I did a thing, you guys. Here’s a video:
I wrote the piece Nebulae for Oregon State University (OSU) conductor Dr. Chris Chapman and the OSU Chamber Winds Ensemble. We premiered it (I’m on the piano) on Friday, February 24th, 2017, in the Memorial Union lounge as part of the university’s Music á la Carte program.
History and Background
Okay. I need to go back in time a little bit. As the 2015-16 school year was about to start – my senior year in the music program at OSU studying piano performance – I contacted Dr. Chapman about playing the piano with the Wind Ensemble, the top audition band he directs at the university. Playing in the Wind Ensemble has been an incredible experience. I have been exposed to lots of new music (see last week’s post for an example), had to learn how to count rests really well (but I’m still not very good at that), and got to know Dr. Chapman a little better.
*Side note: I still play for the OSU Wind Ensemble, even though I’ve graduated from the university and am no longer a student. It’s way fun!
Then, as I was gearing up to register for winter term classes at the start of 2016, I realized I needed one more class to fulfil the credits requirement for my scholarships. After poking around the course catalogue, I found that the music program offered a composition class under the direction of Dr. Dana Reason. I hadn’t done much composing – honestly just a little bit for my music theory courses and some arranging for church – but I thought it might be fun and get me out of my comfort zone a little.
*Another side note: The decision to take the composition class changed my life. Dr. Reason has since turned into a friend and mentor, as she has inspired and encouraged me to try new things. She showed me a whole different side of music for me to explore.
Then June 2016 rolled around. I had a successful senior piano recital. The last Wind Ensemble concert ended with wild applause. Graduation was coming. I was sitting in Dr. Chapman’s office talking to him about music and what I was doing next with my life when I mentioned I was doing a lot of composing and that was something I was getting really into. He casually suggested I write a chamber winds piece with piano, and I was a little shocked that he jumped on that idea so willingly! So I took him seriously and wrote him a piece.
I really wanted to compose a piece that Dr. Chapman and Dr. Reason would be proud of, so as soon as summer started I buckled down and started doing research. I’d never written for more than four or five instruments at a time, and I wanted to make sure I knew a little bit about each instrument before I jumped in. I read books on orchestration and listened to music and studied scores until I felt like I couldn’t keep the music inside me for much longer. So I started writing. The whole process took several months and several different versions of the piece.
Version 1: at this point, the title of the work was Chamber Winds. Yeah, the title wasn’t much of a priority then. This version was actually solely for piano; I wrote out all of my ideas in a piano score but kept it expanded so I could orchestrate it later. (This helped me out a lot because I am a pianist, and it was much easier for me to tackle the project as if I was approaching a piano score first.)
Version 2: I then orchestrated version 1. I could hear how the orchestration played out in my mind (and I had an idea of the instrumentation I wanted beforehand), so it was easy to separate the work into parts. The original orchestration was 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and piano. (I’d also like to point out that this version started with a horn solo.)
Then I showed the work to Dr. Reason. I knew that it wasn’t perfect, but I needed some guidance on how to make it better. She was, of course, so supportive and helpful. Her biggest piece of advice: expand! Expand my ideas, keep exploring the colors. I had the framework, I just needed to dive in a little deeper. And maybe add some percussion and a string bass?
Version 3: I ditched the horn solo, I cut sections, I explored and expanded other sections, and I created a new opening (one that is very similar to the current intro). I added string bass and a vibraphone. The piece practically started molding itself, but I wasn’t quite sure how to end it gracefully, so I left the ending off for the time being.
Final version (#4): after another visit with Dr. Reason, the final version emerged. This one is similar to version 3 but with an ending and a fine-tuned opening and middle. I decided on the title, which I’ll explain momentarily. I presented this version to Dr. Chapman, and he said it “look[ed] and sound[ed] good” and he was excited to play it at the February Chamber Winds concert (high praise coming from him!). You can probably imagine how excited I was at that point!
Honestly, the rehearsals were kind of hard. I know that I wrote some difficult music, but we’re playing at college level, so I knew the other performers would be just fine. And they were Something important that I learned, though: as the composer of the work, my expectation was the absolute perfect version of it. And nobody is perfect. So I had to learn to let go of the perfect performance expectation. And even though the actual performance wasn’t perfect either, I am absolutely happy with how it went. The performers worked very hard to make a great premiere.
*Side note: just want to say that there are supposed to be two bassoons, but we only had one able to rehearse and perform with us. He was amazing and did so well combining both of the bassoon parts into one.
I’m now going to break the piece down into sections and discuss the inspiration/analysis for each.
Section 1: 1:07-3:04. The opening. I love the idea of static sound and layering, and that directly influenced this section. The idea for the intro came when I was working on version 3; I was sitting at the piano playing around, and suddenly I clearly heard in my mind each new note being layered over the previous ones. Originally, each new note entrance was on beat one exactly two measures after the previous entrance, and there was no movement except to add a new layer of held notes. However, I decided to loosen things up for the final version and add some undercurrents in the piano and vibes. This inspiration came from Become Ocean by John Luther Adams. Read this blog post for a look into Become Ocean and what stood out to me. (Note how I open with just the piano.)
Section 2: 3:04-7:42. This section is the largest, and can probably be divided up into even smaller sections for further analysis, but I’m going to leave some of the imagination up to you. 🙂 This section takes the idea of static harmony introduced in the opening and turns it into some counterpoint, a little bit of sound color melody (although that wasn’t a direct influence on this section, the idea of shifting colors is key here), and lots of layering sounds weaving in and out of each other. The flutes and oboe introduce main thematic motif: Bb A D G F. This motif is developed and explored through the remainder of the section (and the piece). The inspiration for this section came from my own love of harmony, for one, and also Debussy. He was such a master at capturing color in his music, which is something I researched while I was composing. Check out my post on his orchestral work Nuages here.
Section 3: 7:43-9:17. This section is very contrapuntal in nature, almost dance-like, as each instrument layers itself into the other sounds. It opens with some very dry clarinets, and this idea gets passed to the bassoon, then the horns, and is variated by the oboes. The next new idea is presented by the flutes (it’s kind of an off-beat dance), and the music gradually builds and expands (who doesn’t love a good soaring horn call?) until an abrupt cut-off. I studied a lot of Bach throughout all of this, especially his fugues (I analyzed several from WTC Book 1. You can learn more about those here).
Section 4: 9:17-9:46. This is a brief return to the ideas presented in section 2. The flute opens with the main motif transposed up a third, and the sound builds quickly for the coda.
Section 5: 9:46-10:56. The ending is an almost exact palindrome of the opening. Instead of building in sound, though, we are gradually decreasing in sound until only the piano is left. Seriously, the notes and rhythms are almost identical to that of the introduction (except the undercurrent from the piano and vibes; those are variations instead of exact opposites). I wanted the ending to be still and calm, which is why I decided to peel the layers away until only the piano was left – and then, silence.
This brings me to the title, Nebulae. My work combines swirling lines of all different colors and implications and paints a color picture of melodies and fragments all shifting within each other. That’s why I chose the title.
Another important thing I learned throughout this whole process: we can absolutely do anything we set our minds to. Music is a language everyone can understand, and I love being able to participate in it.