Work in Progress Post No. 1 - Youth Orchestra Commission

I like to start with a big concept or overarching theme when I sit down to write.  Sometimes it is just the vision: a smear of different colors blending together like a sunset.  Even if the music ends up taking me in a completely different direction, it helps to have an initial spark to cling to as I wait for the fire to catch.  I love this part of the process because I can do it anywhere - when I’m out on a run, folding laundry, or while pushing my kids on the swings.

When I start thinking about themes or big ideas they’re usually a little clichéd and silly.  It takes a while to hit on an idea with enough concrete substance that is also equally ambiguous.  Here is a little sampling of ideas that I sent to the circular file before they even made it onto paper:

  • Gossip: taking a small motif and expanding it and changing it throughout the piece; using the idea of gossip as a concept for developing material

  • Adolescent Overture: little snapshots, alarm clock and dreams, loneliness in a crowded lunch room, crushes and young love

  • Suite of Miniatures Based on Nursery Rhymes: I’ve actually already played around with nursery rhymes/songs of childhood as material in my piece 9 Lives - in which all of the ‘nap movements’ are based on lullabies. I have two little kids and so I get lots of requests when I’m at the piano to play “from the blue book” (the collection of children’s songs that we have).

Usually as I’m trying to come up with some sort of concept my brain also starts thinking about actual music and it turns to little snippets of earworms.  These are moments that make my hair stand up, or send a chill up my spine.  There are a few clips that are always circulating in my head, but also some drawn from the music I’m currently listening to.

In my ears right now:

Always in my head - by no means is this a comprehensive list.  A full list would probably be pages long:

  • Kodaly: Sonata for Solo Cello, Op. 8 (link only to the third movement, but I love the whole piece)

    • Sorry Bach, but this is my favorite solo cello work.

  • Radiohead: Everything in Its Right Place (Live)

    • The very end of this track has always fascinated me - the distortion, swirling mixing of the track. I wouldn’t be a 21st century composer if I didn’t have an appreciation of Radiohead, now would I?

  • Mahler: Symphony No. 2, Last movement - the moment when the chorus finally comes in after the vocal solos.

    • The entrance of the choir is so hushed but full of energy and the violins on top buzzing create this anticipation.

  • Pärt: Fratres

    • I’m partial to the violin version having played it myself. I never get tired of the emotional buildups of each section and the perfect sense of calm and ease that comes with the last variation.

  • Daley: In Remembrance from Requiem

    • I lost my grandfather in January of this year. Whenever I’m feeling the grief this is my go to piece.

  • Reich: Music for 18 Musicians

    • Great music to drive to. I can’t appreciate this piece if I’m just trying to sit down and listen to it as my monkey mind tunes it out and wanders. There is something about driving that keeps my mind just busy enough but with attention to spare for listening.

  • Shostakovich: String Quartet #8

    • Angst in sonic form

  • La Monte Young: Well Tuned Piano

    • I never get tired of listening to this, though I can’t say I have listened to the entire five hours of it straight through since undergrad.

Ideas have been percolating in my head for weeks now, and I am happy to report they are starting to make their way onto the page.  My next post will divulge the themes and concepts I am working with and where I think the piece is headed!

Erica Ball