Monday, August 31, 2009

All the cool kids are posting it

It seems that every other blog that I am aware of is posting this particular composition. However, since it is undoubtably one of the coolest "net-based" compositions I have seen, I will join the fray:

In B-flat


Ping Pong

Nothing to see here, move along now.

(In case you are wondering, I am testing out as a way to feed my blog to both twitter and my Facebook musician page. Fun with feeds!)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Resonant Frequency

This week's Electric Semiquaver discusses the effect of resonance on our compositions, both in and out of a MIDI set up.

One of the big issues that I tend to notice when listening to MIDI playback is that sampled notes sound "dead" to my ears. For example, while a single stroke on an acoustic piano is capable of generating a "glorious montage of harmonics echoing through space," a single stroke on a MIDI piano is, unfortunately, not nearly as satisfactory. True, while new sound generators have gotten awfully close to mimicking the sound of a real, honest piano - and convolution reverb has done wonders in making that same piano sound like it is in the largest of concert halls, to my ears even these new virtual pianos still lack a certain resonant quality that a real piano has.

I'll be the first to admit that our new virtual orchestras do a much better job in creating acoustic resonance than sound samplers from even as recent as five years ago. Back in the day, when all of my sounds were generated on an Alesis QS-6, I had to introduce a substantial amount of reverb simply so that I could remind myself that all of these generated sounds did occur in a space, and that my compositions needed to reflect that (no pun intended!). It was a crude, but effective trick, that ensured that as I composed I was conscious of the "space between the notes."

The problem that the computer composer needs to deal with, thus, isn't that the notes necessarily sound bad (because they don't), nor that they lack resonance (of a type), but that even with all of these advances in technology the sounds still don't adequately represent the "space between the notes." Our setting - the resonant space where the ensemble is supposed to be represented - simply doesn't sound "right." I touched briefly upon this issue back in my post "Baby Got Playback, (June 2009)" but I feel like this is a point worth revisiting , if nothing else but to press upon what problems occur as a result of this issue, and how we as composers can be conscious of it.

Without adequate representation of this resonance, we end up with digital silence in between our notes. Digital silence is an absolute absence of sound, something which is impossible in an acoustic setting, but occurs quite often in a computerized one. Normally, even in the quietist of rooms, faint hums, whirrs of fans, whispers, and other ambient sounds are present. Not in a computer.

The main problem with this digital silence that occurs is that the composer thus feels the need to "fill the void." Much like how most of us try to fill awkward silences with nonsensical conversation, the composer is compelled to try to fill up empty regions in the music with more and more "attack" points. That's right - not notes, but attacks. The difference is crucial. A note can be both long and short; however, the sustained long note often falls victim to the same problem that silences do: not enough resonance to fill the space. An attack on the other hand (as taken from MIDI terminology for ADSR, or attack, decay, sustain, release), is the point at which a NEW note is introduced. These attacks, often in the form of 8th or 16th notes, are created in between both types of resonant gaps - the ones created by silence, and the ones created by sustained pitches. The end result is that we have new notes introduced consistently without pause, often overwhelming the texture. Sometimes, this is a good thing. After all, I as much as anyone enjoy composing intense, pulsing 8th note rhythms that permeate the entire texture. However, we must be aware that we are doing this out of an aesthetic choice, rather than simply trying to "fill the gaps."

The other common problem that occurs, as I mentioned in my previous entry, is that the composer will often increase the tempo of the composition to help fill these gaps. While this may increase the excitement potential of the piece (and sound great in the computer), it often leads to very muddy and jumbled live performance, particularly when combined with a large concert hall. I personally stumble over this issue myself, and I have to constantly knock my tempos down to remind myself that they will sound fast enough on the concert stage.

Simply being aware that the space between the notes isn't accurate is the first step in learning how to deal with this issue. Experience with live performance helps too. Short of both of these, though, here are some other steps that a student composer can implement to help train the ear:

• Consciously add SPACE to your compositions. It is always better to err on the side of having a rest too long, then not long enough.

• Scan your pages for "white" notes. Even in sections of music that intentionally feature driving 8th and 16th note patterns, don't neglect sustained pitches and pedal tones. They will go far in holding your composition together, like glue.

• Work on composing slow music. Composing in MIDI is an ideal medium for fast compositions; slow compositions on the other hand often sound stilted and unsatisfactory in MIDI playback. Trust your own instincts.

• Remember that one note is often enough.

• As mentioned in the past, keep your tempos a notch below what you think sounds "fast enough." You'll find that your actual performance sounds more than fast enough.

As always, I'm eager to hear how those of you reading approach this issue, or if you really think its as much of a problem as I do!

On a different note: instead of using this blog as a forum for my new residency with the Heretic Opera, I will instead be contributing to the Heretic Opera's blog. I will post here one more time when that officially begins.

Have a great week!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Residency with the Heretic Opera

Big news: I have officially been made the "Composer in Remote Residence" with the Heretic Opera! As part of this residency, I will be writing the music to two operas - "Josephine and Valentine," an opera that will be produced for the Fall of 2010; and "Seeking Jefferson (tentative title)" for the Fall of 2012.

You might be wondering why it is called a "remote" residency. Since I won't actually be residing with the opera company (located in Portland, OR - a shame that I can't actually live there for the year!), I will instead be writing about my experience writing an opera here on this blog, as well as posting video logs and interviews over the course of the creative experience. Think of it as a "behind-the-scenes" look into writing a contemporary opera.

Anyways, I wanted to share the news here first! You can find out more about the Heretic Opera on their website. I'm personally very excited to be participating in this project.

Since I will now be posting multiple topics here, I will also begin labeling my posts for your reading pleasure. My weekly composition tips log will be up as advertised on Thursday, so check back then. Until next time!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Busy signal

The Fall semester beckons!

Which is why this post is late. In fact, I'm afraid that my normal weekly posts may be sidelined slightly while I get re-situated into a normal schedule. A couple of changes:

1. I'll be posting on Thursdays now instead of Wednesdays, to better fit my teaching schedule.
2. I'll be branching out a bit, discussing not just composition tips in Finale and Sibelius, but other topics as they relate to the music industry and composing.
3. Now with 25% more irreverent non-sequiturs!

These changes will be taking place next week. Today - I have classes to prepare, meetings to go to, and documents to burn. Fun!

In the meantime, you may want to check out Sequenza 21 (if you haven't done so already), a great blog specifically dedicated to contemporary music and the composition community. Enjoy!

See you all next week!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A world, a part

This might become a habit. My third post this week - a new record! I promise I'll keep this brief, so as not to use up an unnecessarily large share of bandwidth with my nonsense.

Rather than return to my normal, tried-and-true method of part extraction (the same method that I've used since Finale 95), I chose to shake things up a bit with this new orchestra piece that I am wrapping up. I dove into the brave new world of linked parts. And you know what - they worked FAR better than I could have imagined. Granted, I had to relearn quite a few things, including not only how to set up preferences for the linked parts, but also what adjustments I had to make to my actual score so that the two "beasts" played nice with one another (Sibelius' ability to create "blank pages," as opposed to "music pages," suddenly became a huge factor in how this all played out).

The end result is that all of my parts are, well, perfect. Very little adjusting needed. Cues are all nice and embedded into my score (thanks to the "Paste as Cue" command - another great feature!), and show up perfectly in my parts. All in all, a great first experience.

I just thought I would share this with anyone who has yet to try linked parts in Sibelius. Fear not this strange new world - go for it!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Enharmonically Speaking

This is nothing like editing a large ensemble piece to give one a little bit of perspective as to the pitfalls that you can fall into when composing on the computer! Over the past few days, I have been hard at work editing my new orchestra piece (interspersed with nonsensical diversions, as evidenced by Monday's post...). As you might imagine, this process has given rise to a long list of errors, errors that can easily creep into your work when composing into Finale or Sibelius.

Take enharmonic spellings for instance. It feels like I have gone over my work at least six or seven times up to this point, (although in reality it is more like one or two just feels like more...). Yet, as I continue to scan the score, I continue to catch incorrect spellings of notes. These include: flats where they are supposed to be sharps, augmented seconds and diminished thirds, multiple instances of missing accidentals or accidentals where there should be none, etc., etc. It makes me wonder why it is that these enharmonic spellings, a relatively benign problem writing by hand, has become such an issue when using music notation software.

Of course, I do have a hypothesis as to why this is. In my opinion (and I stress - this is my opinion, not fact!), the relatively quick process of entering notes into the computer allows for the user to bypass minute parts of his or her own creative process. This includes the small, almost inconsequential decision of choosing one enharmonic spelling over another. When writing by hand, one has to methodically choose whether the note will be one spelling or another - after all, the note can't be placed in two places at once on the staff! This doesn't necessarily mean that the right enharmonic spelling will be chosen by the composer, but simply that the composer IS still in control over that choice.

I'll be honest: many times, in my own compositional process, I too fall into this pitfall. I input notes into Sibelius using a keyboard, which as a result completely bypasses this step of choosing an enharmonic spelling. The keyboard doesn't know which enharmonic spelling to use; in fact, all that the keyboard is doing is sending a MIDI note command to the software, which then does its best to interpret whether or not the note is a flat or a sharp. This decision is often completely arbitrary (although depending on the situation, one will be favored over the other), quite frequently leading to incorrect spellings. After the note is input, I am often on to the next note - choosing to leave the spelling aside as an "unanswered question," one that will inevitably have to be answered through the editing process. The problem in this case is that I never made a choice as to which enharmonic spelling I would prefer, and instead let the computer choose for me.

Both Finale and Sibelius have settings to assist with this process, but they are not 100% foolproof. In particular, I find that these programs are most susceptible to incorrect spellings when the composer chooses to do one of the following:

a. when using a key signature, modulating to an unrelated key
b. working in a remote key (i.e. six flats/sharps or more), particularly with a transposing instrument involved
c. working with a symmetrical scale (whole tone, octatonic, etc.)
d. working in an open key (no key signature)

The last one is where the majority of problems seem to arrive for both myself and my students. Without a key signature to check against, the program is literally guessing as to which enharmonic spelling is best in any given situation. The truth is, even when writing by hand figuring out the best enharmonic spelling is often not an easy task. There are many instances - particularly when composing using a non-tonal language - where the best choice is far from apparent. The example of the whole-tone scale is a classic case of this, where it is impossible to spell the scale without either using a diminished third between adjacent pitches, or a diminished octave across the entire scale.

Nonetheless, if nothing else it is the composers duty to ensure that all enharmonic spellings in the work are chosen by the COMPOSER and not by the computer. This process can be saved for editing, as I often choose to do so. However, if you want to find the best spelling the first time, here are a few tips to assist in this process:

1. Always be aware of the scale that you are using (if you are using one), and make sure that the notes you are choosing fall into that scale. If the note is a non-chord tone, then be able to rationalize its spelling as such.

2. When using an asymmetrical scale, be consistent with your spelling. In the case of a whole-tone scale, choose the same place within the scale for your diminished third to appear, and make it a location that occurs infrequently (for example, if you are alternating between two steps in the scale, that probably isn't your best choice of a location!).

3. When composing atonally, choose intervals that are the easiest for the performer to read. Half-steps, whole-steps, and common intervals are always easier than augmented and diminished intervals other than the tritone.

4. Prioritize intervalic spelling within one instrument over vertical spellings within the ensemble - after all, an individual performer is not particularly interested in the spellings of his or her fellow musician.

5. Play or sing the lines as you compose them, considering whether or not the spellings feel right to you.

I would love to read up on how the rest of you approach enharmonic spellings, particularly when working in an open key or when using an asymmetrical scale. Until then, though, I really should return to my editing. After all, I have a bunch of A-sharps in my piece now that really should be B-flats.

I think.

Monday, August 10, 2009

...and now for something completely different!

Ok, so this has absolutely NOTHING to do with this blog, but I thought I would share it anyways. I created this earlier today as a way to constructively release some pent-up frustration, mostly related to parenthood.

(Although it DOES refer to midi output commands, so I suppose that is the connection.) Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sketch Art

Earlier this week, one of my private composition students managed to completely surprise me. Instead of bringing a print-out of a Finale score, as he normally does, he brought me a completely hand written graphic sketch of a new work. The sketch had no notes or notated rhythms - only general descriptions of each individual part as they occurred over time. He was very proud of this sketch, and commented to me how liberating an experience it was to sketch the piece in this manner.

I was surprised NOT by the fact that he brought me this sketch, but that this particular student - a very tech savvy, computer geek in his own right - chose to sketch this work by hand.

Much of what this blog is about is on how to compose within the parameters of notation software. However, that doesn't mean that every task is best suited in the computer, and that pen and paper should be completely abandoned. Pre-composition - the creative process that each composer engages to help discover and organize their musical ideas PRIOR to the actual writing of notes - I believe is one of those tasks.

Now, before I receive 20 comments on how it is completely practical and legitimate to "pre-compose" on the computer, I want to stress that while I believe that pre-composition is best suited away from the computer, I also recognize that this is a very personal process. Each and every composer will approach this from a different perspective. Also, I should also stress that I have tried to sketch my pieces in Finale and Sibelius in the past, but in the end I always seem to eventually need pencil and paper to get my basic ideas down in a satisfactory manner.

So, why do I believe that pre-composition should be done on paper? For me, it comes down to immediacy and convenience. There may be hundreds of ways that I might choose to jot my ideas down - from simple words, to graphic imagery, use of a timeline, notated ideas, literary reference - the list goes on. While there are likely ways to incorporate all of these approaches into notation software, these programs really aren't meant to handle tasks like these efficiently. Similarly, I might be able to use other programs to assist in this process (such as typing ideas into a word processing program, or creating graphics in Photoshop or Freehand) but in the end this is a cumbersome and limiting approach for me, not to mention considerably slower than simply writing words and images on paper.

Still, despite this, there is part of me that WANTS to use my computer for pre-composition. Despite many failed attempts, I often will still turn to the computer at the beginning of my creative process. I understand that, for me, writing down my initial ideas by hand is my preferred method TODAY, but I would love to be able to discover a process that is just as immediate and convenient on my computer. I want to be able to have the same liberating feeling that my student had just this past week, only when sketching with a mouse and keyboard. I simply haven't discovered what this is - yet.

So, I am opening this discussion up to all of you who are reading this. How do you approach pre-composition? Do you sketch by hand, or have you found a method that works for you on the computer? Let me know, and I will likely try it out myself when I start my next piece.