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Writing music that people can actually play...
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Octahedra



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PostPosted: Sun May 31, 2009 4:05 am    Post subject: Writing music that people can actually play... Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

Following up something Howard said in the Silence topic...

mosc wrote:
In electronic music there is often nearly complete independence of voices, especially when pads are used.


In live music, all the performers need to hear each other and feel the rhythm and harmony of the piece, so they can do the right thing at the right time. Composers have worked with this in mind for centuries. Some of the more edgy modern classical stuff is very hard to play because these rules are broken. Now we've got sequencers and multitrack recording, any amateur idiot like me can write 'unplayable' music and get it recorded perfectly! Smile

It seems to me that for thousands of years, almost all music has been based on the idea of writing a line of music for each performer. Partly for cost reasons, as the supply of musicians is limited and most can only play one note at a time. Partly because so many composers (especially in the old days of counterpoint) have assumed that it's A Good Thing to avoid ambiguity so you can hear, from each instrument, something like a melody.

Whereas... for over 4 years now I've been using a technique I call post-orchestration. It's totally dependent on sequencing and polyphonic synths. Basically I write a sequence of chords and flesh it out with melodies, bass etc. using just one synth sound for the whole thing. When this stage is done I can tell how well the music is working - I might have already written as many as 90% of the notes that will be in the finished version. Only then do I start to add timbral variation by assigning the existing notes to different instrument parts.

Here's an MP3 of one I finished recently - Harmonograph 1. Another thing I did with this one was to ignore most of the bar lines - if anyone actually guessed that the time signature was 5/8, I'd be Shocked Shocked Shocked Surprised well-done Hail the Master.

I've also included a screenshot of the piano roll score so you can get a better idea what's going on. It includes guide tracks for the acoustic instruments. Sorry the colour code isn't great!..

Anyone else want to tell us about how you've used electronic music to go beyond the old limitations of performance?

Gordon


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gordonjay



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PostPosted: Sun May 31, 2009 5:05 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

one time i tried to program the Faerie's Aire and Death Waltz but it turned out to be a fool's errand.

but yes i have made much mis-use of the MIDI sequencer in ableton live. i love making drum patterns at the fastest possible clip, and layering hits so that rather than hearing each one, your mind processes the wave of hits as a single sound. lots of fun!
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Octahedra



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PostPosted: Sun May 31, 2009 5:10 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

gordonjay wrote:
one time i tried to program the Faerie's Aire and Death Waltz but it turned out to be a fool's errand.


Hehe! Release the penguins! Very Happy

Gordon
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gordonjay



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PostPosted: Sun May 31, 2009 5:12 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

are you a fan of Dan Deacon? he does this kind of thing sometimes. i read an interview about his last album, on which he wrote parts for piano that were too fast to play, so he transcribed them onto player piano rolls - but it turned out that it was too fast for the player piano as well, so he had to split it out into two separate parts to record.
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Octahedra



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PostPosted: Sun May 31, 2009 5:24 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

gordonjay wrote:
are you a fan of Dan Deacon? he does this kind of thing sometimes. i read an interview about his last album, on which he wrote parts for piano that were too fast to play, so he transcribed them onto player piano rolls - but it turned out that it was too fast for the player piano as well, so he had to split it out into two separate parts to record.


Don't think I'd heard of him, but I'll have a look now you mentioned him - thanks. I know Conlon Nancarrow did that kind of thing with player pianos.

Gordon
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dewdrop_world



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PostPosted: Sun May 31, 2009 11:20 am    Post subject: Re: Writing music that people can actually play... Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

Octahedra wrote:
It seems to me that for thousands of years, almost all music has been based on the idea of writing a line of music for each performer. Partly for cost reasons, as the supply of musicians is limited and most can only play one note at a time. Partly because so many composers (especially in the old days of counterpoint) have assumed that it's A Good Thing to avoid ambiguity so you can hear, from each instrument, something like a melody.

Whereas... for over 4 years now I've been using a technique I call post-orchestration. It's totally dependent on sequencing and polyphonic synths. Basically I write a sequence of chords and flesh it out with melodies, bass etc. using just one synth sound for the whole thing. When this stage is done I can tell how well the music is working - I might have already written as many as 90% of the notes that will be in the finished version. Only then do I start to add timbral variation by assigning the existing notes to different instrument parts.


"Post orchestration" is a new name for a process used by nearly all composers writing for Western orchestra from the early classic period to the present day (with the exception of avant-garde composers trying deliberately to create new, "superhuman" textures). Nobody, except maybe Mozart, would write directly into the full orchestral score. Most composers work out the composition in a short score first (three or four staves) and then expand it into the full instrumentation. (Mozart is an "exception" only in the sense that he could keep the short score in his head -- but the difference is not that he didn't use short score, just that he didn't write it down.)

Beethoven's sketchbooks should dispel the notion that composers think in terms of lines for instruments. And, the immense amount of disposable light opera music in the late 19th century, predominantly organized around melody and chordal accompaniment, casts doubt on the idea that counterpoint is the driving force in (Western) music for thousands of years. (Western counterpoint dates back to the Notre Dame composers starting with Leonin, not quite 1000 years ago.)

Not to discount the appeal of counterpoint, but many of the greatest orchestral passages have less to do with lines that make sense as independent musical entities, and more to do with coordinating forces into a larger-scale effect, a kind of flesh and blood additive synthesis. Ravel's scoring of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition is chock full of them... not to mention Debussy.

hjh

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Octahedra



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PostPosted: Sun May 31, 2009 2:57 pm    Post subject: Re: Writing music that people can actually play... Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

dewdrop_world wrote:
"Post orchestration" is a new name for a process used by nearly all composers writing for Western orchestra from the early classic period to the present day


Apologies if it looked like I was trying to make my idea sound more important or revolutionary than it really is. I wrote about it because it's important to me personally, and I may have thrown in some generalisations that suggest I've misunderstood other people's methods. Sorry about that and thanks for your explanations.

This post-orchestration idea is really a detail of my workflow for slow pieces based on chord sequences.

dewdrop_world wrote:
Nobody, except maybe Mozart, would write directly into the full orchestral score. Most composers work out the composition in a short score first (three or four staves) and then expand it into the full instrumentation.


I wasn't trying to suggest that composers are going straight to the full score; it's really about how they get there. I know they would start with a few lines of music as you say (or something like solo piano) as a basis, but before they go much further they need to know what kind of orchestra they're going to get. This is the point where they start working timbrally, and worrying about the capabilities of certain instruments.

What I was really trying say is that my technique involves delaying the choice of instruments for much longer, and that it's the synth + sequencer environment that makes it practical. By the time I start programming and choosing the instrument sounds, I've already got nearly all the notes written although I don't yet know which instrument will play each note. If I decide at any point to assign 3 simultaneous notes to the same instrument part, most of my synths will handle it - it's not like being told to write for an orchestra with only one horn or whatever.

I just like working this way, and the results seem a little bit different from other things I've heard.

Gordon
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dewdrop_world



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PostPosted: Mon Jun 01, 2009 5:52 am    Post subject: Re: Writing music that people can actually play... Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

Octahedra wrote:
Apologies if it looked like I was trying to make my idea sound more important or revolutionary than it really is. I wrote about it because it's important to me personally...


Thanks for clarifying -- it wasn't clear to me. And I do think this is a valuable post -- with electronics it's very tempting to think of the instrumentation first, leading to the classic problem of tweaking sounds as a way to procrastinate making music.

Octahedra wrote:
I wasn't trying to suggest that composers are going straight to the full score; it's really about how they get there. I know they would start with a few lines of music as you say (or something like solo piano) as a basis, but before they go much further they need to know what kind of orchestra they're going to get.


Thinking of the instrumentation while developing the composition is more of a concern for chamber groups than for the typical symphony orchestra. Even then, good orchestrators (and I don't consider myself one) know a lot of sleight-of-hand to get unexpected sounds out of limited resources. The woodwind quintet, for instance, is completely heterogeneous (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon) but a master can write for it so that the listener isn't always sure who's playing what.

Octahedra wrote:
This is the point where they start working timbrally, and worrying about the capabilities of certain instruments.


This is a very interesting point. Modernism gave us the (utopian) ideal of the artist's unfettered imagination (and even Beethoven complained, when working on a violin concerto, complained of having to think too much about "that blasted violin" instead of the music!). There is always a tension between musical imagination and the available technology, and I'm not sure that's undesirable.

Octahedra wrote:
I just like working this way, and the results seem a little bit different from other things I've heard.


Indeed. Too much electronic music is 90% technology, 10% musical thinking.

James

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bachus



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PostPosted: Sat Nov 28, 2009 7:25 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

Octahedra wrote:
It seems to me that for thousands of years, almost all music has been based on the idea of writing a line of music for each performer.

AFAIK that is historically incorrect. Counterpoint first arose in the late medieval period making it hundreds not thousands of years old.

Octahedra wrote:
Partly because so many composers (especially in the old days of counterpoint) have assumed that it's A Good Thing to avoid ambiguity so you can hear, from each instrument, something like a melody.

I find that conceptually pejorative and would rephrase this as: During the period in which counterpoint was dominate composers chose, for aesthetic reasons, to structure music as if it were composed of and driven by independent lines. But there is important historic context here. Before the rise of tonality the line was the driving force. After the rise of tonality, as exemplified by Bach, the driving force was root progression and though the lines remained independent they all danced in accord with the (figured) base which, as abstract framework, lay beneath them. Very often in counterpoint classes today (well several generations ago) one is provided an explicit figured base and one fits the contrapuntal lines to that. Sounds rather like the technique you describe here:

Octahedra wrote:
... Basically I write a sequence of chords and flesh it out with melodies, bass etc. using just one synth sound for the whole thing.


except that you are not concerned with root progression, eh?

I take an approach that is similar to pre tonal counterpoint but am unavoidably sensitive to tonaly's presence in my nervous system. An example is here:
http://electro-music.com/forum/post-18122.html#18122.
scrole down to Butterflies, Flowers and a Kite.mp3

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Octahedra



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PostPosted: Sun Nov 29, 2009 4:57 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

I'm sorry I overgeneralised in my original post. I've been making more of a conscious effort in the last couple of years to learn about chords and harmonies. I haven't tried so hard with counterpoint (although I reckon I got lucky with my (post?)minimalist piece Water Cycle).

bachus wrote:
During the period in which counterpoint was dominate composers chose, for aesthetic reasons, to structure music as if it were composed of and driven by independent lines. But there is important historic context here. Before the rise of tonality the line was the driving force. After the rise of tonality, as exemplified by Bach, the driving force was root progression and though the lines remained independent they all danced in accord with the (figured) base which, as abstract framework, lay beneath them.


Thanks for putting it so clearly. That' something I'll have to think about next time I hear this kind of music. Smile

bachus wrote:
Very often in counterpoint classes today (well several generations ago) one is provided an explicit figured base and one fits the contrapuntal lines to that. Sounds rather like the technique you describe here:

Octahedra wrote:
... Basically I write a sequence of chords and flesh it out with melodies, bass etc. using just one synth sound for the whole thing.


except that you are not concerned with root progression, eh?


Actually I do tend to keep an eye on the root, although I'm not all that strict about it. In the last year or two I've been using some fairly weird chords in between the usual major/minor triads. I think David Cope's book, Techniques of the Contemporary Composer, is a good thing to have around. One thing he explains is how to find the root of any chord.

But in the end I'm really judging it by ear, and as I listen to more dissonant music now than I ever did, it's coming through in my own work. of course even ordinary triads can get edgy when used in a different context from usual. Here's the main chord sequence from my track Dampflokomotiv; at the end it 'resolves' from D-flat-major to D-minor. I found that idea by accident when I was playing around at the keyboard, and eventually decided to keep it that way! Twisted Evil

bachus wrote:
I take an approach that is similar to pre tonal counterpoint but am unavoidably sensitive to tonaly's presence in my nervous system. An example is here:
http://electro-music.com/forum/post-18122.html#18122.
scrole down to Butterflies, Flowers and a Kite.mp3


I think that's really clever towards the end where the left-hand accompaniment disappears but the melody still implies what the harmonies ought to be. And all the way through it sounds as if there's more than there really is. That's a skill I've never really learned - as soon as I got hold of a synth capable of doing the 'wall of sound' thing, I've tended towards that side of things.

In the final (5th) movement of Harmonograph, which has exactly the same chords all the way through as the first movement I posted at the top of this thread, there's lots of canon (the main synth sequence repeated on a different instrument, delayed by a semiquaver or two or three) but I didn't actually sit down and write any counterpoint at all. But I must have another go some time...

Gordon


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bachus



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PostPosted: Sun Nov 29, 2009 6:09 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

Octahedra wrote:
...I think David Cope's book, Techniques of the Contemporary Composer, is a good thing to have around. One thing he explains is how to find the root of any chord...


I think Cope's is one of the better minds involved in computer composition and I have several of his books, though not that one. I would like to point out that a universal algorithm for finding chord roots was developed by Paul Hindemith prior to 1937 and first published in his work The Craft Of Composition Vol. 1. In Cope's book does he give a source for the algorithm he presents?

BTW I enjoyed Harmonograph and especially its modal ambience.

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Octahedra



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PostPosted: Sun Nov 29, 2009 8:23 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

bachus wrote:
...a universal algorithm for finding chord roots was developed by Paul Hindemith prior to 1937 and first published in his work The Craft Of Composition Vol. 1. In Cope's book does he give a source for the algorithm he presents?


I just had a look, and it turns out his source was Hindemith. I found a pdf of Hindemith's original (translated into English) at http://unitus.org/FULL/HindCMCpp54-131,+trist.pdf so will have to have a deeper look into that when I find the time.

Cope's Techniques of the Contemporary Composer is really an ideas book - basic introductions to a lot of different ways of composing.

It's interesting that you described the effect of Harmonograph 1 as modal rather than tonal. I started with a chord sequence that was on-the-whole tonal, and then kept throwing in ambiguities until it was just about to break. Only then did I look for groups of notes within the mass that seemed connected, and assign them to particular instrument parts.

I think I may have made the chord progressions weaker and less decisive by having a slightly broken-up melody where it's not obvious what is the beginning and end of a phrase. Also the bass doesn't try too hard to find the root of the current chord, even though I always knew what the root was going to be. The tonic chord usually only comes up at the very start of each phase; it isn't reinforced by frequent use and the strongest resolutions to it are well over half way in, by which time the key has already changed twice anyway.

I like to think of it as a kind of abused tonality, and if it comes across as modal, that's cool. Smile

Gordon
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bachus



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PostPosted: Sun Nov 29, 2009 8:50 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

Octahedra wrote:

I like to think of it as a kind of abused tonality, and if it comes across as modal, that's cool. Smile

Gordon


There are numerous definitions of tonality. In academic circles I think it is used fairly restrictively to indicate music in which phrase structures are most often defined by motions from V -> I and extensive use of applied dominants. Anyway that is what I mean when I use that term. I'll gladly take other suggestions.

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