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  • Writer's pictureQuinn Mason

Emergence: My Inner City Rhapsody

On September 4 , 2019, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra will perform the premiere of an orchestral piece it commissioned from me in late 2017. I knew with an opportunity like this, I had a chance to say something deep and to possibly relate to someone who is or may have been a similar situation as me. But a piece of music like this doesn't just 'happen'. There are several factors that resulted in it's creation, stemming from my earliest days of composition more than 10 years ago.

Relationship with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra

The first DSO concert I ever attended was apart of a school field trip in 2006. On the program was one lone work, Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf conducted by Andrew Litton (then in his last year as music director) and narrated by Sting (it may be worth noting that at the time I didn't know who Sting was and now, more than 10 year later, I'm still not entirely sure who he is). I have been attending rehearsals and concerts regularly since 2008 and I started interacting with the players around that time as well. I've spent a lot of time backstage at the DSO since then, mostly because one of my closest mentors is the (now retired) principal percussionist with the orchestra. That afforded me an up close view and not only gave me a chance to see how the orchestra worked from the inside out, but to gauge the strengths of the individual players. Therefore, most of the material in the music was written with specific members of the DSO in mind.

How did I come with "Inner City Rhapsody"?

For the longest time, I've wanted to make an artistic statement from the point of view of a composer from the inner city because I realized that that isn't a view represented the concert hall often. This being the 21st century, we've seen composers write music that reflects the situations of early 20th century suffragettes (Ethel Smyth) to composers during the Harlem Renaissance (William Grant Still) to music during a time of siege (Karel Husa).

But have we ever seen a young composer of color in their early 20's write about where they came from?

The truth is, my journey to become a composer was a not an easy one, especially coming up in a public school system that had limited opportunities for musical enrichment. I'm very lucky to have had people (mostly professional musicians in my area) who have cared deeply enough to look after my career for over a decade. This piece isn't meant as a social commentary of any sort. This piece is for them.

Let's face it; not many people of color go to orchestral concerts. But I'm willing to bet that somewhere out there can relate to my story, regardless of what color they are. Most of my music is autobiographical, but it's my sincere hope that someone else can relate to it.

This piece can also be a tribute to the city of Dallas and its vibrant musical community. It's a place I've lived for about 15 years now and that is officially a part of my musical identity.

City of Dallas skyline, July 2016

Is there a story behind the piece?

When I initially started planning and composing this work in the summer of 2018, there was no story or form in mind. However, the ideas that were to be in three distinct parts gradually took shape as I crafted the music. I always say that this piece 'composed itself' because when I started officially writing it, I went where it took me and went with the flow.

By the time I had finished it in January 2019, the composition decided it wanted to be in three distinct parts:

1. Nostalgia: A slow, reflective section in a lush romantic style. This entire section ebbs and flows within itself and at some point during the beginning reaches a mini-climax which then dies back down

2. Struggle: A fast and energetic section full of accents and busy figures., interspersed with moments of calm

3. Emergence: The final hopeful section of the work, in which the orchestration builds from nothing into a giant fanfare.

A more accurate scenario for the piece would be the story of a composer's journey from the beginning as their personal voice begins to take shape (nostalgia), a struggle to maintain that voice as problems interfere (struggle; one will also notice in this section that there are moments of calm, as the composer reflects before moving forward), a climax, and after that climax, the composer has finally found their voice which builds from nothing into something fantastic. It's one giant journey from beginning to end, but it wasn't planned that way. It just kinda happened.


Inside the score:

Approach to the orchestration

In the commission, I was given a limit of a standard orchestra for usage. I decided to stick to this, with some small changes.

The instrumentation of 'Inner City Rhapsody'.

There was originally a second oboe part (which would have brought my oboe section total to 2 + EH) but I couldn't find a use for it as I kept giving all the important music to the 1st oboe and english horn. So I simply deleted it. The piece actually benefited from this change, giving the wind section a unique sound that is double-reed focused (particularly in the 3 bassoons).

One thing I like experimenting with in my orchestral music is the percussion. As a percussionist, I've both seen and played unusual parts in percussion ensemble music, which leads me to compose unique music for them. During the 'Struggle' section of the piece, 4 triangles make an entrance representing hope in a hopeless situation. Or, depending on how you want to look at it, they can be the small spark of an idea that come later in the piece (where the triangles have a different role).. This is an example of something I've coined called 'Mirrored Percussion', in which two percussionists play the same exact instruments, 'mirroring' each other in a sense.

Entrance of the 4 triangles during the 'Struggle' section. The strings are still agitated and the triangles are like a spark of an idea or a glimmer of hope.

Another thing someone would notice if studying the percussion parts in the score is the technical timpani part. As a percussionist who loves playing timpani, my approach to writing a timpani part is "What would I, as a timpanist, like to play?" Therefore, one will find that this part is extremely active. Plus, watching the principal timpanist of the DSO Brian Jones for years gave me an idea of his playing style and what he likes to do, so there's a little of him in this as well.

Timpani part during the struggle section, utilizing 3 drums

Climax of the 'Struggle' section, again utilizing all 3 drums in a busy manner

As you've noticed in triangle example above, the strings are divided. In fact, they are divided for most of the piece for the purpose of creating motion within the string section. Most of the divided parts consists of music traded off in any given section, thus creating the feeling that each individual section has its own life.

The 2 violin sections divided within each other, playing agitated figures with individual dynamic changes

celli and basses trading off a busy figure, mostly so the basses won't get tired with playing constantly

I also worked with aleatoric elements in the score. As the woodwind activity in 'Emergence' builds, they gradually fall out of time with each other, with some speeding up/slowing down at will or triplets against duplets. All of this signifies independence from rigor.

the buildup from 'Emergence'; notice the superimposing of different rhythms in the woodwinds.

The woodwinds play a prominent role in the piece, with several solos being taken by the flute, oboe and english horn, with rare moments for the bass clarinet or contrabassoon to shine. Everything interacts with each other in the piece, and the woodwinds often dialogue or comment on each others music.

Chamber music-like interplay in the winds, over an oboe/english horn duet

I've fallen in love with the lower to mid register of the flute, and one will find plenty of that of this piece, especially in the first part (where it can actually be heard).

Flutes and violins from the very beginning of the piece. Notice how the flutes 'emerge' out of the violin textures.

For most of the first part, I tried to restrict use of the brass to texture coloring. Therefore, I utilize the special tones created with muted brass which softens the tones (depending of course on which mutes you choose to use). Early in the piece, the music builds to a mini-climax, which primarily features the brass performing fanfare-like motives.

mini-climax with fanfares in the trumpets and trombones

The most common mute for brass is the straight mute, and this is usually the mute you'll get if you indicate 'con sord.' instead of a specific mute. I chose the sound of the straight mute simply because it is a clean mute sound, and it wouldn't be too piercing like a harmon mute or too distant like a cup mute. With the exception of the horns (for which I call for the stop mutes), I use the straight mutes for the trumpets down to the tuba. Tuba mutes are rare, and they are so large that it's kind of fun to watch them put it in (*having them try to put it in with a short amount of time between playing is extremely dangerous and not recommended). The tuba is naturally a really heavy instrument, especially on the low end. With the mute, the sound softens and gets mellower. I've doubled it with the double basses to give body to the tone and a bit later, it's doubled with the bassoon section to give body to them as well.

from the 'Nostalgia' section. The tuba is muted and doubled with the basses. The trombones are also muted and so are the horns, although for a short time.

And as for the harp, which is actually one the hardest instruments to write for effectively, I give it big role. In some sections I have it color individual notes in the strings and woodwinds and in others, I give it a chance to speak with a solo.

harp solo from the first part

Personal tempo/expression markings

A while back, I decided that the primary language in my scores (with regard to tempo and expressions) would be in english. There's nothing wrong with the standard italian (allegro, adagio, andante, etc.) but I've found that as my musical language gets more expressive, that simply isn't enough. A great example of this can be found in the scores of Mahler, who was so specific about his music that he left us entire paragraphs instructing us how it should be played. There are entire individual glossaries dedicated to Mahler directions.

a collage showing some of the tempo/expression markings utilized in 'Inner City Rhapsody'

As I've mentioned above, the english is only for tempo and expressions. For techniques, I still use the standard italian, because using 'arco' and 'pizz.' looks a lot better than 'use the bow' and 'pluck the string'. Same thing with dynamics; 'P' and 'F' look better than 'really soft' and 'LOUD'.

What would I like you to get out of this piece?

This piece is meant to be enjoyed, and somewhat thought about deeply. The whole while this piece is being performed, I would like the members of the audience to place themselves in the shoes of a composer who's been through it all to get to where they are today. It wasn't easy and it doesn't continue to get any easier, but at this stage in my career, I feel that my attempt to reflect on what has happened thus far has been quite successful.

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