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  • Joshua Iyer

Tales of a Traveller - My Bard Variations

At the end of last semester, the wonderful Chicago-based reed trio Ritual Action came to one of our composition forums to talk about their instruments, and ask composers in the studio to write pieces for them. I spent some time over the winter break focusing on some other projects, festering ideas on what to write the group in my head. I had just finished up my concert suite for my fake game The Prophetic Chronicles, which used fake game screenshots I put together that were already inspired by Square Enix's Final Fantasy series. What's more, I had started re-watching The Hobbit trilogy, and beginning a play-through of Final Fantasy IX (2000, Square) with a couple of friends, where we would take turns reading the dialogue. The game is set in a Tolkien-esque world and has several high fantasy tropes that make it fun to escape into. I was looking back over some of my old music, and came across a very Renaissance jig at the end of Muse of Fire. I wondered if I could write a set of variations on this dance, and if that would output a work I was proud of?


I had some correspondence with the members of the group about my initial idea at the end of January, as well as sharing some of my early sketches. I started with a simple reorchestration of the main theme solely for the three instruments. The larger leaps in the accompaniment here try to cover the roles of both the winds and pizzicato strings in the original. From there, I could start drafting variations. I had a list written on my computer of characters I wanted to portray in the variations, like "chromatic harmonies" (that ended up as the first Variation), "quirky leggiero theme" (Var. IV), and "jazz theme" (Var. VI). In listening to a set of variations by Schoenberg, I got the idea to add an introduction to the piece, that could lead into the Renaissance/fantasy character. I was actually inspired by one of the opening FMV cutscenes in Final Fantasy IX, where the oboe plays a major sixth, the first interval of the game's theme song, "Melodies of Life." For mine, the oboe plays a major fifth, an interval that is used prevalently throughout the theme and the score. It made sense for the finale to follow suit, making reference to this opening as it began.


I sketched the movements all out of order, and of course some things had to be cut - the piece ended up quite a bit longer than I expected! Overall, the process was fairly smooth, and it was easy to either add a break in-between movements or create a quick transition. One of my goals was to create a larger structure out of the variations in terms of tempi. The piece has a general ebb and flow, where a quicker movement would be followed by a slower one, and the quickest and slowest movements are right in the middle, to act as a climax point. The piece also has a general trajectory from more Renaissance counterpoint to a slight contemporary style, that being jazz. That being said, like my Octet, this piece ended up being a study in counterpoint more than color or orchestration. There are moments where gestures occur, but for the most part, the focus is on an older style of counterpoint, which I suppose fit the nature of the piece a bit better. I gave the piece the title of Bard Variations to both intentionally call attention to the set and reference the Renaissance character it has. It was also what I was affectionally calling the project mid-way through working on it, and the name stuck.


The group recorded my piece along with several of my colleagues' in one go, and I got the recording today while in the midst of my current harp piece! It was a pleasure to hear the work come to life, and I am still quite happy about it, even if I have a few quips I would change. For now, this will remain a wonderful capstone piece during my final semester at UIUC, and it was great to be able to have this opportunity even during a pandemic and collaborating with the ensemble via email and Zoom. I'm sure I can convince my friends to add it to the radio playlist when we take our next journey to the Renaissance Faire in Bristol this summer (hopefully!).


And with that, alongside turning in my composition portfolio, I can close the books with my compositional output at UIUC! As I said, I have a harp piece I am working on that involves string tuning and is slightly inspired by Messiaen's Mode de Valeurs et d'Intensités, but perhaps that is all I will say about it now. From there, I have some orchestration projects I hope to work on this summer, possibly to pitch to the Reddit Symphony Orchestra to read...? They are a community orchestra online that use click tracks to seam pieces together, and seem to always accept pieces from members... I will look into it and see what happens with one of my pieces or arrangements.


For now, thank you for reading and listening, and I hope you enjoy the new piece!

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