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Countdown to San Francisco: 14 days

About a year ago, Eric Hansen and I talked about my writing him a chamber piece with the tentative title Book of Imaginary Beings. One year and a Barlow commission later, we held our first rehearsal of the piece—now titled A Field Guide to Natural History—in E251 of the Harris Fine Arts Center. The piece premieres two weeks from today at the 2011 convention of the International Society of Bassists in San Francisco.

Before I report on the awesome work Eric Hansen and the gang are up to, I thought I’d post some facts on the work itself and the compositional process.

By the numbers

  • 4 composers with whom I had lessons about the piece: Julian Anderson, Mark Applebaum, Stephen Jones, and Neil Thornock
  • 4 parts, namely saxophone, bass, piano, and percussion
  • 8 months, the time I spent working on it
  • 9 “deleted scenes”—or rather, movements that didn’t make the final cut
  • 10 movements in its final version
  • 13 percussion instruments used, namely agogo bells, 2 bongos, glockenspiel, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, 3 tom-toms, triangle, vibraphone, and 2 wood blocks
  • 20 minutes, the approximate duration of the piece
  • 31 pages, the length of the score
  • 43, the number of alternate titles I tried
The cover image for the score comes from E.H. Aitken’s 1905 book, A Naturalist on the Prowl.

More Trivia

  • The saxophone part was intended for Skyler Murray, who had asked me to write a piece for him after hearing my Clarinet Sonata. When Bill Gates nabbed Skyler for a summer internship, Dave Kjar jumped in to play the part instead.
  • The eight months it took to write Field Guide are the longest uninterrupted stretch of time I’ve spent on a single composition. Although my Clarinet Sonata took longer, I took breaks between writing its movements whereas I didn’t in writing Field Guide.
  • To date, this has been my most difficult piece for me to write. Part of the challenge stemmed from the ensemble. Although sax, bass, piano, and percussion lend themselves well to jazz writing, in a more classical context, these instruments are an unwieldy combination just to create a sense of ensemble unity. The combination also doesn’t do well with a linear musical narrative (e.g., Mozart), so instead I had to fill the twenty minute span with nearly fifty jump cuts between blocks of material (e.g., Stravinsky).

To be continued . . .

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