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Orchestral Composition: Great Wave off Kanagawa

I’ll take a brief break from anime-related discussions to discuss my latest musical endeavors. If you follow my youtube channel, you’ll have seen my latest uploads of a few Studio Ghibli piano pieces – if not, Porco Rosso fans especially should check it out.  However, this post will be centered around a more major project, which is an orchestral composition of mine, titled “Great Wave off Kanagawa”.  As you may expect, the inspiration is the famous woodblock print by Japanese artist Hokusai:

I’ve uploaded it both on youtube as well as in mp3 form right here.

The piece is primarily in an ABABA format.  It opens with the primary motif, which is based heavily on a flowing, arpeggiated progression up and down the minor pentatonic scale – played by the celesta in the opening portion.  This motif isn’t really “thematic” in its basic sense, but a repeating melody does exist – a short phrase which descends on the violins atop this texture (around 0:10 is where it makes its first appearance).  To me, it brings to mind the boats haphazardly moving atop the waves, which are themselves represented by the arpeggiated backdrop.  I suppose that there are many different ways to view Hokusai’s painting, some people would envision music that is purely destructive and violent.  I, however, think there is a gracefulness and elegance to the waves as well, and I wanted this to be represented in the composition.

Harmonically, the piece is based primarily on the pentatonic and whole-tone scales.   Both the main motifs are pentatonic in nature, but the transitions between them often traverse through the whole tone scale – an example, can be seen right when the first A section completes (around 1:30).  This leads to the section at around 2:00, which is an introduction to the melodic motif that will characterize the B section.  However, it is played in the whole tone scale and seems to build to a climax – before suddenly disappearing and being replaced by a graceful pentatonic theme on the flute.  The effect that I was trying to have was to seemingly build towards a harsh, whole-tone climax at 2:11, but instead subvert the expectation by introducing the gentler B theme at that moment of tension.

The development of this new theme reaches a climactic point at around 2:55, the waves crash down,  and we roll right into a powerful restatement of the A theme, now transposed up to F# Minor.  This tumultuous passage once again softens and we have a moment of calm at around 3:30 onwards.   The A theme repeats itself in this passage, though the execution is quite different now.  What we are leading to is the combination of both the A and B motifs into one final climax.  This occurs at around 4:20.  The B melody is repeated in a full forte by the violins, except the backdrop is now based around the minor pentatonic scale, with the harp replacing the celesta in sweeping up and down the scale.  When I was writing the climax, I didn’t want to just do a straight, violent, harsh passage.  I think there is a certain positive, majestic quality to the moment captured in Hokusai’s painting, something quite beautiful and not entirely violent, despite the fate of the boatmen.

My hope with this piece is that it will be the beginning of several compositions, all based around parts of Hokusai’s “Views of Mt. Fuji“.  I have to admit, though, that completing a piece like this takes so much time and effort that it will probably be a long, long time until the next one is finished.  Regardless, I’m fairly happy with the output of this one.

2 responses so far

All comments welcome. Don't mind the age of the post.

2 Responses to “Orchestral Composition: Great Wave off Kanagawa”

  1. SSon Feb 16th 2010

    It’s a beautiful piece of music. (The MP3 link isn’t working for me though.)

  2. Theowneon Feb 16th 2010

    Thanks – the link is fixed now, I think.

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