Despite the brutal schedule of working in the scoring profession, I always look for other creative avenues. Last spring, I composed “Incantation” for flautist Jenni Olson, and it is now available on her second studio album, “The Dreams of Birds,” from Delos Music (on CD or digitally from iTunes or Amazon MP3).
Jenni is a remarkable musician and our collaborations go back more than a decade, to when we met at the USC Thornton School of Music. She was a featured performer in my earliest orchestras, assembled in college to record film scores for directors I still collaborate with today. Fans of mine will recognize her haunting flute tone from evocative solos on my scores to “Human Target” and “The Cape,” among others.
Jenni asked me to contribute an original piece for her first studio record back in 2006: “Three Pieces for Trio.” This composition was the subject of one of the earliest blog entries I ever wrote. The piece, scored for flute, upright bass and accordion, includes some of my best melodies and most intricately layered harmonies. The Trio was a ‘sequel’ to my “Three Pieces for Quartet” and “Three Pieces for Quintet,” which also included accordion and, believe it or not, a tuned watercooler jug played as a percussion instrument! As you can probably guess, I’ve always had a fascination with writing for unusual instrumentation.
For “Three Pieces for Trio,” all three players are asked to perform extended, unusual techniques on their instruments. Key taps, bass body slaps, accordion button clicking… you name it. Finding flute players and bassists for the material would be relatively easy, but the accordion part is a bitch (that’s a music school term). Jenni quickly discovered that it was essentially impossible to find anyone other than myself who could perform it.
The high degree of difficulty in the accordion part has meant that “Trio” has been performed only once, at its premiere at a 2006 Alternajazz Music Festival. Jenni is a constantly performing artist, but unless I’m available to do the accordion part, “Three Pieces for Trio” is left off her concert programs.
When starting her second album, Jenni approached me once again. Though I love “Three Pieces for Trio,” I was determined to write her something that could be performed more easily, so that it might have a longer life on the concert stage. But, I still love eccentric ensembles and unusual instrumentation. My challenge was to preserve those values and still find a way to incorporate exotic sounds.
This time, I wrote for another trio, one more common in the concert world: flute, bassoon and harp.
“Incantation” is all about extreme registers. I wanted to write for the widest range I possibly could, pushing the limits of notes beyond what is commonly heard with these instruments. The flute plays from the lowest breathy tones of the bass flute, to the highest piercing tones of the piccolo, bypassing the more traditional flute entirely. The bassoonist growls at the deepest pitches of the contrabassoon and dances perilously at the upper register of the bassoon.
Even the harpist detunes strings, strikes the body of the instrument and creates exotic buzzing resonances. The notes in the extreme registers of these three instruments can be difficult to play, and are sounds we are unaccustomed to hearing.
“Incantation” evokes a séance. Exoticism and mysticism were at the forefront of my mind as I composed. As the ritual begins, deep, gong-like tones are struck by the harpist. By pedaling half-way between certain notes, the harpist is able to generate a buzzing sound during the resonance, augmented further by applying fingernails gently to the strings. The contrabassoon offers fluttering key clicks, without any pitch, that emulate flickering candle flames.
The ritual is led by the piccolo, offering an exotic melody between the harp hits. It is easy to imagine some sort of ceremonial dance while hearing this solo. It sounds improvised, though it is actually entirely notated.
After the piccolo states a few phrases, I introduce the main thematic material. The harp begins the main ostinato:
With the flute and bassoon playing in their extreme registers, that left the middle register open, so the harp occupies the range between the woodwinds. The piccolo returns with the dance-like melody, and the contrabassoon offers ominous statements of the main theme underneath.
[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Incant02.mp3|titles=Ostinato and Main Theme 1]
Finally, the piece assembles into a more traditional orchestration of melody and accompaniment. The piccolo and contrabassoon play a melody in octaves while the harp develops the ostinato between them.
However, even this more traditional layering still sounds very exotic. The low growls of the contrabassoon and the piercing tones of the piccolo are rarely combined as a melodic duet like this. They are spaced so far apart that, if you were to play this on a piano at sounding pitches, a person of normal stature would have to stretch their arms out as far as possible to be able to do it!
[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Incant03.mp3|titles=Ostinato and Main Theme 2]
These kinds of wide-ranging duets are not uncommon in orchestral music, but more rare in chamber music simply because most chamber pieces don’t call for the less-common instruments that can play these extreme registers.
After developing the main theme for a while, I wanted to give the harpist a chance to shine. So, the woodwind players take a moment while I shine a spotlight on the harpist by writing a virtuosic cadenza:
Though not as difficult as the ink would suggest, this is still a pretty challenging passage that involves tone clusters, pedal trills and some fast arpeggios. For the album version, harpist Marcia Dickstein tore this up!
While the harpist is getting a moment in the limelight, the flautist and bassoonist are switching instruments, to bass flute and bassoon. Thus begins my favorite section of “Incantation,” the development:
The harp establishes an Eastern-inspired 7/4 groove by striking the sides of the instrument like a drum. This pattern is augmented by percussive key clicks from the bass flute and bassoon. (This texture reminds me of my “Typewriter Two-Step” from “Three Pieces for Trio!”) Then, the bass flute introduces an ostinato in its lowest register.
Breaking the standard delineation between accompaniment and melody, I had each instrument offer secondary sounds. For example, while striking the instrument’s body, the harpist occasionally throws in pitched notes in the upper register or an occasional short-range gliss. The flute, though playing the bass line, also throws in a few key clicks in empty beats. By carefully staggering where these events occur, I maximized the amount of sound being generated at any given time, creating the illusion that there are more than 3 musicians playing.
After playing deep resonant growls on the contrabassoon for so long, I wanted the bassoonist to finally get a chance to shine. So, I wrote exotic solo lines that are developmental variations of the piccolo’s opening solo. For the Delos recording, bassoonist Christin Webb performed this beautifully. Hearing the bassoon play the upper melody while the flute plays the bass line is a very unusual orchestration, and I must say it worked marvelously.
From here, I worked my way backwards to the beginning again, developing the melodies further as I went. Eventually, we return to the darkness with the same, ominous harp gong-tones, the flickering candle flames of key clicks and the piccolo solo that began our séance. At the end, the candles are blown out and only the resonance of the harp remains, fading into blackness.
I had two primary goals when I set out to write “Incantation.” One was to push the limits of my woodwind and harp writing as far as I possibly could, and I think I was definitely successful. These are instruments that are capable of playing in the extreme ranges most often reserved for strings and piano, and yet they can still be expressive and evocative in them.
My other goal was to write a piece that Jenni could finally perform without having to track down specialty players or instruments! Jenni has performed “Incantation” several times and the audience reception has been glowing. I hope that this piece may live on in the concert world, and that other ensembles might tackle it.
“Incantation” is available on CD or digitally from iTunes or Amazon MP3 from Delos Music. Every track on the album is an original commission by recognized composers, including my friend, the immensely talented Damian Montano, who I think you guys would really enjoy.
My apologies to Jenni for taking six months to finally blog about her record, which actually came out in June. The phrase ‘better late than never’ has probably never been more appropriate. I hope you guys enjoy “Incantation.” And I’m hopeful that you’ll also eventually be able to hear a recording of “A Hypocrite and Slanderer,” the piece commissioned by the Calder Quartet and premiered at the Getty Museum last month.
Ok, break time is over. Now that I’ve had my fun writing about my concert music, it’s time to get back to work writing music to picture.