• Quinn Mason

The Imitation Game

*note: the underlined phrases contain links to musical examples. Please click them to enhance your experience with this article.

As the 2010s draws to a close, some of my earliest compositions are turning almost decade old. I recently went back and reviewed and reflected upon some of the pieces composed in 2010-2011 and I was struck by something interesting: a lot of my works from that time period don't sound like I wrote them. Rather they sound like imitations of the classical and romantic masters. I find that my orchestration and choice of compositional techniques of that time closely mirrors decisions that a composer in 1811 would've made. That got me thinking about my compositional journey and how I got to where I am today, not because of what I've written, but because what I was trying to write.

Genesis of a style

It must be noted that some of the earliest scores I've studied were symphonies of Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, and Beethoven. Therefore, it was only natural for me to gravitate toward the classical style in some of my early compositions and so, looking back, I see I that was really strict about form and the construction of music so that everything were equal. Classical era movements are written so that the beginning of the composition is in I, it develops a little then the middle of the piece ends up in V. It develops some more, then finds its way back to I and ends there, all of this using the same musical material stated at the beginning. This is called sonata form and I was doing a lot of this in my earliest days.

excerpt from a piano sonata in A major, called 'Classical' (2011). Note the alberti bass.

In April 2011, I composed 'How not to Write a Symphony' and used the instrumentation of Beethoven's 4th symphony as my canvas. It was originally called 'Symphony No. 8 in D Major' but in 2014, I wrote my official first symphony and revised the '8th'. I retitled it 'How not to Write a Symphony' after seeing that it was just a really bad imitation at a classical style symphony. Later in 2011, I turned to neo-romanticism after one of my favorite composers, Tchaikovsky.

I ended up learning how to work with musical material I had written and how to develop that fully into a properly formed composition. That helped me in the long run, and now whenever I compose, I think deeply about what I'm writing, even when I'm not writing with a specific form in mind. When you write with limits, you end up seeing things a lot differently.

Mirroring Glass

In 2012, I discovered and became infatuated with the early work of Philip Glass. I can't remember exactly where I first heard it, but I do know that the piece of his that got me hooked was part 2 of Music in 12 parts. There was something hypnotizing about that very repetitive music that got me hooked real quick. In June of that year, I tried my hand at writing like Glass, and composed a 40-minute 5-part epic called 'Glass Mirrors', based it on the style on Music in 12 parts and set it for the instrumentation of the Philip Glass Ensemble. Of course, it was purely an experiment and I wrote it without the intention of being performed.

So what did I learn from trying to write like Philip Glass?'s not easy to write like Philip Glass. Glass' music may seem like its easy to imitate, and to an extent, it is. However, looking back at part 2 of Music in 12 parts, you find that the music is meticulously constructed so that the changes are subtle and therefore almost unnoticed as the music goes along. The changes happen over the characteristic triplet arpeggios that drive the music forward. That was aspect that was by far the hardest to reproduce. Glass is a master of the subtle change, and that's what gives his earliest pieces their hypnotic quality. My attempt was like trying to recreate a restaurant's signature dish at home without the top notch ingredients. And the subtle changes are definitely not there; mine are more sudden and you can tell when they happen, as opposed to them flowing seamlessly into each other.

Excerpt from part 2 of 'Glass Mirrors' (2012)

Excerpt from the Part 2 of 'Glass Mirrors' (2012):

My 'Philip Glass' period extended all the way into 2013, utilizing the style for a symphonic poem called 'The Precipice' (from January 2013) and my String Quartet No. 2 (completed in May 2013). After that, I pretty much reverted back to a neo-romantic style.

I made one last attempt at trying to write like Glass in my 2016 composition 'Minimalist Symphony', based on his 9th symphony. Listening to that work one night and studying the score available online, I was curious as to whether I could compose something using the same devices that Glass used (for example, syncopated chords in the winds and brass, and emphasis on motor rhythms in the percussion with the temple blocks being featured more than once), along with his unique orchestration (contrabass clarinet, piano, two bass trombones). By this point, I had had more experience with composition and so I had been around the block a few times and could easily reproduce an imitation fairly easily. Plus, it helps that Glass' symphonies aren't as hardcore minimalist as his early work, so the resulting composition was actually fun to write.

Excerpt from the 2nd movement of 'Minimalist Symphony' (2016):

Orchestration from the laboratory

Around 2014, I began to get adventurous with my orchestration. My experimenting with unusual orchestral elements goes back to September 2011 with my large scale work Loveless, which uses a huge orchestra with unusual instruments such as organ, bass trumpet, cimbasso and wagner tubas. Was I crazy? Possibly. This was another work purely from the laboratory intended to be an outlet to try things out. In this case, I was curious to see if I could pull off a work on the scale of Mahler with an orchestra slightly larger than his (Mahler never used bass trumpet, cimbasso or