Blues for D.D. (video)

[This is a video example of the previous Tip.]

Breathes there a composer with soul so dead who never to himself has said, “Boy, I wish a lot of people would either hear or play my compositions. Or both!”

The internet is and has been a huge boon to compositional democracy: you can write something, record it, and put it out there in audio or video form for all (all meaning anyone with electricity and internet access) to see. The process of making something and making a recording is a bit more involved than that glib sentence  might indicate, but the point is still there. The process is way better than the old way, which is 1) only local exposure (friends, family, school) 2) radio stations 3) CDs.

But there is one other way to get your music known. It’s not particularly easy, and will involve a certain amount of luck, and certainly requires a solid composition. And that is to have somebody famous play your piece. This doesn’t necessarily mean Pop Star famous. This is just someone who has something of a reputation in the field and performs a good bit around the landscape. This is a fairly large circle and there are various levels.

A modern oboe with a reed.

The principle is simple: write a great piece of music and send it to Famous Person. Make sure that the piece fits with or adds something to the style and repertoire of your chosen Famous Person. If possible, make a recording of the piece. Then send it (if you can find an address; if you can’t try email contact and let them know that you would like to send them – gratis – a piece that you wrote with them in mind) snailmail. Many (I won’t go so far as to say most) will respond graciously to your offer and give it a look or a listen or possibly even a play-through. Some may not respond or not be interested. That is their choice – you are not the first to make such an offer, and they have see a lot of mediocre or inappropriate stuff (I once ran the composition contest for the horn society and I would get pieces for guitar or clarinet – people send in whatever they had lying around, what the heck). You have, in any case, nothing to lose. If they decline or you don’t hear from them, move on. Send it to someone else, or get back to work and write even better stuff, or both.

The principle is simple, although landing a piece with a Famous Person is not quite so simple; it takes effort and luck. The piece in the video is example of a slightly different approach: get the piece to the Famous Person before they get famous. Back when I was in the orchestra, we got a new principal oboe: Diana Doherty. Diana was Australian and  23 year old who played like she had 25 years of experience. She was/is a genius on the oboe. Insanely talented, both musically and technically, with a 1000 watt stage presence and charisma. I didn’t even like the sound of oboes until I met/heard Diana. I don’t think that way any more since meeting her.

I decided, naturally enough, to write something for her. Something that was challenging, fun, familiar and different at the same time. The first question I asked was: what do oboes not usually do? I didn’t want to write something that was too similar to the other virtuoso oboe pieces. It came to me: something jazzy. Oboes don’t do that, and probably for good reason. The picture was becoming clearer: jazz –> blues. Start off slow as an introduction. Then run through some blues choruses (using straight ahead tradition blues chords and chord progressions), each one more challenging than the last.

And that’s how it went. The Blues opened with a slow, Gershwinesque introduction, then went into straight swing: the oboe plays a bass line for a chorus to establish style, tempo, and chord progression, then goes into a swing solo, interspersed with bass line. I later made other versions of the piece that were slightly insanely difficult where, for instance, the bass line was assigned to a bass or the pianist’s left hand (while the right punctuated with comp chords). Following the swing chorus, the 8ths are played straight in a Latin style. The last part is barnburning bebop, ending with a nearly 3 octave chromatic dive through every note on the oboe. The coda is an echo of the beginning, but ends with a saucy bit of tongue-in-cheek. I have have a hard time keeping bits of humor out of my pieces…

Blues for DDDiana’s recording of both the oboe alone and oboe and piano versions are available in a CD (Blues for D.D.), but not online, so the video above is by Yeon-Hee Kwak. She adds e-bass, drums (improvised by the performer – there is no written drum part, though I highly approve – percussion improves practically everything), and a real jazz pianist. The piano part I wrote is not bad – I play jazz guitar  – but the pianist here recognized what I was doing with the straight forward blues form and more or less made up his own part, a distinct improvement on mine, and again, I completely improve of his initiative. I encourage players to think of what I wrote as a beginning, not an end, and I’m invariably tickled when they add their own ideas. Composers don’t know or can’t think of everything.  It’s nice to partner with the player rather than dictate.

To finish the story: Diana loved the piece. We only changed one measure in the introduction. Not so long after this, she went on to win several international competitions (Prague Spring, Young Artists) and thus got years of round-the-world concerts and radio and TV appearances.

Guess what she played as an encore at all those.

Icing on the cake was her recording later of both versions.

More icing: oboists all over the place heard her play it. The most brave/foolhardy ones tracked me down and asked for copies. The piece will never be published – it’s just too difficult – but it’s nice to get orders every now and then from ambitious oboists all over. It’s been recorded on a couple more CDs (Janey Miller, New Noise London; Bernhard Röthlisberger on Who Nose – clarinet version) and there are several more performances on YouTube. It was a required piece for the oboe class at the RAM in London a few years ago.

Diana left our orchestra a few years later to return to Australia as principal oboe of the Sydney Symphony. I guess and hope that she still plays the piece named and written for her.

I guess the final idea is this: find the best players you know and write stuff for them. It’s not a bad idea to write for distant famous people you don’t know, but you will have a much better chance of getting it played if you know the people (also, you get to work with them on the piece and get feedback and hone the details).

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