Life, Music

Dies Irae: A Composition for Wind Ensemble

In 1998, when I was 14, I wrote a song for wind ensemble: ten brass/woodwind parts and three for percussion. I just recently found the original sheet music (which I think I made using Finale 97), and I transcribed the entire thing again so that I could share it here.

It’s called Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”), and it’s meant to evoke a fateful day in the life of an unnamed protagonist, using unorthodox playing styles ala Daniel Bukvich’s Dinosaurs. I was inspired to write it after my dad (a professional musician and composer) remarked in the car that the rhythm of the windshield wipers would be an interesting basis for a song.

The full list of the events I was trying to portray is listed below, but listen to it first and see if anything comes to mind.

(If you can’t see the player above, you can access the MP3 directly.)

Here’s what I was hoping you heard:

  • 0:00: Morning. The protagonist sleeps.
  • 0:20: The protagonist’s alarm clock beeps.
  • 0:23: The alarm clock is hit, and the protagonist falls out of bed.
  • 0:27: The protagonist stands and stretches.
  • 0:34: The protagonist begins the day, following the usual routine.
  • 0:48: The protagonist’s car won’t start, but then it does.
  • 0:56: The protagonist begins driving.
  • 1:01: The turn signal is activated.
  • 1:08: It begins raining. Windshield wipers are running.
  • 1:25: The protagonist nears a railroad crossing and hears the bell and the train whistle, but tries to make it across the tracks anyway.
  • 1:51: The train puts on its (squealing) breaks.
  • 2:03: Car/train crash.
  • 2:07: Ambulances on the way. Horns honking, alarms ringing.
  • 2:23: A heart monitor is hooked up to the protagonist.
  • 2:30: Paramedics working on our protagonist, but the heartbeat becomes irregular.
  • 2:45: Cardiac resuscitation attempts. The heart monitor flatlines.
  • 3:09: Dirge.
  • 3:22: The heart monitor suddenly begins beeping again, erratically and then regularly.
  • 3:34: Oh happy day, the protagonist is not dead.

I consciously decided not to try and improve the song as I was reproducing it; if I rewrote it now, I’d give each section way more room to breathe, and I’d go for richer sounds that deviate further from tonic chords. But I don’t particularly have time or inclination right now to rewrite, so I’m leaving it as is as a testament to my fourteen-year-old self’s musical decision making process. (Not that I’m completely unhappy with the choices I made; I’m quite proud of many of them, and I still especially enjoy the sequence starting at 2:23.)

I’ve licensed the song and all of its associated files under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Basically, you are free to do with it what you want (reproduce, edit, perform, publish, etc.) as long as you give credit to me as the original author. The MusicXML file (containing all of the musical notation information), PDFs of the director’s score and individual parts, MIDI files, and a WAV audio version of the playback-quality MIDI are here on GitHub.

This song has never been played publicly and was only attempted privately once, by the George S. Parker High School Symphonic Band in Janesville, Wisconsin at the end of my sophomore year in high school… It did not go well. If you play it with real instruments, I would love to hear how it goes.

I used NoteFlight to re-score Dies Irae, and I would recommend it to anyone looking to write music in a Web-based editor. Word of warning, it is Flash-based. Still not bad though.

And as a testament to how far MIDI has come in 16 years, here’s what the one I saved back in 1998 sounded like:

Apparently, I used to live inside an 8-bit video game.


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