Realising music on the computer for SATB

This week I completed another audio realisation for the Cecilia Chorus of New York. The new composition is by the Balliett brothers and receives its premiere in Carnegie Hall in May 2019. For more information about the concert, please visit their site: http://ceciliachorusny.org/#/brahms-elgar-brothers-balliett/

Audio realisation is a time-consuming process because you not only replicate the sheet music on the computer, but must then interpret the piece as a performance within the limits of sampled instruments. This means paying meticulous attention to changes in dynamics and tempi, as shown by the automation below.

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This work had 5 movements. Each movement had at least Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass. Sometimes the parts were divided. For each section of the choir, I produce each movement with their own voice featured, one version with and another without metronome. I also produce full SATB reference tracks, with no voice featured. This project was special because there was a solo voice as well. So I produced some SATB versions without the soloist included, so that the choir could learn their role more thoroughly. There were 52 tracks in total for the Balliett brother’s compositions.

The PRS in Chester

Last night I attended the first Chester PRS meeting, in the company of my non-PRS composing brother, Joe. It was clarifying in some matters. It is always good to know more than you need regarding the business side. It would have been helpful if the panel discussion hadn’t focussed exclusively on songs, assuming that everyone was a live performer. The gentleman behind me scores for children’s TV and the lady behind me places music in Hollywood trailers!

Realisations for Cecilia Chorus of New York

It has been a pleasure to work once again with the Cecilia Chorus of New York in preparation for their March concert. They are performing three complex works and commissioned me to prepare audio versions of the pieces, with each choir section’s part picked out for practice purposes.

Samples from the three works are below.

I wish the choir every success in learning such complex works!

A winter's work

Some seasons I have written words in between compositions. More recently it has been the other way round with my work-in-progress standing at 65,000 words and not yet half way. However, it looks like this winter will include some large scale compositions. I have been engaged to provide the music for a classic dramatisation for Audible, period music for a filmed show with an esteemed theatre actress in her 90s, and soundtrack for a documentary on the original Chester cathedral of St. John’s.

Monody: The Dandee Shanty

I have been working on my monodic skills for several years now, trying to identify how to write a single line of melody which suggests the right sense of harmony and maintains rhythmic power. 

So far in the instrumental part of my monody project, I have composed ten monodic works around the fiddler. (I chose the fiddle because, although it can be placed with other instruments, it is not unusual for it to carry a tune alone. However, I have restrained myself from the more interesting chord effects of the instrument to keep the idea of monody in view.) The Dandee Shanty was the first such piece.

One of the attractions of monody is the clarity and force of statement possible in a single line of tune. If you have an ensemble or an orchestra, you can be vague and ambiguous in your harmony and clutter up the theme with counter-melodies. That may be required in a composition. But it can also be accidental and come about through not really having a strong idea of what the piece of supposed to say and how.

Monody is not so forgiving. It requires precise ideas, executed directly and efficiently.

This has had an effect on my non-monodic compositions because it encourages economy of ideas. I consider the source material (logo sting, branding, video edit, animation, script) and talk to the director. I usually have an immediate musical idea, which I develop vocally. Singing an idea is an excellent way of finding the natural curve of the tune, balancing the flow and keeping harmonic changes marked in the composition of the melody. By singing the idea until it runs smoothly and has grown memorable enough for me not to forget, I approach a compositional commission with the main idea fixed. Then, even if the texture of the piece is layered and polyphonic, built up with synthesisers and a drum track, or washed over with luscious string harmonies, I have a central idea, which I can weave in and out.

Orchestration and arrangement should both be taught, but it is a shame that monody is not, because monody shows that a strong idea can be orchestrated, whereas orchestration teaches us to make a sound, even if we have nothing worthwhile to say.

With the benefit of hindsight, some of my pre-university compositions were often written in this way. I can clearly recall spending a morning in front of a computer, trying to compose dynamic title music depicting a desperate horse ride over wild country in the north of England. I had wasted hours tootling on the keyboard, trying to orchestrate without a theme, and I had produced nothing. But when I was washing up lunch pots and not thinking about music:

Du-du-du. 

de-de- Du-du-du.

I had a rhythm. I whistled it through my teeth, for it had no tones. I kept whistling.

Du-du-du. 

de-de- Du-du-du.

de-de-Du-du-du-Du-du-du-Du-du-du-Du-du-du ...

So it went on. And as I whistled the rhythm, the appropriate tones fell onto the notes, as a cascading melody, struggling up hill, across rivers, rushing into valleys, darting in and out of trees. I went upstairs with an entire idea. Over the next 2 hours I composed the work with full orchestration and this was the composition: 

It was a beautiful experience to be able to compose so efficiently and entirely in one go (I was 18 and happily untaught). It is rarely possible. Feature-scores have to be composed over a month or more and it is a different skill to keep going on a piece over such a time period. But I am more convinced than ever that if we want to write melodies, we must write monodic tunes with the voice. They are unapologetic, focused, dynamic and deliberate. And then - once we have a clear idea - if we want to make it hidden, watery and vague, we can do so because we have an idea to dilute, not because we do not have a clue what to say.

Chester Philharmonic Orchestra at Chester Cathedral

Tonight, I had the pleasure of enjoying Chester Philharmonic Orchestra performing in the stunning setting of Chester Cathedral.

It was an ambitious programme of Beethoven and Brahms, playing to a large and appreciative audience in the heart of the Cathedral.

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The concert began powerfully with Beethoven’s Fidelio. Conductor David Chatwin coped admirably with the large reverb of the Cathedral surroundings, allowing the drama of the piece to develop. The strings and timpani were especially dynamic. Fidelio proved to be a good choice to warm the orchestra up for Brahms’ Violin Concerto, with soloist Qian Wu. While not denying her technical facility in the rapid portions of this composition, she seemed to shine brightest in the lilting lyrical passages. The role of the orchestra in supporting a concerto soloist is never one to envy, but they gave a sensitive performance, maintained to the final bar.

After the interval, the last piece of the evening was Beethoven’s Pastoral – Symphony no. 6. This well-known composition has so much exposed writing that it is a good test of an orchestra’s ability. Coming at the end of a busy concert, they might have been tired but it didn’t show. The atmosphere of the concert was friendly and welcoming and a credit to the hard work of the dedicated musicians of Chester Philharmonic Orchestra.

Psalm Settings

In response to the Elysian Singers' call for scores, I have set three Psalms for SATB. They are:

Psalm 53 - Where no fear was

Psalm 56 - For God is for me

Psalm 83 - Do unto them

Each posed unique challenges. Sometimes the challenge is to include every word, as in the extended naming in Psalm 83. Sometimes the challenge is not to descend into a sentimental pattern, as in Psalm 56. The ultimate challenge though is to remember that the Word of God is not like the words of men and must be spoken and sung with reverence. I have tried to maintain that tone and also paid great attention to clarity, that the music will not overwhelm the words.

Before the Mountains

I have just completed a setting of Psalm 90 for SATB.

1 (A Prayer of Moses the man of God.) Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.

2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.

3 Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.

4 For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.

5 Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.

6 In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.

7 For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.

8 Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.

9 For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.

10 The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

11 Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.

12 So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

13 Return, O LORD, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants.

14 O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

15 Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.

16 Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.

17 And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.

"Tapestry of Love" released by Soundiff

One of my compositions, Tapestry of Love, is included on Soundiff's latest release, Miniatures vol 1. The piece is for solo flute.

This work alludes to the love of Penelope, waiting decades for the return of her Odysseus. She weaves the tapestry to stall her suitors, promising to marry when it is complete. Every time she finishes the tapestry, she unravels all of her work to buy Odysseus more time. The recapitulation of the theme in this work echoes that fact, presenting the same notes with slightly different articulations, just as the same tapestry would be almost identical and yet differ in the details. The coda to the work sets aside the activity of sewing, for the stillness of resolution - the return of the beloved.

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Bodrhyddan Hall

After completion of Beauty and Joy: The Christian Nature of Music, my compositional style started to develop. Instead of wondering what music is and how my new compositions reveal something about me, I focused on music as a proclamation of worth. This considerably changed my approach to composition from a vague, searching for answers towards a statement of ideas with confidence. This piece was the first step on that road.