I love music – I really do. I think about it quite a lot, but when both my day and night jobs are music, sometimes I get so burned out that I can’t see the forest from the trees; or rather, the beauty in the sonic fabric from the succession of pitches in a unidirectional harmonic progression.
Sometimes, we play music; sometimes, we work music. When the grind of it starts to get to me, I often have this small voice in my mind that whispers: “I do love this, right? Right…?”
And I know that I do, but it’s almost like being lost at sea at times and I really need a lighthouse to bring me back. I call these songs/pieces/works lighthouse music because it helps bring my musical ear to shore. Here are a few of them:
Morten Lauridsen – Lux Aeterna
I keep trying to write about this, but I just can’t. It speaks to me in a way that transcends line and harmony and craft. It’s one of the few pieces that I don’t analyze and I just let it wash over me (and I’ve studied/listened to a lot of Lauridsen). And this monstrously good performance sure doesn’t hurt either.
When I hear this, I sometimes tell myself: “This is what light sounds like.” It’s as though the light embraces me, it pulls me in and surrounds me. That’s how I feel when I hear Lux Aeterna.
Lord of the Rings (Annie Lennox) – Into the West
I never know what to write about this, other than it moves me every time I hear it. I always want to be technical about it – you know, “the lyrics,” “the tone,” “the orchestration…” But I don’t know, I feel things when I hear it and I feel like that needs to be enough.
As someone who has read all of Lord of the Rings, the Silmarillion, the Children of Húrin, the Unfinished Tales (you get the picture), the narrative runs pretty deep for me. There’s something about Into the West at that point in the story that speaks to me in a very authentic way–leaving friends behind, being unable to live in the world you used to, saying goodbye…
(And all the technical things too. It’s one heck of a performance).
Final Symphony – Born with the Gift of Magic (Final Fantasy VI)
For anyone who’s into music from video games, Final Fantasy VI is core repertoire and there have been countless orchestrations of it (even when an orchestra is entirely unnecessary for the musical goal, but that’s a whole other can of worms). As someone who knows this score inside and out, I’ve always been waiting for someone to take the musical material and work the heck out of it, which is what Born with the Gift of Magic is; in fact, the entire Final Symphony concert/album does it.
The orchestration, structure, and performance is amazing, but the thematic layering is a grad-school level assembly of the musical material that mirrors the narrative. It’s not just a medley, it’s the central conflict of the game and it’s all framed in the series most iconic sequence (the opera, if you’re wondering, which is also the unifying structure of the game). It’s genius… out of this world… Ah! The craft!
Ingrid Michaelson – The Chain (Live from Webster Hall)
My wife and I listened to this album quite a lot when our son was first born, sometimes at 4am while bouncing on an exercise ball, counting the seconds until he’d fall asleep again. I must have heard this song a hundred times, but I still love it, maybe because it takes me back to that crazy period…
Long live the emperor, Drop Assault is released for iOS today. You can pick it up here.
Put together by the teams at Complex Games and Crooz, this Clash-of-Clans-style mobile game has been such a great experience for me. I’ve always wanted to work on a dark and gritty game with an epic orchestral score and I finally got to do it with this game.
And what a game it is. The controls are tight, there’s so much care and detail in the environment and so much attention to the Warhammer 40,000 lore. The graphics are really clean (but certainly not lacking in detail) and the animations are really smooth. There are no rough edges anywhere in the experience.
Here’s the trailer, to get you started:
Musically, it was a really big job, even though it was only 8 minutes or so. Because of the grandness of the universe, the score demanded a breadth that I don’t think is found in most mobile games. That’s not to say that it sounds as grand as film music, which I like on its own, but this score still needed to feel like it was for a game and I tried to keep that at the front of my mind and the edge of my pencil. Movie universes are nice, but there’s a depth that’s lost because of the forced progression of the narrative and scene structure – you can’t just hang out in a movie scene like you can in a game. The music of Drop Assault still has the structure and design of a game soundtrack and that’s super important to me.
The music is mostly orchestral, but featuring extended percussion like a tom ensemble, taiko drums, shakers or tam and gong. Because the universe is so mechanical, I had the urge to put chains and gears in it, but I thought it might be overkill with the SFX (which are awesome, btw). In many of the big pieces, the low strings drive the ostinato, so finding the right string ensemble was key. The one that I ended up using has 24 sampled celli and 8 sampled double basses, which is about two-to-three times a normal orchestral low string section. That’s not to say that there still isn’t ample non-string writing – there’s a lot of epic brass and moving woodwind lines too. This game is one of those few times where I really wanted to use every spice in the spice rack.
I talk about the music further in this developer diary entry from Complex Games:
I’m really proud of this game (and its music, to be honest) and I hope that you all pick it up and give it a go!
On Friday, I had a really thought-provoking conversation with Winnipeg composer Matthew Patton.
Matthew was the Artistic Associate with the New Music Festival that just happened a few weeks back. In other words, he’s the guy who got the headlining Icelandic composers to come to Winnipeg. That’s a great feat, but he’s no slouch as a composer himself.
He studied Composition at Manhattan University and took some time with John Corigliano. He’s worked with world-class choreographers (like Paul Taylor for their production called Speaking in Tongues) and been played in Lincoln Centre in New York City. He’s worked with filmmaker Guy Maddin on multiple occasions and in multiple projects.
I feel very privileged to have coffee with this man and I’ll let you in on a few of our discussions.
One was about understanding. We didn’t entirely agree, but that’s okay – in fact, that’s better because then my thoughts are challenged. He says that there’s a sense of compulsion in the audience member’s ear when they don’t quite get it. There’s a sense of mystery and that mystery is intriguing. As a huge fan of Lost during its run, I agree, even though I want my audience to understand what I’m telling them they don’t dismiss what I’m trying to say because they “don’t get it.”
The more that I think about it, the more I agree with him. The need to find out is what drives us forward and maybe we can build that suspense into our music.
This isn’t to say that his music is unspecific or amorphous, because it’s actually the opposite of both of those things. This was another great talk that we had. He asked: What are you trying to do? And I told him that I’ve been into science and that I want to write about how beautiful the natural world is when we get it. But he kept wanting me to be more specific and dig deeper until I realized that maybe I didn’t know exactly what I wanted or how to get there.
“Be specific,” he says. So now I’m really thinking about getting the specificity of my ideas through the music. For example, if I’m trying to write about nature for an instrumental group (meaning “no text”), how am I going to convey that to the audience so that they understand my meaning? Specifically.
We talked for about 90 minutes and it was very insightful. I am very thankful for his time.
In an email the next day, he wrote this to me:
To me, the most important thing in all of music is to have something to say. And to have something to say you must LIVE so I suggest to anyone go out and experience every single thing in the whole world!! The people that I admire most as artists are always the people that I admire most as people.
Making parts and I have a love/hate relationship. I love the formatting, the making every part beautiful, the tweaking of fonts and the slight adjustment of dynamics and articulation… until about the fifth hour.
You see, it’s painstaking and precise work. I love that kind of work… up to a point.
The other catch with making parts is that, while there are many steps between the beginning and end of transcription/arrangement, there is editing and proofreading between every step.
My work for concert band, Filum Vitae, has been rehearsed for many weeks and recorded twice by our school’s Senior Band. The first draft wasn’t even complete, it got to about measure 50 and stopped (because I had run out of time before Band Camp, which was the first deadline). It sounded pretty good, but there were still a few transposing errors, key signature things, harmony slip-ups and things that just didn’t work. I’ll get back to that in a minute, but first, let’s go through conception to completion.
This may sound like a how-to, but it’s not meant to be quite so pretentious. If you’re a composer and interested in getting performed, I’ve dropped in some notes – they worked for me, but the opposite of what I say may be equally true.
You can read more about this on the actual Filum Vitae page (linked above), but it’s really about the emotions in animals being similar to our own. The concepts may be challenging human uniqueness (which may be comfortable and empowering, the evidence tells us that it just ain’t so), but it lends incredible power to the unity of life through a conduit of feelings – love, mercy, fear or happiness.
The clip that really did it for me is this one, from the BBC’s The Story of Science:
2) The Piano
My house isn’t big enough for a piano, so I have my little M-Audio Oxygen, which is far more than satisfactory. Before I think of instrumentation or voicing, it starts with the piano. I had the melody and harmony within about ten minutes, then it became a very late night 🙂
Whether it’s choral or not, there is always text. It just helps me figure out what I’m thinking and helps connect the music and my intention. I was really into this idea of “The Thread of Life” and how life is a great thread that moves throughout time, but also that we’re all threads and together we make a brilliant tapestry. That’s where the lyrics start – I may not use them, but they accomplished their task.
4) Music and Lyrics and Sketches
Again, whether it’s choral or not, the music and the melody go together. Even if the connection of putting the text to the melody is psychological, it helps move the music forward. But, it’s not just me moving the music, it’s the music moving me. It needs to impact me as I’m writing, I need to feel something during the process and feel it often if the piece is going to get off the ground. Thankfully, this one kept me going every step of the way 🙂
After the voicing and the harmony is figured out against the melody, I start pencilling in instruments: Cls + B.Cl… A.Sax/T.Sax join here… etc.
5) Checks and Balances
At this point, the instrumentation (if it’s not vocal) is worming its way into my head. While I’ve got a pretty good ear for orchestration, I’ve still got to check some parts out. This is the first of the checks and balances during my process and there are many of them. I use Apple’s Logic as a sequencer and then check some of my sketches digitally. They usually work, but not all the time… and that’s why we have checks and balances.
The mockup sounds like this:
6) The Long Transcription
This is, by far, the most time- and energy-intensive part of the process. But let’s be honest, this is composing. This is where the pencil marks the page and where your ideas can be worked out both visually and aurally. Where you visually check the sound. Where you make hard decisions about orchestration, range and all that good stuff.
I used to play all of my music in when I was younger and less patient. I had it all in my head and I felt like I had to get it down before I lost it. This may change later on, but I really feel like my work is better when I take the long road. It makes the think twice about Copy/Paste (especially in percussion writing) and generic cliches because every musical decision takes more time, so think twice about it before you get it down. This is check-and-balance #2.
7) The Score – Draft 1
After I’ve finished the pencil and paper aspect of it, the actual “part creation” begins. Some composers start with this step while others use the notation software to flesh out their orchestration. Different practices work for different composers and you should do what works for you, but this doesn’t work for me. I use Finale 2011 (right now, anyway) and this is another long process of playing in every staff of your handwritten-manuscript. This is also a great time to check every line individually – is this the melody/ harmonic line that you hear? If not, good time to change it.
How does your harmony sound? Have you transposed everything correctly? Does the instrumentation (even as brutal as MIDI is) sound like it does in your head?
At this point, we get to the painstaking process of plugging in each articulation, dynamic and shape. Again, this is where really make sure that we want x-note to be staccato, or we really want our bowing a certain way in the strings.
8) The Score – Draft 2
At this point, you can make your score look reasonably nice and extract parts that look good enough to be legible. If you get to this point – right on, good for you. It’s a lot of work, but if you have a piece that you’re really passionate about then it’s completely worth it.
Email music teachers that you know, respect or are inviting of new work and see if you can get a read from them. I might not start with a college or university, but there’s no harm in sending the piece out – the worst they can say is “no.” If you can get a read and hear your work come to life, all of those late nights, shirts full of eraser shavings and sore fingers from writing will be worth it. It will also sound very different than you thought, most probably in the orchestration department. You may also have some wrong notes or chords that are voiced a bit strangely or cross-relations that you didn’t hear in your mockup (I know I did with this tune).
There is a big difference between what works digitally and what works acoustically, good thing to remember. If they read it pretty well (as in, no wrong notes/rhythms and reasonably good shape/pitch/dynamics), see if you can get a rough recording of your tune that you can refer back to. It doesn’t have to be great, but just so you can hear what it’s like acoustically, rather than always having to go back to your digital mockup.
This is check-and-balance #6. Make sure you thank the teacher and the ensemble for taking a risk on you and supporting new music and writers. If you can swing it, ask if you can go back and revise it then make a recording.
Our recording sounded like this:
9) The Score and Parts – Final Draft
There may be more drafts in the middle, but you could have a serious piece in about three or four drafts, if you really work your ears and the manuscript. I went back to my score and put in all of my edits on my second draft – the cross-relations that I missed, the missing dynamics, the music that came alive during the performance, all of that.
More precise work. I always miss dynamics somewhere along the way. After putting those in, I make sure that they’re all in a line on each system, then line up the tempo information, then the shapes… it’s all formatting. After that, the fonts and the page numbers, the “divisi” and “tutti” and the cues that should have been there, but weren’t.
Then I extracted all of the parts and go through them, one by one, doing the same formatting on them (dynamics, articulations, etc.).
Then a quick print, proofread again. Oh, probably forgot something here…
Okay… maybe… this is it? Ugh, this crescendo slipped down too far in the Horn 2 part.
… Okay! Yeah! Looks great! Did it!
10) Party / Take the Rest of the Night Off
After many hours (probably about 20-25 in total), the whole editing/proofreading is done.
The University of Manitoba Concert Band is recording the work on January 26th, 2012. So, this round of edits was to make sure that it was perfect when they got it. I was also an awful university student, so here’s hoping that my old profs look at this and say “wow, I guess he turned himself around!” That would be nice!
I have this weird obsession with posterity – not just my own, but anyone’s.
I don’t want anything to be lost.
I wrote, directed and voice acted in a radio play called “The Constant” and just the other week, I found my notebook with its sketches from early 2008. I completely forgot that I had it. In its faded, smudged pages, I found the outline for each of the 10 episodes (which we shortened to seven), what was motivating the characters, their behaviour and how it would move the plot along… all of those things. When I opened the notebook, it was so smeared that I could barely read it, it was the curse of my love of pencils. Thankfully, I finished the work, typed up the scripts and put it out, but the sketches are what really interest me… especially notes in the margins, or notes to other actors.
That’s one thread of this, now allow me to begin another:
This past summer, I read Eric Whitacre‘s blog series “Advice to the Emerging Composer” and one thing that he talks about is the love of the “workshop.” He means the pads of paper, the sound of the scratching lead as it transcribes his thoughts, the rubbing of the eraser and the shavings it leaves all over his desk, his pants and the floor. You see, I love that too. I love the reading the writer’s notes on the story, or the cartoons sprawled along the top of the page.
As I opened the notebook from “The Constant,” the notes were almost unreadable and, while I love getting everything down on paper before it goes into something special, there was nothing I could do. See, those two threads came together 🙂
If I wanted my scores to survive, I have to do one of two things: Abandon the pencil-and-paper and do it all digitally OR ink the manuscript…
… I chose the latter.
The check-and-balance built into using pencil and paper is my favourite, because you play every line by hand at the piano, scribble it down and see if it works harmonically. When you sequence it, you may be right on or maybe you won’t, but either way you know. Also, inked scores are beautiful.
After two weeks, I finished! Here are some shots of the completed, handwritten score!
Oh yeah, and here’s how it sounds 🙂 (reasonably important!)