Turning — revisited

I’m in the process of applying for a grant, which is something that I haven’t done for several years.  Grants are, as they say, a crapshoot, and it’s true.  I applied for ASCAP Young Composer grants every year from the time I was 18, and I didn’t receive one until I was 29 — in my last year of eligibility.  So, eleven tries, and plenty of much-better composers never received one.

I was trying to decide what works to submit with this grant application, and that’s a tough decision — not because I have so many great pieces, but really because you never have any idea what that particular grant panel is looking for.  Do they like what I call “bleepy-bloopy” music — the kind of disjointed atonal music that, whenever I happen to hear it at a new music concert, I think to myself, “really?  People still write this stuff?”  Are they more into the “Bang on a Can”-type stuff (which is really more my own aesthetic, too)?  In other words, do the panelists want music that’s harmonically challenging (like, say, “Turning“), or rhythmically driving (like “Asphalt Cocktail“)?  There’s no way to know, because the panel is anonymous.

I’m submitting three works.  Two of them are large-structure works — my Soprano Sax Concerto and “Harvest: Concerto for Trombone” — because I’m trying to get funding for a new large-structure work, and I want to show that I can write a big piece.  But what’s the third piece?  Since the panel will be composers, and that’s a very different panel to try to impress than a panel of performers or conductors, I think I need to send something a little crunchier.  I’m  sending “Turning.”

I wrote “Turning” back in the summer of 2006 on commission from an old high school friend who is now a high school band director in Chicago.  My thinking was “slow music = easy music.”  Ha!  Oops.  Not only is “Turning” most definitely not a “high school” piece, it’s a piece that college groups find more than sufficiently challenging.  I mean, the bass trombone plays a rip up to high B in the second bar!  The bass trombone!  NO!  DON’T EVER WRITE LIKE THAT!

The original ideas for “Turning” came from two sources: 1) a new sample library I purchased that contained an instrument called a “Waterphone,” and 2) the beautiful brass chorale by Bjork that opens the film “Dancer in the Dark.”  Waterphone = creepy.  Bjork (really, any Bjork) = beautiful, haunting, and… well, creepy.  So my first thought was, why not combine waterphone and Bjork, resulting in music that sounds almost like the score for a horror film?

Admittedly, for whatever reason, “Turning” doesn’t get many performances at all.  I don’t know if it’s because it requires a waterphone, but that probably doesn’t help.  I purchased a genuine waterphone from its inventor, Richard Waters, and I rent it to schools that want to perform the piece, but that doesn’t really seem to make much difference.  (There are “knock-off” waterphones, but they really don’t sound the same, and the real instrument sells for over $1000, so almost no schools own them — an exception being the University of Kentucky, with Jim Campbell and his phenomenal percussion studio.)

I think it has hurt the piece that there hasn’t been a great recording on this site.  That isn’t the fault of the performances or the performers, but more the fault of the ridiculous dynamic range of the work, which ranges from FFFF in bar 1 to pppp in the final bar, and back and forth throughout.  (One thing “Turning” is: dramatic.)  The quietest moments use a lot of bottom-register bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet, and those instruments, at extremely quiet dynamics, often aren’t picked up by stage microphones, as they end up quieter than the hall ventilation system.  This means that without some meticulous mastering, many quiet chords in previous recordings were lacking the root of the chord.

Well, no more.  Because I needed to submit “Turning” for this grant application, I spent 8 hours yesterday (yes, 8 hours) tweaking the recording.  Richard Clary at Florida State University had given a wonderful performance of the piece back in 2007, and he had given me recordings from several of his rehearsals plus his performance, with the microphones in the same location for each recording.  This allowed for editing between takes and doubling of parts.  I spliced, diced, EQ’d, tweaked reverb, messed with compression — just about every trick I know — and I now finally have what I think is a damn-near perfect recording of “Turning.”

If you’ve ever listened to “Turning” before, I hope you’ll give it another listen.  This recording sounds nothing like any previous version.  When I sent him the final mix last night, Rick Clary said, “This might be the most beautifully terrifying thing I have ever heard.”


T. Feng says

I love you so much for mentioning Bjork, you have no idea.

J. Thompson says

One of my trombone players said after overhearing "that opening should be a ring tone" I wholeheartedly agree...

Add comment

Your comment will be revised by the site if needed.