Thursday, December 4, 2008

Hymn For Peter

Dedicated to Peter Fopeano (1965-2008)

Listen to a (simulated) orchestra playing my composition, "Hymn for Peter"

My wife Wendy's family has a large Thanksgiving gathering every few years, with relatives coming in from all over the world. Although he would sometimes make the trip for part of the time, her youngest brother Peter was never able to be with us on Thanksgiving day itself, because he worked at a casino and Thanksgiving was one of their busiest days of the year.

Peter lost his job earlier a few months ago, and while that is seldom a good thing, one silver lining was that he was going to be on Thanksgiving for the first time in many years. Although this year was not going to be one of the large worldwide gatherings, my wife and I made plans to fly out to Kansas City to celebrate with her immediate family, and Peter in particular.

The morning before we were to fly out, we received news that Peter had been shot and killed while sitting in his car - an unintended victim of crossfire between rivals standing on either side.

Needless to say, our trip to Kansas City took on an entirely different meaning, as our celebration was tempered by mourning. I do not think I can express my feelings about all this in words here in this blog. However, on Friday - the day after Thanksgiving - I had time to sit alone with my thoughts for some time, and not surprisingly, I turned to music for release. I decided to write a composition to perform at Peter's memorial service.

The idea started as a simple tune that I would play on the piano and embellish with improvisation in my usual manner. My model was Don Pullen's Ode to Life, which is a jazz piece that incorporates improvisation but has a classical feel to the composed sections. Because I wished to be alone, I did not compose at the piano (which was in the dining room), but rather in silence with pencil and paper only, in the bedroom where Wendy and I were staying. While this is not my norm, it is not something I have no experience with, either - I composed away from the piano often when I was writing in a classical idiom as part of my degree.

Perhaps for these reasons, when the first few phrases came out of my pencil, I realized I was writing not a jazz tune at all, but a hymn. After writing the basics of the melody and harmony for the first section of the piece, I turned my attention to arranging it in traditional four-part chorale harmony. I think wrote a second section for the piece and arranged it similarly. At that point, I had a completed hymn, but not a clear idea of what I would do with it.

Since I was not at the piano, and I had my computer with me, I entered my hymn into Finale, the scoring software I have used for years, so I could hear it, edit it, and then print it out. At first, when I hit the playback button to listen to the results, it played using the default piano sound. But at some point I started thinking about what it would sound like if it were sung - even though I had not (and still have not) written any lyrics for this. So I changed the sound to a sample of a choir singing "oooh" and "aaah". Although I can't say the results were impressive in themselves, it immediately struck me that the piece really needed to be scored for some sort of instrumental ensemble. The most obvious choice seemed to be a straight rendering of the four-part SATB harmony into the instruments of the quartet: two violins, viola, and cello. I set this up in Finale, and then started considering how I might put together a quartet or even a small string section (with multiple players per part) to record this during the week between then and the memorial.

By the next day, however, it occurred to me that I really wanted to hear how it would sound with a full orchestra. I knew there was no way I could get an actual orchestra lined up to play it such short notice (and indeed, it would be difficult even with no time constraints). But I also know that Finale comes with some fairly high-quality orchestral samples - ones that are often used in film scoring. So I spent most of Saturday and Sunday working on an orchestral arrangement of my hymn.

What I ended up with is a pretty faithful rendering of the original SATB chorale harmonization, using the different colors of the orchestra to add variety, as opposed to actually creating new harmonies and so forth. Over the last few days since returning to Denver, I have continued to tweak this, and while I suspect I'll continue to do in the future, I think this at a place where I would like to share it. So if you have not already clicked the link at the top of this entry, you can do so now.

The memorial service is Monday in Kansas City. I still have not decided if I am going to simply play this on the piano as per my initial plan, or use this recording, or use a recording of a real string quartet that I still plan to try to make between now and then. I may well decided to play it myself, since that in some ways is the most personal expression I can put forward at the service. As a composer, my orchestral arrangement is at least as personal to me as my own playing. But of course, this is not about my relationship to the music - it's about expressing my feelings about Peter.

Peter, this is for you.