” of the piece? I find many conductors of young bands will make that switch whether it’s marked or not, and I think it is sometimes a bad idea because it effects the flow of the music… too many pulses. It’s not that difficult for kids to learn to play in 2/2.

John Mackey Okay, Daniel — that’s actually pretty funny. It’d be like levels on games. “Easy,” “Normal,” “Hardcore.”

Jeremy Howard Beck John: why not just provide an ossia for that trumpet part? Seems like massively less work than creating a whole different version. And I second what lots of others have already said: once you start thinking in terms of an “easy” version and a “hard/original” version, you (unconsciously) start thinking of every musical decision in terms of that paradigm, rather than in terms of how it serves your vision. Write the piece you want to write and let players rise to the challenge of it.

Travis Taylor I think you should offer a retrograde version too, just for kicks and laughs. And it has to be played in succession of the original work.

Don Nathan A good conductor/teacher will have kids playing 5/2 without a lot of heartburn. In my experience, it’s really not a difficult concept to beat the half note. There are many lower level band pieces that use a variety of mixed meters including duple to triple switches and simple to compound switches. I say go with how the music should feel. That’s the most important consideration.

Drew Schweppe No, keep it the way you would want to hear it. Those kids will have to learn about the time signatures at some point why not now?

Alexander Roode Also, sometimes the register isn’t as much of an issue as the transition to that register, for example the trumpet 1-2 part in measure 93 would be quite difficult, even transposed a step lower. Playing above the staff after a 3 bar rest with zero buildup is a bit of an issue for younger players, at least from my experiences.

Don Nathan I have a high school band that played Ticheli’s “Angels in the Architecture” last year – 15 minutes of good music. As much as I would love to program “Hymn to a Blue Hour” , the high D in the trumpet would not work. 7.5 minutes = no problem. High D = big problem.

Bojan Gutic You could put the high D in the Clarinet part. I can promise you that most Clarinets won’t mind that and would gladly throw it up another octave just for fun! =D

Doug Martin I haven’t look at the piece in detail yet BUT, I did notice that high D in the first trumpet part… and, reading your comments and noting that the seems to be part of the issue, yes, as a trumpet player and high school band director: high C is a good deal better.

So I went back to the score, wondering if I could just have a single version, but one that was actually playable, without sacrificing the original intention.

What I realized, thanks to the Facebook comments, was that I was writing something that sounded sort of spectacular through MIDI, but was rarely going to sound as good with humans, even if they were DMA students at UT-Austin. That’s just silly. I could make this plenty majestic by shifting the octave down on this specific measure (m. 80), and brightening it with clarinets (thank you, Bojan) and piccolo. If I had D trumpets, it would be a different story, but with Bb trumpets that I want to sound beautiful — not harsh — a high D is just not good writing. I realized it wasn’t about mature players; it was about the fact that I’d just not scored this very well. I’d let my new sample library trick me.

I’d decided that the euphonium solo at the beginning of the piece (going up to Bb) was going to be cued in French horn, but when I talked to Jeff Gershman (conductor at Indiana, and a pretty incredible arranger), he suggested simply putting the euphonium and horn in unison. His concern was that more often than not anything above high A for euphonium just doesn’t sound as pretty, so why not make the color warmer throughout by putting the whole “solo” in unison with one French horn? Brilliant.

Alexander commented above that the trumpet entering cold on high B in measure 93 was going to be hard, no matter who played it. I did a little experimenting and tried having the trumpet enter a beat early and an octave lower, then leaping up the octave to the high B. This is easier to play, and, it turns out it sounds better. Thanks to one change that was made out of technical concerns, the arrival with the full tutti brass at the downbeat of 94 is much, much stronger. It used to sound like “winds, winds, winds, BRASS,” but now it’s “winds, winds, some brass, GOOD LORD, THE BRASS.”  Sweet.

Finally, as for the meter concerns, thanks to Don’s comments, plus emails from Ryan Kelly, and some notation suggestions from Jonathan Newman, I’m keeping the meters as originally intended, but with indications of how I want those bars to be conducted (in 2, in 3, etc.) to avoid the confusion I was worried about.

There’s only one version of the piece: the real one.  The full score (as revised) and MIDI demo are now online via this page: Hymn to a Blue Hour.  (You may need to refresh that page for the link to appear.)  I’m very excited for the premiere in December at Mesa State College, conducted by Calvin Hofer.


Cale says

As a euphoniumist, I love playing in the upper register of the instrument. I'm curious as to the comment "anything above A just doesn't sound as pretty." That's a beautiful register of the instrument, and any 'not-pretty' sounds up there are more a result of user error than a characteristic of the instrument itself. Looking forward to hearing (and playing) the piece!

Aj says

sweet. i'm diggin the piece. if you wanted to be really cheeky, you could do an "extreme series" of your pieces, but to earn them you've got to pull of "redline tango", "asphalt cocktail", and "turbine" in the same concert.

Robyn says

I know I've said this before, but I love love love these entries where you share a little bit of what's going on inside your head when you create your music. Besides the fact that it's exciting to get a peek inside someone's creative process, I think it's also a pretty important historical record.

Alex says

I'm always a sucker for slow pretty music with big brass moments, and it's safe to say that I can't wait to hear the piece played by actual people. Beautiful work!

Ed says

What a fantastic listening experience. The added nuances that human performances will add is sure to make this piece an instant success. The transitions are breathtaking and the emotional connections you've created are truly inspirational. Thank you!

Adam says

Holy cow! What a PHENOMENAL piece of music. It still has your sound to it, but the emotion of it is phenomenal, even with MIDI and a good sample library. I cannot wait to hear this live at some point. The harmonies, the dissonance leading to resolution, and the voicings are simply amazing! Good work as always!

Courtney says

I love the Gershman shout-out. Not only is he a fantastic arranger/orchestrater, he's an all-around excellent human being. Miss you, Dr. G!

Andrew Hackard says

Simply lovely, John. Thanks for sharing this.

Connie says

I have to agree with Cale on the euphonium comment - that is the most beautiful "singing" register of the horn! I am so looking forward to playing this piece some day. But doubling the horn? Hhhmmm.... In all seriousness, its a beautiful work! Congratulations John. I hope to hear Mesa State's premiere. And I hope Concordia Santa Fe will program this next season. I've enjoyed the others we've played.

Dan says

Goodness! John Mackey, this is marvelous! This new piece is nothing short of fantastic.

Bravo, and cheers on your new masterpiece!

Roger says

John, that is the sexiest MIDI I have ever heard....wow. That's some fine technology!

Markowski says

Ticheli has "Joy" and "Joy Revisited" which are grades 2 and 4, respectively, but still, same melody, twice the play.

Ariana says

This is absolutely phenomenal, John. Stop making me want to stay in college so I can play more great stuff like this!

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