To write (yourself) a concerto…

Writing a concerto is hard. Writing a concerto for yourself is maddening.

In late 2013, I was approached by Sean Kleve of the percussion ensemble Clocks in Motion to write a new piece for their May 2014 concert, of which was supposed to be all newly commissioned works by three living composers. It’s always been a dream of mine to write and perform my own concerto with a big orchestra, however since that opportunity has never come along, I thought that this might be an excellent way to fulfill that fantasy. I mean, 5 percussionists AND a pianist. This is a veritable orchestra in itself. So, I pitched the idea of an electric guitar concerto, and they were behind it 100%.

Now, it was real. No fantasy. Real. Really, really real.

When I was faced with this reality – the reality that I’m going to write a concerto for myself, I’m the soloist, I will be performing this in front of an audience; I realized that there are certain expectations that come with being a soloist in a concerto. Expectations that the audience will have – high expectations. These might include:

1) The soloist is a virtuoso, and a master level player of their instrument.

2) The part for the soloist will be virtuosic, technically dazzling and note perfect.

3) The writing for the solo instrument will be fresh and innovative – showcasing the composers ability and the soloists personal style.

4) There will be at least one solo cadenza that will blow the minds of the audience with it’s sheer awesomeness.

Knowing full well that these are the expectations that come with the term “concerto”, I was faced with the fact that I would have to deliver all of these things. Shit.just.got.real.

I have written one other concerto – my Three Lamentations on the Death of John Dowland for alto flute and string orchestra. This was a great experience, but completely different from this one. The entire mood of the concerto was different in character. I was also not writing for myself, but for flutist Kathryn Lukas, who I knew could play whatever I plopped down in front of her.

No, with this one I had to take a long, hard look in the mirror. I was forced to. I looked at many of my guitar heroes – Joe Satriani, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Tosin Abasi, John Williams, Julian Bream, among others. I had to face the fact that I’m not them. I had to weigh my strengths and weaknesses – especially my weaknesses – I had to look those right in the face and come to terms with them. I couldn’t write something that I would be struggling with on stage. I had to write to my strengths if I was going to make this work.

I started to think about the cadenza. Every concerto has one – it’s an integral part of the form. It’s a section where the soloist (me) is, in a sense, stark naked in front of the audience – it’s just the soloist and their talents for all to see – no orchestra – no accompaniment – just them. It’s usually one of the highlights of any concerto, and it is THE moment where the soloist really shows their stuff.

Probably my favorite cadenza of all time is the harpsichord cadenza from Johann Sebastian Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto. There’s one section of it where the keyboard player starts playing these crazy fast arpeggiated runs. You can hear it (and see it) in this video (the part I’m speaking of comes in at 7:50):

So, how do you do something like that for the guitar?? One option would be to write a long passage of sweep picking arpeggios, however I’m not Yngwie Malmsteen or Tosin Abasi – sweep picking is not one of my strengths. Then I thought, what about tapping? This is a technique that could mimic in spirit was Bach did in his monumental cadenza, and it is something that I could do. This is a technique that goes way back to why I wanted to learn guitar in the first place. I actually remember the moment that I decided to learn the guitar. It was in 1984. I was sitting back in my Dad’s recliner in the living room, with his Sony Walkman. Inside was the brand new album (cassette) from Van Halen – their 1984. I was 11 years old. I was listening to the first track on side B – Hot for Teacher. It starts with this trotting drum solo, which then breaks into this explosion of finger tapping by guitarist Eddie Van Halen. I heard that, I right then and there, I decided I wanted to learn the guitar.

Tapping is always something I’ve been good at. When in high school, I used to dazzle my friends with renditions of Joe Satriani’s Midnight – an all tapped kind of neo-classical piece.

So I thought, well, tapping. I can do that. It’s not something you see in “classical” music, but this IS an electric guitar concerto, and this IS a legitimate technique for the electric guitar. I expanded the idea to encompass the entire first movement, so that it is almost 100% tapping. I came up with a pattern that I personally don’t recall hearing in any tapping example I could think of, and I tried to create a tapping cadenza in the spirit (at least – I’m not claiming it’s anywhere near Bach’s) of the Brandenburg cadenza. And here’s what I came up with:

In keeping with the Bach influence, I kept the overall form pretty traditional as far as concertos go – a fast first movement – slow second – and fast third. For the second movement, I wanted to incorporate my experiences as a classical guitarist and renaissance lutenist. For the third, my experiences as a progressive rock and metal guitarist.

Now that I had an idea of how I was going to handle it from a soloists perspective, I needed a concept for the piece as a whole.

I usually don’t work from a specific story line – especially for my instrumental music, but the group Clocks in Motion – that name – it just inspired this whole set of images and this narrative in my head, which went something like this:

I imagined a lonely watchmaker in his small workshop. A well-meaning man who dreamed of doing bigger things to help his fellow people and his world. One day, he fell asleep at his workbench and had a fantastic dream of a large and benevolent automaton. He saw himself constructing it, and witnessed the great deeds that the mighty machine would carry out. He set to work that very night and worked for months on end until the work was finished. However, once unleashed, the automaton had ideas of its own!

That narrative, and those images conjured up a whole host of musical ideas, and evocative titles for the three movements:

I. Watchmaker’s Daydream
II. Workshop/Steam
III. …In Motion

So now, I had an idea. Next up – instrumentation. This was not like writing for orchestra where you have a set instrumentation from the beginning. A percussion ensemble can be almost any combination of – well, really, anything that can be hit, struck, slapped, scraped, dropped, kicked, broken or bowed, and make a noise. I decided to employ a strategy that I had employed on another piece of mine very successfully – my Instructions (on how to survive a fairy tale). Basically what I did was, I emailed all of the members of Clocks in Motion and asked them a simple question – what is your favorite instrument, or, is there a percussion instrument that you love, but have never been able to play in Clocks? The answers produced instruments that I would have never considered, and some I didn’t know at all – like, Pandiero, Riq, Cloud Gongs – huh? Learning about these instruments and incorporating them into my music was challenging and eye opening. It added something new to my sound – something that would never have happened if I had not taken that approach.

I also got to use a particular mallet keyboard instrument that they had essentially invented called the Galvitone. This is a xylophone-like instrument, but made with “bars” of galvanized steel piping. The sound was incredible. The color combinations I was able to get was so much more than an orchestra would have been capable of (and that’s saying something)!

Our plan is to record the entire concerto for Clocks in Motion’s next album. Hopefully I will be able to talk more in detail about the rest of the piece then. Until that happens, here is a perusal version of the score:

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