Next Time You Are Lying In A Beechwood

On Saturday evening the Hertford Symphony Orchestra will be premiering a new work which they commissioned from me last year (Details on the concert here). They have been working on it since February and tomorrow I am talking to some local young musicians about the composition of the piece before they sit in on the rehearsal so thought I might share the notes I’ve made on it here.

The piece is 10 minutes long and will be the overture for the concert, coming before Stephen Hough‘s performance of Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony. The concert will be conducted by Tom Hammond.

Programme Note

The title comes from a memorable section of M.B.V Roberts’ Biology: A Functional Approach in which the author instructs the reader to look up at the canopy next time they happen to be lying in a beech wood and to notice the condition of ‘leaf mosaic’ where leaves in different levels of the canopy fill the negative spaces in order to collect all the available light and thereby create a complex three-dimensional tessellation. Leaf mosaic makes the area beneath a beech canopy very dark and sparse of flora.
Tessellation is a key idea in this piece, most obviously in the second subject. Each wind instrument is given a small number of notes which, played sporadically, interlock to form a melody with contrapuntal lines which is shared between the entire section and with no instrument playing the entire melody – thus it only appears when all the instruments play together.
Similarly, in the first subject, the overall impression is of great chords. However, each instrument is given only a single note that exists with its own dynamic shape and rhythmic placement: the chords emerge from this almost contrapuntal texture of long notes when all the notes of that chord are sounding simultaneously. Just as the large impenetrable canopy consists of layers of small leaves, so the thick-textured chords are made of many single notes.
Another theme in the piece is the falling whole tone. All the melodies begin with a falling whole tone and harmonically the piece begins centred on an E natural and ends on a D natural.

Ideas

The first idea for this piece piece came a couple of years ago and were not intended for this piece but for a 10-minute piece for orchestra that I wanted to write but for which I had not one to write. In the end, the original idea for this piece was discarded but some of the main harmonies in Next Time You Are Lying In A Beech Wood come from that and the ending includes a version of my original sketches for the other piece.

The material I am referring to is a pair of chords which are made out of a stack of alternating 5ths and 6ths – one with Major 6ths, the other with Minor 6ths – each having the topmost note in common as a sort of pivot.

Instead of simply using these two chords, I decided to place them a few minutes apart and fill in the gap with a sequence of chords. Each chord is very similar but one note is changed each time until the notes of the first chord and completely replaced by the notes of the second chord (with the exception of the topmost E).

example 1

A similar process happens at the end of the piece.

The second idea I had came to me on a train. My first thoughts were to form a melody which rose from high to low and was shared by the strings so that each instrument would only play one note of the melody – a kind of hocket. But, instead of starting with the double basses, as might be expected, it would start on the lowest notes of the violins and move up to the highest notes of the cellos, as a sort of visual pun – the sound moving from left to right instead of right to left as usual.

The melodic idea was this:

example 2

This melody became the second subject of this new piece for HSO, though along the way I changed my mind about giving it to the strings. Instead the woodwinds, and later the brass, play this, sharing the notes between the players.

eg.

Flute 1 plays F and Eb

Oboe 1 plays Eb and D

Clarinet 1 plays G and D

To expand on this, I verticalised the pitches of the melody into a chord and then extended it upwards and downwards by continuing the sequence of intervals symmetrically:

example 3

From this larger chord I was able to extract various counterpoints to the main melody by turning the chord back into melodic strands. Here is the melody with its first counterpoint. As you can see each note is numbered:

example 4

Then, I created a sequence which, starting with one note, gradually becomes stretched by the addition of further notes from the melody and then shortened again until all the notes of the melody have been heard in sequence:

1, 1, 12321, 1234321, 23432, 2345432, 12345, 123454321, 23456 … etc

When all the notes have been heard, a new section begins.

Note that the melody begins on F and ends on Eb, a tone lower. When this note is reached, we hear it repeated – like at the beginning of the sequence – which facilitates a harmonic change centring on Eb.

One of the recurring ideas in the piece is the falling whole tone – we hear it with the change of harmony mentioned above. Also, in the first section where all the melodic materials feature a falling tone. The piece begins with a pedal on E natural and by the end of the piece we have arrived at D natural – another falling tone.

Construction

Having these two main ideas, I decided to use a Sonata form, though with some differences to the classical form. Sonata form features an exposition made of a first and second subject with contrasting harmonies followed a development section of transitional harmony to lead back to the original key with a recapitulation of both themes.

Here is a summary of the structure:

EXPOSITION

First Subject: Long, swelling chords built out of 5ths and 6ths, centring on E, gradual crescendo from ppp to fff with some hints of the second subject.

Second Subject: New harmony and contrapuntal texture. Still includes 5ths but the 6ths are replaced by Major and Minor 2nds. A new focus on Eb and F.

Development: Picking up the harmony from the second subject, scurrying strings become more and more violent before the swelling chords of the first subject are reintroduced on top and its melodic material returns, now as a heraldic trombone solo.

Recapitulation: Strings play the ‘theme’ of the second subject but gradually this is smudged and turned into long swelling chords like the first subject. Wind and Brass have a very slow rendition of the second subject but then the harmony changes back to 5ths and 6th but overlaid with melodic fragments from the second subject. A short series of swelling chords brings the piece to a close, now resting on a D7 chord (to preclude the Beethoven Concerto in G Major).

 

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8

Analogue Heaven Day 5: The Last.

Today was a sharing day! A few people came in to listen to what we created and we got the chance to reflect on the experience of using the analogue equipment. I think one of the most positive outcomes was discovering a way of composing that doesn’t require sitting and writing. I suppose that’s true of making any electronic music. However, unlike when making a piece on a computer, when using the analogue synthesisers you become a performer, but a performer with the creative tools of a composer which means you’re absolutely in control of the results.

Also, certainly for me, where you would normally draw on automation curves over a track in Logic, I was controlling the filters of the synthesiser live by moving dials very slowly. This creates an interesting relationship between your imagined theory of what the filtering will do and the reality of hearing these effects live as you control them. What might have been a straight line or a standard curve in automation might become a gradual adjustment which lingers on a particular frequency and then moves on because the performer/composer finds an interesting sonority. It feels like a very natural way of making sounds.

Another positive result of the project was, of course, the process of learning how to use these instruments. The complicated patching systems and unknown dials which can be quite intimidating at first have now been given an identity and I have some to implement the effects they produce. I was also very impressed by the sounds of the Korg MS20 and the Doepfer A100, which both make gorgeous, rich, sonorous sounds – quite unlike any of the digital synths on Logic. Hopefully I’ll have the chance to use them for other electronic pieces I make in the future!

Well I think it’s time now to show the results! I haven’t got a recording of Oded’s piece but here is Declan’s:

And here is mine:

7

Analogue Heaven Day 4

Today the three of us made our pieces.

Yesterday Declan recorded a 40 minute track of samples using the Korg MS20. Unlike the sounds I made, his are mainly short, high pitched with strong attacks. He’s been working in Logic to cut and splice this track into tiny samples which he’s used to make a spiky piece.

Oded discovered the 3rd synth in the room – an Oberheim. This is a keyboard controlled synthesiser which makes lovely rich, luscious sounds. He filled the room with a taste of the ’80s. Like Declan and I he recorded sounds into the computer, this time using Ableton Live to edit them using tape-style techniques like cutting, splicing, multi-tracking and reversing.

Oded at the Oberheim #analoguesynth #oberheim #analogueheaven #colab #colabulous

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As we couldn’t use the tape machine to record any more, I transferred my tape loop onto cassette-tape, recording it 4 times at slightly different speeds for 15 minutes each. Yesterday Nye also made a tiny little tape loop out of some old tape which had spoken word on it. Like the technique I used on Day 1, Nye cut this into tiny fragments, shuffled them and then taped them together into a loop, however he didn’t put any leader tape between the fragments so the result is a continuous sound rather than a pulsation. I also recorded this loop onto cassette at 4 different speeds to use in my piece.

With all my materials ready I started to construct my piece. I recorded the cassette tape into the computer and used basic amplification and panning automation on Logic to control the envelopes of the sounds. I lined up the 4 versions of my piano loop so that they start together and then go out of phase, which creates a shimmering effect. This, combined with the rather charming fact that the tape machine doesn’t play at an absolutely constant speed (resulting in little detunings and imperfections in the loop) makes for quite a nice texture which blends well with the interference-beats created by slightly out of tune drones. Unfortunately the tape created a bit of high-frequency hiss which I cancelled by adjusting the EQ in Logic. With hindsight I may have slightly over done this as I feel the piano sound could be slightly brighter.

Tomorrow we’re going to share our pieces!

6

Analogue Heaven Day 3

Nye came back today and even he couldn’t fix the tape machine. But we had a solution. Unfortunately it meant breaking our analogue-only rule and we had to use a computer to record all our sounds. However we only used it to do things that could have been done if the tape machine had been working – so: recording, splicing, reversing…

As we had now covered the basic tape editing techniques of the ’50s it was now time to learn more about the possibilities that came with the development of the voltage controlled synthesiser. Nye showed us the Doepfer A-100 analogue modular synth which consists of several units which control different parameters. Unlike the Korg MS20, this synth doesn’t have a keyboard but instead is controlled entirely by input audio signals and dials. You can create pitched sounds using the two VCOs, mix these together, modulate them with an LFO, build envelopes that control the shape of these modulations and patch the different units together using patch chords. You really have to think about what you want to create and how you’re going to go about creating these sounds and when you start trying to build complex waveforms the number of patch cables going all over the place can look pretty confusing!

I used the Doepfer to make a drone. I used a VCO to create a low triangle wave then sent this through a Low Pass Filter which was connected to an LFO which produced a very slow sine wave. The result was a low note that slowly swept up and down its harmonic spectrum with a regular shape. I sent this signal into Logic on the computer and recorded about 17 minutes of drone, controlling the gain live so that I could fade the sound in and out. I also modulated the frequency of the LFO at the end so that the speed of the sweep seems to stretch out.

I also connected the Korg into the Doepfer so that instead of using the VCO of the Doepfer, the input audio signal was being produced on the Korg. This allowed me to build a big bassy sound by mixing the two VCOS, slightly detuning them to create beats and then put them through the LFO on the Doepfer to generate an envelope. This time the sound simply gets louder and quieter. Again, I recorded this into the computer for 17 minutes and layered the two tracks on top of each other. The different frequencies of the LFOs means that the two sounds go in and out of phase meaning that the combined sound is fluid and ever changing.

Tomorrow I’m going to use this long drone texture together with the tape loop I’ve already made to build a piece.

5

Analogue Heaven Day 2

The gang – (L-R) Me, Declan and Oded

IMG_1183

Today we were left to our own devices as Dr Nye Parry, our mentor, had other business to attend to. None of us was quite sure what we should aim to achieve during the week. To discuss our thoughts and get inspiration from nature, it seemed like a good idea to walk to Mudchute City Farm and see the animals.

IMG_1170

When we returned we had a clearer idea of what we all wanted to achieve. We all had different ideas about what we might like to work on with Declan interested in ‘chop and screw’ vinyl-editing effects, Oded wanting to work with the bank of analogue synthesisers available to us and me still playing around with bits of tape.

Declan brought in some second-hand vinyl to play with and the two of us worked out how to make loops on it by sticking bits of splicing tape over the grooves and creating beat effects by carefully made scratches using razor blades. As an experiment I engraved a portrait of 50 Cent onto the 50 Cent record – it just sounded scratched…

Oded worked out how to use the Korg MS20 and made some phat sounds, playing around with the two Voltage Controlled Oscillators at different levels, waveforms and tunings; adjusting the Low Frequency Oscillators and the High and Low Pass filters. He then found a YouTube clip that showed us how to use an input sounds as a control frequency to modulate any of the parameters on the patch bay. Having watched this, we connected the turntable and played the 50 Cent loop into the synthesiser. The result was the sound and pitch of the synthesiser with the envelope of the 50 cent controlling the filters – an interesting effect!

Oded then had to leave and at this point we discovered that the tape machine had stopped working. Although we could still play tapes on it, it seemed that the record head no longer worked we couldn’t record anything that we made. This seemed like a good time to finish for the day!

4

Analogue Heaven Day 1

The premise of the project this week is learn how to make electronic music using entirely analogue means. That means magnetic tape, analogue synthesisers, reverb chambers, tape delay… and all that that entails. Hopefully by the end of the week we will have developed skills enough to make some interesting pieces.

It took a while to get going this morning for various reasons. First, we were hoping to have 3 reel-to-reel tape machines but we only had 2. Then could only get one to work. But that was OK as one is enough to record and play on, and we also have two cassette decks which we could use to bounce down the mixes and layer up different sounds.

Work in progress @etomame #colab #colabulous #analogueheaven

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The first part of the day was spent getting to know the equipment. We worked out how to connect the inputs (eg. microphone, synthesiser) into the mixer and direct that to the tape recorder; how to send the tape signal back into the mixer and out of the monitor speakers; how we could use this setup to make basic recordings and then make delay lines for an echo effect.

Delay – as the tape moves through the machine in ‘record’ mode it passes several tape-heads. The first erases anything already on the tape, the second records the input signal onto the tape and the third reads the tape and sends the output signal to speakers. The small gap between the ‘record’ and ‘play’ tape-heads means that there is a small time delay between the actual live sound and the recording of the sound coming out of the speakers. If you then make the tape machine listen to itself as well as the live input as it records, this echo effect  will also be recorded onto the tape over and over again, getting gradually fainter until it can’t be heard any more. The speed of the delay can be adjusted by changing the speed of the tape.

The morning activities were not without their mistakes! After making a long loop out of a recording of playing inside a piano, we couldn’t work out why the machine would no longer play. On closer inspection we discovered that the tape had been somehow hooking round part of the mechanism and jamming the motor! In the end it was not too hard the fix but that bit of taped as chewed up and ruined and it’s not cheap! Understandably from then on we made sure to make copies of everything we worked on in case it was ruined by the faulty machinery.

The first sound we recorded this morning was a loud chord being played on the piano which lasted for about 4 seconds. Later, I decided to use this sample to make a pulsating loop. The recording was made at 7.5 inches per second. I divided the tape into 0.5 inch strips using a ruler, chinagraph pencil and razor blade. I then shuffled up the pieces. The next step was to cut an equal number of the same length strips of leader tape (plastic tape with no sounds on it) and to splice the two together types of tape together. This doubled the length of the sample and made it pulsate.

As the original recording started with a loud attack which gradually faded away, the final result was a pulsating rhythm where each pulse has a different dynamic level. This process took approximately 3 hours of painstaking work! I was rather happy to have finished and, listening to what I’d produced, am pretty pleased with the result.

I’ve got lots of ideas for how to use it. The first thing to do then was to make a copy of it onto cassette tape. Then I connected the ends of the strip to make a loop which also sounded great, especially when using the variable speed adjuster to change the speed and therefore pitch of the recording. Tomorrow I’m planning to record the loop at various speeds to make a piece with a cyclical structure…

3

CoLab Week 1

The first week of the festival is over and half the students of Trinity Laban have been hard at work creating together for 5 days. The atmosphere around both faculties has been electric, everyone showing passion for their projects. Several times people have grabbed me to say ‘What are you doing in 15 minutes? Come and see my performance!’ and so far I’m yet to be disappointed by anything I’ve seen.

The week started with an extravagant launch party, featuring the fabulous cabaret-cellist Zoe Martlew  (http://zoemartlew.com), a red button-controlled live improvisation ensemble made up of teachers from the college and a set by the balkan band Opsa! who performed alongside ‘friends’, including solo cellists, trumpeters, guitarists and singers. Opsa! (http://opsabalkan.com) was formed 4 years ago in the very first CoLab festival and has gone from strength to strength, now playing regular gigs in London – one of CoLab’s biggest success stories.

Here they are with Greek baritone Anastasios Michalis:

During the day on Friday I went to three events. The first was a collaboration between music and dance students, working with composer Olly Muxworthy (http://www.ollymuxworthy.com), who made a suite of short pieces each of which described a particular animal – creating extra movements for Saint-Saens’ The Carnival of The Animals, including penguins, starfish, whales, birds of paradise and meercats.It was a lot of fun!

In the Old Royal Naval College Chapel was a performance by Trinity Laban musicians in collaboration with South Korean music students. They played a mixture of traditional Korean and western music, and some new compositions based on both British and Korean folk stories which feature Korean and western instruments.

The highlight of the afternoon was a presentation from the project ‘Too Many Trumpets’. Several trumpet players from the college took it upon themselves to use as many different kinds of trumpet as possible (normal, bass, piccolo, flugelhorn, bugle, post-horn, alp-horn…and MORE) and write arrangements for the ensemble, each player having to change between several instruments during the course of the performance, which took place in the courtyard of King Charles Court.

Friday night saw a ‘happening’ with many of the biggest projects of the week presented simultaneously, taking over the whole dance faculty building. At this stage I must apologise for the fact that none of the videos below have any sound – there must be something wrong with my smartphone. However I hope you can imagine what music might be going on. Let me know what you imagine in the comments.

Highlights from the programme included…

Elliot Galvin’s arrangement of Carla Bley’s 1978 album Musique Mechanique. Quite the musical genius, Galvin’s vibrant approach to arrangement and band leading saw him use a mixture of sound painting (a language of physical gestures that serve to facilitate live improvisation) and pre-learnt bits of the Carla Bley music. The performance also featured three dancers, one of whom spoke the text of ‘At Midnight’. It was a spellbinding performance at the Bonnie Bird Theatre:

West African Drumming and Dancing. Well this was just what it sounds like. I could have sat in the room all night while the pounding cross-rhythms washed over me. Tremendous energy and a colourful performance.

Favela Rising. Composer Louise Kulbiki is writing a new musical based on the politics of the slums of Brazil. This week she has been workshopping her music with a troupe of musical theatre students and some musicians. The result was a bold, sassy collection of scenes and songs. Here’s a silent clip:

Other Highlights. Another room I could have stayed in all night was where the Mingus Big Band was playing. Over the week they learnt 6 tracks from a Charles Mingus album by ear. The Bollywood Brass Band performed favourite numbers from Bollywood films in the foyer area of the building to a huge crowd who clapped and danced along. The evening was rounded off with a ceilidh – always a lot of fun. About 50 audience members were led in Scottish dancing by caller (and festival Artistic Director!) Joe Townsend while a band of students played the tunes – again learnt entirely by ear.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the first week of CoLab and tomorrow I can’t wait to start my own project.  Stay tuned for news of what’s happening! #colabulous