Tag Archives: violin

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.


Classical Music’s Need for Speed

Is faster really better? Classical music performances are expected to be meticulous, impeccable and proficiently accurate. Artists hope to be called a “virtuso.”  All the thousands of notes must be delivered spot-on. So what then, distinguishes one soloist or ensemble from another performing the same timeless piece?

Interpretation is what it’s called, but what are the boundaries of interpretation in classical music? At least in jazz, that door is wide open. Musicians can choose their own notes and rhythms for a solo passage. Not so in classical. The only things that can be messed with are tempo and dynamics (loudness/softness). The notes (with only few exceptions) are etched in stone.

On paper, in the sheet music, tempo is notated with the use of descriptive words, not numbers: largo, moderato, andante, vivace. The dynamics are also written in a flexible way: pianissimo, piano, mezzo-piano, mezzo-forte, forte and fortissimo. Relative speed and volume are a matter of  taste.

This is why you might hear mood swings of tempo or dynamic variations. Given how lengthy some classical pieces are, you probably won’t hear an orchestra play one piece the same way another orchestra would. A familiar passage might clip along nicely as the New York Phil plays it, yet be noticeably drawn out by the LA Phil. What sounds soft and gentle in Boston, may be much more assertive in Chicago. This is really the only way for a conductor, ensemble or soloist to make a name for themselves, and deliver something in a way you may have never heard it before.

The familiar classical repertoire (the pieces we all know and love) is essentially a collection of cover tunes, played by different groups hoping to not sound just like the last one that played it.

But, with so little wiggle-room in interpretation, how does an artist stand out from the others and get noticed? For a soloist, usually the answer is speed. If you can play a difficult passage faster than someone else, an audience is more likely to be wowed by your performance. Fair enough, but what does that do to the music? How did the composer want it to sound? Will some notes fly by so imperceptibly fast that they will never be heard? Will some parts drag so slowly that you’ll lose the sense of melody, waiting for the next note?

Take for example, Tchaikovsky’s famous 1st Piano Concerto… a piece so well known, even listeners who are not regular classical concertgoers would notice variations. There are tens of thousands of notes, hundreds of multi-note runs, and many of Tchaikovsky’s signature grace notes (quick neighboring notes). The faster it’s played, the fewer the notes that can be savored, or even heard. A 64-note run can fly by in a 1.5-second blink of an eye.

However, knowing what we know about the composer, he may have even meant it to be just a challenge, that only a limited number of people can accomplish.

Still, some of the beauty and harmony of the music is often lost to the racing competition by its performers. You simply cannot enjoy a sound that lasts only a millisecond.

Composer Saint-Saëns was much the same. He was a child keyboard prodigy, and his piano works are often only played by those with hands as fast as the composer’s. For a composer to achieve fame in his or her lifetime, they too customize their music so that only they could play it. But, as pianist Arthur Rubinstein reached his later years, he began playing more deliberately, even  the Saint-Saëns pieces. As you can see in a number of YouTube videos with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, as Rubinstein reached the age of 88, the musicality was much easier to appreciate without the flare and ferocity, that he was famous for as a younger man.

The need for speed is not unique to competitive soloists and small ensembles. Conductors will often push orchestral musicians to the envelope of their abilities with faster moments, and (even in the same piece) draw out the slower phrases to a snail’s pace, just for contrast.

So, that leaves us with a dilemma. What IS a good interpretation? As always, that depends on your interpretation of the interpretation. Given the limitations, is it okay with you that liberties taken with tempo and dynamics often change the character and flow of melodies to the point of distraction? Are you excited and impressed by extremes in performance, or would you prefer to hear the music without histrionics? Do the composer’s intentions have any relevance, or are artists free to manipulate?

Perhaps, as we hear different interpretations of the compositions we enjoy the most, we’ll reach our own conclusions about whose version was best. I’ve heard several recordings conducted by and performed by the composers themselves, that I thought weren’t as good as others I had heard. It is a matter of personal taste. Yet, I am always aware that every performer’s first job is to impress the audience, not just faithfully play a difficult work without any mistakes. Some musicians may see performance as an extreme sport, and pushing boundaries should be encouraged. But sometimes it can be distracting,

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Why Money Can’t Buy the Best Seats in the House

Obviously, the conductor has the the best acoustic position, at an orchestra concert. But, since maestros usually stand, let’s forget about that spot, for now. Anyone who’s played in an ensemble of any size, knows that the best seats are right there– inside the group.

The very first time I played in a band as a child, I was right in front of the brass. When they blared at fortissimo, I could feel my rib cage rattle. I could literally feel a bass drum resonate through the wooden floor. The stereo effect of clarinets to your right, and horns to your left, can’t be equalled by any recording.

Within the ensemble, you can feel the crescendos, and appreciate the nuance between pianissimo and piano. You can see the eyebrows raise and the shoulders dip with expression, in a way that is far more dramatic than from a distance.

So, why aren’t the top dollar audience seats next to the musicians… side by side? Who wouldn’t want to enjoy Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony sitting next to the 1st chair clarinet? Well, for one, it can be highly distracting for musicians with intense concentration. But, let’s face it, there are some pieces of standard repertoire that professionals could play flawlessly in their sleep. A larger audience would just be impractical. Musicians need to be near each other to hear and take cues. But, a few strategically placed extra chairs wouldn’t really get in the way.

Granted, there are some venues with seats in the wings, or even behind the musicians (in the round, as they say). But, there is a traditionally formal separation between audience and performers. One is often delivering a paid product for the other, so coziness can be awkward for both.

So, why not use the experience as an educational or promotional tool? Why not invite potential patrons, donors and young musicians to share the joy on occasion? Imagine a local festival, where an ensemble offers the opportunity to sit next to an orchestra musician for 5-mins, during the 1812 Overture? Or, bring the audience on stage, and right up to music stands for an afternoon concert or dress rehearsal? After the work is done, maybe some one-on-ones or Q&A about each instrument, or life as a musician.

In baseball, they sometimes call them the “10th player.” Nine are on the field, the 10th is in stands. When a team has a roaring, involved crowd cheering them on, they often play better. At a concert, the fans can do much more than just sit silently, as if at a lecture. They can react with smiles, nodding heads, and gasps, when they are closer to the action. If there’s no room for the fans on the field with the team during the game, perhaps they could at least be invited, once in awhile, close enough to experience a practice, or hear a locker room pep talk. If you can find them, usually the best seats at a baseball game are at ground level with the players, behind home plate.

Quartets and smaller ensembles can draw people even closer, and engage in ways that would endear and personalize the performance. There’s a curious little kid inside each of us, who thinks the front row just isn’t close enough. Maybe, if a few 5th graders pull their headphones out of their ears, and realize the fidelity is better in real life, youth orchestras will have more applicants. Perhaps, peering over the shoulder of a soloist playing Saint-Saëns “Egyptian” Piano Concerto #5 could sell a few season subscriptions.

As we debate declining attendances, shrinking endowments, and a general lack of new interest in classical music, maybe it’s time to huddle closer to the campfire, from which hundreds of years of beautiful music once grew.