Collaborative Composing

Every once in a while I get to to work on a piece with someone else.  Sometimes that person is a lyricist, a poet (coming soon), a choreographer, a student, or in my dark past, even an advertising copyrighter…but most recently it was a friend who has spent much more time as an arranger than a composer.  In his words, “I’ve spent most of my time arranging over the years and not enough time on original music to get a unique sound, this tune is an example of that.  I am looking for ideas to make this song a little different (and more interesting?)”  He also plans to send it to a trumpet player friend in LA as a “good addition” to one of his albums.  As soon as he sent me a PDF of what he had I dived into the project!

Stravinsky has long been one of my favorite composers, and there are a lot of great stories about the man that can help us all to understand our relationship with music. One of my favorites also applies to this post, for it tells of when a wealthy patron offered Stravinsky a beautiful cabin in the mountains where he would have the peace and solitude to compose without any worries of musical constraints.  But Stravinsky replied (and please pardon my paraphrasing), saying that much freedom would be maddening, and that he would much rather have someone else choose the guidelines…even if it would be to compose for ten piccolos and a tuba!  I can identify with Stravinsky here, for starting with a given theme and/or context (even poor ones) can immediately give impetus to the work at hand.

In the case of the sketch my friend provided, both the theme and context were good…in fact there were what I called, “a wealth of ideas.”  To me, there were actually too many motifs for a short form piece (he envisioned a bossa nova), so I chose a few ideas that I thought were the strongest.  The concept of doing more with less is certainly more appealing to me than doing less with more…wouldn’t you agree?  Next came the consideration of the artist who would be performing the piece, in order to choose the key that would be best suited to his instrument (either trumpet or flugelhorn).  This meant that the key had to be lowered, but it also meant that there was now more range through which the piece could comfortably develop (and ascend)…allowing a broader sense of direction and form.  The key for the motif that would serve as the climax of the piece was preserved, and now could be heard more clearly heard in that role.

The music below shows the original chord progression, the new harmonies in the same starting key (C Major) for easier comparison, and the new harmonies in the new key (F Major), although you can see the piece traverses many tonal centers.  Unfortunately I cannot include the piece’s melody, (it has not been copyrighted as of yet) which would show its relationship with the harmonies, and how the motifs were developed over a greater span of measures than the original melody.

I love pedal points, so I was happy to find them in this sketch.  What I felt was needed at Letter A though was a stronger sense of harmonic direction in each of the first two four bar phrases.  What I came up with was more akin to the harmonies of the original “climax motif” mentioned above, although my chords were minor 7ths, not Maj 7ths.  To my ears, the new chords at Letter A made the climax at Letter C sound more triumphant (which is also due to its higher pitch), yet at the same time helped to more strongly relate the two sections of the piece.

Letter B is also shown with both the original and new harmonies.  Here I found the original needed to contrast more with the A section, so I eliminated the two complete II-V-I segments (in the keys of Gb and Eb, which are also descending).  The newer version has more of an ascending direction (measures 9-11, 12-13, and 15-16 in the 1st ending, and the 2nd ending’s ascending minor 3rd pattern in measures 25-26, 27-28, 29-31) and a feeling of longer phrases thanks to a series of unresolved II-Vs (in the 1st ending, measures #11-12, 13-14, and a IV-V in #15-16…and in the 2nd ending, measure #16 , which leads to a C Maj7 chord at Letter C [not shown]).

The original sketch had one more short motif after letter C showing heavy accents that suggested its importance (and, although its three note motif was played only once, the rhythm section repeated its accompanying figure one more time)…however, pitch wise it seemed anti-climactic.  His Coda showed a condensed version of letter C, along with a little more development of its final three note motif, but the harmonies, while supportive of the melody, seemed (to my ears) without direction.  Even with those criticisms, I felt my version of this piece needed some form of letter C, and so I transposed the three note motif down to F Major (as Letter A), and this time achieving emphasis, not through accents but through stronger harmonic motion, and three gentle repetitions (each with its own harmonies)….it was more like the calm after Letter C’s storm.  Again copyright considerations keep me from including the melodies and being any more specific.

The completed version then went to my friend, who replied with, “I liked some of your ideas, though first off I would like to keep the concept of the melody at B, as an airy contrast to A.”  This surprised me, since the original desires he conveyed to me were for something “a little different…and more interesting,” but we composers can often be rather attached to our own work.  He also expressed a desire to keep the chords at the end of letter C, and the Coda as well (all not shown in this post), which I also believed were weak to begin with.

So what is a composer to do, when his opinions are at odds with his co-composer?  First I look for areas in which I can accommodate his wishes, and yet still retain a strong sense of form and musicality.  My harmonies over letter B are strong enough to allow an infinite number of melodies (as would any tune that is a good vehicle for improvisation), so I would develop his motifs over those chords.  If he was still attached to his melody AND chords, then I would suggest transposing measures #9-12 to something like Dmin7-G7-CMaj7-C7, which would allow the progression to smoothly ascend to Fmin7 (a II-V-I a minor 3rd higher) in measure #13 (remember, I’m trying to provide contrast to Letter A and lead to some type of climax at Letter C).  His original chord progression in measures #7 and 8 would move nicely to the new Dmin7 chord, but my progression in the same measures (#7 and 8) would need to change its harmonies to Emin7b5-A7b9 to accomplish the same task.  The melody could be retained.  I think both examples are an improvement of the original chords, but you could try all versions and decide for yourself.

Right now the ball is in my co-composers court, as he said he would be working with the new ideas and would then get back to me.  I will try and update our progress in a later post.

This entry was posted in Composing, Composition Lessons and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Collaborative Composing

  1. karen says:

    Thanks for showing us your process! Once again, I draw so many parallels to visual arts and have been realizing I can do more with less in my own paintings too.

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