Student Questions and Answers, part 2

Composer Cody Forrest answers student questions about Lux Arcana.

Q: I am curious what the composer pictures when he listens to the piece.

I should preface my answer by saying, I truly haven’t heard the piece yet. Audiating (listening with your inner ear) and midi mock-ups only go so far. That said, I do have an image of the piece that formed while composing the work—I see some kind of ancient being or force that grows and then quickly disperses like the seeds of dandelion in a strong wind. These seeds then intermingle and through their dance form a new being.

Q: In the first movement, why do you sometimes switch notes to a different spelling when you are really still using the same note?

I believe this student is referring to enharmonic spellings (the same note “spelled” two different ways, like A-sharp and B-flat). I try to avoid doing this with back-to-back pitches, because, as this student discovered, it can be a little confusing and may seem unnecessary. However, pitches spelled differently have different functions within the chord or surrounding harmony. The next time you get to this passage in rehearsal, listen to the harmony shifting around you as you play the two enharmonic pitches. It will feel as if the ensemble is rotating around your notes like a kaleidoscope.

Q: The time signatures puzzle me. What is the goal with the changing time signatures in Lux Arcana?

Time signatures have implied “strong” and “weak” beats. Think of the strong beats as what you would clap along to when listening to a song. Beat one is usually the strongest beat (unless you are listening to pop music, where beats 2 and 4 are usually the strong beats). In my music, I change meters to alter where the strong beats are felt, which provides contrast and variety, and also keeps the audience (and band) on their toes.

Q: What was the inspiration to give the piece it’s distinctive sound?

I find it fun and rewarding to deny expectations in my music. So, like my changing time signatures, I like to compose with harmonies that don’t necessarily go where you would expect them to. Sometimes, this includes added pitches (dissonances) in chords to provide “color,” but even more often I choose a harmonic progression that is not standard. I like each piece I write to have its own harmonic landscape, and I create these through using progressions of harmonies that are not common practice. I also incorporate dissonances to further enhance a sense of resolution when it finally arrives.

Q: What came to mind while writing Lux Arcana?

I had a lot on my mind while writing Lux Arcana, but my priority was to write a piece that would create opportunities for the musicians to learn and grow, and hopefully have some fun as well. A lot of what I wrote in this piece requires the musicians to listen and interact with one another, particularly through chorale writing (voices must be balanced and in tune) and contrapuntal passages (musicians must hear how they are weaving around and through the parts surrounding their own). This requires the musicians to not only learn their own part, but understand how it fits in with the surrounding texture.

Q: What inspired the name of the piece?

There was something about this piece that always reminded me of light— what I perceived as its undulations, flickerings, softness, and incandescence. I also found something particularly striking about the mysterious way in which this piece poured out of me. Almost as if a light switch turned on and it suddenly materialized in front of me. It was this “mysterious light” that inspired the title Lux Arcana.

Q: Is the piece written with a broader audience in mind, or is it a more personal story?

With all of my music, I hope that I can reach a broad audience. Most of the time, I avoid creating specific programs or stories for my pieces, but prefer to give a more general description of the narrative. This way, audiences and musicians can take what I have written and make it their own. I also try to include  little bit of something for everyone in my pieces—something fast, something slow, something brash and loud, something lyrical and quiet—so maybe not everyone will love the entirety of my work, but I hope that there is at least a passage or some portion of it that resonates with them.

Student Questions and Answers, part 1

Q: What made Cody write this music for us?

The Cochran Wrenn Duo commissioned composer Cody Forrest to write this piece to be performed by flutist Bonnie Cochran, guitarist Bryan Wrenn and the Marlborough High School Wind Ensemble.

Q: Why does no one play in the beginning?

In the first few measures of Lux Arcana, Cody introduces the passacaglia theme that is the basis for the whole 1st movement of the piece. The beginning of the piece is a guitar solo, so no one in the Wind Ensemble plays during those measures. This will make more sense when the flute and guitar begin rehearsing with the Wind Ensemble.

Q: How did we get chosen for this?

After conceiving the idea for InConcert, Bonnie Cochran and Bryan Wrenn talked with several local band directors and trusted advisors about the idea. In the end, we chose to collaborate with the Marlborough Public Schools Music Program because: 1) Bonnie Cochran wanted this project to benefit the community in which she lives, 2) Wind Ensemble Director Gary Piazza expressed excitement about the collaboration and how this type of project could benefit his students, and 3) Bonnie and Bryan saw that InConcert had the potential to benefit the Marlborough community to a much greater degree than the other communities we were exploring.

Q: Where did this idea come from?

Bonnie Cochran developed the idea for InConcert a couple of years ago. After seeing school music program cuts in MetroWest towns, Bonnie decided she wanted to do what she could to help support local music programs. She talked to Bryan Wrenn, who quickly got on board. After talking to several local band directors, we chose to work with the Marlborough Public Schools Music Program, alongside Gary Piazza and Jonathan Rosenthal.

We talked with trusted advisors about the idea, and Bonnie began applying for grants. She even traveled to San Diego as a finalist in the National Flute Association’s Arts Venture Competition to present InConcert.

Bonnie and Bryan spent countless hours planning for InConcert, which included choosing a composer, planning in-school sessions, scheduling activities, fundraising, keeping the blog up to date and applying for grants (we’ve applied for 20+ grants at this point).


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.