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29 July 2010

ASQ National Composer Forum: Composer Blog - Adam Starr

Adam Starr Image: Adam Starr  

[Update 14 September 2010 - links added]

I had two pieces to choose from when initially deciding what to submit for the ASQ
National Composer's Forum
. One was a bright, accessible thing, well-suited to being
used for an encore (the application material mentioned that this was a desirable quality),
and the other was a maudlin, morose thing, perhaps best suited to scoring some kind of
dark and horrible documentary, for instance one that shows the fatal effects of the recent
oil spillage on marine life. Absolutely, not an encore piece. I had envisaged that both
pieces would be parts in different multi-movement pieces, with the 'happy' as part of a 6
or 7 section song cycle (without words) for string quartet and other things (CD, maybe some
electric guitar and whatever else I could get my hands on). The 'sad' was to be one of
three movements in a piece for string quartet, electric guitar and percussion. In the end,
only one was complete before the deadline, and it was not the encore piece!

The piece is entitled Agether, and explores gesture, slight changes in timbre, texture and
intonation. The title is derived from the word 'together', which my young son Sebastian
used to pronounce with a silent 't' at the start of the word. My intention was to write
something slow, which is uncharacteristic of my writing in general, and to also use
irregular phrase lengths and obscure the meter: these latter elements are more common to
my compositions. The opening phrase consists of three bars, with the first violin carrying
the melody, hinting at a 3/2 time signature, while the cello outlines 3/4. At the slow
tempo of 60 BPM, the relationship between these two lines is perhaps not immediately
apparent on a first listening. And who knows if one will get more than one performance,
let alone a premiere? Should this uncertainty inform the way in which one envisages
music being received? Food for thought, perhaps beyond the scope of this canapé.


Adam Starr Example 1.

I have used haupstimme and nebemstimme markings throughout the piece.1 I use these in
most of my chamber works because they save rehearsal time. Rehearsal time is like gold,
and can be the difference between a fist-pump and the wearing of a paper bag, so I use
any tricks I can think of to optimise this valuable commodity. Working with a performing
group for the first time is a bit like going on a blind date. You don't have to bring
flowers, but homemade cookies almost always (tests have shown) improve both the
rehearsal and music-making experience, if not the waistline. I am interested to meet the
ASQ, and hope our collaboration is enjoyable and satisfying. They are going to give me
feedback about what they think needs changing, and why, and I will no doubt learn from
the process.

The above example also reveals that the piece is low in both dynamic and register. I
enjoy the contrast between the iciness of a stringed instrument sans vibrato, and the
expressive qualities that use of vibrato can bring. I seldom, if ever, write for strings and
make no mention of the vibrato. It should not necessarily be omnipresent.

Ex. 2

Adam Starr Example 2.

This 3-bar phrase sees the viola carrying the main line, outlining the meter. The other
instruments play a very quiet, descending tremolo figure of indeterminate pitch. My
intention is for the listener's ear to be drawn to the viola's line, with the accompanying
gesture adding timbral and dramatic interest, even if very much in the background. The
reason the 2nd violin is marked nebenstimme is because it was previously hauptstimme.
The players need to know this stuff.

In the main, Agether blurs the lines between tonal and atonal. It is mainly dissonant, with
consonance used in small doses, to make the medicine go down, so to speak. A slow
piece such as this may look deceptively playable on the page, however I believe it
requires a great sense of 'agetherness' in ensemble focus and musicianship to bring out
the subtleties of colour and texture.

1 "Invented" by Schoenberg, they indicate whether a line is of primary or secondary importance to players
and conductors.

Further links

Adam Starr - website
Adam Starr - ASQ National Composers' Forum, composer blog part 2
Thomas Green - ASQ National Composers' Forum, composer blog, part 1
Thomas Green - ASQ National Composers' Forum, composer blog, part 2
Melody Eötvös - ASQ National Composers' Forum, composer blog, part 1
Melody Eötvös - ASQ National Composers' Forum, composer blog, part 2
Mark Holdsworth - ASQ National Composers' Forum, composer blog, part 1
Ross Carey - ASQ National Composers' Forum, composer blog

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