And one more thing...

There might be some personal nonsense in here, too...

Friday, March 20, 2015

Writing for orchestra — in your head?  My a**!  Talk to the hand, Legrand!

I don't write at the piano.  I write in silence at the table.  With an instrument you only have ten fingers, but in your imagination you have infinity.  I hear the music in the silence.  For examinations at the Conservatory, we were in a room without a piano, so we had to compose in the silence.  You have to hear what you write, like reading a book.  I think synthesizers and all of those machines are for people who can't hear the silence!

Well, Michel, I suppose that's fine if you're hanging out under some umbrellas next to windmills in the summer of '42.  Or if you're writing the theme from Arthur (it took four people to craft that sequence-heavy tripe, including three I usually think of rather highly.  I guess it was the best that they could do).

Apparently that Stockhausen character just couldn't hear the silence.

No, really, I get it.  I write the same way.  Or used to, at any rate.

For ensembles of traditional instruments and performance techniques, and limited counterpoint, I'm just fine writing on the bus.  But for what I intend in Usher, the bus ... is going to be a problem.
 I'm blessed with a decent ear.  If asked to reproduce the orchestration of a given piece, and provided a good recording, I have a fair chance of approximating it within one standard deviation.  For most music, anyway.  Don't get me wrong, there are instruments and effects that fool me, but I hope I wouldn't be begrudged for mistaking A, B♭, and C soprano clarinets playing in their middle registers.  If so, see the title of this post for further instructions.  But before you ask, no, I probably could not transcribe Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto.
 In fact, bets are off on much contemporary music.  Composers continue to push the limits of performer technique and the instruments themselves to create timbres no right-thinking person should ever need to experience.  At long last we're getting more non-Western instruments (and idioms) with our daily bread.  And some folks create wholly new acoustic or electronic sounds from "non-musical" origins.  A day may come when these rich new timbres are as familiar as flute or cello, when standards of notation have advanced to incorporate this wealth of sound and resources fully and readily — but it is not this day.

In many difficult ways I remain a Luddite, or more accurately a Neo-Luddite.  I've successfully dodged owning a cell phone, just got my first laptop (and only to assist in my day job), I shovel my own snow, and prefer car windows that crank down.  In college I was worse, and dismissed not only electronic music as "not real music", but the use of computers in composing and sequencing it.  Yes, you heard me right.  Computers were for games, movies, and aliens, and all three when possible.
 Then I grew up, and got both that particular stick and my head out of my arse.
 Also, Al Gore created the Internet.  You may have heard of it.  It was kind of a big deal for a while.
 I got my first personal computer back in 2000, and for reasons unknown it came loaded with Cakewalk's Music Creator Pro.  And holy mother of cows, was that FUN.  The first three things I sequenced were Vince Guaraldi's Linus and Lucy (I included the white noise from the recording), the famous Cantina music from Star Wars, and Bernard Herrmann's main title/overture from one of my childhood favorites, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
 Since then I've written almost exclusively at the computer.  Out-of-box MIDI sounds are limited and lame, but in 2008 I got a nice upgrade with the Garritan Personal Orchestra (and their jazz and marching band sets).  I still hadn't learned to master their full potential before that old computer finally gave up its ghost in 2012.  Doing the math, that means I haven't written much in 2-3 years.
 To Mr. Legrand's point, writing in a MIDI sequencer did make me lazy.  The digital approximations of real sounds weren't perfect, but I simply adjusted them in my head, which was easier with a sampled sound than with the same note on piano, or the page.  Why imagine the low notes of the oboe contrasting the harmonics of the violin when they lie at your fingertips?
 I probably can't afford to build an incredible home studio capable of generating mass-media-quality music.  (Not that much of what we get these days is of particularly good sound quality.  The title music to Game of Thrones demonstrates how far our standards have fallen — an excellent opinion piece on it can be found here.  Hell, maybe I can find work in film after all.)  But fooling the ear isn't my priority.  I miss being able to synthesize what was going on in my head, creating sound to enter my ears from the outside, and occasionally sharing that sound with others.  Tell me, hive mind, can you recommend something affordable for the enthusiast?

Some of Usher's scoring isn't likely to be found in easy-to-load sound fonts — bowed crotales, bowed vibraphone, singing bowls, and I really don't even know what else yet.  Much of it will remain in my brain until the musicians are gathered and the results put to the test.  The internet and in particular Youtube serve me well in this case, as you can see from the links.  They're not playing what I've written, but with real examples I can more readily incorporate their timbres into the soundscape in my head.  It's only kinda cheating.  Which is great, because I don't know anyone who owns a musical saw.

This brings me almost full circle.  Despite awakening to the value of eletronic sound production, I feel Usher is best served with a diverse but wholly acoustic ensemble.  And though I've come to enjoy composing at a QWERTY keyboard instead of one with 88 keys, or with pencil and paper on the buses, the sequencer is probably not where Usher will be realized.  It seems my mind may be more open, but my tastes and artistic vision remain rooted in personal performance and natural sounds; computers can offer support, but not solutions.

And thus the writing — in silence, at the table.