6:30 A.M. The lights of Wellington glitter jewel-like in the velvety blackness outside, making a circle around the harbor. I’ve been up since ten past 6:00, which is average for me. As my career has gotten ever more focused on orchestration, I’ve found myself getting up earlier and earlier in the morning, sometimes as early as 3:30 a.m., just to get back to work. Catching the ideas when they’re fresh and mutable is a real thrill. I never have any problem working on anything at any time – but I’m finding more and more as I get older that I value the convenience of being physically and mentally in the optimum state. It simply makes the work go as fast as possible.
Plus, it’s a superbly peaceful and inspiring time. To paraphrase Frank Zappa, it’s when all the people who are plotting the destruction of the world have gone to sleep. That makes it the perfect time to create new worlds.
Today is a different sort of day, though. I’ve set aside all my projects for the nonce. Instead, I’m checking lists and packing to get ready for my trip to California. Writing this diary entry is a quick opportunity to loll creatively as the sky outside my window slowly lightens. Yesterday was spent checking connections, paying bills, and printing out various things like my e-ticket and the latest full version of my harp concerto. Today will be spent doing a little teaching, a little shopping, and going to the doctor about the mildly eroding condition of my eyes. Then I’ll be flying out of Wellington to Auckland, and from thence to Los Angeles. (“Thence” and “nonce” – I’m starting to sound like Thomas Hardy! Now all I need is to write about costumed gentlemen having a swordfight….)
When I arrive, there won’t be time to recover from the 12-hour overnight flight. I’ll be attending the 2nd-to-last rehearsal of my harp concerto that same evening. That’s the great thing about composing an orchestral work. You don’t just conceive and gestate a piece, you also have to be its midwife and delivery nurse. Or sometimes not – there have been several projects recently where I just completely had to let the thing go and let others take responsibility. But with this concerto, I’ve been trading notes with the conductor, and having long, intense Skype sessions with the soloist. It’s really been fun so far to see the piece slowly come to life.
Two possible danger signs. The soloist told me the conductor was having a hard time hearing her. This means that either the orchestra is playing too loudly (as is the norm for a harp or guitar concerto), or I may have scored things out of balance, or both. The other is one that’s been troubling me for months.
The original problem was – how to score a harp concerto for a semipro level orchestra, in which the harp would be able to play with all strings relaxed to their full length (i.e. seven flats), and yet not give the string section a piece in C-flat major. My solution was: have the tonal center of the piece be E-Lydian. The key signature would then be four sharps, visually non-threatening as a home key, plus the accidental of A-sharp here and there. Since 5 sharps = 7 flats on the circle of 5ths, this would allow the harpist to have the biggest, most resonant sound.
What I’m worried about, though, is the psychological effect of playing sharps for string players. There’s a tendency to sharpen sharps – in other words, push the pitch up a bit, especially on leading tones. With 5 sharps in play, the result could make the harp sound very flat and saggy.
I’m reminded of a dear old clarinetist friend of mine who had been everywhere in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and played many contemporary premieres. Once, he received a score that had a line of alternating A-flats and G-sharps. Rather than sneer at this unnecessary fiddling, he played the two different notes with two separate fingerings, almost imperceptibly alternating between two different intonations. “Is that what you wanted?” he asked the composer. “Yes,” was the somewhat dumfounded reply, “though I didn’t realize it when I wrote that.”
So even though I’ve solved the problem of comfortable string key vs. solo harp tuning, I’m still worried about the two elements pulling apart in terms of intonation. We’ll see what happens tomorrow, after my long strange trip across the Pacific (my 40th one-way crossing).
More tomorrow if I get a chance to write a bit on the plane.