Friday, July 5, 2013

Creating the Cultural Trail Theme

The first thing I imagined, when asked to write a piece for the dedication of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail (ICT), was a “fiddler in the street.” Perhaps because my friend Dean Franke (Assistant Concertmaster of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra) is such a willing and able participant for any wild thing I dream up. I couldn’t decide if he should be on a rooftop (that’s been done) or in a tree, or actually on the trail. I began working on ideas that were positive, jazzy and energetic (words that Brian Payne, founder/leader of the ICT, used to describe the mood he was looking for.) And I promised Brian I would find a way to incorporate a bicycle into the piece.

When writing, it’s good to just write, without analyzing what you are doing. Get it all out before you look at the whole picture. I had fun adding clarinet, trumpet and saxophones, and a cool, contrapuntal bluesy section developed from the main theme. But when I stepped back, I was uncomfortably disappointed. After all that work, I didn’t want to admit I was wrong. But I was wrong. Instead of upbeat, the piece came off silly, like something King Louie might have danced to in “The Jungle Book.”

Back to square one, I considered a sketch I had written just after a meeting with Brian, which, at the time of writing, I didn’t think would work. When I teach composition classes at Anderson University, we discuss ways to create mood and feel. Armed with Brian’s words, it would seem that using a major, happy key and creating a melody that traveled upward in pitch would be the best bet. I found it interesting that in the case of the Cultural Trail Theme, I ended up with more satisfying results by doing the opposite of what music theory tells me should work. The piece is in a minor key, and the melody is based on a descending line. Who knew!

Besides getting the main melody right, I had other hopes and goals for the piece. I hoped that I could write something with the right mix of complexity (to keep myself engaged during the writing process and to help the piece remain intriguing after multiple listenings) and simplicity (so that I can whistle it when someone asks me how it goes.) I hoped that it would work to have different sections in the piece sort of match up with various activities on the trail (walking, running, and gliding on a bike.) I hoped that I would be happy with the end product, and also, hoped that the other players and audience would enjoy it.

As the piece evolved, my ideas for instrumentation evolved and changed. When I finally had the bike puzzle figured out, I asked Jack Brennan, an ISO percussionist, if he would demonstrate some instruments, so that I could choose ones that would match the sounds I was making with the bike parts. He invited me backstage before a rehearsal and went around hitting and shaking each of their hundreds of objects until I found the right match (a guiro for the wheel ratchet and vibes for the handlebars.) Freshly inspired, I wrote the percussion parts later that evening.

I ended up writing the piece for 12 instruments – trumpet, sax quartet, vibes, congas, guiro, piano, bass, drums, and “cycla-phone”(what I dubbed the “instrument” made of bike parts) - and assembling the best team I could ever ask for to perform at the premiere.
• The Intro and Main theme – With the idea of “building” in mind, the piece begins with percussion (using bike parts and some “legitimate” percussive instruments.) Horns are added one by one, building excitement toward the main theme. With elements of a fanfare, the main theme is introduced by the trumpet and answered back by a saxophone quartet.
• B section – It has an unusual meter of 5/4, which gives the phrases more length. I was envisioning a bike race – not the beginning of the race, but later in the race when the bikers seem to be gliding. I actually studied a youtube video of a bike race while having this section playing in the background, to make sure it was a good fit. The section features long tones and rich harmonies in the saxophone section.
• Jazz interpretation of Main theme – A variation of the main theme returns, but this time it is tighter, brighter, quicker and jazzier, with the horns taking turns improvising on the theme.

Even though the piece took over two years to write, I try not to think of my mistakes as a waste of time. They are part of the journey. They help me understand what I don’t like, so that when the right thing hits me, it is obvious.

Watch the World Premiere-

By the way, I wrote “A Little Sweet” for Dean Franke, to make up for booting him out of this piece. Watch his Feb. 14 performance with Ingrid Bellman . . .

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