Back to the drawing board for the umpteenth time: A look behind the creation of "Petite Marmotte."

Posted on September 28, 2010 at 10:22 AM

    Have you ever worked long, hard and passionately on a project to meet a deadline, only to have become so frustrated as one of the following statements began to run through your mind: “It's not good enough.”; “It's not what the person wanted.”; or “It doesn't meet the specifications asked for”?  Well, I have.  It's those kind of thoughts that make you up and decide to scrap it all – or in my case, to save it for another project – and “go back to the drawing board.”  Recently, a good friend and former piano student of mine, Nelly, asked me if I would compose a piano piece for her, for which she chose the title, Petite Marmotte.  It was to be a gift from her to her boyfriend, Jim, who was to return home after over half a year away in military service overseas.  I was of course flattered to even receive this request, not just because it was my first paid commission, but because it was to have great sentimental value.  It was to express the sadness and patience – “long suffering,” as I like to call it and as the King James Bible so poetically translates it – that one goes through when missing a loved one who is far away for a long period of time and yet have a joyous ending to express the excitement and jubilation upon their long awaited return.  I already had experience by then in writing pieces for special and meaningful occasions, as I had written one piece for a friend's wedding in July of 2009, titled You Are, and one for a family wedding in September of that same year, titled All that I am, all that I have been, I offer now to you.  And I guess I could say that Petite Marmotte was much like You Are.  This is because I went with particular musical ideas that I really liked, developed them and almost completed them nearly several days before the piece had to be finished, only to then conclude that I would have to start all over and write something else instead.  You Are was written after scrapping another piece for cello and piano accompaniment that couldn't be used for the event it was intended because the cello part was too difficult for the only cellist I could find to learn it in time.  And I didn't know how well the pianist could sight read and play the piece who was to play other pieces for the wedding, but who would come on the evening before.  So, I wrote a song instead for voice, guitar accompaniment and flute, which was a setting in which I could perform it myself and accompany a flutist friend, Renée, who I knew could pull it off in time for the wedding.  Luckily, the specific instrumentation wasn't decided upon by the bride and groom, but was left up to me.  So, It was okay for me to change it quite close to the deadline.  Now, with Petite Marmotte, I didn't scrap the original ideas and start over because Nelly didn't like it.  On the contrary, she thought the few ideas I gave her a sample of in the weeks while I composed it were quite nice.  The reason why I went back to the drawing board and started all over with completely different ideas was because the piece had to be simple enough for her to eventually learn and play herself one day, and sooner rather than in three years.  It was also agreed upon that I would give the piece its premier performance.  Oh...did I forget to also mention that on top of this I was asked to compose the piece about three weeks before it was to be due?  Talk about a time crunch!  I think it's important to keep in mind that if one wants to be a good artist, then he should be able to handle the pressures of a deadline.  So, despite the demands of the commission, I did in fact keep this in mind and accepted the task and all its challenges.  Little did I know what lessons this first official commission of mine would bring.  For certain is: out of the process of creating this one piece with only three weeks of time, two other pieces were, for a lack of a better word, “birthed” out of it.  This is because I went back to the drawing board with this project not only once, but twice.  I essentially scrapped the first piece to start a new one, only to realize once again when that second piece was nearly finished that I just couldn't make the piece with the ideas that were in it simple enough for Nelly to learn any time soon or for me to learn quick enough to perform.  So a third piece was started and finished, which is the Petite Marmotte that now exists.  And all this decision making to start a new piece, scrap it and start yet another piece happened just about 4 days before the piece was due. AAAAAH!!! Luckily it was due first only for her to hear and to see if it really suited what she was looking for.  It was then a week later that we scheduled to have the performance when Jim finally would be present to hear it.  That gave me time to then practice it.

    Now, you're certainly wondering what those other two pieces were like and what became of them.  Both pieces still exist and I've simply set them each aside for another time.  The first piece started when I sat down one day with guitar in hand and decided to record myself improvising some ideas onto my little voice recorder.  What's that you ask?...“Why in the world would he compose a piece for piano by sitting down with a guitar?”  Well, let's just say that the creative process for me doesn't always follow any rules.  But the ideas I came up with are easily able to then be tweaked to be played on the piano.  It's interesting though how something played on one instrument has a different mood or feeling that is expressed than when it is played on another.  So, I managed to get the ideas onto the voice recorder and then play it back to translate it onto the piano.  The piece starts with a gentle pattern of repeated sixteenth notes, which set its foundation in the key of Eb major.  This repetition of sixteenth note chords, altered throughout the piece, is what lays its framework and doesn't actually stop until the very last few measures.  It's almost like a broken record in a sense.  This may sound funny when you think of it.  But I find that a lot of music these days, whether Rock, Pop or even Modern Classical has this pulsating and repetitious “broken record” backbone found in it.  I'm reminded mostly of the group, Coldplay, though when I play the piece with its oscillating “dim dim dim dim dim dim dim dim dim dim dim dim dim dim dim dim” that wields its way and takes shape throughout the landscape of the tune.  The opening chord is an Eb Major triad with a suspended 6th, tightly clustered within the octave.  Sparsely coloring this minimalistic pattern in the first several measures isn't a melody of any sort, but rather a few tones struck and sustained over several beats, like little beacons of light you may see at night to simply notify any overhead pilots of their presence, should they fly their planes too close.  These beacon-like sustained pitches that are sounded every few beats or so were pretty much the exact opposite of the oscillating and ever pressing forward pulsations of their gentle sixteenth note accompaniment.  “Petite Marmotte” is French, and it means, “little groundhog.”  This music that I came up with truly does paint a picture of an almost Fantasia-like film that plays in my mind.  I can see a little groundhog sleeping in his little hole as the camera pans in on him.  It is dark and yet there is enough light to see him in his little home and recognize what he is and that he is there.  The music continues with the gently pounding 16th note harmonies accompanying what is by then a clear melody.  This melody, in my opinion, could easily have text adapted to it.  And actually, do you remember how I told you that the ideas for this piece first came as I recorded myself on the guitar into my voice recorder?  Well, I even sang an improvised melody with text over what I played on the guitar.  In my mind, I was set on making a sort of “song without words.”  That means I wanted to make something that could have text that would fit the mood and message of the piece, but isn't supposed to.  The melody in itself should say everything needed to be said while the possible text would be left to the imagination.  I remember though that the text I sang was something like, “Life away from you has been so hard.”  I didn't come up with or write down any text to read off of before I recorded this stuff into the voice recorder.  I just had the above mentioned line of text in my mind and I used it for the sake of having something to base and create a melody off of with its syllabic structure, pentameter and mood, even if the words that I came up with as I recorded and sang didn't actually make any sense.  Eventually, the piece reaches a sort of development section that builds and builds with so much tension that you are quite satisfied when it resolves to the grand climax that represents the joy of the loved ones return.

    Now, although the piece was to be titled Petite Marmotte, its expressed emotions didn't necessarily have to have anything to do with its title.  “Petite Marmotte” was simply an inside joke between Nelly and Jim, and Nelly was set on this being the pieces title.  Now if you remember, I mentioned how I could imagine a Fantasia-like film going through my mind with a groundhog and all.  I recall how I once saw or heard about the idea behind Walt Disney's Fantasia films and how the animations that were to accompany the music were actually not supposed to be a recreation of what the composer had intended to portray with the music.  You often go to a concert and read in the program notes what the composer was thinking when he or she wrote the piece or what pictures went through their mind.  But the idea behind Fantasia was to get into the mind of someone whose listening experience was never influenced by the program or liner notes accompanying the concert or music recording.  One person may hear a particular piece of music and imagine something in their mind that is totally different than what the composer may have ever thought of.  For example, whenever I hear the first movement of Naïve and Sentimental Music by John Adams, I envision one of these Fantasia-like films in my mind that would tell the famous story of the Wright brothers and their attempts to create a device that could transport humans through the air, which we of course now know as the airplane.  Naïve and Sentimental Music's first movement is also of the same title and evokes this picture for me because of its whimsical melody that begins so gentle and light as a feather and which yet becomes at times monstrous, chaotic and almost violent, leaving me astounded at how it got there from where it began.  For me, all this in the music creates a picture in my mind of how Orville and Wilbur Wright would get so close to finally achieving flight and then something would go wrong.  My favorite part of the piece though is the very end where the music builds and builds and builds, almost to the point of madness with it's clanking percussive characteristics.  Just picture yourself watching this movie that I'm imagining here; imagine you are right there with the Wright brothers.  Everyone surely thinks the brothers are off their rocker with this whole idea of a flying machine.  They've made many failed attempts that left them trying to figure out whether to continue or just give up.  They go for it one last time.  The plane is leaving the runway picking up speed.  The music is getting more and more hectic as you're wondering where this spastic ride is gonna go.  Suddenly the engine fails or some other part of the plane fails and the music gets more agitated and frustrated, wanting to resolve but not quite getting there yet because something is preventing it from doing so.  The plane is still moving, but there is not much runway space left if they want to slow down.  So, it's either up into the air or bust.  They bang and pound on the hull of the plane, sometimes cursing and yelling in their frustration, for their reputation isn't going to get any better after this last attempt if all fails.  Everyone is looking at them and thinking, “Those loonies have messed up again.  Why don't they just give up already?”  All seems ruined.  But finally, the engine picks up again and they increase speed.  Everyone is shocked when they see what happens before their very eyes.  It's finally come true.  The Wright Brothers are airborne.  All their perseverance has finally paid off.  The naysayers are eating their own words as history is made.  At the very moment in the music when the wheels lose contact with the ground, the crescendo leads us to believe the orchestra has just lifted off and gone airborne too in all the excitement that it emits.  Every instrument in the orchestra is shouting out in jubilation and ecstasy, the brass are punching away at Blastissimo (It's actually probably a fortissimo written in the parts for the orchestra at that point, but when listening to the recording, you'd think there was a performance note on the page instructing the players to play at a dynamic of “blastissimo”.)  Listening to that part of the piece makes me feel like I'm right there in the cockpit, defying gravity and flying through the air, free as a bird, wind against my hair at however many miles per hour is necessary to reach such a lift.  It's just amazing.  Now, I don't know exactly how that attempt of Orville and Wilbur played out in real life as they finally succeeded.  But that's how I imagine it would unfold in such a Fantasia film if one would ever be made; that's at least how it happens in my mind every time I hear that John Adams piece.  So, as I was saying though, that's the kind of thing that happens in many pieces of music and what I was looking for in Petite Marmotte; I wanted something that could invoke a picture in the mind of the listener, whether or not it was necessarily that which the piece originally intended with its personal message from Nelly to Jim.  One could even picture a groundhog wanting to come out of his dark little hole of a home and become exposed to the light of day and the excitement and wonders of the grand world out there filled with its unknown places just yearning and begging to be ventured into.  The imagination should be free to conjure up whatever it may fancy.

    Anyway, this first attempt at constructing Petite Marmotte was just becoming more and more difficult for Nelly to eventually be able to play, in my opinion, due to its complexity.  So, I bit the bullet and started over with something simpler.  This time, I decided I would try at something strictly for two voice harmony: one voice in the right hand and the other in the left hand.  This piece too eventually reached completeness.  Yet it, just as I had found its predecessor so to be, was too difficult and complex for Nelly to learn any time soon.  It was too “Bach-inventive” so to say and therefore had to be set aside for another day as well.  Although, I did find that this second piece birthed out of my Petite Marmotte project would fit nicely in a setting not for piano, but rather as a duet for flute and bassoon.  Or maybe even a duet for violin and cello.  Its “counterpointiveness” suits a duet setting quite nicely with its melodic interweaving in and out through various tonalities.  Yet, by this point it was only 3 days until I had to have the piece ready to present to Nelly, and I had already spent hours in the prior two weeks on the other two attempts at creating something musically appealing and yet simple enough for Nelly to eventually learn.  Was there any hope in sight for my weary brain?

    It was Saturday, August 31st and the clock in the distance struck something – whatever it struck, it did it hard, so hard it woke me up.  I awoke from my sleep and was thinking about what I was going to do about this piece and how I would ever have it ready in time.  Suddenly I had a little melody in my head.  I imagined a piano next to me in bed and I reached over with my right hand and tried to find the notes to this melody as I hummed it.  I thought to myself, “If I just remember the intervals between each note in this melody, then I can run over to a piano right now, before I forget it again, and record it onto my voice recorder.”  So, I did just that.  I changed out of my pajamas and into something half decent (Don't ask what I mean by that, cause I won't answer that question.) and I made my way at a faster than walking pace to the nearest friendly neighborhood piano, trusty voice recorder in hand, and took a seat – don't worry, I did put the seat back after I took it.  I hummed the tune to myself again, which I had in my head, and found most of, if not all of, the keys that produced their pitches.  I then finally turned on the voice recorder.  I then finally set down the voice recorder onto the piano.  And then finally, approximately for a little longer than 4 minutes, I played that tune that was in my head and gave my best attempt at creatively filling the rest of the time with developments of that melody.  I then finally picked up the voice recorder again.  I then finally turned off the voice recorder.  And I then finally turned off the piano.  I got up and went back to my room, leaving the seat right where I found it.  No, I didn't immediately sit down at my computer to plunk out the notes onto my notation software while listening to the playback of the recording.  I first went and had breakfast.  But after I had breakfast, which was very delicious I might add, I did in fact finally sit down at my computer and enter in and develop the melody that I had recorded just before my wonderful and delicious breakfast, which consisted of Muesli, Cornflakes, sliced apples and milk.  What's that you ask?  No, I wasn't finally finished with Petite Marmotte.  That's when came the tedious part of spending the next two days sitting at a piano and working my way through the process of writing something delightful to listen to, simple and yet still leaving a bit of a challenge for Nelly to eventually learn.  I was honestly finally quite satisfied with the outcome of this piece after the third attempt.  And it was much fun to create it, practice it for its performance and to simply play again and again for myself.  “It is good,” if I do say so myself, and I did in fact then and still do now say so myself.  And I believe it will be a piece that will always be on my set list when I give concerts of my own music.  Nelly, Jim and her family were rather delighted to finally hear the piece and receive a copy of the score as a keepsake.  I even wrote a nice little note on the front page and signed it to wish them well in all their ways in life and their journey together.  (I must say though, I had forgotten how tall Jim was, for I had met him a couple years before and thought I remembered him being shorter than he was just then.  Not that his height has anything to do with anything.  I just thought I'd mention that though.)

    But anyway, now you know a little about the process I went through when creating Petite Marmotte.  It was, just as I said before, a very challenging and yet edifying experience for me as a composer to take on such a task and see it through just as any other composition I've written in the past and have yet to write.  You can of course hear a recording I made of Petite Marmotte on my MySpace page, to which you will find a link under the “Venturlinks” tab as you scroll back up to the top of this page and look to the right hand side.  The score is also available to purchase from my storefront at, to which there is also a link under the “Venturlinks” tab.  You  can also find it on the “The Music/Storefront” page when you click the link with the same name at the top of this page in the menu.  The recording of Petite Marmotte found on my MySpace page is also available to purchase on a CD titled Live The Venturvane (live collection)/ Petite Marmotte, which I compiled recently from a collection of various live performances.  Petite Marmotte is the only piece on the CD that is not a live recording, except for the fact that I was very much alive when I recorded it.  But that doesn't matter.  What does matter is that it is also available to purchase if you'd like (and even still if you don't like) through my storefront with

    So, I hope you enjoyed reading this blog entry, as it's been a while since you've heard from me.  I wish you all the best.

Until next time and goodbye for now,


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