Composing, Processions, and Weddings

As I sat in my formal wear in a country golf club, the sky was beginning to darken and I could feel the tension in the air as if it were about to rain.  I was sweating slightly in my suit jacket, tie, and dress shirt as I waited anxiously for the wedding to begin and to hear my piece performed for the very first time.  Embarrassingly enough, I have almost forgotten how it sounded like since its conception a month before the event, and I was a bit jittery at the prospect of having musicians interpret the dark dots and lines which I so painstakingly engraved (or arranged via notational software) onto 9 sheets of letter sized paper.  This was the performance of Taking Flight for Flute, Violin, and Cello.

This summer has been one of the most productive ones yet, mainly because I was asked to write two pieces for weddings that took place at either end of the summer.  It is truly an honour and a privilege to have been asked to write music for people that I know and love, and to have it performed in front of many guests and friends.  Weddings being such an important occasion in a couple’s journey together, I make an effort to honour their musical requests as best as I can, while writing something that is original, beautiful, and captivating.  I have already written about my piece for String Quartet, “Captivating” (which you can find here) and I will be talking about the process of composing wedding music and some of the challenges associated in writing music for special occasions.

It is a great pleasure to be asked as a composer to use my gift of music creation to bless someone else, in this case a couple in the first leg of a lifelong journey.  Some would wonder what difference there is between writing for weddings and receiving commissions, and I would say that there are many similarities and differences.  The greatest similarity is that one is paid to write music (and in some cases well paid) that is tailored to a specific occasion.  Since the time of Bach, composers have worked in the same way, receiving a request from a wealthy patron or aristocrat to write a piece for their playing pleasure or special occasion.  What is different about weddings is that there is already a very established tradition behind what should and should not be heard, thus limiting the creativity of the artist.  This limitation is however not a negative thing, because I believe that limitations are what fuels artists to create something new within that limitation.  In the same way as Schoenberg limited himself to the twelve tone row or Beethoven to the form of the Sonata, both have created something new within those confines.

The whole process of composition is that of balance.  There is a fine balance between expressing oneself as creatively as possible and writing music that will be well received.  This is a philosophical debate that many composers including myself struggle with in our daily tasks, that of making sure that my music is understood while attempting to do something that is new and subtle to push the envelop.  However, some like the composer Milton Babbitt disagree entirely, and say that the revolution in music is more important than what audiences think about it now at this present moment.  Babbitt goes on to maintain, that music cannot “evolve” if it only attempts to appeal to “the public”.

Coming back to the purpose of the article, one of the great challenges of writing for weddings is dealing with the many cliches already associated with the occasion.  I am sure many of you reading this blog will remember weddings adorned with  Pachelbel’s Canon in D or Bach’s Air on the G String from his Orchestral Suite No.3 in D major.  Depending on the audience and their musical education, people will either 1) hate it because it has been overplayed and used commercially or 2) love it and believe that it is the best piece of music around.  These two extreme views are commonly held and as a composer, I face the possibility of having my music being hated because of its cliched quality or loved because it just sounds so cliched.

There is a fine balance between expressing oneself as creatively as possible and writing music that would be well received.

Secondly, having a tight time constraint was not something that I had dealt with in my compositions for school.  I have heard that when working as part of a movie production, composers are often subjected to having their music cut, edited, and rearranged at the whim of the director.  I find this applies also to writing for weddings.  For example, Taking Flight was cut and edited in the last minute to accommodate the walking time for the bridal party and the bride.  I was told in advance that something like this could happen, so I wrote a “tag” at the end of the two sections, which can be played or not depending on how much time was available.  This I feel gave me more freedom and released me from the anxiety of not knowing which part will be cut prematurely.

I would say that knowing one’s players is an incredible advantage to the writing process.  Living in Edmonton during the composition of Taking Flight, I did not have the luxury of testing certain passages out with performers who resided mainly in Vancouver.  However, I knew that their performing levels varied greatly from one another.  Captivating however was another story, as I knew the members of the string quartet asked to play the work, all of whom were studying privately with professionals at UBC.  As a result, I produced two very different works as I tried to tailor it to the capabilities of the players.

It’s been a wonderful journey these past few months working with now newly wed couples. Thank you for reading up on my experiences writing for wedding ceremonies. Comments and responses are very welcome as I would love to hear your opinion about the ideas I have put forward here!  Thank you!



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