The Name of a Piece

When composer Cody Forrest first finished composing Lux Arcana, the piece did not have a name. Knowing this, MHS Wind Ensemble Director, Gary Piazza, asked students what they would have named the piece. Here’s what some of them came up with:

  1. Mystic Mayhem
  2. Great Beyond
  3. Magia Tenebrarum (Dark Magic)
  4. Noctem Aeternam (Night Everlasting)
  5. Unethical Fight
  6. Nox sub caelo (Under the Night Sky)
  7. Perspectus

Checking in with Cody: Process

What has your process of composing Lux Arcana been like?

I learned a lot in the process of composing Lux Arcana, but writing the piece actually involved a lot of frustration and hair-pulling. I spent most of the 6 months writing the piece dealing with writer’s (composer’s?) block.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I usually spend a lot of time thinking through and conceptualizing a piece before writing any music. With this piece, when it came time to write, I still didn’t have a solid concept or idea to work with.  I hadn’t come up with any answers for questions I had asked myself about what the piece would become. So, I continued brainstorming and forced myself to write a few short passages, but still nothing clicked.

Attempting to attack these problems from a variety of angles, I alternatively turned my focus to narrative, different motives, various compositional techniques, forms, shape, extramusical concepts, but still I wasn’t satisfied with any of the material I was generating. During this process, I wondered if the challenge of using the material that was not entirely my own (i.e., using elements of the rhythms and melodies created by the students) was causing strain on my workflow. So, I actually put aside those materials for a time. After a while, though, I turned back to the music the students composed. I fused together their two melodies and wove in a little of my original material, and the passacaglia theme was born.

Usually I have ideas for larger sections and I simply execute draft after draft until I’m happy. With this piece, I only could work in the micro, not being able to see beyond the next note. I pushed myself to continue writing—note by note, bar by bar, until a draft of the first movement was complete. I then turned to a long-abandoned sketch that turned out to be the perfect answer to the passacaglia’s final variation. I then continued composing note by note, bar by bar. It was taxing (even grueling at times), and I often had to force the next note, but after chiseling away, the music finally came.

In the end, while this experience was sometimes very difficult, it turned out to be very valuable in my growth as a composer. I learned that even blocked, I can still compose—I just need to write one note, and another will follow.

Checking in with Cody: Narrative

Can you tell us about the concept of narrative in Lux Arcana?

Narratives in my music are each unique in how they present themselves to me. Sometimes I know the narrative before I write a note of a piece. In other works, the narrative strikes me when I am in the middle of composing a piece. Most rarely, but happens to be the case with this work, I am completely unaware of the narrative taking shape until after completing a piece. This time the narrative was revealed to me only by observing the piece as a whole.

In composing Lux Arcana, I found that I had to become more task-oriented, more of an artisan, focusing on the notes themselves. Nothing extra-musical ended up having an influence on the inception and composition of this piece. However, this piece does very much have its own narrative that is told through the development of the musical materials—their transformation and the transforming environment is the story.

The concertino begins with a passacaglia, a piece based on a repeating melody, usually a bass line. The melody in my passacaglia is a hybrid of the two melodies that the students composed. Each time it repeats, the music surrounding it changes, develops, and varies. This gives the first movement a grand, unfolding, dramatic opening that builds in intensity and tension.

The second movement (a toccata) bursts out of the passacaglia, as if turning a page in a novel and learning of new characters central to the story. But in this piece, even these new characters carry with them traits of the previous movement’s music. These traits are primarily based on the students’ melodic and rhythmic contributions.

The first movement is a prologue to the second, in which the musical ideas born from the passacaglia theme interact and develop, coming to fruition and fulfilling their potential. A climax is reached when the passacaglia returns underneath one of these new ideas from the second movement, which brings about a dramatic and fiery conclusion where the motives of the second movement confidently have the last word.

In a way, the narrative of Lux Arcana is a coming-of-age, in which the first movement represents an arcane wisdom that is both a source of inspiration and a point of departure for the second movement, which grows, develops, and attains its own identity.

How the Piece Came Together: 6th In-class Session at MHS

Bonnie Cochran, Bryan Wrenn and composer Cody Forrest visited the Marlborough High School Wind Ensemble for the 6th In-class session today. In this session we learned about Cody and about how Lux Arcana came to be.

Cody told us about his early musical experiences, playing the French Horn in band and starting to compose. We learned that film music was a big inspiration for him at first and about other influences he had along his journey to becoming a composer.

When beginning to compose, Cody thinks through many aspects of a piece before he composes a note. He often listens to other pieces of music when preparing to compose a piece, and he looks at printed music written for specific instruments to learn what he can from the way the music actually looks on the page.

Cody also talked about where the title, Lux Arcana, came from and about some of the challenges he experienced during the composition process. (You can read about some of those challenges in a recent blog post: Checking In With Cody: Challenges.)

Then Cody discussed how he thinks of harmony and the way he used it in the piece. He also outlined how he used the student input from a survey we conducted in Spring 2017 and how he used the students’ melodic and rhythmic contributions in the final piece.

Although we had hoped to have a mini-rehearsal with the students, there was only just time to start the piece before class ended. Cody led us in a very interesting and informative discussion, and getting to hear the first part of the piece was very exciting after all the time and effort put into getting to this point.


Checking in with Cody: Challenges

What are some of the challenges you experienced while writing the concertino?

This piece consists of several “firsts” for me. It’s my first double concerto, my first piece for guitar, my first original piece for wind ensemble (that is not a transcription), and my first work for high school musicians. I spent time studying double concertos to get a sense of how other composers handle the interaction of the soloists with each other, and the interaction between the soloists and the ensemble. I also spent a lot of time studying materials about writing for guitar and studying pieces from the guitar repertoire. I also spent a lot of time thinking about the time I spent in my own High School wind ensemble, considering the kind of piece I would have wanted to play, and also reminding myself of what we found musically challenging in high school, and what we found rewarding.

Some of the most interesting and difficult challenges in writing the concertino involved issues of balance, and not just in terms of volume or numbers of people playing. In addition to the acoustical issues of balancing a flute and guitar with a wind ensemble, I wanted to balance the material among the soloists and ensemble players as best I could so that everyone has something interesting to play. Additionally, I had to work with balancing the educational aspects of the piece with my own artistic voice, as I figured out how to use the students’ melodic and rhythmic contributions. I also strove to create opportunities for both soloistic and accompanimental playing in the ensemble and to give the soloists equal roles so that one soloist didn’t dominate the other.