Letters from the Muse Room #33 (May 2022)

The “Muse Room” is the room in my house where I make music and my wife makes visual art. Published the first Friday of every other month, each issue of Letters from the Muse Room includes news and updates about my music, as well as something that has inspired me creatively over the past two months.

Dear friends,

Happy May! I hope warm weather and sunny skies are heading your way or have already arrived. Kansas City has finally gotten there, I think, and the colors of spring have been out in force.

[Violets in our front yard.] [White tree blossoms.] [Green and pink trees.]

It’s been a fairly quiet couple of months in the Muse Room, but I have two primary projects I’ve been working on.

Project #1: Since Chimera Contemporary’s performance of my piece TheSpaceBetween in mid-March, I’ve decided that I want to rewrite it — partly to make it a stronger piece with a clearer form and partly to recast it for a more common instrumental ensemble. It’s taking a better shape now, and the instrumentation is now flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano.

Here’s a clip from the beginning, with each instrument taking a turn with a solo line and the first duet: https://www.ajharbison.com/wp-content/uploads/tsbclip.mp3.

Stay tuned to my Instagram and Facebook pages for more updates on the rewrite as it progresses!

[The opening of the score to TheSpaceBetween.]

Project #2: I decided I wanted to compose a little less than usual in 2022 in order to devote some more time to studying. And the other thing I’ve been up to is studying (considering the season, appropriately enough) Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (better known in English as The Rite of Spring).

[Stravinsky’s manuscript of the first page of The Rite of Spring.]

Stravinsky’s manuscript of the first page of Le Sacre du Printemps. Gorgeous, is it not? I wish my musical handwriting looked like this….

I’ve been looking primarily at melodies and harmonies so far, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot. I’m seeing how he doesn’t develop the melodies very much*, and tends to just layer a bunch on top of each other near the end of a movement. I’m seeing how he often uses chromatic lines to activate a dissonant texture. I’m seeing how he builds up dissonant chords by juxtaposing a consonant chord in one orchestral section with a different consonant chord in another section.**

* And a lot of the melodies are really just short motives rather than fully formed melodies.

* A great example of this is the beginning of the Introduction to Part 2; the flutes are alternating between D-sharp minor and C-sharp minor chords, and the horns are holding a D (natural) minor chord. Listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwFOcaBwCWc.

I haven’t done a detailed deep dive like this into too many pieces before, and it’s proving inspiring as I gain insight into how the piece works and get ideas for techniques I could use in my own music. (Which, of course, is the whole point!)

[Marked-up score of the introduction to The Rite of Spring. Fruitful studying!]

I could never miss a chance to recommend that you listen to The Rite of Spring, so, check it out! Here’s a video recording with the London Symphony Orchestra: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkwqPJZe8ms.

And here’s the Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic audio recording, where the video follows the score: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rP42C-4zL3w

And, while we’re on the subject, I can’t miss the chance to also recommend this version I found last year — the entire score, as written by Stravinsky, played on electric guitar:


While I’m certainly being inspired through what I’m discovering in The Rite of Spring, a different piece of music also inspired me this past month. It’s called Chinese Ancient Dances, and it was composed by one of my composition teachers from my master’s program, Chen Yi.

[Chen Yi.]

The piece is for clarinet (or saxophone) and piano. It’s in two movements, “Ox Tail Dance” and “Hu Xuan Dance,” both of which are based on literary descriptions of (you guessed it) ancient dances from China.

[Score cover for Chinese Ancient Dances.]

What fascinates me about this piece, and much of Chen Yi’s other music, is how she juxtaposes traditional Chinese music (often using five-note pentatonic scales) and spiky contemporary music (often using twelve-note chromatic scales). In the opening of Chinese Ancient Dances, the clarinet or saxophone plays a traditional-sounding melody with folk-like ornamentation — not pentatonic in this case but easy to listen to. When the piano enters, it plays a thundering bass line that uses all twelve notes of the chromatic scale in succession.

Throughout both movements the instruments mostly maintain these characteristics, and the result is a piece that’s strikingly contemporary yet also accessible. Give it a listen!

[Performance of Chinese Ancient Dances by Zach Shemon and Jiyoun Chung.]

This performance took place at the UMKC Conservatory, where Chen Yi teaches. I was actually in attendance at this performance!

I hope your next two months are filled with warmth, color, and spiky yet accessible art. :)

AJ Harbison

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