When I decide whether or not to enter a competition or a call for scores, I follow a simple flow-chart in my mind. First, I determine if I already have a piece that fulfills the requirements of the call. If so, unless the fee to enter is exorbitantly high, I will send it in. If I do not already have a piece, I ask myself if I have time to write one before the deadline. If I do, the final question is: would it be fun?
The fun factor is extremely important. In the instance for competitions and calls for scores, I am essentially writing a piece “on spec.” There’s no commission pay, and I must assume I will not get the prize, whether it is a performance, money, recording, or any combination of these. I don’t want to put myself under the stress of meeting a deadline for a project I don’t really connect with. There are many more opportunities than I could possibly write for in a given amount of time, so “fun” becomes the deciding factor.
What makes a project fun for me? I mainly consider the instrumentation and the premise of the project.
In the last week or so, I submitted to two calls that I had chosen for their “fun” factor. One was a call for solo saxophone work. This appealed to me because, as a saxophonist myself, I know the need for more classical saxophone music and want to contribute to the repertoire. The other was a call for piano pieces based on short pieces by Satie. This appealed to me as a pianist who has always been intrigued by Satie’s music and has enjoyed playing some of it.
But both of these calls had another quality that increased the “fun” factor. The pieces needed to be short. VERY short. The saxophone piece could not be longer than one minute. Sixty seconds, max. The Satie-inspired piano piece could not be longer than one page. One 8-1/2×11-inch page.
On one hand, very short pieces generally do not take long to write, so that’s a plus. On the other hand, writing a complete piece within an extremely condensed time limit is quite a challenge.
It’s like writing an essay, or a short story, in one paragraph or one hundred words, complete with an introduction, development, and convincing conclusion.
Writing the saxophone piece required a different way of thinking about planning the piece. I generally have an idea of how long I want a piece to be, and based on the tempo, I multiply the number of beats per minute, to get an estimate of how many beats I need per piece. I often have tempo changes, however, so I must also calculate the number of beats per section. When a piece is only one minute long, those sections are measured in seconds. Using the tempo to determine the number of beats per minute wasn’t sufficient. I needed to know the number of beats per second.
Even though I am good at math, I made a mistake here. When I entered the rough draft of my piece into my notation software, I discovered it barely made thirty seconds of material. I had flipped the seconds and beats! Rather than thinking I needed one and a half beats per second, I thought I needed one and a half seconds per beat. That was a big oops! It was a happy mistake, though, because I had time to add more material and write a more complete and compelling piece. I even had time to add a contrasting section, which ended up being twenty seconds at a different tempo. Honestly, keeping track of the beats in a one-minute piece was trickier than I thought. It had to be exact.
The next challenge was creating the MIDI rendition of the piece. I was having trouble getting my software to return to the original, faster tempo at the end of the piece. This was causing the piece to play almost ten seconds longer than it should. I finally figured out a solution, but when I exported the audio, I saw that the software had added about four seconds of silence after the last note. The time stamp on the file was over one minute. I didn’t want the judges of the competition to automatically look at the time stamp and disqualify my piece without listening and knowing that the sound actually ended before the minute was up. So, I used my audio editing software to cut off the extraneous seconds at the end so the file would show fifty-eight seconds.
The number of measures or pages in a piece has little to do with it’s length. The saxophone piece, though only one minute, had many more measures than either of the two one-page pieces I submitted to the Satie competition. Ultimately, I had fewer total beats available to get across my ideas in the Satie-inspired pieces, though they ended up longer than the saxophone piece.
One page for piano sheet music is not much room at all. I suppose that I could have written a piece to be played with one hand, using just one staff, but that wasn’t the direction my ideas took. Most piano music is written on a grand staff, so every measure takes double the amount of space on a page than a measure for a single-stave instrument. I admit I played with the font size and margins to (neatly) cram my pieces into an 8-1/2×11-inch paper format! One of the pieces has a slow tempo and fewer notes, so I was able to fit forty-one measures on the page. The other piece, however, is faster and has many more notes. It is only twenty-nine measures long, but I had a harder time fitting it on the page.
The Satie competition also gave me ideas for another project, which I am eager to finish on my own deadline.
When I was a kid, I enjoyed playing with brain-teaser games like Tangrams and other shape-based puzzles. Though the Tangrams were limited to seven specifically-shaped pieces, they could be used to represent all sorts of things. In another game, the box was the constraint, but the shapes could be arranged in multiple ways so long as they all fit. The short pieces I wrote presented a fun challenge similar to those puzzles. How can I make an interesting and coherent pattern limited by these shapes or this container? Or, how can I write an interesting and coherent piece confined to this amount of time or page space?
Taking on these challenges was fun, just like doing brain-teasers as a kid was fun. It’s just a different kind of play.
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A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.