So here’s something fun for you. Recently I was commissioned by a friend to write a theme song for a video he’s working on. I can’t reveal the name or subject matter of the video, however, so I issue you this challenge, dear blog reader: for what type of show would this theme be written? What would it be called? What would be the subject matter? Who would it star? And would it be on Fox?
Note: the theme goes for only about 17 seconds, and the rest of it is just to fade out whenever (probably after the credits).
Today’s piece of music, presented in three forms:
“Who is this Stranger?” from Travels!
(For those not familiar with Travels, this may help.)
I’m going to present all Travels songs in these three formats, as the differences can be striking and interesting. For example, with “Who is this Stranger?” the MIDI version has a lot more energy than the CD and live version, due to a faster tempo and a screwed-up keyboard in the other two (it was supposed to be a square wave, but due to some miscommunication it ended up being a Hammond organ, and the two sound nothing alike).
To quote from my Travels memoirs: “This is where the musical style of the show shifts from an old-fashioned musical to a rock opera. The energy level is high as the show gets rockin’. This is heightened in the MIDI file by the Square sound (the techno video-game sound) and on the tape by the slap bass line. Easily one of the songs that lost a bit on the CD, it still is a great entrance into China.”
“Who is this Stranger?” is one of the first songs I completed while orchestrating Travels, and I was really excited about the energy put into it. As time went on during the orchestration and rehearsal process, I discovered that what I put in the MIDI file and what the orchestra was capable of playing were often quite different, both in terms of skill level and just being real instruments, and as a result the CD suffers. The live version is a little more energetic, since the drums and bass were both killed on the CD.
“Who is this Stranger?” was also one of the only songs Nate asked for my lyrical help on. I think after I gave helpful suggestions like “I’ve never seen their kind or like, I kind of like their look, but look, they look just like Al Gore” and Annelise’s favorite, “Who are these strangers, strangers from Granger,” Nate turned elsewhere for lyrical help (although, in my defense, lines like “You will see it all as we push off my favorite pier/You’re gonna push your friend in the water?” stayed in the show).
Finally, the song should have been titled “Who are these Strangers?” since that’s what is actually sung, but oh well, whaddya gonna do?
Coming up next week: “I’ve Got Rhythm” from Pimp Lando 7!
Today’s piece of music: Mvmt. 1 of “Mixed Quintet? You Bet!” entitled
The whole five-part quintet thing was composed as part of my Music 288 class (Composition 2) back in 2001, when I was still a music composition pre-major before I decided to jump ship and move to the media music department. Each assignment that semester was to write a piece for the same group of five instruments: flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and randomly, euphonium. Then we had what was termed a “real studio experience” where we’d go to Studio Y on campus and give our music to the players, where they would sight-read it and it would get recorded. We weren’t allowed to talk to them about performance notes or anything; we had to stay sequestered in the booth, so the performance was based strictly on whatever we had written on the score and parts.
This particular assignment was the first of five, and sadly, it was also the only one that I can’t remember now what the exact assignment was. It sounds ternary with repeating motives, so the assignment probably had something to do with that. Sadly, on this recording, the flute player didn’t show up for some reason, so the guy playing the flute was just one of the students in the composition class who played flute for a year or so in junior high, which is why the last note is kind of strained and stuff. Still, it’s kind of fun, and it’s one of the few pieces I have a live recording of, so that makes it special.
Coming up next week: “Who is this Stranger?” from Travels!
Today’s piece of music is…
This short MP3 is less a song and more an awakening of possibility. It was made when I was experimenting with sounds while I was trying to write some music for a Rescue Ranger RPG that an online friend was making. I did several songs for it, even though it never got made. This particular one was made when I was trying to make some sort of ambient sounds, and for some reason it spoke to me, so I decided to save it. It’s short, peaceful, and you can do a very quick Tai Chi move to it or something. It’s called “Crystal” because that was the image I got when I wrote it. That’s about all I got on this one.
Coming up next week: Mvmt. 1 of “Mixed Quintet? You Bet!” entitled “Decision”!
Longtime blogketeers may remember my old 52 Weeks of Music project that fizzled out after about week four or so. Well, I’m going to try to do a similar project again. This time, however, instead of doing 52 weeks of new music, every week I’m going to highlight a piece of music I’ve written (or orchestrated). I’m throwing basically everything I have on my hard drive into a playlist, and once a week I will randomly pick one and write a bit of background info about it, how I feel about it, and provide a link to listen to it. A lot of the music may already be featured on my music page, but I’ve written a lot that I haven’t uploaded there, so you will find some new stuff cropping up as well (such as other songs from Travels or what have you).
I also invite anyone reading to offer comments. I know nearly all of my past requests for comments on my music have fallen on deaf ears (no pun intended), but I hope that maybe if I do this every week I can get some feedback eventually. I don’t need detailed critiques; even simple comments from untrained people would be nice!
And, just for fun, I will also put the name of the song into flickr and whatever the first picture that comes up is, that will be the pic in the post!
So, with no further ado, let’s load up the ol’ random playlist and see what we come up with!
Today’s piece of music is. . .
The year was 1996. My brother Ben had just formed his first band, then known as Fried Green Friends of the Llama, which later changed names to Giardia. It was just him and his friend from Granite Youth, who was also a bass player, but they still needed some music to play. So Ben approached my thirteen-year-old self with a request: write us a rock song! Up to this point I had never written any sort of rock song, so it was a whole new thing for me. I started with bass, lead guitar, and vocal parts, and plunked something out, quite unaware that my guitar part didn’t in any way match how a real guitar would play, but whatever. Also, I knew nothing about how to write drum parts, so I just used the default “rock drums” setting on the Roland keyboard we had and put it in. Then Ben wrote lyrics to it that don’t make too much sense. He was just about to turn sixteen and I guess wanted to write some sort of “socially relevant” thing, but include references to two things he obsessed over in ninth grade for some reason: SPAM and the Beatles (“the kings” in the song), even though neither had to do with the subject matter.
The song never got performed by Giardia, as that band never really got past the “wouldn’t it be cool if we had a band” stage. It was a seminal work of mine, though, laying the groundwork for a lot of the work I’d later do in SaXon Geat and even into this decade. This recording was made almost twelve years later, in preparation for my junior recital, with added brass and flute parts, as well as a redone guitar part that actually sounded like a guitar. For anyone curious, the original sounded like this.
Well, that does it for week 1 of 52 weeks! Coming up next week…”Crystal”!
So I took an hour during lunch last week to write a new piece of music, just to see what I could do in an hour, much like I’ve done before, but this time using the better BYU equipment, and this is what I came up with. I also thought I’d describe the process, which I’ve used on a lot of the stuff I’ve written. The approach is mostly organic and less planned than one may expect, and I’ve learned to write stuff with more of a structure to begin, but this is still fun to do on occasion.
As I sat down I had some song with an accordion running through my head (I don’t remember what song now, but it was most likely a They Might Be Giants affair), so I decided to start with an accordion and do an Old World-type melody. To make it even more Old World-like, I put it into 3/4 time and played a 16-bar melody. Normally when I’ve done this in the past it meanders all over the place, but since I’ve received some training the first and the last phrase are similar. Then, on a separate accordion track I laid down the chords. These are also just played out as I go, which means that, although mostly they line up, sometimes the harmonies between the chords are quite jarring, and, indeed, a lot of the work I do on pieces is cleaning up the dissonances after I’ve recorded the lines.
So after I clean up the accordion chords, I repeat (read: copy and paste) the last two phrases to give it a sort of rounded binary feel (aababa, although it was really more abcaca). To change it up, I create a flute track doubling the melody to add a bit of color, and although it’s barely noticeable on the track, it is there. The rounded binary form gets me thinking about my Baroque music classes, and how most often the keyboard music from the Baroque was harpsichord-based and I’d never really written for harpsichord before, so I copied the main 16-bar melody into a harpsichord part to have something to work with. Normally I probably would have rerecorded the melody so it would have some ornamental differences, but I only had an hour. Then I recorded some arpeggiated chords into the left hand of the harpsichord and cleaned them up. Since I played them in without planning them out, some of the chord progression turned out differently with the harpsichord than it had previously with the accordion. (You can tell most easily at the beginning: where the accordion starts on the submediant (F major), the harpsichord starts straight on the tonic (A minor)).
At this point the whole thing has a very nice, old-fashioned feel to it. Now, while sometimes I program in my own drums, more often I take a pre-existing loop and edit it to fit my needs. And since I only had an hour, I decided to find a nice, 3/4, waltzy sort of percussion track to accompany what I already had down. Oddly, searching the library that came on the computer, however, didn’t turn up any waltz beats. In fact, most of the 3/4 stuff was actually rock/jazz beats. So, instead of taking the time to write my own waltz track, which I might have done given more time, I just dropped in the “Alternative 3/4 Beat” into a drum track. This, of course, changed the entire tenor of the piece and gave it a funk it didn’t have previously. And of course, a funky drum beat needed a funky bassline, so I added a fingered electric bass part, playing whole notes during the accordion section and a faster, funkier line during the harpsichord section. This was done because I wanted to emphasize the melody still during the accordion part, but since there was nothing new melodically during the harpsichord part the bass could take some more of the focus. In fact, a little later I decided to add the drums only after the entire 16-bar melody had played once, to both draw more attention to the melody and add a bit of a fun surprise when the incongruous drum track came in, a surprise emphasized by the funky bassline that plays during the second part.
So now I wanted to add some more texture to the second section, during the last 12 bars. Since I had added drums and a bass, the next logical step was to add a guitar. This I spent nearly fifteen to twenty precious minutes on, but it never quite gelled. It just seemed too busy with a guitar playing chords, especially since it was the same register as the harpsichord arpeggios. Conversely, a guitar playing a contrapuntal line diddn’t work with such a funky bassline; however Baroque that might be, it was just too much to have three completely separate moving lines. SO in the end the guitar part got axed.
But what to do now? The second section still needed some more texture, and I only had about ten minutes or less left before I had to leave the lab and go to work, so what could I do? Well, the answer came in the form of a quick-and-dirty solution: take the accordion chords from the last 12 bars of the melody, and put them into a string part, one octave higher. The slow-moving chords would provide some nice color and a contrast to the fast-moving bassline. At the last second before I bounced the song to an MP3, I decided it needed even a bit more and ended up doubling the bass in a piano part, also an octave up. Sadly, I couldn’t fix the dissonances between the bass/harpsichord and the string part, which is why it sounds a bit jarring on a few beats in the second section.
Had I more time I would have fixed those, and probably done more with the piano part, probably changing the pitches to be more harmonious as opposed to just straight copies of the bass notes, albeit with the same rhythms to avoid the busy-ness problems I was having with the axed guitar part. Since the piece had already a nice AA beginning in the large-form arena, I would probably have gone on to write a contrasting B section, and then brought back the A at the end, giving it an AABA song form, Or maybe I would have gone more complicated; who knows?
In any case, this is what I could do in an hour of composing time, starting from scratch. I hope this provides some insight on how I write music.