Photo: I.A. Freeman

This piece, by composer Steve Hicken, originally appeared in Burning Ambulance #3 (available physically and digitally from The percussion concerto he discusses had its premiere this past week, so it felt like the right time to present the essay online.

Facing a Blank

When the editor of Burning Ambulance asked me to write a piece about how “classical” music is written, I was very interested and a bit taken aback. The reasoning was that the readers of Burning Ambulance probably have a good idea of how a popular song or a jazz chart is put together, but generally may not know how a composer of concert music (I don’t use the term “classical music,” because in the profession it denotes a specific era and place, namely from about 1775 to about 1825 in Vienna) goes about his or her business.

There are differences in how popular music, jazz, and concert music are composed, performed and recorded, to be sure, but I don’t want to focus on them. These differences may or may not get at the essential differences between the art forms—I’m not convinced that there are essential differences between these types of music outside how they are distributed. I’m qualified only to discuss the processes I go through when I write my own music, not that of other composers of concert music, or of the creators of jazz and popular music.

The making of art consists in a series of decisions—thousands of them, most of them unconscious or even “automatic.” These automatic decisions, the things we do in our art that are consistent or habitual, may add up to an individual artist’s style, an artistic DNA. But those decisions are not the ones that make each piece unique, even if they result in the markers that (to a great extent) identify a given work as that of a particular artist. It’s the conscious, deliberate decisions that make each new work distinctive, and they are what I want to talk about.

Sometimes the initial idea or motivation for a piece will be external. Someone will ask you to write something for them to play, or you’ll get one of the dozens of commissions you apply for, et cetera. Usually these situations will come with some requirements—most often in terms of instrumentation, but sometimes the music will be for a particular occasion, and sometimes the length of the piece will be a consideration. Often, of course, these factors combine, as when someone wants a three-minute fanfare for brass and percussion, to be played at the opening of a new concert hall.

Once the instruments/voices are set, other considerations come into play. One of the most important of these is the personality of the performer or performers you are going to write for. Performers have their distinct musical personalities and one of the joys of composition is exploring that in the context of your own musical personality. Both composer and performer are artistically stretched and take their work to new places in this kind of collaboration. This kind of collaboration informed the process I went through to compose my Percussion Concerto (2010), and I’ll refer to that process for my examples in the rest of this article.

I met percussionist John Parks after hearing him play the solo part in a couple of recent concertos for percussion and orchestra. We talked about music and performance, and I decided pretty quickly that I wanted to write a piece for him. He’s a very adventurous musician and teacher, and I’ll always be grateful to him for lending his talents to this project.

I had frequent meetings with John, usually accompanied by beer, at which we talked around how each of us saw the direction the piece should go. He suggested that it be scored for solo percussion and wind orchestra or band rather than for orchestral accompaniment, because there were so few pieces like that at the time we had the discussion. The concertos he had been playing were centered on drumming of one kind or another (either on timpani or on other drums), and he was looking for something different. He wanted to explore the many kinds of color available from percussion instruments besides drums.

I don’t know how many composers do this—I know that some do—but I like to set up “rules” for myself in each composition. The first rule for this piece was “no drums.” So at this stage of the game, all I knew that this was going to be a virtuoso piece for solo percussionist (without drums) and band.

Note: The music I write is not based on tonality in any thoroughgoing sense. That is, the progress of my music is not grounded in any systematic way in the movement of chords or bass-notes away from or towards a home pitch or tonality. There is no agreement in the compositional or musicological communities on what to call this kind of music. I use the term “pantonal,” since at some point in almost every piece, any pitch can be heard as a home pitch, even if only for a moment.

Structure or form in tonal music is created through establishing, elaborating, and moving away from keys that are more- or less-closely related to the initial key, then (usually) returning home. In this way a great deal of Western music has the same narrative structure as the West’s founding epic—like Odysseus, composers are always looking for a way to get home after an adventure. Two of the most important factors in our following (and sometimes understanding) these journeys are “pattern matching” (the use of repetition of themes and chords), and “position finding” (the ability of experienced listeners to have an idea of where they are in the tonal scheme). Pantonal music can rely on pattern matching to a certain extent, with recurring motifs or other kinds of recognizable gestures, and position finding more indirectly—since there is no central tonality, there is no home to leave and return to.

Given the standard definition of “virtuosity” as “brilliant and showy technical skill” and “bravura display,” it can be difficult for a member of the audience to tell if a virtuosic passage in a pantonal work has been executed brilliantly, or if it is a quick and sloppy series of wrong notes. I realized that the solo part of this piece would have to take this factor into account one way or the other—either to deal with it or work around it, and I thought this should be one of the part’s central focuses.

No drums in the solo percussion part: the implications of this idea would lead to another series of decisions. Will the soloist play only pitched instruments? What is the relationship between the solo percussionist and the percussion section of the band? Will they play instruments different from those played by the soloist (including drums?), or will they play the same instruments? In performance, the audience will be able to tell whether the soloist or the band percussionists is playing what they are hearing, but what about in a recording? Should I worry about that?

At this point in the process of this particular piece I made a lot of decisions (many of them of the unconscious variety) in a cluster—not all at once, exactly, but over a period of several weeks. It’s hard now to reconstruct what they were or in what order they came to me, because they were very much interrelated and dependent upon each other.

Writers often talk about facing a blank page when they sit down to begin a project. For me, unless the piece is a response to a very specific request or commission, the equivalent of the blank page (or computer screen) isn’t an empty page of manuscript paper but rather an expanse of time I need to fill with music. How long should this piece be? How many movements should it have? Those questions occupied many months of work and sitting and thinking. In fact, a great deal of music that ended up in the final version of the Percussion Concerto was written before I knew how many movements the piece would have or what their structure and character would be.

John Parks is a serious science fiction fan. When he conducts percussion clinics at colleges and universities across the country, he talks about how science fiction informs his playing and his worldview. My own interests in science fiction run toward movies and (especially) books that create a world then let it run, or run down, and in my overall interest in time, what it is and how it works. “Time’s Arrow” is, in addition to being the title of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, the idea that certain very short events (particularly biochemical events) are as coherent if they go backwards in time as if they go forwards. The musical applications of this concept were intriguing and far-reaching.

I wrote some phrases for marimba that would work both backwards and forwards. Some of them were palindromes, phrases which are exactly the same backwards as forwards, and others were more complicated. Most of these would use a small number of pitches, usually three to five, relating to a central note. The very short phrases were made up of rapidly moving notes of the same rhythmic values (sixteenth notes at a tempo of quarter note equals 126, or 504 notes per minute)—the simplest of which were five, seven, nine, or eleven alternating notes. The longer phrases were much more complicated; they still were made up of these sixteenth notes, but now they weren’t palindromes. Now they were different phrases depending on which direction they were played, because the contours were reversed and the pitch content would evolve differently, but they still made sense whether they were played “backwards” or “forwards.” I decided to write a movement based on the Time’s Arrow concept and the phrases I had already written.

Note: We talk a lot in concert music about structure and form. These words are often used interchangeably to describe the shape a piece of music takes in time. I use “structure” to describe how a piece “works” on a moment-to-moment basis and “form” to describe its overall shape. In the first movement of a classical-era symphony, the “form” in this sense is more often than not an exposition of the melodic/harmonic material of the movement, followed by development and/or elaboration of that material, ending with the oppositions of the exposition more-or-less resolved.

In most of the music I’ve written in recent years, I’ve used layers of very slow beats, usually not faster than three or four beats per minute, to manage the music on both the structural and formal levels. The presence of two to four of these beats, superimposed on each other and usually coinciding only near the beginning and near the end of a piece, creates a rhythmic grid on which I can plot the formal and local events of a piece. These structural polyrhythms are too slow to be heard as beats and are usually submerged in the texture rather than emphasized—they are as likely to appear as an unaccented note in the middle of an accompanimental figure as they are to announce the beginning of a new section, and they do both.

“Time’s Arrow” was about four minutes long. The solo percussion part was almost entirely for marimba, playing the palindromes and the longer, equal-note-value phrases. The percussionists in the band provided color through cymbals and triangles, and the band either imitated the marimba in the phrases or played chords derived from the notes of the marimba melodies.

After finishing this brief movement, I decided that the Concerto would be made up of a group of short movements based, like “Time’s Arrow,” on concepts in the study of time or on aphorisms about time. Among the many ideas I gathered were Albert Einstein’s statement that “the only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once” and a line from Delmore Schwartz: “Time is the school in which we learn, time is the fire in which we burn,” which happens to also turn up in Star Trek.

The first of these short movements I worked on after the completion of “Time’s Arrow” was a slow piece called “By the Ocean of Time,” after a chapter of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, which I have to admit I’ve never read. The appeal of this metaphor was and is irresistible—the idea of time as a vast, amorphous body of past, present, and future. Music is made, of course, of notes; their pitches, rhythms, and volumes; how they sound together and how they sound separately. But it has always seemed to me that the real heart, the real stuff of music, its grandest subject, is time.

“By the Ocean of Time” begins with a long roll on a bass drum, starting very soft and, over the course of about 25 seconds, swelling to a merely soft volume level, and then receding again into silence. A second bass drum, articulating the second beat of a structural polyrhythm a few seconds after the first bass drum, plays a similar swelling-receding note. The soloist plays quiet, ringing tones on a variety of triangles, cymbals, and wind chimes.

And that was as far as I got.

That slowly unfolding beginning and the musical ideas it suggested to me, including the building of waves of chords arising from the growl of the bass drums and increasing splashes of color from the percussionist, required a larger temporal canvas than the three or four minutes I had originally planned. In addition, a longer movement threw the overall plan for a series of aphoristic pieces out of balance. So it was back to the drawing board on the large-scale form.

In the meantime, I kept playing with and developing ideas and material. John Parks is a tambourine virtuoso—it’s amazing what he can do with what seems to be an extremely limited instrument. I decided to write a cadenza (generally speaking, an unaccompanied solo in which the soloist can take liberties with the tempo) for tambourine, lasting about a minute. As with all of the music I was writing at this point, I didn’t know where in the great scheme of things it was going to fit.

Note: This description of the process of writing a piece of concert music probably makes it seem as though it is a solitary activity, but there was as great deal of collaboration with Parks during the conceptualization and composition of the Percussion Concerto. This collaboration took place over many months, in many discussions, listening sessions, score study, and in listening to him play the mind-bogglingly large and varied number of instruments a well- stocked percussion studio has in its inventory.

John spent some time with me going over various techniques for playing the tambourine. I decided that the notation of the cadenza would be specific with regard to rhythm, and whether each note is played by striking the tambourine or by shaking it. The specifics of producing the sound will be up to the individual performer, and there is a lot of room for the performer to assert their own musical personality.

The collaboration has extended into the performance preparation stage of the work. After preparing a copy of the solo part, John asked if I could make certain adjustments, some of them involving changing notes and eliminating a few instruments, and then reassigning their notes to remaining instruments. I’m certain there will be plenty of revisiting going on the more he gets immersed in the part.

I was beginning to gather a fairly substantial amount of material, about six minutes worth, but I still didn’t have a large-scale plan to fit it into. As I was going over the material I had and the less developed ideas I had come up with, I started to see that there were essentially two different kinds of music I was dealing with—slow, color-oriented music that laid itself out in waves of various kinds, and fast music in more-or-less even note values, which sounds either mechanical or flowing. Most concertos are in three movements. Some are in four, as are most symphonies. But there are a number of concertos and symphonies that are in one or two movements.

Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, from 1935, is in two balanced movements, each of which is divided into two sections. Many of the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski’s major works are in two movements, with most of the dramatic weight carried by the second movement, and the first acting as a kind of introductory upbeat. The music I was writing for percussion and band began to feel like it needed to follow a similar pattern.

The formal outline I settled on for the Percussion Concerto grew out of these ideas about time and out of the music I had already written. This is not unusual—I’ve found that in most music there is an ongoing dialogue between the surface of the music and its underlying structure. That is, the form of the music can sometimes be heard in the structural surface, and the form is suggested in that surface.

Among the central metaphors and ideas of the 20th Century and of Modernism itself were fields, waves, grids, and motors. These metaphors all reach into a number of areas of endeavor and knowledge, and they combined to give the titles and the unifying ideas for the two movements of my Concerto. “Fields and Waves” became an eight-and-a-half minute slow movement that took off from the bass drum waves of the sketches for “By the Ocean of Time.” “Grids and Motors” developed into an 11-and-a-half minute movement that begins with the tambourine cadenza and ends, after an extending section of very fast “mechanical” music, with the “Time’s Arrow” music virtually intact.

The two movements shared a common conceptual basis. They shared common instrumentation and common rules. I wanted them also to share underlying musical traits, too. I mentioned earlier that I chose the pitches in this piece from collections of notes that gently suggested a central pitch. I decided to use the same “progression” of central pitches in each of the two movements, as a unifying thread. I used a special 12-note series10 to lay out these progressions—it moves mostly in fourth and fifths, which are two of the most important intervals used in making tonalities. These pitch collections and this particular kind of progression combine to give the two movements a similar sound, despite the fact that their moods, textures, and speeds are very different.

In my experience, it is at the local, note-to-note levels that the habits of working that constitute style come into play. I like to build chords with wide intervals between notes (resulting in chords that take up a great deal of vertical musical space), with the root note (if any) in the middle of the texture, and a wide variety of colors among the instruments playing the chords. The many overlapping chords of “Fields and Waves” share these characteristics. I have a distinct preference for five-against-three polyrhythms, which have a slightly swinging, slightly erotic pull to them. The solo percussion part, as well as the band accompaniment, is full of these rhythms.

Composition is neither slowed-down improvisation nor reverse analysis, descriptions I’ve heard many times. But it does have elements of each in it. The laying out of the large-scale formal plan for each movement has a touch of the analytic in it, to be sure. Deciding, for example, where the big sections begin and end, based in part on the beats of the structural polyrhythm, involves a thought-out idea of how long certain kinds of music should go on and how that affects the balance of the movement as a whole. At the same time, how to do the transition, whether there should be overlap or a sudden, flash cut kind of change, is a kind of slowed down improvisatory moment—there’s no right or wrong answer, usually. One solution may work as well as another, but you have to pick one, as anybody who’s soloed in a rock or jazz context knows.

In the end, for me at least, all the pre-compositional spadework, the structural polyrhythms, the tone series, the pitch collections, and the rules create a musical free space for me to work and play in. In that space I feel that I can construct pieces that strike a balance between planning and improvisation, a balance I find attractive and expressive.

During the rehearsal process I go a long way towards finding out if the piece has achieved that balance, as well as if it is fun to play and rewarding to listen to. There are almost always small revisions to be made during the rehearsals for a premiere, and sometimes, bigger ones must be made after the premiere. That’s just part of the process, and it’s always rewarding to get performers’ and listeners’ reactions.

With today’s software packages for notating (and in some cases, composing) music, with their built-in playback capabilities and the availability of massive sample libraries containing almost any instrument imaginable, a composer can hear a reasonable facsimile of their piece at any stage of composition. Still, no machine playback can replace the anxiety and thrill of hearing a piece read or performed for the first time. One of the most exciting aspects of that first hearing is that there are always surprises. No matter how much experience you have, no matter how much you listen to the playback, there are always some moments, or passages, or effects in a piece that surprise you when you hear them for the first time. With any luck, most of the surprises are pleasant ones.

In the case of my Percussion Concerto, I’ll be finding out soon.

Steve Hicken

2 Comment on “Steve Hicken On Composition

  1. Pingback: Steve Hicken – Percussion Concerto | Burning Ambulance

  2. Pingback: Steve Hicken – Percussion Concerto | Burning Ambulance

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