Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Composing a bolero

I was saddened to learn of the death of Keith Emerson a few weeks ago. Although I was never one of his listeners, the death - suicide - of any renowned musician is a sad event for me. In the 1970s, when Emerson was in his heyday, I had liked a few pieces that he had played with The Nice, but found Emerson, Lake and Palmer too bombastic for my tastes. After 40 years, I thought that I would try to listen to them again and so downloaded some albums via YouTube. My opinion hasn't changed very much: apart from 'Fanfare for the common man' and possibly 'Jerusalem', there isn't anything which I would like to hear again.

One of the tracks on the 'Trilogy' album is called "Abaddon's Bolero". The description of this tune intrigued me but I haven't really listened to the track itself. Probably the same night that I downloaded this, I started thinking about boleros, and into my mind popped a rhythm. This is not the standard bolero rhythm as I knew that it was in 4/4 (as opposed to 3/4) and the end was slightly different. My mind 'played' this rhythm for some time and I wondered how I would transcribe it; would I even remember it in the morning?

It took a few days for me to find the time and space to sit down and work out what the rhythm actually was. Here it is transcribed:


Having got that far, I wondered what should be played on top of that. First, I sequenced a bass guitar part with that rhythm, then added an oboe part, playing in the phrygian dominant scale. After a few days' work (no more than an hour a day) on this, I took a step back and started a revised version. This is basically composed of three sections: an A section (oboe lead, phrygian dominant in A), a B section (alto sax lead, 'normal' phrygian in E) and a link section of four bars playing Bb diminished in various inversions. A breakthrough came when I added a harmony part to the oboe tune.

Yesterday evening, I finished the piece, at least for the time being. Although I might have some more musical ideas, it is currently six minutes long and seems fairly complete. My major problem is with the orchestration, or more accurately, hearing the orchestration. I have barely hinted at this here, but since the beginning of March, I have been suffering from a blocked left ear (acute media otitis, to give it its proper name) along with both throat and ear infections. I've had two courses of antibiotics and seem to be past the worse - but I still can barely hear through that ear. More of that later. In honour of my medical condition, I am currently calling this composition "Half deaf bolero", although this may change in the future.

It seems that later on today I will undergo some form of surgical treatment for my ear, but I'll write about that after the event.


As it happens, I had great difficulty in transcribing those few bars presented above. My normal transcription program couldn't handle the triplets correctly; although the help text said that there is a 'triplets' command, I couldn't find it (maybe it exists only in the professional version). I then looked for an online transcription program; after importing the MIDI file, this too could not display the triplets properly. So I decided to transcribe the rhythm by hand; this online program (which I will not name) made this very difficult but eventually I succeeded. Maybe it would have helped had I used a 12/8 time signature instead of 4/4.



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