Timbre, Titles, and Inexplicit Influences: Blair Boyd on Composing Dim shapes grow clearer for alto saxophone and piano
As part of my previous contributions to the Illuminate Women’s Music blog, I have discussed my compositional practice more generally within the context of several pieces. However, for this third article, I would like to focus on aspects of a single piece, Dim shapes grow clearer for alto saxophone and piano, which is programmed as part of Illuminate’s 2021 concert series.
One of the features of Dim shapes grow clearer is the exploration of sustained pitches through alterations of dynamics and timbre. Particularly at the beginning of the piece, long notes which are held by the saxophone come alive through the use of extended playing techniques which alter the tone colour of a note. Flutter-tonguing, a playing technique in which the performer uses a rolling movement of the tongue to manipulate a note, is introduced near the beginning of the piece.
The static opening of the piece is interrupted by a 4-note descending figure in the saxophone. The stepwise motif, simply a descending natural minor scale, is well known from John Dowland’s lute song Flow my Tears and symbolized grief in Elizabethan music. Performed and recorded by early music specialists and pop stars alike, Dowland’s song has served as inspiration for artists for centuries and can be heard via the link below:
While the ‘falling tears’ motif contributed to the initial development of Dim shapes grow clearer, its inspiration is not obvious in the final composition. This is something that is very interesting to me as a composer: how initial impetuses evolve or how several unrelated influences can combine in a musical work to form something unique. Sometimes to even mention such inexplicit influences in a piece would be distracting to a listener, as one would try to pick them out while listening; I mention them here as an interesting topic for the purposes of this blog. While further statements of the ‘falling tears’ motif are quickly abandoned in my saxophone and piano duo, the sombre tone remains, yet somehow more resigned.
To continue the piece, sustained pitches are ornamented in the saxophone while chords sound, striking like clock chimes, at the bottom of the piano's register where pitches are less distinct and blur together. It is this repetitive feature of the piece from which its title comes — with each repetition not only does the material become more familiar, but it also delineates the passage of time. Sometimes choosing the title of a piece is easy, for instance in a vocal piece with a preexisting text; however, I often find deciding titles very difficult as a composer. A title is very important for the reception of a piece, and it can be very difficult to overcome a disconnect between a title and how a musical work sounds. True to form, much contemplation was given to the title of my saxophone and piano duet, and I hope it contributes positively to the impact of the work.
As an alumna of Cardiff University, I am incredibly excited to close our 2021 season with a performance of Dim shapes grow clearer given by saxophonist Naomi Sullivan and pianist Kumi Matsuo on Tuesday, December 14th at Cardiff University Concert Hall.
To read more about my music check out my previous contributions to the Illuminate Women’s Music blog here: https://www.illuminatewomensmusic.co.uk/illuminate-blog/blair- boyd-my-recent-compositional-obsessions
And here: https://www.illuminatewomensmusic.co.uk/illuminate-blog/march-11th-2019 To hear my music check out my Soundcloud page: https://soundcloud.com/blair-boyd-4