Accelerating the Creative Process

Probably the trickiest thing about composing music is bridging the gaps between different sections or melodic themes in the piece. You start out with a few basic ideas and rough plan of how the music will sound, but once you get the basic ideas down (opening, introduction of main theme, secondary theme, recapitulation and the end), you find that it amounts to not even half the final work - and it is all in pieces. The bridging process is especially hard when the music has to actually sound interesting (non-repetitive, yet coherent) and meet particular time constraints (in more ways than one).

Like composing and scoring for a short film produced from start to finish within 48 hours.

Yes, I took on one very interesting challenge when I joined a team called Cinesoma as part of the 48-hour film competition, to provide the music to a film none of us knew about - until the Friday evening when it all started.

So from that moment, we learned we had to produce a Romance (a genre that many dread), which had to include a rock as a prop, a character best described as an 'exaggerator' called Alex Puddle, and the line of dialogue, "It doesn't fit." And the finished work had to be handed in by 7pm on the Sunday night - 48 hours after it began.

The Friday night consisted of the brainstorming, when the plot was developed along with a script / storyboard. It was then that the creative vision was comunicated to me, so that I knew where my music was to come in and of what nature it was to be. In hindsight, I count it as a blessing (from a timing point-of-view) that since our film was a sci-fi romance, the music could come in from the last scene, with a sci-fi-sounding drone provided for the background for the rest of the film beforehand.

This last scene, in general terms, was intended to convey a sense of pathos until the scientist and 'Lilith' were reunited. From there it was tender, warm romance through the remainder of the scene and final credits. With that in mind, I was able to get some much-needed sleep at home before the day of solid composing ahead of me. This provided a great opportunity for me to toss around ideas in my head - a way to listen to a virtual performance so that the music can develop.

This is a key point - probably most of my ideas come to me when I can step back from the mechanics of the work itself and do something else as a bit of a 'breather'. I find many of my musical ideas tend to develop while walking to work, for instance.

As I mentioned, I declared the Saturday as Composition Day, while the Sunday was Production Day. The entire piece - melody and harmony - had to be finalised from start to finish before I could return home for sleep. Knowing this, I adopted a similar workflow as I did for my earlier piece, "Cathedral": Just get the melodic themes and harmony down using only the essential instruments, re-orchestrate for repetitions as necessary (to keep things fresh), and refine as necessary.

Easier said than done.

Remember how the toughest part is bridging the gap? After the second repetition of the romantic theme, something different had to fit between that and the recapitulation of the romantic theme to the conclusion. Finding the secondary theme was easy enough (no, I didn't try to model it on Greensleeves); it was connecting the reinforcement of that theme to the recapitulation. In a dramatic manner. (I prefer to make my music dramatic.) To put it shortly, it took three revisions to get the progression sounding coherent, which involved removing the 3/4 against 6/8 timing, and simplifying the harmony to fit more within the base scale of D-flat.

Sunday, or 'Production Day' as I called it, involved turning the composition into music and making it sound good. Fortunately, composing in Sibelius means that note velocities are adjusted in the exported MIDI file to make the performance sound as naturally expressive as possible. The trouble is that this doesn't fully apply to instruments where the volume can be controlled during the course of a note - in other words, anything apart from piano or percussion.

My solution was to record it myself, using my EWI 4000-S. Think of it as an electronic clarinet that also functions as a MIDI controller. What I have found, when trying to transfer the nuances into MIDI data that the computer / Cubase interprets, is that aftertouch is ignored. (Aftertouch is a way to adjust the velocity/loudness of a note that is already playing.) Instead, to get this to work I had to keep note-on velocities constant and link the breath sensor to channel volume. This means that any staves / channels containing two instruments (e.g. Oboe I and Oboe II) have to be separated so that every instrument is on its own channel.

Recording presented its challenges, thanks to being relatively new to playing woodwind. Obviously, I had little time to practice, so I admittedly had to take shortcuts. Recording parts of a track separately improved the odds of getting an error-free recording, rather than to strive for perfection from start to finish. For trickier passages the success criteria had to be relaxed somewhat, so the classic technique of correcting wrong notes after recording was employed. However the complicating factor was the breath control - that (and the timing) had to be perfect, since this was separate from the actual notes. No aftertouch, remember?

Anyway, the music was included on the film's soundtrack and we made the 7pm deadline. I'm proud to have worked with a great team, and was happy to celebrate when our film was shown on the Big Screen in our heats. By the way, the soundtrack is now available below, and also in the Music section.

Some behind-the-scenes photos can be seen on fellow team member, Roger Wong's blog.

So this month I am in the process of composing a new piece to meet a tight deadline of June 30th, where selected works will be presented at a music festival. The down-side is that none of my existing pieces (whether complete or in development) are suitable, given the criteria of being up to 15 minutes long and for small chamber arrangements (as opposed to an orchestra). So it truly was a challenge coming up with a concept to inspire the music - considering that the target length is in the 10-15 minute range. Now that that is sorted, I'm back at the hard part of developing the themes for the stages of the work and filling in the gaps. The saving grace is that there are fewer instruments to write for, so I can use my experience on 48 Hours as a guide for timing.

I have to say that it was also inspirational to attend Friday's NZSO concert, featuring Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" - which turned out to be the highlight of the evening (despite the irritating flurry of coughing around the auditorium in between movements). Lindberg's Clarinet Concerto was interesting from a more technical point of view, especially considering the radical techniques that its performer, Kari Kriikku, used to explore new frontiers of possibility.

The first few movements of Symphonie Fantastique were very interesting to hear, given the contrasts to the stirring fourth movement (Marche au supplice) that I have heard before. Mental note: Must get the CD. The William Tell Overture was a natural crowd-pleaser to start the evening and induce some foot-tapping, though the pace of the final section made me glad I was not one of the violinists. Overall, the concert provided another opportunity for my ideas to develop, while providing a few hours of enjoyment.

Anything to help fill in those gaps.