09.10.2008

"Clapping Ostinato Duet," AJ Harbison

Posted by AJ Harbison at 2:02 am

In my junior year at CSUF, I took the “Composition” class–not applied composition lessons, but an actual class on composing. The first piece we wrote for the class was a monophonic (i.e. single melody line) chant in free rhythm using only a certain scale, to allow us to focus on melody without worrying about rhythm as well. The second and third pieces we wrote were clapping pieces, so we could focus on rhythm only, devoid of pitch.

My first clapping piece was a clapping ostinato duet. “Ostinato” simply means that one of the parts repeats a rhythmic pattern over and over again, which in this piece happens to be the following one-measure rhythm:

The ostinato part repeats this exact same rhythm in every measure of the piece, albeit at varying dynamic levels (sometimes soft, sometimes loud), while the other part changes rhythms freely and plays with and against the ostinato.

You can listen to a brand-new performance of this piece by clicking on the player below. I performed both parts, and my clapping chops have never been terribly skilled, so it’s not a perfect performance but it’s passable and it will give you a feel for what a clapping piece might sound like. N.B. In order to make it easier to hear the two parts separately, I panned the ostinato almost all the way to the right and the other part almost all the way to the left. Thus the piece is best experienced with stereo speakers or headphones.

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08.31.2008

"Just As I Am," arranged by AJ Harbison

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:40 am

While you’re waiting for those CD reviews, you might find this interesting.

Several years ago, while I was still attending CSUF, I set the words of the old hymn “Just As I Am” to new music for guitar, in a contemporary worship style. It was pretty cool, and I was proud of it at the time. This is what it sounded like (the recording is new, not from that time, and unfortunately it’s rather soft):

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Not bad. However, I recently revisited the song, and made some changes to the melody and rhythm. Here is the new version:

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The main problem with the old version, as you may have noticed, is its almost complete lack of rhythmic variation. The same rhythm is repeated five times in a row, and then imitated closely. The last phrase, in addition, is too slow–there’s not enough happening during the phrase to carry it along, and so the momentum stops. I fixed these problems in the new version by varying the rhythm slightly, enough that it sounds coherent and remains similar but is different enough not to be boring, and by speeding up the rhythm of the last phrase to double-time.

The other problem with the old version is its lack of melodic variation. It’s not too exciting, but it’s decent, through the second line; but the third line (“And that Thou bidst me come to Thee”) is too similar to the opening lines and hangs out too much on the central note A-flat, moving just below and then just above it before returning. In the new version, I added some more flair to the second line by going up to an E-flat instead of a D-flat, and rewrote the third line to give it more motion and a wider range.

I’ve posted the full recording of the new version on my website, www.ajharbison.com. It’s not a perfect recording, but it’s pretty decent, and the melodic changes in the last verse are fun and worth a listen (in my humble opinion). You can go straight to the “Just As I Am” page by clicking here.

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07.10.2008

"Flutey and the Beast"

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:15 am

My friend Jeff is a music ed major at California Baptist University and a tuba player, and his senior tuba recital is coming up next spring. On one recent evening out to dinner with him and his wife, he half-joked that if I wrote a piece for him, he would play it for his recital–better yet, write a piece for tuba and flute, and he and his wife could play it (she is, obviously, a flutist). I laughed at the idea of writing a duet for flute and tuba, but it was such a compelling challenge that I had to take it.

I tried to think of some inspiration that would make such a duet work musically, and the best thing I hit on was a sort of “beauty and the beast” idea, with each instrument playing one of the roles (I’ll leave you to guess which is which). I ran with it, and completed the rough draft of the piece a few weeks ago.

It starts with a (probably over-)dramatic introduction, followed by the beast’s theme, a gruff and angry set of fourths and octaves in the mid-to-low range of the tuba. There is a brief glimmer of the beast’s longing to be, well, not so beastly, a tender midrange melody, but it is quickly interrupted by the gruffness. The flute’s “beauty” character tries to interject here and there but is also interrupted, although she gets in a few echoes of the longing idea. Finally she plays her own beauty theme, by herself: much more tonal and sweet-sounding, based on ascending fourths and thirds, but is outspoken by the beast when she’s finished. The middle section is the softening of the beast, as he slowly but surely is won over by the beauty, until finally he consents to play his longing theme accompanied in harmony by the flute (similar to the Vox Balaenae principle, though not quite as dramatic), and even plays her theme down in his low range. The flute takes over with one last triumphant restatement of the beauty theme, with the tuba playing a bass line. The introduction returns, slightly modified, as the conclusion.

It’s a little ridiculous, musically speaking, but pretty comical. And if you know the story behind it, I think it makes sense when you hear it (although it might not make as much musical sense if you didn’t know the story). I went over to Jeff’s house the other day and he and his wife read through the piece a few times, and it went off rather well. It’s strange; I thought the musical colors of the two instruments would clash, but they actually blend surprisingly well, and the timbre of the flute is able to cut through the tuba’s sound to be heard (although I’m sure at forte or fortissimo dynamic levels the flute wouldn’t stand a chance). I’m going to make some revisions to the piece, but I’m excited at how it’s turning out thus far.

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