Note: Before you look at my second assignment, you can read the research I did on the oboe and its extended technique.
The task of this assignment is to create a short piece for a solo woodwind instrument, lasting between one-and-a-half and two minutes.
Initially, I wanted to continue the idea of musical narrative from the previous part of the course. After exploring new scales, I intended to write a piece for solo oboe and a narrator in the style of a fairy tale, similar to Peter and Wolf by Prokofiev (orchestra) and Fisherman’s tale by Tcherepnin (solo piano), with sections of music representing characters. However, although the fairy tales are short, especially since I wanted to use one scene from Andersen’s Tinderbox, it proved impossible to fit their content in for such a short amount of time. Shame though, because I had quite an expressive theme that really suited the oboe. However, I will save it and hopefully be able to use it for the future projects/assignments or any of the compositions in general, perhaps write symphonic version of the same fairy tale, where it would serve as an opening.
Still, there was another way for me to follow the idea of a solo instrument and a narrator, which is to have a much simpler story that I sketched myself – a circus act. For some reason, I imagine it to be a section of a shadow play.
The full score is quite long, so you can download/view it here.
The piece with just the oboe, and without the narrator, is around 2 minutes long. You can listen to it below, but again, there is no narrator
I should mention that this is the revised version of the piece. I address the changes I made in my reflections regarding the assignment.
Choice of the instrument
The instrument I chose to use for this assignment is the oboe. In project 7, I explored one instrument from the oboe family – cor anglais, for the 6th example called the Lazy-Lascious Land, but I realised I didn’t actually write anything for the oboe itself. I always loved its special timbre, but what influenced my decision more is the way oboe encountered various modifications throughout its history in response to the limitations found in the design, as well as the technical challenges the instrument presented. Starting with the 20th century, with new musical demands, new possibilities in the form of extended techniques appeared. Redgate (n.d.) described this change: “… as a student, teachers claimed how double, triple and flutter tonguing were not possible on the instrument. Now many of the pieces I perform use these techniques as a regular part of the performer’s techniques.”
However, even the modern Conservatoire oboe still has many limitations and in generally, oboe has never been an ergonomically sound instrument and there are many flaws and challenges, like embouchure and the odd fingering above C5 and the uneven dynamics, especially in playing the piano notes lower than C3. This is why many of the books I read still don’t encourage the double or triple-tonguing, and neither the piano dynamics for the low notes and similar. Nevertheless, I found the area of oboe’s extended technique to be an interesting thing to explore, especially in painting the characters and the narrative I sketched for the assignment. In fact, composers have always used the extended technique in hopes of obtaining a specific musical effect/sentiment, ambience or to tell a story. For example, Berlioz used the violins with con legno – striking the strings with the wood, and as Bogiages (2015: 19) mentions, Monteverdi, introduced tremolo to illustrate the agitated and violent nature of the war, listing some other examples as well. I also considered the fact that what was once an extended technique, can easily become standard at another point of time, like the high C bassoon note from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, or the above quote by Redgate. He himself innovated the instrument, creating the Redgate-Howarth model oboe specially designed to facilitate a lot of the techniques, such the altissimo – the highest range of the oboe and many other, uniting the “oboe, oboist, composer, luthier and listener in a new musical direction” (Bogiages, 2015: 22)
While I had all of this in mind, after my tutor’s feedback, I realized that I didn’t make it clear at all that the piece is for advanced players who know how to utilize these techniques. Thus, in order to be performable, the piece can’t be for any, but certain oboists. This is a very important point, since indeed, the contemporary oboe music has increasingly become music composed for a specific oboe played by a specific oboist, versus being just music for the oboe. (Hooper, 2013: 75) By focusing more on the performers and the way they execute the extended techniques of different contemporary compositions, I realized I wasn’t too realistic about some of the passages. Again, I note the changes in the reflection, and you can read my research about the extended oboe techniques and extended technique in general.
Finally, I was really lucky that my tutor was kind enough to send my assignment to an oboist studying at the Royal Academy of Music. Having someone who actually plays the instrument at an advanced level look at the piece was truly amazing. The player seem to have really liked the composition, and also said that it is tricky, yet not impossible to play, which is exactly what I had in mind – to challenge the player, but not write something impossible.
The choice of tonality and tempo
I use different symmetrical scales I’ve explored throughout this part of the course – chromatic, octatonic, pentatonic, nonatonic and other, also including one diatonic scale. Because of the narrative outline, I vary the tempos and time signatures for different sections, and together with different scales, they describe distinct characters in the circus. Up to this point I used one instrument to describe a certain character, such as in my two series for Project 7 – Esquisse for Four Elemental Beings and Two Mythical Places, whereas here, I wanted to use the oboe to denote several characters.
Building of the melody
Once again, I use all the elements I explored in this part of the course – thinking about the balance, contour, peak points and phrasing. But since it’s a portrait of a circus though, most melodic lines are a bit jumpy, and don’t have stepwise motion. Still, there is enough contrast in the techniques I used to build them – some are more fragmental and based on repetition, while others are more flowy. There is also a change in the techniques – some are staccato, while others more legato.
The structure outline of the Circus Act
Narrator (before bar 1)
“Welcome ladies and gentlemen. Tonight’s circus show begins. After the announcement from the ringmaster, the knife thrower and exotic serpent dancer open the performances.”
Allegro section and moderato – the chromatic scale and mixture of two forms of octatonic scale (bars 1- 26)
Narrator (bar 27)
“Like a spider on its web, high among the silk ribbons on the circus tent ceiling, the aerial contortionist demonstrates her mysterious flexibility.”
Allegro moderato – mixture of whole-tone and pentatonic tonalities (perhaps a pitch content of nonatonic scale) (bars 28-38)
Narrator (bar 39)
“Below her, the lively trampoline acrobats and trapeze artists somersault in the air.”
Allegro vivace – diatonic A major (bars 40-48)
Narrator (bar 49)
“The clown amuses the audience as he imitates them, but humorously fails.”
Piu mosso – passing tonalities, mostly chromatic (bars 50-61)
Narrator (bar 62)
The ringmaster introduces the final performer, the magician, whose illusions close the show.
Allegro – chromatic scale with some diminished 7th chords and augmented triads. (bars 63-74)
As you see, the narrator speaks before the piece, and then introduces the sections/performers on bars with whole-rests and fermata above them (bars 27, 39, 49 and 62).
The first section consists of Allegro and moderato subsections. The chromatic allegro (bars 1-10) serves as an introduction to the moderato, or perhaps even the whole piece, since it will be repeated in the closing of the piece. It uses double tonguing extended technique for the fast repeated 16th tones. It is quite fragmentary, consisting of a b c, only latter of which could perhaps be an actual sentence, but even that is quite obscure. The a (bars 1-3) starts with C pitch center, consisting of bar 1, with an almost fanfare rhythm, repeated once and then a descending chromatic passage which leads into the b, (bars 4-6) whose pitch center is Ab. Although already in its second bar, with the appearance of Bbb, it is blurred, continuing into an ascending chromatic passage. I could have written an A here, but I wanted the center here to be Ab, which changes in the chromatic passage. The beginning two bars of the c (7-10) don’t have the fanfare rhythm, but start with a simple two crochet notes, ending with an inversion of the chromatic motive found in the last to beats of bar 1 of a. The second bar of the c is repetition of the first, transposed major third down. In the third bar, the fanfare rhythm appears in a figure which almost has the sound of Neapolitan 2nd – dominant – Ab-F#, although resolving into G – strengthening the pitch center of C, where the closing chromatic line leads. The whole section is in the style of the usual circus music – I listened to a lot of those, including the almost stereotypical Entry of the Gladiators and Souvenir de Cirque Renz. Liszt’s galops (chromatique and a minor) also have this type of sound. I think the designation for performance – energico suits this quite well.
The moderato (bars 11 – 26) illustrates two performers – knife thrower and the serpent dancer, with the performance direction – feroce. It is not as fragmentary, and the tonal center is the octatonic scale. The scale illustrates the dancer, while I added the accents – staccatissimo and staccato marks, in order to portray the thrower. The first sentence (bars 11-14) is constructed 1+1+2. The repeated bars are in the first version of the scale – semitone/whole tone – C Db Eb E F# G A Bb C, while the last two bars are in the second version – whole tone/semitone – C D Eb F Gb Ab A B C. The second sentence (15-20) has the same first part 1+1, but an octave higher, leading into the second part – the culmination, with time signature changes from ¾ to 7/8 to 3/8, like in the first sentence changing into the whole-tone/semitone version. This culmination almost reminds of the danger of the knife being thrown. The moderato ends with a short codetta, which goes back to chromaticism – a small nod to the Allegro section, this time the center being D.
Next is the Allegro moderato (bars 28-38), which represents the aerial contortionist in the silk ribbons. This part goes into the very high register – the altissimo range from the extended technique. Especially problematic is the highest g#3. But again, I wrote this for an advanced player with extended techniques – sometimes the professional soloists are even requested to play c4. (http://21stcenturyoboe.com/Altissimo-Range.php – Redgates guide, accessed on 10/03/2017) Also, today, the range up to a3 is quite acceptable for orchestral writing, though I realize that the register beyond c3 can be difficult for the performer to control, and can be tiring for the player as well. Still, the thin and delicate sound in this range was what I needed to be able to represent the mysterious flexible abilities of the circus performer on the roof, and I try to go lower, only brushing upon the notes that are too high. This musical illustration was inspired by the ‘stratospheric’ oboe solo in Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-fCwZEaxIc). I think the whole section may be grouped as one musical sentence with the extension in the end. The tonality is somewhat peculiar. The recurring D-C# and E-D are only ornamental. More important is the progression whole tone progression – E F# G# A#, but then, at the same time when A# appears in bar 30, the A# – G# – A# – C# – A# – C# has a more pentatonic sound to it. Than with the appearance of C and Bb from bar 33, we have a cadence-like motive which finishes on a2. I put forte only here, when oboe reaches its lower range. If we look at the overall pitch content though – the whole-tone scale and pentatonic scale can be subsets of the nonatonic scale. As such, here we might have the semitone/semitone/whole tone variant – C C# D E F F# G# A A# (Bb) C. Although the F pitch doesn’t appear.
Following that is the animated Allegro vivace (bars 40-47) in which the acrobats somersault. I think the diatonic A major period consisting of two similar four-bar sentences, one ending on dominant, the other on tonic, demonstrates them pretty well. Some of the rhythmical figures further paint this picture, as well as the trill. My tutor mentioned in the feedback that this melody contrasts and is a bit unconnected to the other parts that use symmetrical scales and chromaticism. She mentioned that maybe there is a way to integrate and vary the theme into the last section – however, with the time limit of 2 minutes, this was something impossible to do, without deleting a character. But I will remember this advice for the other pieces and assignments. Finally, the following clown section was supposed be the link of the acrobats’ theme to the rest of the piece, varying its ending motif into chromaticism.
The next, giocoso section – Piu Mosso (bars 49 -61) begins with the clown imitating the acrobats, so the ending motif A – E- A from the allegro vivace appears. Here, the tonality goes nowhere – in the first phrase (49-52) we have the chromatic ascend of the A – E – A motive, Bb – F – Bb, B – F# – B, leading into the augmented triad – Ab C E, ending with a major third rising glissando from the extended technique. The second phrase (53-56) is very similar – C – G – C motive to Db – Ab – Db, leading into f minor chord – F Ab C, followed by two major third rising glissandos with a feeling of gradation. Note that the reason for notation is that Db leads to C. The third phrase (57-61) starts again in a familiar fashion – D – A – D motive to D# – A# – D#, but this time reaching the culminating F, with some clumsy notes and a final rising semitone glissando – the clown slips off and is falling. He finally gives up with low c1 in bar 60, which echoes again in pp in bar 61.
The final act begins with the opening – the Allegro, (bars 63-74). However, this time, after the announcement of the ringmaster, the magician enters. So we do not have a full repetition, but the repetition of bars 1-5.
After that follows a complete dissolution of any tonality with the half-step descending sequence of diminished 7th chords and augmented triads. This imitates the illusions and the tricks of the magician. I have changed my initial writing sometime after the feedback, adding comme les zylophone (like xylophone), which I saw in Tomasi’s evocations that I had in my listening log. The reason is that I didn’t have a score for Tomasi’s piece, and once I got it, I saw that the writing of a certain part had ‘like xylophone’ that would really fit for the magician section, and also facilitate the performer in playing all the octaves I wrote down (also present in Tomasi’s piece) – giving a more idiomatic writing for the instrument. Again, more about this change, see my reflections.
Finally, the piece ends with the familiar Napoletan-dominant motive we had in the opening (bar 9), this time with pitches Fb Eb D Eb (bar 72). The piece ends with a chromatic passage, leading to the B, which is surprisingly the final note. This was the first time I wrote something like this – I usually end the piece with the starting pitch, or a pitch that is related to it.
As can be seen from the tempo markings, almost each is the variation of allegro. I think this poses the problem a bit – there is no contrasting feeling of tempo. Although, I did manage to make this up with different rhythms and tonality. Also, each of the sections shows a different kind of agility or expressive quality of the instrument, while showcasing the extended techniques, placed in the context of representing the circus and its characters. In any regard, the contrasting tempo is what I will try to add to my future pieces.
I had quite some problems with the playback of Sibelius, but I think I succeeded in working around these places. I should state again that I struggled a bit on how to articulate certain places. As someone who is a violinist and not a woodwind player, I didn’t know how to mark some phrases and how these would actually be played. I looked at a lot of literature, however it seemed that the theory simply doesn’t have all the answers for the practical part, so it would be much easier if I had an actual player to talk to, or if I was the player myself. This partly reminded me of how Willson Osborne, in recording his Rhapsody with a bassoonist – Sol Shoenbach, had to change some phrasings in order for the piece to make sense in terms of performance.
Looking at different videos and doing more research really helped me gain a deeper understanding of the extended technique of the oboe, though again, I could go only as far as someone who doesn’t actually play the instrument can. Thus, it really helped when my tutor sent the piece to an advanced oboist that looked through it.
The piece is also quite child-like. For this reason, artistically, I prefer much more my 4 Esquisses of the 4 Elemental Beings and Two Mythical Places I wrote in Projects 7 – where the themes have a lot more serious, solemn feeling with mysticism. Either way, I don’t see anything wrong with having fun and composing more comedic pieces. In this way, I learned that I could write both the compositions that are more philosophical and serious, and those that are more playful and humorous in their musical landscape.
Another thing is that I had a lot of fun playing with the narrative again. The construction I had in mind didn’t change a lot from the sketches I made. I also realized that this piece, with its imaginative setting, was quite similar to my Chinese New Year for woodblock and taiko drum from the first part of the course. Finally, each woodwind instrument has unique qualities comparing to the other, and I think through this part of the course I really got the opportunity to investigate all of them, and to showcase them through the different short compositions of musical illustrations and portraiture. These ideas culminated in this piece, where I think I successfully represented several characters with just one instrument.
To conclude, I quite enjoyed writing this playful assignment piece and overall, this part of the course introduced me not only to the construction of the melodies, but also to the new scales outside of the diatonic system that I didn’t explore before, broadening my tonal language. Furthermore, I now have new musical companions – the woodwinds, that I am looking forward to continue exploring in my future works. With that said, I am moving on to the next part of the course. Before you take a look, you can read my reflections, where I include my general thoughts on the second part of the course, as well as reflections about this assignment in particular, including my tutor’s feedback and my opinion on how I think I did in terms of assessment guidelines.
Bogiages, C. M. (2015) Extended Oboe Techniques in Four Representative Contemporary Pieces: An Evolutionary Process Encompassing Collaboration, Creativity, and Rule-Breaking. [M.A. Dissertation] Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte
Hooper, M. (2013) ‘”The well-tempered oboe” and the tradition of innovation’ In: The Musical Times 154 (no. 1925) pp. 67-89
Redgate, C. (n.d.) Reinventing the Oboe: Responding to Technical Challenges, Creating New Horizons. [Online] At: http://www.cmpcp.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/psn2011_Redgate.pdf