Fireworks contest entry

Now that a few weeks have passed since the end of the Fireworks contest, I'm putting up my contest entry for analysis and critique.

Even though I won 2nd place (big thanks to everyone who voted!), I'm well aware of flaws and limitations in the piece, some of which are due to time constraints during the contest, and some are just my own incompetence. At least one forum member has already pointed out to me some flaws in the string writing that I will have to fix at some point. I'd greatly appreciate it if people would point out any other problems or weaknesses they find with the piece. Thanks for listening!

For those members who were not involved in the contest, here are the original "program notes" I submitted with it:

Threnody for the Victim of a House Fire started by a Stray Firecracker

This piece commemorates the untimely death of one of the composer's high school acquaintances in a house fire believed to have been started by a stray firecracker during New Year festivities. This incident, in which several other students also died shortly thereafter and the remaining survivors sustained lifelong scars, deeply affected the composer, who developed a distaste for festivities and fireworks.

The music begins with a series of quotations of the opening theme from the Overture of Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks", in various modifications, set against a background of musical imitations of fireworks exploding into flowery patterns and streaming fiery trailers. This gradually builds up into a grandiose, but somewhat crass celebration.

At the peak of the celebration the music enters a short transition depicting a stray firecracker launching into the air and falling upon the roof of a house. Tension builds as fire breaks out and begins to spread, with Handel's theme being quoted in modified and increasingly grotesque forms, until all descends into chaos ending with a terrific crash, depicting the collapse of a roof beam thought to have killed the composer's schoolmate instantly.

An extended lamentation is then taken up in the third and final section, based on a theme built from an enigmatic sequence of notes said to be the composer's encoding of his schoolmate's name into music. The lamentation ends with the first five notes of this sequence, ostensibly an abbreviated reference to the schoolmate's name, as though in a final outcry of farewell. The piece then closes with one last quotation of the Handel theme, clouded by sombre chords in the strings that subsequently descend into the darkness and fade away.

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  • Teoh,

    I loved your piece and voted for it as #1.  I am glad that you started a post to obtain feedback on it. 

    My main overall comment is that it was clear that this was a piece that channeled a great deal of your personal life force and energy.  It came from somewhere real, and it wanted to be heard.  I believe this is true, and perhaps also there's a take-home message here.  Maybe to make excellent music we need to address topics that matter to us a lot.  Maybe that's a major raw material for any art form.

    I will try to provide some specific comments (although you realize my ability in that department is really limited) when I'm less tired than I am right now.  Good night.


  • Hi H.S.

    Your composition is very impressive. I can hear why it took a prize. My initial reaction was "Wow, what a grand fireworks display, just like Handel's Royal Fireworks Music and then afterwards I read the description and saw that Handel's piece served as a catalyst for your festive mood. So very sorry to hear about the tragedy at your friend's house. I think this is a fitting commemoration for the loss of lives. As I listened I wondered why the festive mood turned dour toward the middle and end and now I understand. On the technical side I think you're establishing a unique stamp for your style which is important for a composer. You experiment in polytonalities and do them quite well so that even while the sound is often modern, still the traditional tonality shines through which is very difficult to pull off. Which notation program do you use? I'd heartily recommend upgrading your sound library to something like Vienna or EW Quantum Leap or something along that line to give this that orchestral sound punch that such high-quality programs deliver for this particular piece. I haven't heard Stravinsky's early work, Fireworks but I imagine it's brilliant like this. But the brass carrying the Handel theme in the opening would really blast wonderfully like a chorale against the brilliant scale work you use. All in all, well done.

    No, I decided to decline Shao's invitation but haven't had a chance to contact her yet because of my health travails. The problem is Singapore is so far away. I couldn't possibly get there and a composer has to be present for a premiere as well as rehearsals. International travel just isn't in the cards for me anymore. I hope you continue with your work. I think you have lots of talent and tremendous potential. Perhaps it's time to take on a full-scale work like a concerto or symphony. You might be surprised at how good it turns out. Wishing you all the best and certainly keep me posted of any new compositions, Fire me an email. I'd love to hear them.

    J Joe 

  • I loved it. It was hot.

  • @Rodney: Thanks! What do you think of the brass parts? I think you may have mentioned that I really ought to have 4 horns and a tuba? Any places in the brass writing that's weak and can be improved?

    @Joe: Thanks so much for your kind words. I use LilyPond for the notation (and, incidentally, also to drive the MIDI which underlies the audio production -- but such a combination is usually not recommended due to its obscurity; I only did it 'cos I'm an insane obsessive computer geek who hates GUIs and prefers text-based input, even for music).  Plain LilyPond may not be for everybody, because of its text-based input; but there's a project called Frescobaldi that provides a more user-friendly GUI around the LilyPond typesetting engine; you might be interested in that.

    You're quite right that with better sound libraries this could be made to sound much better. I didn't do too much on the production side because I was mainly concerned with the compositional issues. But I'll get to it one day. I just need to find something that fits in well with my (admittedly rather obscure) workflow.

    As for Singapore, I understand that the distance can feel daunting, especially after your recent travel ordeals. Just keep looking locally, then. Surely there must be some orchestra somewhere here that would be willing to premiere your concerto?  Speaking of which, while we're on the topic of sound libraries, maybe you could consider investing in that too, because the audio you currently have for your concerto is definitely very "tinny" and electronic, and doesn't do justice to your brilliant score. You might have a better chance of convincing less technically-inclined music directors and other such decision-makers (who may not fully understand the issues involved in computer-generated audio), if you have an audio that sounds almost like the real thing.

    As for symphonies... it has always been my dream to write one. But I still don't feel confident enough to tackle it just yet. But I'm working towards it.  A 3-movement concerto might be a logical intermediate step, and before that, perhaps a multi-movement quartet or some such smaller ensemble, just to get myself more familiarized with multi-movement writing (and perhaps get a live performance or two under my portfolio, before I tackle the issue of how to convince an entire orchestra to perform my work. :-P).

  • Teoh,

    I listened to your Threnody again twice today (while working!).  I hope you don't mind if I bring it back up in the "totem pole" of the forum's website. 

    This piece seems very coherent to me as a piece of music, i.e., even if you had no information at all on what it is supposed to be representing.

    I wonder whether those in the know of orchestral music composition would care to go back to your piece, which was 2nd place in the contest, and provide some better commentary than I able to do.

    P.S. - Interesting coincidence, that your friend's name translates into a 5-pitch sequence that is so similar to the close encounters of the 3rd kind "signal" ( Though, of course, this probably doesn't really have much import to you, it's just a detail, but it is nevertheless striking.

  • HS  What a fantastic piece!  I liked it very much! Exuberant! Colorful!  But also,  ominously sad.  (to me, there is a touch of Shostakovich, but that in no way do i mean that it is derivative.. I find your voice very unique and strong!) I love your juxtaposition of tonality, with other instruments pulling against it… Very interesting and compelling indeed! 

    Just Excellent!, HS.


  • Hi Mariza, thanks for bringing up this thread again. I was a little disappointed that I got so few comments the last time, so it's good to hear from more people.

    As for the 5-pitch sequence, that's a rather funny coincidence, isn't it?  I've never heard of that piece before until you mentioned it, but the "signal" does sound remarkably similar to my 5-pitch sequence. Though it's actually an 8-pitch sequence (the entire melody played by the 1st bassoon in mm.105-108), with a 5-pitch abbreviation, because it just so happens that my schoolmate's name happens to be 8 letters but we usually only use the shortened form, which happens to be the first 5 letters. :-)

    The clarinet melody in mm. 108-112 is actually a transcription of his surname, a 10-pitch sequence that, together with the 5-pitch abbreviation, is repeated verbatim a few octaves down in the basses in mm.119-127, as the underpinning for the entire melody in that section.  It was quite an interesting challenge to write a sensible melody with those exact bass notes, I must say, that also happens to be an effective climactic passage to round off the lamentation. :-)  I actually got some help from Rodney in working out the shape of the melody in mm.122-124, though I didn't tell him where the melody came from at the time. (Is this be considered cheating?)

  • Gregorio, thanks so much for your comment!

    I'm quite pleased, actually, that you hear a bit of Shostakovich in there, because I am quite influenced by Shostakovich in the way he writes his trademark death marches of terror (cf. esp. in the descent into chaos in mm.65-96), as well as the soft but discordant wind solos that he loves to write (cf. mm.105-118). Also, the device of having a mysterious, recurrent motif (the 5-pitch sequence) throughout mm.105-118 and in mm.128-130 was borrowed from the way he uses his famous DSCH motif in his 10th symphony, esp. in the 3rd movement.

    The polytonality is a kind of in-joke, actually, esp. in the first section. The descending string scales (which I have to rewrite, btw, based on feedback from Michael Lofting about playability issues) are spaced in minor 3rds, diminished 5ths, and diminished 7ths, i.e., it's a glissando diminished 7th chord. The wind figures in the background are also built from descending diminished 7th chords in various guises. The joke is that while the "happy" Handel theme is playing in the brass section, everyone else is hinting that something is wrong.

    In the second section I used polytonality mainly for the discordant sound, in order to imbue the music with ominuous overtones (e.g. the deliberate "wrong" notes in the 1st trombone in mm.33-44) and outright terror (subsequent passages in the same section).

    The brass discord in mm.57-58 is a rather interesting one, actually... I originally tried various stereotypically "terrifying" chords, but they didn't work very well. Eventually, after lots of experimentation, I discovered that a most satisfyingly discordant sound is obtained just by modifying a single note in the 2nd horn in what is otherwise a boring old Db major chord played by the rest of the brass.  This simple modification completely sours the entire chord, far more effectively than any of the other in-your-face discords like diminished 7ths, polytonic chords, random notes, cluster chords, etc., that I tried.  It's an interesting phenomenon that I discovered recently, that sometimes the most powerful effect is obtained not by cramming in as many discords as you can think of, but just by inserting one or two "wrong" notes in strategic places.

  • Thanks for your comment, Susan! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

    Anyway, I just realized that the score/audio attached to this discussion is still the old one from just after the contest.  I've since made some improvements in the audio production, and y'all have been missing out!!! So here's the updated score and audio (attached).

    The score hasn't changed much -- I haven't had the time to incorporate Michael Lofting's suggestions yet, so it's just a few minor tweaks here and there. The main difference is that now the audio is produced differently -- by generating separate midi files for each section in the orchestra and merging the outputs of the software synths into a single result. This frees me from the limitation of 15 channels maximum in midi files, so I can now put each instrument on its own track, and tweak its volume / panning individually.  The new process has also revealed that I had set the volume too high before, which resulted in some audio distortion caused by clipping in the original mp3 file.  The main difference you'll hear, though, besides having to turn up the volume a bit, is that now the instruments are panned across the stereo soundscape. I think y'all will like the new audio much better.


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