20 April 2020

All creatives have what I call “isms.” These are idiosyncracies that naturally evolve or become apparent as one builds up a body of work. Each time we encounter a blank canvas, sheet of staff paper, or whatever medium with which we express ourselves, the goal is to create something new and different — not only from what we ourselves have done before, but what everyone else has created throughout history. It’s a daunting concept if you stop and think about it! In spite of our most valiant efforts to avoid them, our “isms” come through. For instance, I tend to rely on certain altered tones in my compositions (specifically raised 4ths and lowered 7ths) and also borrowed chords (that’s a music term, not a copyright infringement) when I want to tug a little harder on the heart strings or add more “zing” to a piece. I used to wince when some well-meaning musician would read through one of my works and say, “Oh, that sounds so much like you!” But, eventually I learned to embrace my “isms.”

This self-awareness is the foundation for each new composition. Without completely changing direction, I veer a little to gain a different perspective while retaining a few Debra-isms from my own familiar toolbox. For instance, I recently wrote a vocal solo in French, which was a new language for me to explore. I like to score for instruments I’ve never tried before. My oratorio “A Family Portrait” includes hammered dulcimer, which required that I take a couple of lessons on the instrument in order to understand its limits and possibilities. I’m starting a new orchestration project of works by a Caribbean composer that will likely include guitar as well as some unique percussion instruments, and by next summer, I hope to be working on a concerto for Taiko drums with orchestra. Then, there are instruments that continue to challenge me, so I keep coming back to them in order to become more proficient. I seek to add new colors to my palette, so I experiment with them until I understand their useful properties. How will they blend or contrast with others already in my musical vocabulary?

Piano is one of those challenging instruments, even though I play at an advanced level. I also play flute and sing, yet these are instruments for which I almost never struggle to compose. Piano just plain confounds me at times. So, when I have the time and energy to really get it right — I return to the piano again and again. I love its timbre, its articulation possibilities, and there are few instruments that can outdo it in terms of range.

Last summer, I began work on a piano duo piece (for two pianos). I usually have a particular musician’s sound in mind when I compose. My aural model for this work is my dear friend and colleague (in the office next door) Dr. Pamela Haynes. My favorite of Pam’s many strengths is her ability to “voice” well on piano. This means she approaches the music more linearly than chordally. Her hands make the piano sing and phrase more than percuss. Pam is also a fierce pedagogue. So, with Pam’s voicing, her love of teaching, and my own composer “isms” in mind, I set three very clear parameters for myself as I conceptualized this piece:

  1. Whereas most piano duo pieces are composed for pianists of equal skill level, I want to make this Piano I part playable by a student, yet keep the PIano II part interesting and challenging for the teacher.
  2. Create a piece that requires students to think both linearly and vertically. There are melodies and counter-melodies the pianists need to pass back and forth seamlessly, while negotiating a backdrop of minimalist ostinato patterns. It requires pianists to listen attentively and yield to one another expressively.
  3. Create a piece that is entirely diatonic. That means zero altered tones. No raised 4ths and no lowered 7ths allowed; yea nary an accidental anywhere on the page. For me, this is the greatest challenge of all!

The composition is entitled “Tapestry” because of that second goal listed above: the interweaving of melodic threads through a larger harmonic texture. It will be three movements when it is completed. (Composers like to work in threes… what can I tell you?) Each movement is titled after two colored threads adjacent or near to one another on the color wheel (the way pianists sit when they play together), but with peculiar qualities all their own.

I completed the third movement in about 2 days last summer. It is titled “Scarlet and Amber.” I easily avoided altered tones by focusing on tone clusters. This gave me the dissonance I love without having to sneak in pitches that aren’t part of the original scalar material. The momentum in the piece comes from a lickety-split tempo, accented offbeats, and an exciting articulation scheme. A MIDI-rendered recording is below:

I started the second movement last summer, but had to put it aside in order to get some big projects organized for the 2020-2021 academic year (the work I actually get paid to do).  I finished that movement a couple of days ago.  It is titled “Azure and Violet.” This movement is slow, legato, and consonant — so the temptation was strong to lean on my old non-diatonic pitch friends. I stayed within my set limits, though and was pleasantly surprised by the result. A MIDI-rendered recording is below:

The first movement is mapped out and currently titled “Sage and Ivory” (this is subject to change of course). I hope to finish by the end of April, or perhaps mid-May.

Pictured with me below is my colleague and very dear friend, Dr. Pamela Haynes, to whom this work will be dedicated upon completion.

Pam and Me