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Shilbottle Cobbles

for Symphonic Wind Orchestra

Composed: Charterhouse, Spring 1990

Revised: Cambridge, January 1991

Performed: New Wind Orchestra Summer School, July 1990

Anglia Polytechnic Symphonic Wind Orchestra, March 1991


8.1 Introduction

The title is from the poem V by Tony Harrison:

Listening to Lulu, in our hearth we burn,

as we hear the high Cs rise in stereo,

what was lush swamp club-moss and tree-fern

at least 300 million years ago.

Shilbottle cobbles, Alban Berg high D

lifted from a source that bears your name,

the one we hear decay, the one we see,

the fern from the foetid forest, as brief flame.

The piece was virtually complete by the time I decided on the title, so there is no aspect of the piece that is particularly influenced by the poem - I just liked the name.

The symphonic wind orchestra presents some of the greatest challenges to any composer or arranger. The extreme diversity of resources, (the whole gamut of wind instruments from brass to saxophones as well as percussion), the amount of sound of which these instruments are capable, and the nature of the wind band itself - usually a large group of musicians whose abilities vary widely as bands tend to be amateur and open to all-comers.

The main contrasts of sound are between the woodwind and brass. The percussion is usually considered an 'optional extra' and is usually treated as such when performers are considered. The woodwind and brass contrast is bridged by the saxophones, one of the most troublesome groups that can be encountered: neither chalk nor cheese and constantly in danger of being out of tune. As if being deliberately obtuse, a string bass is commonly included.

As the pt has strong tonal implications - was difficult to the point of impossible, especially with amateur musicians. The saxophones, in the centre of the texture, tend to dominate with their distinctive tone, but this effect is difficult to avoid as extending the range of the saxophones tends to make the sound even more prominent . Although the contrasts between the groups work quite well, the tutti do not, and have the distinctive wind band sound that I was trying to avoid. To this extent the piece must be considered a failure.

The piece was revised in January 1991. A few small points were cleared up, some dreadful percussion parts obliterated, and a whole section of the recapitulation was excised and replaced, (the area between figures 31 to 33).


8.2 Analysis & Compositional Methods

As has been mentioned above, the piece opens with a twelve-note chord. The main areas of harmony in the piece are based on piles of thirds, as is this chord. This chord contracts into a single third-based chord, ex 1.35a and 8:4 respectively).

This was a quite deliberate attempt at retaining some elements of 'traditional' tonality, while maintaining a progressive attitude. It also represents a growing interest I had in composing with 'layers' of tonality: the mixed groupings of the band presented an ideal opportunity to do this.

In terms of structure this is a most traditional piece. It is basically in sonata form with a slow introduction. The exposition proper begins at the allegro, (figure 12) , the development at figure 19 , the recapitulation at figure 26 , (or possibly 31 ) and a coda runs from figure 41 to the end. The themes develop quite clearly and logically. For instance, the main allegro theme at figure 13 , (ex 8:5) , develops via the interim phrases after figure 19 , (ex 8:6) and figure 23, (ex 8:7) to it's direct return at figure 37 and as the basis of the coda at figure 41, (ex 8:8).


8.3 Influences

The most obvious influence is that of Symphonies of Wind Instruments (see Symphonies: figure 15) at figure 14 and beyond, (ex 8:3). This was quite deliberately done: the independent tonality of the lines mean that each is relatively easy to play, (although when writing it I overestimated the ability of amateurs or students to play anything other than the simplest of rhythms). The other obvious influence is that of jazz, although this is used as a cameo rather than anything structural. The passages before figure 8, (ex 8:1), and at figure 15 and beyond, (ex 8:2), are sounds that interested me in this fleeting, character role, not in any major part as Milhaud did so superbly in La Creation du Monde.


8.4 Judgement

Although it was what I was looking for at the time, the logicality of the sonata form irritates me now. Given a free hand, (i.e. not writing for amateurs or students), I feel I would have completely ignored traditional forms in an attempt to avoid the sound of the basic Wind Orchestra. In fact, in spite of genuine efforts to avoid this, I couldn't. Indeed, I would not believe it were possible had I not heard a number of contemporary pieces, admittedly played by a professional continental group, that did achieve a non-traditional wind band sound. However, the times it has been performed it has been quite well received.