Got down to making some firm decisions on a new work I'm composing for wind ensemble. To avoid rewriting a summary, here's an email I just sent the conductor of the ensemble planning to premiere it next spring.
The form and generative/governing concepts are fairly clear to me now. It is all inspired by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the folk music traditions of the southern Appalachians. . . . I have transcribed a recording of "Wayfaring Stranger" made in Beech Mountain by Horton Barker, as exactly as possible. The oddities of that recording (asymmetrical meters, accidental/incidental microtonality) will generate some of the music. I also plan on using that transcription later in the piece.
I also want to incorporate some abstractions on Appalachian instrumental music, especially variations on traditional banjo and fiddle conventions. I want to emphasize, however, that I do not want to compose a "bluegrass" piece for band, just abstracting and reworking some hallmarks of that music--like fiddle portamentos and clawhammer banjo rhythmic gestures.
These ideas are perhaps tangential, however, to the main thrust of the piece. I am fascinated with the timbral possibilities of the wind ensemble and plan to exploit timbre and texture, sometimes to the obscuring of melody and rhythm. I am planning to include a fair amount of improvisation in order to achieve the kind of intricate textures and independent playing that I want (3 to 5 notes in a box, or melodic fragments played independently of the tempo, etc.). The harmonic interest will come from a conflict between E min. pentatonic and the octatonic scale C, Db, Eb, etc. At the end, I plan on using timbre and wide separation in pitch space to help these two harmonic worlds merge naturally.
To help bring together all these inspirations floating around in my head, I got a sketch pad and went to work. I sketched a few shapes intuitively, with no thought of any concrete ideas. The top portion of the sketch, which I decided to make my guide for percussion timbres, textural density and volume, is clearly mountainous. The right side, especially, reminds me of the Blue Ridge Mountains with ribbons of fog below and stars above.
I've sketched out pieces before, but this is more graphic than I usually do. There are, of course, some words and, on the left, some notes on staves, but it's mostly visual. There is also a lot of empty space. I kind of know what's going to come there, and didn't feel the need to fill up all the available space. I found this very useful to me (I'm a visual person) to organize my ideas. It makes perfect sense to me--the visual representing the aural. I realize it doesn't for many people, but I've always found it very easy to compose a sculpture or a painting... makes me wonder why I don't do it more often.
Of course, the visual doesn't mean the same aural for everyone (and vice versa). I've often thought it would be a good exercise to give several composers the same sketch and have them write a piece from it.. just to see all the different outcomes.
After sketching, I notated a more detailed version of the first minute. It's convenient that the first minute is so sparse. Of course there will be a lot of details to work out for the final version, but it will come faster than the more dense textures that come later--and fast is good right now (I want to do a string quartet as soon as this piece is finished). As the initial sparse clusters/tectonically-slow melody give way to a churning rhythmic section that begins the buildup to the climax, there needs to be a bridge or a transitional section. For now, I have several 3-5 note motives that can be rhythmicized in many different ways. These will be building blocks that I could use as improvisatory cells or work out and notate exactly. They will begin in isolation, then combined into duets and trios, etc. Either way, it's too much for today. I thought about going on to the rhythmic section that will come next, but I want it to evolve organically from the transition, so I need to do that first. I might start working on the chorale, though, later this evening.