On to Orchestration

Cello, Composition, Education, Software, Synthesizers Comments Off on On to Orchestration

The Orchestration I course at Berklee, with Ben Newhouse, is turning out to be quite informative, extensive and enjoyable. I’m learning loads of new things each week (and not having to grope around ‘experimenting’ in order to do it).

This past week had a number of interesting workshop activities.

First was a short section extracted from Bach’s Chorale #185. The activity was to arrange the first four (full) bars of the following for full strings (Violins I and II, Viola, Cello and Double Bass).
 


 

I ended up with this. Here’s the MP3:

Bach Chorale 185 Excerpt – MP3 – 192kBps – 595kB – 0:25 min.

Turned out that this export wasn’t what I’d originally produced. As it happens, when you close a SONAR project and then reload, Kontakt 3 (the plug-in we’re using as a sampling synth) doesn’t reload the actual instrument configuration that was saved. Thankfully, I’d saved a preset, and was able to reproduce what I’d really wanted:

Bach Chorale 185 Excerpt – fixed – MP3 – 192kBps – 599kB – 0:25 min.

The difference is subtle, but the second one should sound less like mush.

The next workshop activity was also interesting. We were given a 4-chord progression – Am – F – C – E – which we then needed to orchestrate as a harmonic arrangement. One of the examples for this activity was Ben’s “Desperaux’s Love Theme” (more of Ben’s work here). I had some fun with this. I hope this is what he was expecting. Here’s the music, with a melody added after the progression is established:

Harmonic Arrangement – Am-F-C-E – MP3 – 128kBps – 770kB – 0:48 min.

Finally, the week’s assignment was kind of the reverse. We started off with a melody and chords:
 


 

From this we needed to come up with an orchestration around the melody for full strings. I chose to write for solo cello (duh) but unfortunately, the Kontakt 3 sample library doesn’t include a solo cello sample, so the ensemble legato ‘voice’ had to suffice. It’s a little electronic sounding, but gets the point across:

String Orchestration – MP3 – 128kBps – 525kB – 0:33 min.

Overall it’s been an ‘extra’ education (above learning orchestration) getting up to speed on Sibelius 6, Kontakt 3 and SONAR 8 PE all at the same time. The SONAR course from last term left me with just enough information to get going – far from what was promised in the course description. That’s life, I suppose. One of the only valuable things from that course was a SONAR template with a preset mastering plug-in all set up. I load my finished audio exports into that, tweak EQ as needed and export as a master to 44.1kHz/16bit for MP3. It rounds things out nicely without a lot of work.

Getting Sibelius 6, Kontakt 3 and SONAR 8 to all play nice together has been challenging. I’ve worked out a system where I can compose in Sibelius, export MIDI to SONAR and then load a String Orchestra preset into the Kontakt plug-in. At that point the Piano Roll view provides a quick way to delete Sibelius’ MIDI CC data (I keep the Velocity) and start adjusting Modulation and Expression to get dynamics.

Coming up with that workflow required about a week of experimenting and understanding the various quirks involved – like Kontakt’s annoying habit of resetting the instrument volume faders to -6db (or less) if the volume is adjusted in ANY way in SONAR. That was pretty frustrating, let me tell you. Once the volume has been modified, it’s no longer possible to set the corresponding Kontakt instrument to anything more than -6db. If you do, it just gets reset when playback starts. Not sure what’s going on there, but deleting Sibelius’ exported MIDI CC#7 (Volume) data before playing back takes care of it as long as you don’t touch the track’s volume. I tend to bounce each MIDI track to its own audio track – as hot as it will go without exceeding 0db – so I don’t usually adjust the MIDI channels’ volume faders anyway.

Lots of good things to say about these three software packages, once you start to get below the surface and get comfortable with a workflow. The bulk of time is now spent actually composing, rather than fighting with technology – as it should be!

Sibelius 6, in particular, is pretty impressive. It’s about as close to a music word processor as one might imagine. Once you get handy with the key combinations, you can literally type your music into the staff as you go, pausing now and then to reposition the cursor with the mouse. The thing even understands expression and technique entries, and will play back pizzicato mezzo piano, follow crescendos and diminuendos and play fermata and staccato notes if that’s what you’ve indicated. Pretty cool.

Ear Training: Only The Beginning

Audio Recording, Cello, Composition, Education, Guitar, Software, Songwriting 2 Comments

This week is the last one for Basic Ear Training at Berkleemusic – the Spring term is winding down. As I mentioned to my instructor Roberta Radley, it’s been one of the more enjoyable educational experiences I can recall. Matt Marvuglio and Roberta have put together a great introduction to exactly what’s been missing from my own musical endeavors over the decades: a formal understanding of what I’ve been hearing, musically, all my life. Literally: ear training.

We’ve been doing pretty interesting assignments each week in this course – conducting, singing lots of solfege (“do – re – mi – …“) to learn interval relationships between notes in the scale(s) (yes Bob, you told me!), transcribing popular music to understand both rhythm & melody, recording ourselves singing various scales and harmonies, learning the chord and rhythmic structure of “The Blues” and analyzing some basic song forms.

Unlike the other weekly lessons, our final project assignment is one of our own design. Normally the ‘anything goes’ type of assignments kind of bug me, but here at the end of the term it feels appropriate – especially because the last week or so has made it crystal clear what I’ll be offering: a discussion of how ear training helped in the composition of Volo Flamenco and a short analysis of that piece as well as some transcription excerpts.

Basic Ear Training (BME-115) – Final Project

My favorite pastime has always been – and is still – composing music of various forms, which probably sounds silly coming from someone who’s never studied music theory. Until recently, when I began taking cello seriously a few years ago, I’d also never studied a musical instrument, couldn’t read music very well (at all) and generally did everything “by ear”.

One of the many problems associated with being musically illiterate has been the limitation it imposes with respect to (a) making sense of the original music that I hear in my head, and (b) getting it into some form where I and others can actually hear it. The SONAR software program has been great for that, since you can write entire orchestral MIDI compositions using something called a “piano roll” that gives you a graphical representation of the notes (as opposed to the indecipherable notes on a staff for which I have always seemed to have a mental block). But even with that, there’s this timing issue…

The trick for me in writing anything remotely complex is in remembering the melodic themes, accompanying lines and harmonic combinations from the point of inspiration until I can physically get the thing written down or recorded as musical information. The two times I’m most often inspired with a new melody or rhythm are (1) while driving to and from work and (2) when I’m asleep – and dreaming. I guess the common denominator there is “delta state”.

Needless to say, neither of those two activities is conducive to getting a musical idea “written down” in some form – especially when my standard “m.o.” is to fire up SONAR and draw the notes in the piano roll. Also needless to say, a lot of nice melodic themes have vanished into the ether between the time the inspiration hits and the time I can get to the computer.

But now I have solfege.

Do – – Sol Do Sol Le Sol-Fa …

Parallel with Basic Ear Training I also enrolled in Berklee’s Producing Music with SONAR course this term so I could finally, hopefully get beyond just scratching the surface of the software. For the final project in that course I’d decided to create a production based on an acoustic guitar piece I’ve been playing for about a year or so – Volo Flamenco – which you can hear here. Go ahead and fire it up in the background, and I’ll continue. It’s kind of important to hear it in its ‘raw’ form in order to appreciate what’s coming.

The problem was that although I had some ideas, and there’s a literal swirl of orchestral stuff lighting up my brain every time I play the thing, I’d been having a devil of a time coming up with anything that I could actually build into a recognizable theme, let alone all the rest of the stuff I thought should go with it. The problem is the guitar part is very rhythmically dynamic, but it’s just arpeggiated chords. And ‘cool-sounding’ as those chords were, there was no real melody line to speak of. Until there was.

Anyone who’s had ear training can ‘hear’ that heading caption up there: do–sol do sol le sol-fa. It’s solfege for the initial phrase of a melody that was still echoing in my head at 6am last Monday, as I was awakened from a really deep sleep. I’d only gone to bed 3 hours earlier, because I’d pulled another late-nighter trying to find the rest of the music for Volo. Waking up with music still echoing in my head is normally the point where I think, “oh, that’s nice… but I’ll forget it by the time I can drag myself out of bed, get dressed, fire up the computer, make coffee…” And besides, I was on vacation, and not really interested in jumping out of bed at 6am after only three hours’ sleep.

So while trying to fall back asleep, I drowsily resigned myself to losing what sounded like another great theme, as I had in the past. But unlike in the past, because BET has drilled it into our heads for weeks now, without consciously choosing to, I also started doing what I’ve been doing now for a couple months every time I focus on a melody of any kind: I started “solfeging” it. Right away I recognized “do – sol – do” from one of the many warm-up exercises we’ve been doing in BET. That led to a few more notes… and a few more… and finally I had mapped out an entire musical thought, all while still laying comfortably, half asleep.

But the best part was this… I didn’t forget it. Because the inspiration had been translated into information – because I had an actual “sentence” to remember later – I was able to get the melody written down. But it gets better.

When I say “written down”, what I mean is that – for a change – I didn’t open up the piano roll and start drawing notes one-at-a-time, listening to the playback to get it right “by ear”. Instead, because the intervals were already built into the solfege information I’d kind of memorized, and because working through the various BET transcription assignments has helped erase the irrational (neuro-associative? Patty?) response I’ve always had to seeing musical notes on a staff, I was able to go about this in a completely different way, and it’s transcribed here.

I knew the tonic, I chord for this tune was E Maj (to paraphrase my cousin Alessandro’s disdain for the key of C Maj, on guitar, E Maj would be considered the Key of the Destitute) . That made do E, and do-sol-do became E-B-E. I thought hey, cool, I can just transcribe this using SONAR’s handy Staff View, and skip the whole piano roll thing – and that’s exactly what I did. In fact I was able to solfege my way through a lot of the string lines as well, transcribed here and here (please pardon SONAR’s choice of formatting in that first one).

To be sure, there was still a good deal of aural hunting-and-pecking involved – SONAR’s Staff View will enunciate the notes as you drag them around, just like Finale Notepad does, and that’s handy for recognizing accidentals. Also, SONAR doesn’t understand notated slurs, so it’s necessary to actually enter MIDI notes to simulate those; you’ll see these as strings of 32nd notes in the transcriptions (yes, MIDI gurus, there’s a better way to do this… one thing at a time). But even with all that, it’s hard to describe sitting down for the very first time and composing a complex piece of music by transcribing the notes on a staff rather than the functional equivalent of scribbling them in crayon, “by ear”.

Who am I kidding… it’s easy to describe: it was awesome!

I know – musicians out there are thinking, “yeah, big deal – you scribbled out a few lines of music.” To those folks who’ve forgotten what it’s like NOT to be able to do that without thinking, I’ll reiterate the discussion comment I left the other day for Lesson 11, which I’d forgotten about and Lyn reminded me of (thanks, Lyn!). The question was, “How has your music making changed as a result of all this ear training study?” My response: “It’s a bit like hearing Italian all one’s life. It’s a beautiful language even if you don’t have any idea what’s being said. Reaching a point where one just begins to understand what the words mean is … exciting.” I think this timely experience – a complete departure from the way I’ve pursued composition in the past – answers that question.

With all this done, I finally had the pieces I needed to put together at least a rough sketch of what Volo Flamenco will eventually sound like: click here to hear the first two-and-a-half minutes of what will be a seven-minute Allegro for Guitar and Cello. I’m still getting a handle on shaping synthesizer instruments, mixing, and all the rest, so the synthesized solo cello sounds a bit like an oboe, and the whole thing still sounds a little ‘thin’, but this should provide some sense of the amorphous symphony I hear in my mind’s ear, when all my physical ears can hear is me playing this piece on guitar. It’s not James Horner (uhm… I hope), but I think it’s pretty exciting.

When I first registered for Music Theory 101 at Berklee last year, just to see what the school was like, I watched the excellent series of videos recorded during John Mayer’s clinic there. At the end of the third one, after discussing and performing Stop This Train, he says, “There’s information and there’s inspiration, and I could not have written that song if I didn’t go to Berklee School of Music. That is a fact.” When I first watched that I thought it was just hype. It wasn’t, of course, and now I can see that both objectively and subjectively.

Song Form

In terms of the song form – one of the other topics we discussed this term in BETVolo Flamenco is fairly conventional. At least rhythmically. It begins with a 36-measure Intro, followed by an AA section, that is, two similar 8-measure statements. Each of these contains antecedent/consequent pairs of 4 measures each. This first AA section is the initial statement of the theme. That’s followed (after a small explosion effect) by two 32-bar AABB sections which follow the 32-measure form described in our Lesson 10 lecture: “four eight-measure phrases or statements”.

It’s nice that the song structure is pretty conventional rhythmically because harmonically… well, things get a little weird.

The 4-bar phrases mentioned above each have two measures in the I chord (tonic), which is E Maj, followed by two measures in a chord which – as it turns out – doesn’t really follow a conventional western musical harmony pattern. This threw me for a loop, and trying to figure it out in the context of I – IV – V type changes has been an education in its own right.

Here’s the second chord, followed by the rhythm of the arpeggio as played on guitar:

VI Chord Arpeggio

Ultimately, it turns out this second chord is rooted in the type of harmonic style that inspired this piece in the first place: flamenco. After a bit of Googling about flamenco style, I ran across some comments regarding the nature and history of flamenco. The Mojácar Flamenco site was particularly instructive. I discovered that flamenco has a harmonic ambiguity – at least as compared to the standard cadences of western music. I think this is probably due to Spain’s history as a “bridge” between eastern and western culture, having had strong cultural influences at different times from both Europe (España) and Persia (Al-Andalus). That’s a complex and fascinating subject in its own right, but it’s beyond the scope of this project.

The important thing is that this harmonic ambiguity inherent in flamenco style pretty much explains the confusion I had in identifying what I’ll just call  the “tension” chord in the second half of each 4-bar measure of the A section(s). As it turns out, the flamenco F chord is often played in exactly the way I’ve voiced it here. Notably, I originally composed this “by ear” through trial-and-error, not through any sort of instruction or study of flamenco guitar style – very much like the originators of flamenco itself, who typically were not classically trained. Er… like me.

The A sections shift back-and-forth between the tonic and this “tension” chord, which my mathematical left brain wants to call f(F Maj) – the flamenco of F Maj.

The B sections move to the IV7 and the rhythm changes considerably as the chords go from the IV7 to another ambiguous flamenco chord that can be heard as Am or FMaj7, depending on the melody and accompaniment which, as of right now, don’t yet exist. Eventually these will be antecedent/consequent pairs ‘spoken’ by the guitar and cello as a kind of musical conversation. I’m still working on that, as well as the remaining 200-odd measures in the piece. Fertile ground for continuing on with this in Orchestration 1.

Well, that’s about it. Assuming I don’t discover that the theme is actually unconsciously lifted from one of Horner’s Zorro scores, or from some old Morricone score I forgot about (always a danger when running with something one remembers from a dream), I’m extremely happy with it. And I could not have composed this in anywhere near the time I did – if at all – if I hadn’t taken Matt and Roberta’s Basic Ear Training course at Berkleemusic. That is a fact.

Cello Rondo

Audio Recording, Cello, Software, Video 1 Comment

Or… an amazing feat of musical, multimedia magic!

The video below was created by Ethan Winer a couple of years back. I plead no excuse for having missed it – I used to be a frequent visitor to Ethan’s site. Kind of speaks to the overall theme here, eh? Anyway, cellists will especially appreciate this. I’m surprised I’ve never heard of it being aired on (at least) PBS or something, as it’s been viewed something like half a million times on the web. It’s fascinating. Ethan describes it:

I thought it would be a fun project to write and record a pop tune using nothing but cellos, then make a video of the performance. The original goal was to keep everything entirely acoustic, with no recording studio effects or other processing. I quickly abandoned that idea to get more variety of sounds, but everything you hear was played entirely on my cello. There are 37 separate cello parts recorded on 23 tracks using 37 plug-in effects. I don’t know if I should be embarrassed to admit I spent hundreds of hours on this project, or proud to have paid so much attention to detail. You be the judge.

Uh…. proud, dude!!! Duh!!

Nice one, Ethan!!

Note: A Cello Rondo is Copyright © 2005 by Ethan Winer