»»» NOTE: This article originally ran in Alfred Music's Ledger Lines newsletter to educators (April, 2015). Used here with permission. «««
“Where do you get your inspiration to write music?” I get that question all the time, and I’m still not sure how to answer it. There is no divine force that hands me complete tunes out of thin air, or even gives me a great 16-bar melody. Yet I manage to produce new music.
Why? It’s because I’m a cheapskate composer.
You see, I don’t like to write any more notes than necessary. When I uncover a little melodic-rhythmic motif with good bones I will see how much music I can squeeze out of it. I’ll sequence it, truncate it, transpose it to a different modality, invert it, slice it, dice it, you-name-it. And then I’ll sift through these ideas to see what I’m inspired to glue together into a larger statement.
My jazz ensemble piece Chili Today, Hot Tamale illustrates this concept well. The primary 16-bar melody is a 4-measure motif followed by three variations. A fourth variation appears as a countermelody later on. And a truncated version is used as a background figure behind soloists. In addition to saving me the trouble of having to come up with a bunch of new material, this sort of motivic construction unifies and strengthens the composition. And this specificity gives a piece like “Chili Today” a distinctive character and personality.
This process of motivic development is nothing new. Think about the opening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, arguably the paragon of compositional thrift. Or check out Oliver Nelson’s tenor solo on “Stolen Moments,” a brilliant improvisation in which he spins out chorus after chorus of motivic variation. And then there is Thelonious Monk, a supreme musical tightwad. Check out his tune "Nutty."
Oliver N.'s solo
Share this concept with your students. Have them discover that the music they play is made from small building blocks. Ask them to point out passages in their parts that are—or aren’t related to the main theme. Have fun discovering your favorite musical cheapskates.
»» NOTE: Chili Today, Hot Tamale (referenced above) is the big band version of my saxophone quartet piece Mancini Digs That Mambo. CHECK IT OUT HERE.