by Joshua Roman
Damn. This is hard! My respect for composers has gone through the roof since I first began scrawling on manuscript paper, and at no time has it been higher than the present. The focus and skill required to compose a work for soloist and orchestra are not easy to come by. Taking a few initial ideas – whether they come as a sound, a form, a gesture, a transitional mechanism – and turning them into a cohesive musical narrative is a process that can only be learned through experience.
There have got to be as many ways to do this as there are composers. I’ve gone through several myself, even on this one piece. To begin with, I had the idea to write from the piano. Supposedly, this would help me focus on the relationship between soloist and orchestra, rather than writing a solo line with incidental backup music behind it. Ironically, I realized several weeks into this method that all of the best moments were in the orchestra part, and the solo line was now secondary! Not to mention, it was taking forever due to my rudimentary keyboard skills.
A fun fix for this came from my growing experience playing the great concertos each season. I close my eyes, cello in hand, and imagine this scene: Walking out onto stage, bowing, shaking hands with the concertmaster (a friend), looking over at the conductor (another friend), and nodding that it’s time to begin. At that point, what happens? Who starts? What have I always wanted to do and hear that has not yet existed?
This method is very fun for me; involving more than one sense in the creative process. Picturing people I know helps, too. When I see them in my mind’s eye, I want to give them something meaningful to do musically. The natural outcome is that the orchestra becomes a partner, and the dynamic between solo line and ensemble is one that takes on a malleable quality. In the end, it even affects the form of this piece, and shapes the climactic moments, as a metaphor for individuality and life purpose emerge.
A little bit of a teaser: my concerto is in five sections, or movements (attacca). The rough outline follows that of a love affair, beginning and ending without the love interest. Of course, this is mostly a structure, the themes and motifs themselves interact on their own terms, and in the end, their momentum supersedes any story I might be using as inspiration. The orchestra is sometimes the broader setting, sometimes a reflection of the solo line, and sometimes used in smaller units as a partner or even antagonist.
It’s difficult to describe this process completely without musical examples. The work is not quite finished, but it’s getting there. Along the way, much has fallen to the cutting floor, and many moments and connections undergo intense scrutiny and revision. And yet, there is so much more that could be done. I understand both the desire to continue working on a piece forever – revising every few years as Stravinsky might – and the feeling of wanting to leave it behind and go on without looking back, taking along only the lessons learned.
Composing is a tough path, and I’m beginning to see that one must really earn their way to a good piece every time. It is a beautiful thing, something I hope we all learn to turn to from time to time as our artistic journeys deepen. And for those who are already in the thick of it, I offer my heartfelt gratitude as you bare your souls to give your music that touches something unique in each of us, and ignites our shared humanity.
Taking a break from other music until I’ve finished the concerto, at which point the regularly scheduled playlist will resume… AKA, Silence, until I’ve finished the concerto!