Composing “Rain” Step-by-Step

Often, when I finish a long piece, someone will ask “How long did it take to write?” or “How many hours did you put into it?” To be honest, I’d never really chronicled the process before. Also, as a composer, I’ve spent hours searching in vain for other composers’ thoughts on how to create a piece from beginning to end, and what considerations come into play. So, I started a diary of a piece for orchestra and synth called Rain.  What follows is the composing-by-MIDI process (playing and recording the notes using a keyboard, synth, orchestral samplers and sequencer). After all of this, is when I convert it to sheet music (not covered here). Here is that log of daily sessions and times, stumbles, dilemmas and solutions:

Day 1 (5-hrs.)

We begin with the vast rocking and swaying ocean surface motion, in the strings. A blaring hot sun is relentless and almost painful, as it stirs the molecules into submission. Water relents to become steam, as the process accelerates. Basses make good ocean currents (mm1-17). Shrill violins make for a nice searing heat, and random staccato woodwinds can be vapor molecules rising (mm. 17-35) Sixteenth-sixteenth-dotted-eighth.

Now, I must find a motif, that is versatile enough to carry through all elements… fast and slow, angry and beautiful. Intervals are very important. For example, I up to III is happy. I down to VI is sad, I to V and back is powerful, as are repeated notes. F-minor sounded exciting, but not embattled. And after much experimenting, I settled on I, I, then down to VI, which has much in common with an augmented-5th. Repeated tonic (F, F) for power, then down to an unsettling Db, that begs the ear for someplace safe to go. It was perfect for the unpredictability of a storm in minor key, while easily replaceable (in happier moments in F major) with D-natural.

Day 2 (4-1/2-hrs.)

Nothing ever sounds as good the next day.  I spent much time mixing, changing tempi, adding harmonies, and re-arranging groups of finished measures. Now, I must get down to melody. I need a melody that sounds as good in minor as it does in major (for later). Using the water vapor motif I, I, IV), I construct a 4-bar tease (mm. 35-39), followed by 8 more bars of evaporation in motion (mm. 39-47). Then, complete the 8-bar statement in a cappella brass, and a new key. Now that all my water droplets are safely up in the air, it’s time to form some clouds.

Day 3 (5-hrs.)

The harmonious brass theme has led us to white puffy beauties (mm. 57-64). Now, it’s back to motion and wind. I must brew up a storm. The same type of building, swaying upper air currents remind me that I can use the opening rhythm that got things rolling on the ocean. Woodwinds again add motion and speed. An unsettling randomness is again necessary, as we must build fear.

Day 4 (3-hrs.)

Scrapped 16 bars for being too atonal. Enough randomness. It’s time for a recognizable motif and melody. I’ve also done a lot of trimming. No belaboring a point. High strings and brass build suspense and motion (mm. 72-80). We hear our first thunder crash at 81.

Day 5 (3-hrs.)

After sleeping on it, things always look differently. Made lots of revisions today. Bar numbers in previous entries may be a bit off. I wasn’t happy with the first try at a brass melody. Revisions have much improved it into a sentence instead of a collage of motifs. Also threw out a bunch of things I had spent a lot of time on. I’ve been having trouble working in woodwinds. This may be perhaps due to midi samples that do not flow well in faster sections. In building motion, woodwinds are easily drowned out by brass and strings, and seem to sound less important when played back. They worked really well as water droplets, though.

Day 6 (3-hrs.)

Tidied up a few things, like volume balance and crescendos. Added woodwinds to lead up to the first thunder. When I had left off, there was only a timpani roll and bass drum for thunder. Today, I filled that out with a bass tremolo, low brass and woodwinds. After the first two peels of thunder, the darkness builds with double-stop celli, brass and horns.

Day 7 (2-hrs.)

It’s time to start raining! Staccato drops form first in the piccolo, then other woodwinds, spelling out a new melody one short note at a time. To add randomness to the falling drops, I varied the rhythm, while keeping the intervals mostly constant. A tremolo and droning bed moves chromatically upward, for a short time, as momentum builds for a double-time tempo.

Day 8 (3-hrs.)

Added and embellished existing music. Some passages seemed a little thin, and needed more going on. Trying to keep all the parts busy, by adding woodwinds, motion, and bonus harmony. For example, I changed the melody slightly and added flute, tuplets, timpani, and embellished the “droplets” section with more woodwinds.

Day 9 (4-hrs.)

Moved some things around for better flow. Started the real rain sentence at 109, with a variation on the (sixteenth-sixteenth-dotted-eigth) rhythm, to make it more melodic. That was a lot of fun, adding motion in high strings with a low brass and horn bed. Started stretching the “rubber band” with higher highs and lower lows. Timpani helped with the call and answer.

Day 10 (6-1/2 -hrs.)

After being away for awhile, things always need re-doing and improving. Spent much time re-mixing, deleting, adding and changing parts. Unfortunately, 2-hrs was lost trying to fix a software issue that crashed the application several times. The work-around solution involved reverting to a much older backup. If time permits, I will transfer notes from other backups rather than re-constructing. Sometimes though, it can even be better to start fresh from where you left off. Everything came to a slow-motion pause with a supernatural synth chord at 141 with crashing cymbals. But, it’s only temporary, until the falling water carries on 4 bars later.

Day 11 (5-hrs.)

Made the transition from falling rain to flowing water. Majestic horns slow down the torrent of droplets, as they collect into a body of water. The stream takes on movement (tuplets), and ominous bass lines. Things are much more tonal and recognizable here… less random and independent. Call and answer.

Day 12 (2-hrs)

Added synth pad part from 03-109. Long portamento-like tones to both stitch things together and provide a solid ethereal background. The piece needed a more modern feel.

Day 13 (2-hrs.)

What a difference when you’re away from a piece for a while. Spent the whole time “cleaning up” mixes, tempos and melodies.

Day 14 (6-hrs.)

Finally got a day with few distractions, and added tons new music, as well as many improvements. The synth part had been lacking. The woodwinds were getting bored, and it was time to make a run for the finish line. The rain has let up, and the streams and waterfalls are flowing. I needed to wash them out to sea and slow things down. Horns synth and strings round out the piece in harmonic dissonance (my term). The strings recap the opening notes, to come full circle, and all sounds fade. Work is not completed, as there is a lot of fine tuning to be done, mostly with the mix. Recorded it onto cd, to listen in the car and make a list of ideas.

Day 15 (4-hrs.)

After listening several times in the car, I’ve knocked down to some serious editing… mainly on the “falling rain” section. Doubled lots of parts in the woodwinds. Copy/paste rearranging various 4-8 bar phrases for better flow, hoping to build to a climactic moment. Deleted some phrases that didn’t quite fit. I hard to “kill your young” sometimes.

Day 16 (3-1/2-hrs.)

Much more of the above same type of editing to the falling rain section. This time, I moved ahead to the ending, which was already in rough draft, getting the water back to the ocean. Deleted about 16 measures there too. A shorter piece now, but more efficiently laid out.

Day 17 (1-1/2-hrs.)

Shortened and tidied up the ending, as well as did much volume mixing. It was important to recap at the end with the ocean rocking motion motif (half-quarter-half-quarter-hold).

Day 18 (3-hrs.)

Spent mostly mixing volumes and recording. Due to technical issues with the K2000R module, I finally got a decent recording on take 12, that I can critique in the car for further improvements.

Day 19 (3-hrs.)

Removed a few repetitive rhythms and dissonances. Also spent much time trying to get a clean recording, in spite of very persistent MIDI issues. Finally, on take 13, it seemed to come together. Now I must proof the recording in other settings, and hope no major improvements are needed.

Day 20  (2-hrs.)

Made a few modifications based on last recording: smoothed transitions, reworked some rhythms and lots of volumes, as well as added one more timpani swell in the lighting section. Then recorded to disc, and saved MIDI files. Now, on to notation.

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