How do you know when you’ve found the right coffee shop for you? Is there supposed to be some sort of tingly feeling in your feet? Or is that what gout feels like? I’ve been exploring coffee shops lately. They’re all new to me. Oh yeah, I live in Illinois now. I don’t think I’ve ever had as much coffee as I have in the past couple of weeks. I’m just trying to find my safe place that I can run to when I need to do some work. Things have been flying by for the past month or so. In between getting ready for the move, moving and unmoving, I’ve still managed to write some music. The new house has three bedrooms so I finally have a room all to myself. Coincidentally, my productivity has increased (I think?)! And most importantly, the dogs have a backyard to run around freely without me hovering over them like an over-zealous soccer mom. Also, it’s a little known fact (no it’s not) that Illinois grows a lot of corn. Also also, this corn is REALLY good corn. When is the last time you had corn and said out loud, “Wow, this is REALLY good corn”? I did just the other day.
In the midst of all the caffeine and corn, I managed to finish the first of two pieces I’ll be writing for Jonathan Thompson. The guy is a killer oboist, so working with him is an absolute pleasure. In an interesting turn of events, we basically ended up trading places geographically. After finishing his Master’s at Northwestern, he started his DMA at the University of North Texas, whereas I just left Texas to come to Illinois. The Universe is weird. In any case, UNT is such a great school, I am ecstatic to have some music premiered there. The piece I just finished for him is a duo for oboe and marimba. Strangely, every time I’ve mentioned that ensemble to anyone that made a weird face. Is that ensemble actually THAT weird (smash the comments, fam)?? Honestly, I think any duo with percussion is pretty bitchin’. AHEM, case in point: A/B Duo (also this killer piece by Chris Cerrone). I should write a piece for electric guitar and percussion. With all The Cure I’ve been listening to lately, surely it would turn out amazing... (I think I actually want to do this).
So HHHANYWAY, this piece for Jonathan is called Triptych: three uninterrupted episodes for oboe & marimba (hats off to the estimable Sean Shepherd). Jonathan and I already had plans for a piece premiering in late 2017. It was to be a duo for oboe and guitar based on selected poems of Octavio Paz, so I was already getting stoked to write for him. Then he came to me with another idea. Jonathan is all about themed recitals, so his first recital as a DMA candidate was going to be based on the Chinese Five Elements (Wu Xing). He had pieces selected for every element except for ‘wood’. So, he came up with the idea of oboe and marimba, and was gracious enough to come to me for the fulfillment of the piece. I was able to meet up with him and West Fox, who will be handling the mallets. He is currently in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign to fund his series of four concerts which will premiere my two works along with FIVE others. The Kickstarter fund was created in order to gift the composers and performers an honorarium for their services, so if you are able to, donate some money and get cool things in return (like a unique ringtone composed by me written for oboe and marimba).
If I’m going to be honest, this piece kicked my ass. But then again, pretty much every piece I write kicks my ass. This one just kicked my ass repeatedly until I virtually had no ass left to get kicked. I didn’t want to write anything that resembled an oboe sonata. I didn’t want to treat the marimba as a keyboard and just rewrite the Poulenc sonata. I struggled to find ways to blend these two extremely different timbres and have them react to one another on the same level, rather than have an accompaniment with a melody. I worked a lot with creating different timbres between the two instruments, while also attempting to write for the performers’ strengths. The idea to write “three uninterrupted episodes” came about because I had pages on pages of sketches for this piece that didn’t exactly go together. While, they didn’t necessarily fit side-by-side, they also weren’t entirely alien to one another. I noticed that every new idea had grown out of a small motive from a previous idea. I just kept taking my favorite parts of each sketch and building new ideas that evolved into their own structure. The final episode, “Growth”, was one of the first sketches I worked on in detail. There are ideas in this episode that helped me create the first episode, which in turn helped to create the second episode. So in the end, the piece takes on a cyclical form that could be repeated ad infinitum.
This idea of an endless cycle really resonated with me as I was researching the philosophy behind Wu Xing. Each element represents a certain phase in the natural cycle. They build off of each other to create life, and to destroy. Each element also is characterized by certain attributes. For ‘wood’, the most important characteristics were strength and flexibility. These two descriptions played another important role in creating ideas for this piece. I sketched out a list of ways to depict strength in music, and to depict flexibility. In the end, most of these ideas lie somewhere in the piece. It was important to me to display these characteristics both separately and juxtaposed against each other. As per the philosophy, wood is not strong or flexible but rather strong and flexible, so this distinction became an important point for me to explore.
In the end, there were a TON of ideas that I had sketched out that aren’t even hinted at in the final product. I also had to cut some music in order to shave it down to ten minutes. I’m particularly proud of the fact that this piece shouldn’t be a pain in the ass to put together for the performers. After seeing the program for this particular concert, Jonathan needs as much of a break as I could give him. Now I just need to figure out what to do with these leftover ideas. And coffee. I need more coffee.