When I was in the eighth grade, I had an old Casio keyboard. I don’t remember how my mom got it, but she gave it to me one day and from that day forward I regularly tinkered around with it, not really having any idea what I was doing. At that time my musical experience was playing euphonium in school band and nothing else, and I had no knowledge of keyboard playing or music theory or anything like that. What I did know was that this old Casio made sounds and I enjoyed playing around with it.
Every day after school I would come home, eat a snack while telling my mom about my day at school, then go down to the basement to sit on the floor and poke around on the Casio. (I’d then do my homework and watch Home Improvement at 6 and Monster Jam at 7 to complete the daily ritual.) Eventually, I began playing the same things each time on the Casio, having learned what keyboard sounds and harmonies I liked best out of the ones I had discovered. One day I decided that I should take these things I kept playing and write them down, and my journey as a composer began.
I had always been interested in classical music thanks to my mom, and my listening collection (consisting of CDs borrowed from my grandmother) was almost entirely orchestral works played by great orchestras. That was the sound in my head, and so when I started composing I almost immediately came up with a goal: to write a symphony. From that point forward everything I wrote was written with that goal in mind, but as a young, totally inexperienced composer the progress was slow. My parents helped me along by buying me the student version of Sibelius 5 as a birthday gift, and later the full version of Sibelius 6 as a Christmas gift (which remains to this day the best gift I’ve ever received). But as my compositional ability increased, the amount of time I had to compose decreased. AP classes in high school caused my homework load to skyrocket every night, and I began playing in more groups outside of school. Playing was (and remains) my primary passion so I wasn’t bothered by not being able to compose a lot, but by the time I shipped off to Indiana for college I still hadn’t written much of the symphony.
During my undergrad studies at IU I thought about the symphony a lot. I brought my book of music staff paper everywhere with me and would spend boring lectures sketching out ideas, but it was slow going. By the end of my undergrad I had two movements written, but I never got a note further. Ironically, while my symphony stagnated I wrote two symphony-length pieces for my last two IU recitals. The second of which, Ektachrome, consisted of 100% original composed material for 70 musicians and could very easily be considered a symphony. But it wasn’t the symphony, the one I started writing at the genesis of my compositional career.
Fast forward to about a month ago (February 2019). With the massive increase in free time afforded by not being in school anymore, I decided to tackle the symphony once again. After listening through what had been written for years, I made a startling conclusion. If I was going to write this symphony, I needed to start from scratch. I had progressed so much as a composer during my time at IU (especially during my master’s, where I studied composition directly) that I was unsatisfied with everything I had written.
So I started over.
Now, I didn’t start completely over. The symphony’s identity came from the themes I had written for it over the years, and although I had discarded what I had written, the themes still held up and I wanted desperately to finally get them out of my head and into a piece that everyone could hear. The symphony’s identity had to remain strong even as I started over.
One of the struggles I have as a composer (as does every composer) is lack of inspiration. Sometimes I get a massive burst of it but it only lasts for maybe one day and then is gone again. Professional composers must keep a constant output instead of always waiting for inspiration – taking over a decade to write a piece (no matter how long or large) doesn’t really fly if you have to use your compositions to pay your bills. Fortunately, although I have gotten paid to arrange and transcribe music enough that I consider it part of my professional portfolio and career, nobody pays me to write symphonies so I can take the time. But “taking the time” (combined with being incomprehensibly busy) resulted in the symphony remaining incomplete after over a decade.
But something interesting happened when I started over a month ago. I was inspired immediately and never lost that inspiration for a month. I spent entire days doing nothing but feverishly writing, trying to milk this uncharacteristic sustained inspiration for all it was worth. Maybe it wasn’t all inspiration – maybe I had just matured as a composer enough that all I needed was one spark to get rolling for a while. Whatever it was, it worked. I wrote four movements in about two weeks – twice as much material as I had written in the past twelve years. I slowed down significantly for the fifth and final movement, wanting to give extra care to the finale to ensure the themes occupying my mind for over a decade were given the best possible send-off.
Yesterday night, on March 6th 2019, I wrote the final note.
Now, I should clarify that my work with the piece is far from over. Editing the score and parts to make them look nice and be easily readable takes a very long time and will occupy me for a good long while. Engraving is an art form in itself, one that is entirely separate from actually composing the music. But the important thing is that all the notes are written, and the symphony as a musical (not visual) entity is complete.
I wish I could describe how it feels to complete something I’ve been working on for over a decade, or most of my life as a musician. I wish I could describe how it feels to listen to it in its entirety and to be ecstatic at the product from start to finish. But words, as they so often are, are woefully inadequate at describing those feelings. The only thing that can really describe the elation, pride, satisfaction, and overwhelming joy I feel is the music itself. And one of the most beautiful things about the piece is that I believe it really does convey all the emotions I have felt during the writing process. The ending calmly states “it is finished” and flourishes to a final outburst of pure euphoria.
But don’t let my words try to describe the music: here is the audio of the piece in its entirety.
Now of course, this recording is made by exporting the playback directly from the notation software. But the sounds are surprisingly good, and sound convincing enough that I think the listener can get an idea of what the piece should sound like. Obviously the ultimate goal is for it to be performed by a real orchestra, but even if that doesn’t happen in my lifetime I will be happy.
The symphony is scored for a large orchestra with some unusual instruments included: bass trumpet, contrabass trombone, lupophon, subcontrabassoon, chromatic hammered dulcimer, and an extended-range grand piano. Looking through this list brings me to a point I’ve wanted to discuss for a while.
From the day I first bought my mellophonium on eBay, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with rare and unusual instruments. I think it’s a shame that there are so many different types of instruments out there that don’t get used, or at least don’t get used nearly enough. Recently I’ve realized that this interest in the obscure has matured into a desire, above all else, to contribute to the repertoire for all of them, in hopes of making them a little more common, well-known, and understood. This does not mean that I’ll shoehorn an octocontrabass clarinet in a piece that really doesn’t call for it, but rather that I won’t feel restricted in what instruments I write for based on if something is commonly used or not. To compose for these instruments and expose them to new ears and minds, both with performance pieces (as soloists or part of a larger ensemble) and etudes/method books, has become one of my primary quests in life.
Take the subcontrabassoon for existence. This is an instrument that does not even exist yet, but is in the lengthy process of being built by an intrepid contrabassoonist/machinist/CAD designer named Richard Bobo. Because it doesn’t exist yet, there is no repertoire for it. Or rather, there WAS no repertoire for it before some composers learned of the project and started writing for it. Instruments like this will never get past the prototype stage if nobody ever writes anything for them. It falls on composers to make these instruments needed, not the players (excluding in an improvisational setting of course)!
I fully realize that using multiple abnormal instruments will affect my pieces’ performability, but these instruments will never become more widespread of somebody doesn’t start writing for them, and as I’m not making a living cranking out symphonies I’m perfectly fine with writing pieces that don’t fit an easily performable mould if it means doing my part to popularize instruments otherwise left to the forgotten vaults of musical instrument taxonomy. If I can help make the 97-key piano from F0 to F8 the new standard, or to make the bass trumpet and euphonium more than a novelty in the orchestra, I will jump at the chance. I encourage any composer with an interest in more than just standard instrumentation to do the same.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to start writing my next symphony…