Day 1: Untitled 4-11.1

I didn’t get to work on this as much as I wanted. But I did make a point to sit down and work on it, despite that it was highly inconvenient to find the time today.

Most of the work was done in the first 60 seconds of the track. I worked on the repetitiveness of the first section by developing the theme a bit. It still has a ways to go, but you can hear the difference in the second measure. There are a few more notes and some new melodic elements as well as some flourishes that were not there before. Overall, the intro section still has the same feeling and communicates the same idea, it just does it a bit differently now. It’s a bit more developed and is closer to music as opposed to a simple melody.

Click to play track -> Untitled 4-11.1

I also worked on phrasing.  This is harder to notice, especially with the program that I use. (The playback isn’t very precise, as the program is designed more for composition and less for mixing/production. But that’s another matter altogether.) The most notable difference is the adding of slurs and pedals. What this accomplishes is an increased reverberation of the notes played and in this case a heightened amount of dissonance. Not enough dissonance to be uncomfortable, but it does allow for a small build up and release. And the resolution has more impact when we resolve from varying levels of chaos. “Without dark, there is no light.”

And lastly, I changed a lot visually. When a musician plays a song, or learns a song, he/she reads it. They look at a page and see the notes and translate that into white and black keys and rhythms and what finger goes where and how quickly or slowly and so on. There are often many ways to represent the same thing on the page. Piano can be especially complex, too, as it is a type of instrument where more than 1 note can be played at once. And to add to it, there’s 2 lines of information, usually one for each hand. It compounds on itself and can get really complicated really fast. I’m not Chopin and the song isn’t complicated to the nth degree, but it can be interpreted and written a number of ways. I will probably continue to tweak it until the day I put my stamp on it.

I hope tomorrow comes with more time to work on it. I need to make some sweeping changes soon. I have transitions to write and themes to develop and….

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Untitled 4-11

Here’s the first cut of the first track. It’s rough. There’s gaps, there’s tempo and voicing issues. Right now it’s just notes on a page. There is very little in the realm of instruction to the pianist other than, “these are the notes”. There is no, play this loud, accent this or slur these notes.  It’s clearly a rough draft.  It’s merely the shape of the song that will come to be.

The biggest issue though, and the one that will be hardest for me to fix, is that I am not a pianist. I have no knowledge, or limited knowledge, on how one plays the piano. And because I don’t know, with any real authority, how it is played, It’s really just my best guess as to how to write for piano. My friend and mentor, J. Michael St. Clair, calls it unpianistic and it is a fair term.

Click to play track -> Untitled 4-11

The song is less unpianistic than most of my piano work. But how does one play it? How do the notes fall under the fingers? Do the dynamics and expression (loudness and how the music is played) make sense? There’s more to it, of course. There’s always more to it. “It depends,” is a term that I came to simultaneously love and hate. It all depends on the function, purpose and 1,000 other considerations. Simply saying, “I like it” isn’t enough for me. It might be plenty for myriad composers, but for me, it is not.

I ask myself, does the piece do what it is supposed to do? Does it address the question asked? Does it answer it? I set out to accomplish something with each song, not just write something that I like to hear. Moreover, I set out to learn and grow with each song I write. Music, like any art, is constantly growing and changing. And even if it wasn’t changing, there is still too much for any one person to learn. I refuse to just regurgitate over and over again what I’ve already learned. That’s not creation, it’s stagnation.

Since this song is for myself, I get to set my own completion criteria.

  1. I have to be happy with it on my terms. The first thing that I want to accomplish on this song is to learn. What makes a song pianistic? Why is a song written for piano vs saxophone?
  2. Next, I need to get feedback on how the song feels under hand. Is it easy to play? Do the chords fit? Are there areas of concern?
  3. Lastly, I want to step away from my typical style or chordally written music, or music that follows a predictable pattern. It’s safe and uninspired. And again, its not creation so much as it’s formula. It’s better than nothing, but it does nothing to help me grow.

It makes me nervous to work on this song. The song itself is dangerous, unexplored and completely foreign ground. I am certain that I’ll make many missteps, but it’s ok. There are lessons to be learned in failures. Still, I don’t want to fail. And I’m not the kind of armchair philosopher that vomits out pithy cliches like you learn more from failure, blah barf. Because you don’t. The only thing you learn better or in more abundance from failure is how to cope. You learn more from success.

That’s what I’m striving for here: success. The beauty of any art form is that I don’t have to stop until I’m happy. I can edit until the day I die. Just ask George Lucas. In all seriousness though, I get to say when it’s done. It will never be perfect, but it doesn’t need to be. I don’t think art ever is, really. I’m reminded of a quote, I apologize but I don’t remember who said it. “Style is what we do wrong.” If it were perfect, it would be boring and unimaginative. It’s the mistakes that make it ours.

Sweat

So what. I haven’t been around lately. I’ve been busy. Or have I?

A month and a half without posting busy? Ok. I’ve been lazy. Making excuses to not post, or create. Sure, I’ve written the odd song here and there. My wife bought me Notion for my iPad, which is a great program. It’s easy to use and pretty powerful for a portable. But, I haven’t really finished much. I feel like I’ve lost that working attitude of simply sitting down to work on music every day. I seem to be waiting for inspiration and that’s lame. I’ve got to get back in the groove. Work, work, work.

My wife also got me some business cards. Which makes it double important that I remember who I am-that I work hard every day and that inspiration, while great and magical, can’t be depended on. The GDC was last month. We made some good contacts and are still sifting through the opportunities that may or may not present themselves. I recently got a new game, (sorry I don’t have many details), which looks to be a good move for me. I’m branching out into new areas of developers. The future is good and I continue to trend up, but I’m dissatisfied lately. My wife say’s I’m cranky, albeit only in confirmation of my comment that “I’ve been cranky lately, haven’t I”? Now that I think about it, her yes was energetically emphatic…

Let’s a take a good honest look.

I have a bunch of excuses. And I have a bunch of “look at me, I’m doing so much”. I need to get back to the, “I need to do more,” attitude that I had last year. I’ve got a few games under my belt, I’m more experienced. But where am I in relation to where I want to be? I’m certainly not there. I don’t foster any ideas that success is the result of some prerequisite system-it’s not a checklist. But I still have a few fundamental needs that need to be met before I can say that I’m where I want to be.

I’m happy to be doing what I do. I need to do more of it though. Maybe I need to change my focus. Every line that I write in this post, I have to fight my brain which keeps saying things like, “Yeah but, you’re so busy with Comicon,” and, “When Isa goes to school.” But that’s bull shit. Success isn’t a list of things that I need to cross off. “Check.” Success is the habit of doing what needs to be done, consistently and without complaint. There is time. I just need to be a little uncomfortable if that’s what it takes.

Maybe the situation isn’t ideal. Maybe I don’t have 100% of the things that I think I need; I have more than enough though. I have more than a great many people who find success. I’m just making excuses. Excuses are the enemy of success. I have a habit of making them, and I’m very good. But I refuse to continue any more. I’ll have to replace that habit with another one. That habit has to be work. Hard work. And I’m going to sweat. It’s not going to be easy, and staying focused on a long term goal is tricky. But I’ll focus on the evidence of my hard work. Every day, no excuses.

Tomorrow I’ll post a song that I’m working on. And I’ll keep a daily log of the changes and work that I’ve done to it. When I finish, it’s time for a new one. Not having a “job” is an excuse, and I won’t make it.

GDC

The Game Developers Conference is kind of a big deal for game developers. It is ultimate event for those of us lucky enough to make a living by creating video games. And today was Day 1.

I have 5 teams, at last count, that have games exclusively featuring my music. Not to mention that Double Veh Audio Studios is among them. I couldn’t make it to the conference this year, but having so many people representing me there is exciting. I have high hopes that the next 5 days will bring with it opportunities that may have otherwise eluded me and my business partner. At the very least, our music, sound effects and voice over will be in front of the right people. These are the kind of people that have games and all sorts of projects that can increase our exposure.

I wish I knew more about what is happening. But, I’ll have to save that kind of excitement for the post after the event. I promise to compile the notes I get and make a full report as soon as I can. In the meantime, enjoy some of the music going to this year’s GDC.

Ambient 

Synth-Pop 

Classical 

New Works

They’re coming. Amid a providential cascade of recently exciting news, I have again been inspired to put cursor to staff and create pleasing sounds to my aural receptors. It’s late. The point is the same though, I got good news and I started a new work. It will eventually be about 10-15 minutes long. It’s lonely and dark and might make you a bit uncomfortable. In short, it’s my forte.

I had a brief conversation with someone I admire. It turned out really well and it was easy to start the song. It’s really intimate and matches the project parameters really well, even though it’s very early and many changes will undoubtedly be made. I have a really solid start on this one, which is a good thing, because I have a suspicion that it will turn out to be markedly trickier than previous projects. It’s not a game, and that alone is a hurdle for me.

I’m going to work at a good pace on this one, but I don’t want to rush it. I might stretch it out to 2 weeks to finish with everything. But we’ll see. The future is what it is, and plans tend to change as it makes its way toward us.

I Need to Write Something

I’ve been focusing too much in one area. Doing the “work” work because it’s easier and it’s new and refreshing. But what I really need today is to write some music. Maybe even just work on something I haven’t finished yet. I feel like I haven’t been creative in weeks. I’ve been busy, sure. And I’ve been making great things happen. But I haven’t made music. It’s been too long.

If I think about it, I’m wrong. I wrote a song recently. It wasn’t great, but it was fast and dirty. And thinking more, I’ve started a few more. So in the past month I’ve probably written (started more like it) 4 songs. That’s way down for me. I typically start (and usually finish a draft version) once every day or two. And I’ve only done 4 this month. Ugh. I feel dirty. Like the grime of life is mucking up my talent. Maybe that’s why I’ve been taking so many showers? Who knows. I’m maybe mixing metaphors.

I’m not like the typical musician. I don’t pick up an instrument and let the music flow out of me. I don’t get inspired very often. And when I do, it’s never as easy as playing the guitar while I belt out an awesome song that is 10% away from simple perfection. I get an idea and I sit down at my computer, turn on Sibelius, meticulously build my staves and choose my instruments, work out tempo, rhythm and time signature, edit the meta data and note by note enter the main melody and/or chord progression. The first pass at the shape of the song begins to take form about 1-2 hours after I have the idea. In short, it is work. Every single time it is work. There’s a rhythm to it definitely, but it is work.

It’s like carving a sculpture out of granite. You make a stroke, take a step back and see how it fits in the grand scheme and make another stroke only to begin again. My music is like that. I hear it in my head then put the notes down and listen for accuracy. I’m pretty good at being able to “see” the music, but I still check every measure. It is an arduous and meticulous process. As an example, my Main Titles Track (above) has 16 staves. Each measure of each staff has an average of 8 notes. And there is 99 measures. That’s 12,672 individual notes that I input one at a time. And that’s not even including the articulations, dynamics, expression or any of the other modifiers I use.  You begin to get a picture of the work that goes in to these tracks. It’s work. This song in particular, I had bursts of inspiration. It was relatively “easy”, meaning that every time I sat down I knew what I wanted and all I had to do was work it out and get it on the page. Still, this song took me a week to write and 2 months to mix. And that’s a song that was relatively easy, albeit a large song on a very large scale. This one is pretty deep.

A few measures from Main Titles

Some tracks are much faster and some take even longer. But the point that I’m making is that it is always work. Even when I rock through it in two days, it’s an exercise in focus and persistence. The song below took me 2 days to compose and mix. There was only 5 staves on that one. Logically, it should have taken me 1/3 the time as the other track, but it took me less than 3% of the time. Why? The answer is that adding an instrument adds a multitude of new considerations. The song below is just brass: Trumpets, French Horn, Tombone and Tube, all with similar tone qualities. I loathe to say that this makes it easier, but composing for 1 instrument group is definitely less intricate work than arranging 4 different instrument groups. Even so, there is much to consider.

I suppose my summation of today’s thoughts is this: music is a muscle that I flex and when I use it less it atrophies, as would any muscle.

I promised this blog would be layperson friendly, so here are some definitions written without the aid of a textbook.

  • Measure: a unit of music consisting of several beats. If you listen to a song, and count along, eg 1-2-3-4, the 1 is the start of a new measure.
  • Staff: (pl staves) a system of separating different instruments. It’s typical use is 1 per instrument (2 for piano and select other instrument). A staff consists of many measures.
  • Articulation: how a note is played. Short, long, hard, soft. There are many types of articulations, some specific to each instrument type.\
  • Dynamics: how loudly a note is played. Loud or quiet. Especially in contrast to other instruments.
  • Expression: how a phrase is played. This is harder to break down in words, but if you listen to a song, you may feel a certain way, sad or energetic, this is largely due to the expression. Perhaps a phrase gets louder and then softer, or it continues to diminish into nothing.
  • Tempo: how quick a song is. Fast or slow.
  • Rhythm: The way the note are played in relation to the time signature. Are they played on the downbeat of off? Is it quick quick slow or slow slow slow slow? The easiest instrument to hear rhythm is the drums. It is the music without the tones.
  • Time Signature: how the song is counted. 1-2-3, 1-2-3 OR 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, OR even 1-2-3-4-5-6. The time signature is very important in determining how a song will feel.