Monday, August 5, 2013


 Tributuum by Nan Avant

Tributum  Nan Avant ©2013 ASCAP 

Tributum is available for purchase @ Amazon 

Composing Tributum

Last summer I was invited to compose a piece for an upcoming concert at Benaroya, Nordstrom Hall in Seattle. The producers of the concert, Dr. Glenna Burmmer and Tim Huling invited  6 Seattle composers  to join them in this concert performance of original works. We all met sometime in June of 2012 to discuss the program details. In essence, we were all to compose a  7-10 piece  for Chamber Orchestra and solo instruments, either one or two instruments. The genre was World Music and we all had to choose a country of representation for our individual  piece.
It was exciting! We had Australia, Cuba, Hungary, Spain, Africa, America, Persia and Scotland and Ireland.  Our assignment was to composer music for instruments we did not play and had not composed for in the past. I love the music from Scotland and Ireland and the dramatic tone of the bagpipes. I was familiar with the Great Highland Bagpipes, GH Pipes, having listened to my husband who has been taking bagpipe lessons for several years.

We had a deadline for the concert, sometime in March 2013 and a recording session in mid January 2013. That really seemed like a lot of time but it went fast.
A couple of ideas I was tossing around at the start was to use Celtic flute and GH Pipes. I met with a Celtic flute player, Helen Van Mater. She was fantastic, spending hours sharing her information on Celtic Wooden Flutes and also playing for me. This instrument has a beautiful warm tone and I was considering using this. 
I started researching  GH bagpipes, their range, scales and styles of music.  I met with my husbands bagpipe teacher who I also hired to perform in the concert, Kevin Auld from Seattle. An amazing piper! We explained characteristics of the different styles like the Reel, March, Air and Hornpipe. We listened some different ideas and he shared that awesome recording of The Last of the Mohican's. Such and inspiring work. One bagpipe piece that was standing out to me was The Sands of Kuwait by Gordon MacKenzie. A very beautiful piece. Emotional and stirring, especially at that time because my sister was preparing to live and work in Kuwait. I especially like the Archipelago Project. It is so stirring this arrangement for brass and percussion.

Choosing the Instruments 

As I was researching the Great Highland Bagpipes  I learned the instrument has a 9 note scale, or mode. This  9 note scale which is the Bflat Mixolydian mode starting on A flat and ending an octave above on Bflat. Music is  written for the bagpipes in A Mixolydian, a half step lower then how it sounds. If you are a composer, you understand that this is a limited range for a scale or mode. The music composed for bagpipes is very interesting and creative regardless of the limited range.   The other tonality associated with the bagpipe is the Drone, the awesome low register that sustains  throughout a piece.   I had ideas for the GH Pipes composing  something in a March style and I also wanted to compose something lyrical as well,  which  meant I need an instrument with a larger scale range,  like the Celtic Flute, or as Kevin pointed out, the Uilleann Pipes which are the Irish War Pipes.

The Uilleann pipes seemed to be the instrument I needed to compose something lyrical. Their range is two octaves and these pipes can play accidentals, sharps and naturals. Their scale is in D, D major, D minor, they can play related keys such as A minor. I tend to compose music with themes so this combination of two different pipes was a good idea. I decided not to use the Celtic Wooden Flute because it's tone is so soft, that as a solo instrument playing with the orchestra and a GH Pipe, it would be  overpowered .

The next task was to find a Uilleann piper. Kevin gave me a suggestion and I also did some google searches for local pipers here. I found Dr. Eliot Grasso, who lives in Eugene. Again, an amazing Piper. I'm fortunate to have had these to players!  I could really relate to Eliot's background in music and this is one reason why I chose him as the Uilleann Piper. His undergraduate study was in Organ and as a pianist myself, we were able to discuss music theory in relation to the keyboard. This was very helpful.

The Two Bagpipes and How The Instruments are Played

UIleann Pipes

The uilleann pipes /ˈɪlən/ or /ˈɪljən/; Irish: [ˈɪl̠ʲən̪ˠ]) are the characteristic national bagpipe of Ireland. Earlier known in English as "union pipes", their current name is a partial translation of the Irish-language term píobaí uilleann (literally, "pipes of the elbow"), from their method of inflation
The bag of the uilleann pipes is inflated by means of a small set of bellows strapped around the waist and the right arm (in the case of a right-handed player; in the case of a left-handed player the location and orientation of all components are reversed). The bellows not only relieve the player from the effort needed to blow into a bag to maintain pressure, they also allow relatively dry air to power the reeds, reducing the adverse effects of moisture on tuning and longevity. Some pipers can converse or sing while playing.
The uilleann pipes are distinguished from many other forms of bagpipes by their tone and wide range of notes — the chanter has a range of two full octaves, including sharps and flats — together with the unique blend of chanter, drones, and regulators
The uilleann pipes have a different harmonic structure, sounding sweeter and quieter than many other bagpipes, such as the Great Highland Bagpipes.(Wikipedia)

Great Highland Bagpipes

The Great Highland Bagpipes have a 9 note scale, actually it's a mode. I am not an expert on this instrument so if someone reads something here that is incorrect regarding GH Pipes or the Uilleann pipes, please feel free to email me. What I understand is that the GH Pipes have this 9 note scale which is the Bflat Mixolydian mode starting on A flat and ending an octave above on Bflat. This is actually written for the Bagpipes in A Mixolydian, a half step lower then how it sounds. Right there, if you are a composer, you understand there is quite a range limit. The music out there for Bagpipes is so creative even though there are only those few notes and no extra accidentals, as I understand. Then there is that awesome Drone! I love it. There is at least one Drone, the low sounding hum which sustains throughout a piece.  I had ideas for the GH Pipes composing  something in a March style and I really wanted to compose something lyrical, which would mean an instrument, such as the Celtic Flute, or as Kevin pointed out, the Uilleann Pipes which are the Irish War Pipes.


I began with composing various themes, experimenting with several ideas for the Uilleann pipe music. I chose the key of A minor, one reason being that I needed to find a way to progress from the Uilleann theme to the Great Highland Bagpipe theme,  too much key variation. This is where it became a bit complicated: Great Highland Bagpipe music  is written in the key  of A mixolydian but it sounds like Bflat mixolydian.  I decided to make this transition as seamless as possible by composing the music for the  Uilleann pipes and GH pipes within a 1/2 step of each other. The ending note in the U. Pipes was an A and the piece transitioned via percussion, timpani, bass drum and snare to introduce the new instrument, GH pipes in the key of B flast. This transition was a third down from the last A played by the Uilleann Pipes, which turned out to be the dominant  for the key of Bflat. That note was F played by the Timpani. All of this transition material came much later in the composing process and I explain more of this in the next section.

An Air

After researching music styles for the Uilleann Pipes, I decided to compose a slow Air. It seemed as though the Aires are usually associated with a poem or lyrics. I did read some lyrics for Aires and listened to instrumental arrangements of Aires. I use the piano when composing and I also sing the tune I am working on. I did find  a poem my grandmother had written, a love poem to her husband, my grandfather. It was a nice piece to reflect on. After composing this Air for  Uillaeann pipes, I  sent the first draft to Eliot to review. I asked him to record and send me an mp3 of him playing the theme. 

I heard that one theme, just a few measures and his playing was stunning.  To hear this instrument played with such depth and beauty I was really taken. I knew I was on the right track for Tributum. It was so emotional to hear that played on Uilleann pipes. I continued composing the Air,  kept working out details, making changes where it seemed right.

  At the same time I was also working on a few themes for GH pipes but nothing concrete yet.  The two key difference was a challenge and at that point I was trying to find a way to make these two instruments work. I knew I couldn't have them play the same piece, but how was I going to have both of the players in one composition? This did take some figuring out, questions, doubts, changes. What I finally concluded was to have the Uilleann Pipes play the Air and the GH pipes play a March. I had also been working on a Jig for the Uilleann pipes, wanting to give Eliot a more quick tempo piece so he could demonstrate his technique.

A March

I studied a few reels and Marches, listening to various pieces and studying the harmonic and thematic structure of Marches  for the GH pipes, and at last came up with a March that I really liked. I sent this off to Kevin to play and record, to get an idea of how this would really sound on the GH Pipes. Again, this really was exciting to hear it played. Another amazing piper!

At this junction in composing I started to work on the general outline of how the music would be placed, the Air, March and Jig. Eventually I dropped the idea of the Jig. It was not working or fitting into the musical scheme and I wasn't feeling it. Another idea that I developed was an introduction to the work. I had originally thought of this intro as being a main theme and as it worked out, it became the Introduction to an Air. 

Orchestrating Tributum

The Celebrate World Music composers were all required to meet with orchestrator and composer , Tim Huling, who  was the over seer of the music and orchestrations. The composers for the concert met with Tim and showed him what we were all  working on.  He gave us feedback and instruction in orchestration.  I gained some great insights and new ideas in orchestration from Tim, an excellent teacher.
One session  I recall early on in the orchestration process, which was hard but needed, was the day I brought in my composition as an aiff file to show him how fantastic it sounded using Logic and sampled instruments. After I had  received the aiff file from Eliot Grasso of him playing the theme on Uilleann Pipes, I had created a mock up of his playing the theme with some orchestration on Logic. I had spent considerable time on that example. I was proud of what I had created. 

Instead of praise from Tim that day,  he didn't listen to it. His  comment was, " No, that is not the way to do this orchestration work, you have to do this with Finale or Sibelius", these are not his exact words but close. This type of work on Finale  is like hand written work but on the computer. What this all means is that simply playing something on a sequencing program, like Logic, isn't orchestration and it will mess you up if it's done this way. And, it was messing me up. I was so absorbed in the sound of what I was creating that I couldn't actually translate easily to the written page, I was wasting time. Sure, I was a bit offended  because he didn't want to listen to the Logic example I had worked on, but I left that day thinking " he is so right".  I am so glad he said that early on in the work!
  From that day on I didn't do any sequencer stuff on Logic, I only used Finale. So glad for that day with Tim!

It was great to go in every week, almost every week if our schedules coincided, until the recording date in mid January. Just having him look at the score, go over some orchestration ideas or difficulties I was encountering, was so helpful. I learned a lot from Tim.

The orchestration and layout of the music was on going from about the second week in October until mid January of 2013, with some holiday breaks in between. I also had two short films I was scoring  during that time.

I have to say, if I haven't already said it, that I loved composing and orchestrating Tributum. I was also doing some good reading, motivational type of reading to keep the Muse happening.

Orchestration is thrilling. When you orchestrate a composition form it's first inception as solo instrument line  and watch the development of the music through the orchestra, its awe inspiring. And that is how it was with Tributum. What's great about  Finale is that you can play it back and it sounds pretty decent.

What I've Learned  from Preparation and Performing

 I know how difficult it is to play concerts. I was a classical piano major at CalArts  and preparation was key to having a good performance. I mean lots of preparation. Practice, and more practice!
 It's one thing to practice in your own studio but when you are on a stage, its very  different. And with an orchestra? Yeah, not easy. I had an exceptional teacher that really drove that home for me. She uber prepared me for concert recitals of solo piano music. Over and over, mini recitals lots of good prep work. By the time I performed my concert it was like practicing. I had done it so much and was well prepared. 
With that performance experience in my background,  I knew I wanted my Pipers to feel ultra prepared. The other complication was the pitch issues between the pipers and orchestras which I had heard about. It's a challenge for pipers to play in tune with orchestras and visa versa. With this understanding, I   intentionally composed music which was expressive, musical and stayed within the genre of their instruments and region.

It wasn't possible to have a "mini recital" for the pipers but as  I was orchestrating I would send a written Finale pdf of their theme, the latest orchestral version pdf and midi files of the orchestration so that they could listen to what I was doing and get a good sense of the layout of the music. 
I would send two versions of the orchestral midi file One would include the full orchestral version with the bagpipes playing with the orchestra ( these midi bagpipes are terrible to say the least but they worked for this purpose) The second version was the orchestra midi file without any bagpipe midi playing. I did this second version so that they could practice playing with that midi file. I sent them updated orchestrations as I was completing new versions. 

Recording Session at Studio X

We had our recording session on January 15 2013 at Studio X. David Sabee, member of the Seattle Symphony and winner of the 2011 Grammy for Best Classical Album Engineering, was our conductor. Yep, I was excited. Tributum was up first for recording. He asked to have the pipers come in and record separately.  They were perfect. They played with the Finale midi file I had created and it all went smoothly. The orchestra was recorded later that day. It was so exciting to hear the orchestra play Tributum! The conductor preferred that the Pipers didn't record or play with the orchestra at the same time. I think the reason being is that once the GH pipes start playing, no one can hear anything. These are incredibly loud instruments, the GH pipes and the high notes are really loud. The recording studio is a small environment and it would have been over powering to have the Pipers playing at the same time. The concert was different because it's a large performing hall, seats 500 and the acoustics are right for all of these instruments.

The Pitchy GH Pipes and Kevn Auld's Performance

These pipes are very pitchy, meaning they are not exactly A440 tuning. When you play a note like a Bflat on the piano and have the pipes play the same B flat, it's not exactly the same tuning or pitch. It's kind of a 1/4 step off.
Both pipers played brilliantly for the concert and the recording session.  As I understand this, the Uilleann Pipes don't have this pitch issue. Uilleann pipes use the billows and are not blown, like the GH Pipes. Kevin, the GH Ppers's genius was in playing with the orchestra in tune. 

 The difficulty involved  with having a Great Highland Bagpipe played against an orchestra can't be underestimated. During this composing process there were times when the question of " how is this going to sound and will it be off pitch to the orchestra" was a question that would come up. It is extremely difficult to get these pipes to play in tune with orchestral instruments. I knew Kevin would be able to handle this but I also knew that it may be daunting. Again, this is one reason I composed music that wasn't complicated and stayed with the instrument's genre, because we had the extra challenge of the orchestra.

I asked Kevin Auld to comment on how he played Tributum so perfectly.
"The sound I achieved for Tributum was accomplished by using a concert-pitch Bflat chanter made by McCallum Bagpipes (of Kilmarnock, Scotland) and a particularly stout chanter reed made by David Chesney (Dublin, Ireland).
Modern Highland bagpipes are typically designed to tune quite sharp (close to concert B), to achieve a sweeter, lighter tone. By using a true concert-pitch chanter in Bflat (466hz) and a stronger reed, the pipes take on a bolder,  richer and louder tone, reminiscent of the old "warpipe" sound that many people associate with the Great Highland Bagpipe. The bigger, richer tone also blends well with and compliments the orchestral instruments,  particularly the low brass.
The pipe setup I used for Tributum was definitely challenging to play for more than a few minutes at a time, but i feel that the end product was worth the effort.
In order to get the big, bold sound that I wanted for Tributum I needed to use a stronger chanter reed than I am used to. You can hear in the performance that my reed actually choked for a split second because I am not used to playing that strength of reed. There's a portion of the score where I needed to cut my chanter out and keep the drones going for several measures. In order for me to be able to cut the chanter out and still maintain a solid drone sound (not have them warble and bubble) I had to use a pretty strong reed. So yes, I had to blow pretty hard! I don't think I could play that chanter for very long in one session.

Overall I was happy with the big, vibrant sound I was able to achieve for Tributum.

Kevin Auld

 I included Kevin's comment above specifically because I shared the CD with two major conductors  and both  of them  told me they were impressed  and basically amazed and how the GH Piper was able to play like that! 

I am so very grateful for  the opportunity I had in composing original music for the Celebrate World Music Concert and CD. 
Nan Avant



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