Tour de Force: Episodes for Orchestra program notes, writing process, and synopsis.

Articles

In April 2008 the Pacific Symphony will premier a new orchestra piece that they commissioned from me. The following was wrtten for the PSO Musicians web site and parts of it will be included in the Program Notes and publicity for the concerts. http://www.pacificsymphonymusicians.com

Tour de Force

Episodes for Orchestra

Jim Self

2007

(Process — Program Notes – Synopsis)

 

Process

Tour de Force is dedicated to Sandy and John Daniels who generously donated a very large amount to the Pacific Symphony to sponsor the orchestra’s first European Tour in Spring 2006—hence the title. It was a very special milestone for the orchestra and had a profound musical effect on me. It was truly fun to play great music in great halls and to feel we were really “making music”. The dictionary defines Tour de Force as: a display of strength, skill, or ingenuity. Our tour was certainly that and I hope my piece is, too. John and Sandy are trained musicians themselves and appreciate what we do from a personal experience in music. They are our ANGELS.

Tour de Force is basically a positive, fun piece that came out of a very positive time in my life. I lost a lot of weight during the writing of the piece (on a diet). Except for the PSO European Tour, 2006 was (overall) a downer

year for me, with the diminishing of studio work, a bout with my health in the summer and the death of Tommy Johnson. 2007 is very up and this piece is up, too! Writing it helped me be up!

One always wonders where composers get their ideas. For me it is a mix of things I hear “in my head”, ideas from the many interesting pieces I play, developing rhythmic figures and trying to do new things. The latter part is (and always will be) the hardest. But it’s the trip through those innovative and sometimes surprising things that grab me. It is what makes composing (and life) interesting and fun.

When the PSO asked me to write a piece two years ago I roughly planned out my strategy for “getting it done”. Four six-month projects were planned: the first to listen, the second to learn a new computer music program, the third to writing sketches and fragments, (throwing out a lot along the way), then finally writing and editing the music. While I was concerned about having ideas for the piece I did not want to write it too soon and not be able to hear it with a real orchestra for a long time—but that is exactly what happened. It’s done and I have months to wait. BTW that is a good problem and it allows me to “tweak’ it and make the parts clean for the musicians.

Throughout it has always been my intension to write a piece that would somehow “reach” an audience and be interesting for the musicians too. Tour de Force is my attempt at writing a fun and challenging piece. The PSO musicians are my friends and colleagues and I know how most of them play. We are blessed with a virtuoso ensemble with many fine solo players. I have tried to “feature” many of them with good parts. My buddies in the bass section have a more interesting part than they do in much orchestral music. The “ripieno” group has nine solo roles. Oh, and yes, I wrote a fun tuba part that is more interesting than many other orchestral tuba parts. If Tour de Force gets other performances, I want the tuba player (at least) to enjoy it.

Having never written for a large orchestra before, I found the task somewhat daunting. I decided to spend the first several months listening to a lot of music that I really liked—Bolcom, Bartok, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten, Gershwin, Bernstein, Zappa and Don Ellis. The main reason was for orchestration and texture. During that time I played many concerts of interesting music including the stuff we did on the PSO Tour: Ein Heldenleben, Romeo and Juliet, Porgy and Bess and the Shostakovich 2nd Cello Concerto. When you are a tuba player in an orchestra you had better

get into what the others are doing because you are rarely taxed and have a lot of time to “count”. But now I was really listening for cool things. I also started thinking about why musicians and audiences like certain pieces— sometimes pieces that I think are boring. The Bolcom and Glass Commissions at the Gala Opening of the new hall were intriguing to me. At the LA Opera I also played several interesting works during this period including the World Premier of Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel, Tannhauser and Porgy and Bess. I played on several interesting movie scores in that period too: John Williams, Memoirs of a Geisha, James Newton Howard’s King Kong, John Powell’s Ice Age 2 and James Horner’s All the King’s Men stand out. My ears were really open and I’m sure I “stole” ideas from all of them. All those years playing Frank Ticheli’s music with the PSO was instructive too. He has a way with musicians and audiences.

Rhythm is often the driving force behind much of my music. I like to write in odd-meters or “imply” the effect of odd meters by accents. I had the pleasure of playing on Don Ellis’ last band. He wrote almost everything in odd-meters. One critic joked that the only piece Don did not write in odd-meters was an arrangement of Take Five. Tour de Force has some sections in 5/4 and in 5/8 but most of the rhythmic surprises come from anticipated and off-beat accents.

The next problem I had to overcome was my computer music program. Encore, which I have used since the beginning of my composing career, was dying a slow death of neglect by it’s designers. I knew it would be tedious and maybe impossible to write a symphony orchestra piece with it. While I get lots of my ideas from the piano, the tuba, singing and just from my head, I use the computer to “hear” the music–my keyboard playing is so bad that I could never play what I write. So a music program helps me hear, edit, discard and copy all at once. Anyway I knew I had to learn a modern program. After years of struggling with Finale I decided to try Sibelius. My project for summer 2006 was to learn Sibelius. I achieved it by “forcing” myself to enter (into the new program) an old classical arrangement that I had originally done in pencil. It taught me the basics of Sibleius and had a bonus–I was able to publish that arrangement.

I spent all last fall writing sketches and stealing interesting voicings from movie scores and concert music–me, with my trusty music note pad, all over town pestering musicians about their instruments and orchestration then coming home and trying out my ideas. Around Christmas I had a lot of down

time from gigs and teaching and got serious about writing. To my pleasure, the more I wrote, the more the ideas kept coming. Rather than through-compose I wrote several sections and then pieced them together. I call them Episodes. By February, all but an ending was written. That came along soon after and I started orchestrating, tweaking, adding and subtracting stuff, trying to write cool solos and parts for my talented colleagues. Then came the tedious part of editing the score and parts. Every mark, every dynamic, every little thing had to be entered. On June 2, I sent a preview score off to Carl St Clair. Now I am cleaning up the score and parts with the help of my friend Bob Joles.

 

Program Notes

How does one describe Tour de Force in style? Certainly not classical, profound or ground breaking. It may be exciting, beautiful and occasionally dissonant, fun, mildly provocative, rhythmically interesting, jazzy, bluesy, and Latin at times. There are a few musical clichés too.

When I was a young professional musician, I looked around and was surrounded by great talent. I realized early-on that the real artists in music were the improvisers and the composers. Part of me knew that I had to point my growth toward those things to fully realize a creative musical life. First came jazz—which, for a tuba player, has to be a labor of love. I have had some success as a jazz musician but “know” I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to be a better soloist. But it did lead to composing. Finally I could hear and imagine all kinds of stuff and now I am on that journey too. Together they keep me challenged and healthy.

Stacked perfect 4ths play a very prominent role in the harmonic structure. I like them because they are not quite major or minor sounding (although they are more major than minor). Modern jazz musicians often use the same sounds. They call them Sus 4 chords—which means the perfect 4th (one half step above the major 3rd) sort of hangs there without resolving. The flat 7th is the other interval which also leans toward resolving to the 3rd but doesn’t resolve either. Stacked 4ths have a very “open” sound and, when used over certain bass notes, create modal and bi-tonal harmonies. To me the sound is fresh without being as sweet as major or as subtle as minor. Copland, Britten and Bill Evans liked them—that’s good enough for me.

A listener may hear parts of Tour de Force and say “that sounds familiar” because at times they are “like” other pieces. I hate the use of the word “commercial” to describe my music but many of my ideas come out of the commercial world that I live in. Commercial somehow means making a profit—and that surely is not my music. William Bolcom especially impresses me with his eclectic style. I am a devoted jazz lover and that stuff is in my head for sure. Often in my life I have played boring, aleatoric, sound effect, new music. In films it can be very effective to the drama but in the concert hall it’s often composers writing for other composers or trying to be deliberately “out”—that’s fine–but not for me. My subjective sensibilities tell me that if one is trying to engage listeners and players there must be melody, rhythm, beauty, and some simplicity in music. Save the experimental stuff for the college professors–but, take it from me, few of them like it either. My music will not lead to any brave new world but is rather a synthesis of my world.

The nine episodes in Tour de Force were each composed separately. Then I wrote transitions and interludes to connect them to affect tempo changes and modulations. Episodes One and Seven are for a “ripieno” group of nine soloists. I wrote this music first. Episodes Eight and Nine are an extended ending utilizing and developing many of the idea from earlier episodes.

The percussion are quite busy throughout and are the glue. I trust the musicians will rely on them for the “feel” and placement of notes. Over the years I have written many works for brass, woodwind and string chamber music. But combining all the forces of a large orchestra presented many challenges. Orchestration, doubling, balance and forward motion became critical to me, as did the complexities of instrument ranges, writing for harps and a great variety of percussion instruments–all great learning experiences and great fun for me.

Throughout I tried to write interesting individual solo and section parts. Musicians are easily bored. In Tour de Force the performance challenges are not so much technical but rhythmic. The “grooves” must be there. The Pacific Symphony has so many seasoned studio musicians and reading complex music is one of our strengths.

I hope everyone will find Tour de Force interesting and satisfying to play– and to hear. Now I have to wait months to hear it myself.

 

Synopsis

Tour de Force is a series of nine episodes which happen to equal the nine concerts the Pacific Symphony played in Europe. All the episodes connect into one movement. The nine episodes have no musical connections to those European concerts and it is not a programmatic piece. My only nod to events on our tour was the “Dr. DeMoll” tuba quote from Strauss that connects Episodes One and Two. I hope Maestro Richard will forgive my plundering.

The piece begins with a fast loud flourish of cascading notes slowing and resting on a Pedal C in the low instruments.

Episode One is played by a “ripieno” ensemble (a group within a group). This group of nine solo players: three Alto Flutes, Trumpet, Tuba, Harp, Vibraphone, Violin and Hand Percussion plays a haunting slow interlude. I have always liked the sound of tuba and alto flute. The “ripieno” episodes were the first parts of Tour de Force I wrote.

Episode Two begins with a rousing fanfare in the horns, woodwinds and percussion followed by building section of contrapuntal lines based on (what to me is) a particularly interesting progression of altered-dominant chords— (jazz chords). The whole orchestra joins in the build-up to a chromatic passage in 5/8 meter. The real “feel” is a super-imposed 5/16 meter.

Pizzicato low strings and percussion introduce the Third Episode—a Latin Funk in 5/4. Solo trumpet and violins play the melody punctuated by piccolo, brass and woodwinds. A short interlude features solo timpani and the percussion section with flutes.

Episode Four is a high-energy section marked by sections of orchestral tutti with percussion material from the earlier interlude, contrapuntal sections and three-against-four rhythmic figures.

The first part of Episode Five is introduced by the harps. It is a development of the earlier “jazz progression” with a melody in the Solo Horn, Oboe, English Horn and 1st Violins. This leads to a growing contrapuntal section, gradually adding winds and tapering off to Episode Six.

It begins with a slow groove in the percussion. The Contra-Bassoon plays a solo bass-line with staccato solo woodwinds entering every two measures. Horns and muted trumpets add background figures. Low strings introduce the bluesy melody over the percussion and woodwinds. This Episode has a long build-up with the gradual addition of the all the instruments and ends with a Gershwin-esque Clarinet solo.

Episode Seven is a return of the “ripieno” group of nine playing different material. The Solo Tuba and Solo Violin are prominent in this section.

Episode Eight starts with a short intro of brief solos: Oboe, Bassoon, English Horn, Bass Clarinet and Trombone. This leads into what I call the “beginning of the end”. It starts with minimalist percussion figures on C’s and D’s punctuated by winds, brass and strings. Many fragments from earlier episodes are brought back and developed in this long ending. Surprising meter changes, dissonant trumpets interjections and sudden breaks happen all the way to the big finale.

A return of the horn fanfare introduces Episode Nine–a high-energy, “Tour de Force” ending with the whole orchestra (led by the percussion) driving the freight train. The piece ends with two measures of soli brass and finally joined by all on “Stacked 4ths” chords.

Total Time: 13:15

Jim Self

11/22/07

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