Friday, December 5, 2008


Well, it's been an interesting term. Moreso than probably anyone else in the class, it was a very different experience to me, taking this course, as I am not a music student and have never taken a music course in my life. And although I've composed music intermittently over the years, I have virtually no knowledge of theory in any formal capacity, nor can I play a music instrument at anything better than an early intermediate level. Really, I jumped into this one a little over my head in some ways.

For a few years now, I'd been interested in trying to take some sort of composition course at university, but had never gotten around to it. Since this is the last term of my undergrad (I'll be starting my master's of linguistics in the winter), I figured it was now or never. So here I am.

Although I knew that I knew very little theory, I'm not sure I realized quite how little until I was in an environment where every single person was considerably more knowledgeable than I was. It would be hard to count the number of terms I heard people tossing back and forth that flew completely over my head. To my credit, I did tend to go and look some of these up, so that I would at least have a general idea of the concept, but the course has certainly made my utter lack of knowledge in this area pretty clear. It was actually rather intimidating, feeling so out of your depth, but nevertheless, I'd like to think that the music I wrote can hold its own.

This course was definitely a learning experience, and my first time doing quite a number of different things.

It was the first time I'd worked with atonal music. That was actually pretty tricky at first, since with my lack of theory background, I was sometimes unsure if what I was writing was tonal or not. Before this course, I equated atonal (as peripherally as I was aware of the term) with 'bizzare dissonant art music', which clearly isn't necessarily the case. Atonality isn't something I'd really explored before the course (or been inclined to try), but I'm quite pleased with much of what came out of that assignment. It was a good learning experience.

It was the first time that I'd had to compose under a deadline, and although it wasn't necessarily a pleasant experience, it was an informative one. I think if one were to make a habit of it, they'd need to learn how to work faster and with less stress than I did. I think I get too attached to my pieces, and have a hard time seeing them simply as compositional exercises, or assignments to be completed. Although it can be good to care about your work, it can also make it quite a bit more difficult to complete said work in a timely fashion. I tend to be exceedingly fastidious with much of what I do, and even more so with creative work, which isn't something you can always afford to be when you need to work quickly.

It was also the first time that I spent any real time producing actual scores from my pieces, rather than just audio files, and there was a lot to learn in that area as well; not only the operation of Sibelius (some of which is surprisingly unintuitive for a beginner), but notation and presentation of the score itself. I'd never thought about such issues as clear note spellings before (in fact, I had never ever heard the term 'note spellings' before), or the number of different ways there are to express the same concept. A number of Dr. Ross's blog posts and suggestions in class in this area were quite interesting.

For that matter, it was the first time I'd ever been in such a musically rich environment. It's hard to articulate exactly what I mean here, but there's a certain energy in the music building. Just being able to hear music being played all around you while you're walking down the corridor brings a smile to my face. I know it must seem mundane to people who've been in such an environment for years, but I've never really known anyone musical other than myself, and I've certainly never been around other musicians as a group before. It makes me wish that I could play better than I do. I was evidently considered pretty good for my age, many years ago, but my technical skills has stagnated ever since.

I wish that I'd been able to perform my own compositions on stage during the recitals. And I did try, but was rather surprised (and a little embarrassed) at how rusty I am. If it was even possible for me to learn them fluently, it would have taken more time and effort than I could possibly have given to it while still having time enough to write the piece in the first place. Some of them were more technically difficult than anything I had ever played, even when I was at my peak.

I also wish that I had contributed more in class, but I tended to hold myself back out of insecurity over my lack of knowledge. If there was one thing that I could change about what I did this term, it would probably be that.

I very much enjoyed listening to other's pieces, and it was interesting to see the creative process unfold. I think that some really beautiful stuff came out of this course, and I'm looking forward to getting a copy of the recording from the recitals.

On the whole, it's been a good run, and despite the stress, I'm glad for the experience. I've learned things about music, about myself, and about the intersection of the two. And I've written 4 new songs, which is nothing to sneeze at, and something I'll be able to have with me long after this term is over.

I hope everyone got something useful out of this course, and I wish them all the best of luck with their future endeavors.

Whispers in the Sand

Well, here's the final version of this song (at least for this course). I've decided to call it 'Whispers in the Sand'. On the whole I'm pretty pleased with it, and, despite the extra work it caused me, am glad that I went with this new material rather than the older stuff. I hope that some of the later material departs sufficiently from the starting cliche to other people's ears.

Despite what I said in my previous post about the song being near a natural conclusion, I found it hard to find a natural way to actually make it end there. Really, when I think back on the stuff that I've written in past, I've often had a hard time with endings. At least half of them sound too abrupt to me, or like something else is wrong, and quite a few have no real ending at all; I just stopped writing them at some point.

I think, in the end, this song was simply calling to be longer that it was. I just didn't have time to take it in that direction. I really would like to try to do so in the future, but we'll see if I end up getting around to it. At this point, I'd be pleased to have some time away from the song after all the work I've put into it lately.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Finishing touches

Well, we're in the final stretch before the recital, and I've decided that I'm going to finish this piece, one way or another, tonight.

I can see a number of ways to progress from the last spot in the song that I've written. I was originally planning to return to the style of the livelier earlier sections of the song, do some variations on this material, and then take it towards a concluding section, but I don't believe I'll be doing that now.

You see, the song sounds like it's reaching a natural conclusion at the point where it's at already. If I were to depart from that into new (or even old) material, I think I would need to spend a fair bit of time with this material before returning to a final conclusion. I think that a briefer section would risk feeling rushed, since the break would make it feel like the beginning of a new section that was aborted before it really got off the ground. "Ok, we're ending... and we're starting again, and... oh wait, we're actually ending after all."

Since there really isn't enough time to write a fuller section, and I don't consider a shorter reprise of the early material an option, I'm going to try to end it in the next few bars. In the end, it may not be quite as I would like it, but it's a practical solution that I think I can still write in a way that feels like a satisfying conclusion. And this way, I don't have to give the performers new material on the day of the recital.... There's always the possibility of extending it after the course is over, and perhaps actually being able to incorporate some of the material from my first attempt at this assignment.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Unexpected new directions

Well, I spent a fair bit of the last week unsuccessfully grappling with various issues with my composition.

I'd been hoping that the instrument balance issues would be less of a problem with live instruments, but if anything, when it was played in class last week, I found that they're a bigger problem. It seemed to me that the cello was almost constantly buried under the trumpet. With the digital version, I have the luxury of adjusting the volume level of each instrument, so I can fix these sorts of problems somewhat. However, when dealing with physical instruments, some are simply much louder than others naturally, and I'm going to have to account for that.

I tried thinning out some of the more dense sections, but I found that when I took out many of the 16th notes from the piano, a great deal of the sense of motion in the song at those points was also lost. I experimented with register, and swapping parts between the 3 instruments, but on the whole, I just wasn't feeling satisfied with almost any of the alterations I was making.

Eventually, after a number of days of frustratingly little progress, I decided that I simply would have to leave it as-is for the moment, and write some more material, or I'd never hit the length requirement by the time the score was do. Thus, I started to write an intro to place before the existing material, something I'd been intending for some time, but hadn't gotten to, yet.

I'd originally been thinking of a soft, slow section with trumpet and piano, but I decided to go with the cello instead, to give it some passages where it wouldn't need to compete with the trumpet. I'd expected the intro to be maybe 20 seconds or so, and then meet up with the beginning of the song as previous written. However, I found that the end of the solo wasn't really meshing well with my existing material, so I continued to extend it in hopes of finding a good point to join them up again. A minute and a half later, and I'm still not there.

I'm beginning to think that the old material, or at least most of it, may not have a place in this new version of the song. This kinda makes me sad, since I put a lot of work into it, and, despite its flaws, I still like quite a few bits from it. Really, it cuts the material that I've written in half, and it is drawing towards the end of this assignment, so I don't have a whole lot of time to play around with it. There are certainly a couple places where I could insert it, if I had to, but it really doesn't seem to work as well with it there as with it not.

Actually, I'm inclined to think that the overall level of quality with this new version is better than the last one, which is good, although I admit that I don't relish having to write as much material in the one week before the recital as I came up with in 3 weeks previous. I may yet find a way to reuse some of it, and I hope that I do, but for the moment I guess I'll keep writing without it.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Project 2: First feedback

Although it took a quite while to get a foothold in this piece, once I did I was actually surprised at how quickly I progressed. I think that might be because, in many ways, this song is in a style closer to what I'm accustomed to writing. When I played it for a couple of friends, they said they could definitely hear more 'me' in it, however one takes that.

I was a bit uncertain about the piece as I began, but I've actually grown to rather like it. Sadly, I think it played to more mixed reviews in class than my previous pieces.

The main issues Dr. Ross raised were: too fast, too busy, and instrument balance.

I'm actually rather content with the tempo, for the most part. To be honest, it was actually slightly faster than this for the first couple drafts before I showed it in class. I think it sounds kinda peppy. Even at this pace, I don't think I'll have difficulty meeting the length requirements for this assignment (famous last words?). In any event, I was planning for at least some of the later (and perhaps earlier) sections to be softer and slower, in contrast the more energetic sections.

I think there is a valid point about the song being busy, though. Although I like many of the little flourishes, upon relistening, a few of them do sound a little crowded or rushed, or just 'off' somehow. I'm going to go see if I can move a few notes around, or simply thin some of them a little bit. Interestingly enough, after having listened to the song on a number of different sets of speakers and headphones, I find that it sounds much more busy on some than others.

Although I can definitely hear some instrument balance issues, I think that this is mostly a result of mixing with the samples that I used. I spent a little time playing with the EQ of the tracks to try and clear things up a bit, with only limited success. However, it was easy enough to hear all of the instruments in the general midi version of the song, even if the overall sound quality of GM is terrible, so I don't think the balance issue is an inherent property of the notation of the song. In fact, I'm hoping that it simply wouldn't be an issue with live instruments at all, but I suppose that remains to be seen.

I guess to some degree I think that some of these complaints might be more an issue with the recording than with the song itself, but I might just be a little too close to the song to tell at the moment. One thing I've noticed is that, when I'm writing a song, I listen to it over and over so many times that things which might sound like issues at first eventually begin to sound normal. I guess you just get used to hearing them. After so long, it becomes kinda hard to tell which bits sound awkward or could use changing.

Finding a cliche

When the second project began, I expected it to be much easier to work with than the first one. Unlike some of my classmates, I found the prospect of being allowed to write tonal music freeing. At many points during the first project, I'd had to second-guess what I was writing, or force it to go in different directions than what felt natural to me, in order to keep it atonal. Now I wouldn't need to worry about that.

However, I underestimated the difficulty I would have in selecting a cliche. Part of the problem was that when I was brainstorming musical cliches, most of the ones that appealed to me, appealed to me enough that if I were to draw upon them in a composition, it would be to compose within that cliche, rather than to take it in very different directions. And on the flip side, many of the cliches that I wasn't particularly fond of, I was adverse enough to that I would find working with even very altered versions thereof off-putting. Thus, the problem became finding something that I both liked, and was recognizable, and that I felt that I could work with.

I ran through a number of false starts before I settled on the base of the song that I will be writing for this project. A couple of them were based on particular recurring motifs in classical music. They might very well have names, but given my utter lack of theory background I cannot provide them. One of the first ideas I entertained briefly was 'Ominous Latin Chanting', however most of the ideas on how to play with the cliche involved writing ironically underdramatic lyrics, totally inappropriate for the apparent mood of the piece. Writing something whose humor can only be fully appreciated by someone who can understand Latin means writing for an vanishingly small audience (and risking being rather pretentious). And in any event, if most of the cliche bending is in the lyrics, rather than the music, it doesn't really work for this course in the first place.

The musical cliche that I will be basing this composition around is loosely 'middle eastern music', more specifically such stereotypical elements as the progression D-D#-F#-G-F#-D#-D. I have no idea how closely actual middle eastern music adheres to these stereotypes, but sometimes cliches have a life of their own.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Settling the Scores

Well, all of my scores for this first major project have been submitted, and it is with a sigh of relief/exhaustion that I can put them to rest. Of course, as soon as they're submitted, I hear things that I would like to fix or change, but that's probably par for the course.

Since my 3rd song has not actually finished when I presented it class last week, I decided that I would spend some of the final week working on that song itself, before polishing all 3 into a final score. Of course, I ended up taking the whole week and then some, leaving the tiniest sliver to time to get the score for it done up.

The 3rd song is easily my favorite at this point, and is the longest and most developed. Perhaps that's because I effectively had twice as long to work on it as any other song. To be honest, the endings of the others (and even still this one to some extent) feel very rushed to me. Basically, I can feel the song naturally continuing for quite a bit longer, but I was running out of time, so I had to put some sort of an ending there. I'd hoped to go back and expand them this week, but it turned out that I didn't have time then, either.

This is the first time I've ever composed anything under any sort of a deadline and it's been a bit of a learning experience. I find it very hard to feel that I'm 'finished' with anything on any sort of a timeline. Some pieces come quickly, and some take a long time of shuffling notes around before I'm satisfied that it is complete. Most real world deadlines are obviously not as flexible as one's muse, and sometimes (frequently?) will necessitate one being finished with a piece before you really feel it's finished. I guess composers who do this sort of thing for a living (like writing soundtracks or something) need to learn to make peace with this, since they're always operating under this kind of constraint.

Fortunately, a couple days ago I discovered a way to coerce Sibelius into importing midis in a more or less unbroken fashion. Certainly less broken than my attempts on previous weeks, where it seemed quite content to place notes where there were not notes, and pepper rests and other markings all of the place.

On the whole, this has been an interesting experience, though. I've written a few songs, all in a style different than I would have attempted outside this course, and I'm fairly pleased with much of it, especially my 3rd piece.