Composer: Ray Leslee – New York, USA
Reviewer: Charles Higgins, North Carolina, USA
If I remember correctly, Nocturne in Bb Major by Ray Leslee was the first submission that I got the chance to listen to. The lyrical and contemplative qualities of the piece immediately appealed to me. Listening to and looking through the score of Nocturne, I took a lot away from how the violin and piano interact with one another, and the harmonies that are used.
As both a listener and a composer, I thought the instrumentation was exceptionally appropriate for the musical content of the piece. The way the violin plays what is written illustrates a sense of longing that only a violin can elicit. The piano part effectively outlines harmonies, but more importantly it bolsters and interacts with the violin line in interesting ways. One part I enjoyed especially was the section that starts at measure 118. This passage provides a particularly expressive line played by the violin, in a register that lends itself incredibly well to the emotional pull of the melody. Further, it contrasts the timbre of the violin that was used during the prior measures. At the same time, the left hand of the piano adds a repeating, syncopated rhythmic idea that had been first presented a bit earlier in the piece. This has a subtle effect when juxtaposed with the straight quarter notes of the violin. In the right hand, the piano adds some harmony to the melody, interspersed with triplet arpeggios that add variety both rhythmically and texturally, and compliment the violin line. Throughout this specific passage and the entire piece, the violin and piano work together cohesively to create a remarkable atmosphere. By spending some time with this piece I think I bettered my understanding of how to make a solo instrument and piano work together.
I was also impressed by how the varied harmonies push the piece forward and separate it from any predictable pattern. Sometimes when I try to create interesting harmonic ideas, I fall into the trap of just modulating through keys, reusing the same chord progression. Of course, Nocturne includes many masterful modulations between different tonalities, but the piece doesn’t rely on them for harmonic diversity. Additionally, there are many diatonic chords that make up the chord progressions, but the composer certainly doesn’t limit himself to that. Measures 62- 73, especially 70-73, really stood out to me. There isn’t any melodic content, so the onus is on the other aspects of the music to maintain the interest of the listener. The changes are subtle and involve a lot of step-wise motion. I think it’s really well executed. The use of dissonance adds suspense and the chromaticism keeps you wondering what the next chord will be. For a section without a lot going on, it works very well. One of the most memorable moments of the piece occurs at measures 94-95. The phrase right before this section had included some interesting chromatic chords, but the chord that is played at 95, along with the measure leading up to it, are very unexpected and surprising due to both the nature of the chord and the sforzando marking. It gathers all of the attention of the listener, and then functions perfectly to transition into the climactic passage that starts at measure 97. There were some parallels that I was able to draw between the harmonic techniques used in Nocturne, and some of the techniques that I try to incorporate into my own compositions. I hope to use some of the ideas that I’ve observed in this piece to use harmony in more complex and enthralling ways.
If you haven’t already, you should definitely listen to Nocturne in Bb Major by Ray Leslee. You’ll be able to learn a lot from it as a composer, as well as appreciate the work as a listener.
– Charles Higgins, Composer and Student