“Lunar/Solar” for Orchestra

Lunar/Solar was my last assignment from my Berklee Online 2022 Winter Semester. It was my final project for Composing the Orchestral Film Score.

Over the course of the semester, we had to submit evidence of the various stages of composing a film score which would be recorded by a live orchestra (woodwinds in pairs, 8 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 3 percussionists, and strings). I also added sampled piano, harp, and choir. We had to pick one of two “scenes” (there wasn’t actual footage, just the timings for a made-up scene) to score, and I chose the one about an alien invasion (instead of a car chase). The assignment for week 2 was to write a memorable melody and counterline, which I wrote with the intension of using for this piece. In the following weeks I had to submit a sketch, a mockup, a score, a full set of parts, and a Pro Tools session. Once all of the materials were submitted, there was a remote recording session with Budapest Scoring. There is also video footage of the recording session which I will edit together and sync with the recording once I have more time (probably not until after I am done with my Berklee program).

Here is a synopsis of the scene that I “scored”.

Aliens have set up a military base on the moon under a protective shield and they are planning to attack and invade the Earth. Thousands of fighter pilots from Earth, including our heroine Jane Sweeney, are sent on a preemptive attack. Unfortunately our ships are no match for the aliens’ advanced technology. After the battle, only about one tenth of our shops are left. Jane sees that the sun is erupting with solar flares, and even though she is being chased by enemy fighters, she manages to use the reflective shield underneath her ship to redirect the radiation from the solar flares at the moon base. The aliens’ protective shield shuts down and they are forced to evacuate and return to their home planet.

Jane receives a hero’s welcome as she does a victory lap around the Earth. She is awarded the highest medal of honor at a ceremony in a massive sports arena, which is broadcast around the entire world.

Here are the timings that I had to hit in the “film”.

0:00 — Music in on Jane’s reaction to noticing the solar flares.
0:07 — Jane’s ship hit by alien firepower.
0:10 — Cut to Jane’s reaction of concern, warning lights blinking in the background.
0:17 — Cut to Jane taking evasive action to shake the alien fighter off her tail.
0:19 — Cut to solar flares erupting.
0:22 — Jane suddenly flips her ship to redirect the solar flare radiation.
0:24 — Explosion on the moon and the dissolution of the artificial atmosphere.
0:26 — Cut to aliens panicked and gasping for air.
0:28 — Cut to alien ships evacuating and flying away.
0:30 — Long shot of Jane flying back to Earth.
0:31 — Fireworks explode. Jane flies overhead.
0:35 — Cut to TV screen in restaurant. Newscaster’s DX: “What a victory for humanity today . . . ”
0:38 — Jane flies overhead.
0:41 — Fireworks explode (Jane flies overhead).
0:54 — Fireworks explode (Jane flies overhead).
1:01 — Dissolve to interior of sports stadium with thousands cheering.
1:05 — Cut to Jane in uniform, sitting on stage with Planet Earth’s dignitaires who are dressed in full regalia.
1:09 — Jane stands up and pauses to soak up the moment.
1:15 — Planet Earth’s most distinguished dignitary places a medal around Jane’s neck.
1:17 — The stadium erupts with cheers.
1:20 — With a big smile, Jane waves to the crowd of thousands cheering her.
1:24 — The camera starts to zoom out on Jane, further and further until Earth is just a spec in the vastness of outer space.
1:30 — Music out on cut to first title card of end credits.

Expanding My Recording and Performance Techniques

These next four tracks were from my Berklee Online Winter Semester, Weeks 10, 11, and 12 in Compositional Voice Development in Film Scoring.

Process an Audio File is a culmination of three different exercises from Week 10. The first on was to “write a short musical idea and record it with an acoustic instrument.” I used my guitar since it’s the only acoustic instrument I have (other than some hand drums and small percussion), and it uses dropped-D tuning, and power chords. The next exercise was to “write a short musical idea and record it with a software instrument.” I created a bassline to my guitar piece from the previous exercise using different instances of Substance by Output. The final piece was the third exercise to “creative a musical idea by processing an existing audio file.” I combined the guitar part and the bassline then I destroyed the guitar part with heavy metal distortion from Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig 6, then I used EQ to take the top off to make it a little less grating, and added some compression.

Recording Techniques was the end-of-the-week assignment for Week 10 to “write a one-minute (or longer) piece using a recording technique that you typically don’t use.” This was a tricky one for me because since 2014 I’ve been investing time and money in sample libraries, and learning how to use them in order to produce a “Big Hollywood Sound”. As a result, I don’t have the equipment to do professional level recording. Having said that, in the end, I was pretty happy with the result, so I’m glad I did some live recording. I recorded myself playing my acoustic guitar and matched Logic’s tempo to what I played (I didn’t use a click track when recording). I recorded low sampled strings, playing the root of the chords, then recorded a melody in the high strings on a separate track. I did my standard reverb setup and I was about to mix the track down when I remembered that we also talked about processing this lesson, so I added some flange to the guitar during the B section to provide more contrast.

Performance Techniques was the end-of-the-week assignment for Week 11 to “write a one-minute (or longer) piece using a performance technique that you have not used previously.” Since guitar is the only instrument I have to perform extended techniques on, I decided that instead of writing it as a solo, I would record multiple tracks as if it was a “guitar orchestra”. This way I could layer different techniques on multiple parts. I assigned each part a specific string and panned them from left to right (High E, B, G, D, A, low E). While not everything is an extended technique, I approached the whole piece from an aleatoric perspective. For the first section, since the open strings are E Minor Pentatonic, I had the strings enter in the order of the ascending scale (E, G, A, B, D, E) performing a slurred tremolo (just with the left hand, not the pick after the initial note) to the next note up. In the next section, I wanted to gradually introduce some dissonance, so I used the most dissonant note in between the two that were being tremoloed on each string. To provide further contrast, I used a picked tremolo, and used a technique where if you pick the string an octave above the note (if you are fingering a note at the 1st fret, pick the string at the 13th fret), it alters the sound. The rate of these new notes (all belonging to a Bb Minor Pentatonic scale) interrupting the original tremolos increases until it is only the Bb Minor Pentatonic notes. This initial climax on the “dominant function” chord ends the first section, and the next section starts with a subito pp. The new figure here is fingering 0 1 2 3 4 “As Fast As Possible” slurred on all the strings. All of these chromatic notes fill in the notes in between the open strings, so it creates a subtle full chromatic cluster. Then, there is another A.F.A.P. figure, except the two notes from the tremolo at the beginning are left out (on the E string, the tremolo at the beginning was E to G, so this figure uses the notes F, F#, G#, etc.), and the notes are picked instead. Then this 3-note pattern starts to glissando up the neck, and at about the 6th fret 3 things happen: (1) the pattern changes to fingering three chromatic notes (1, 2, 3), (2) there is a crescendo, and (3) there is a gradual change from ordinary picking position over the sound hole to sul ponticello. When the glissando arrives at the 9th, 10th, and 11th fret, then there is a two-note picked tremolo between the notes in the Bb Minor Pentatonic scale below the 12th fret and above the 12th fret (from the 10th or 11th fret to the 13th or 14th fret, depending on the string). This resolves to all the strings playing their first overtone, natural harmonic at the 12th fret. It was interesting how much more complex the guitar sounds when the strings are used individually, as opposed to using all six strings to play one chord strummed with a unison rhythm, or just playing a melody.

Incorporating Feedback was an exercise from week 12 to “write a piece of music based on feedback given to you by your course instructor… on your assignment posted in lesson 10. For this activity, incorporate the feedback into a revised version of your piece.” Here is the feedback I received from my professor, as a fictional client: “I like it.  Can we make it bigger?  Add in some drums or something?  The guitar reminds me of this rock band I saw once.  But I miss the rest of the band.” The original version (Recording Techniques) was for acoustic guitar and strings (acoustic guitar was clean, except for the the B section which had flange/phaser on it). I added a bass guitar and drum set to make it a rock band. I also added some distortion to my acoustic guitar. I also panned the strings a little bit more to the left and right to get them out of the way of the band. Finally, I turned up the reverb a little more to put them in a bigger space.

Expanding My Form Voice and Workflow

These next four tracks were from my Berklee Online Winter Semester, Weeks 8 and 9 in Compositional Voice Development in Film Scoring.

Sonata Form was the end-of-the-week assignment for Week 8 to “write a one-minute (or longer) piece using a form idea you’ve never used before.” I wanted to try sonata form (even though it’s a very watered down version with no transitions), because I actually never have. I also incorporated an idea from another class (with the same professor) about hero music and action adventure music, where the A theme is heroic, in the brass, with lots of P4s, P5s and Major triads, and then the B theme is more lyrical for the strings and woodwinds. The piece has a total of six sections. In the exposition the A “heroic” theme is in a home key (C Major) with just a tonic pedal underneath, and a B “lyrical” theme in a different key (F Minor). For the development I have a C section that uses fragmented motives from the A and B sections, with some chromatic modulations and no definite tonal center (although there is a G pedal underneath the whole thing to lead back into C). For the Recapitulation, the full A theme returns, this time harmonized, in the home key of C Major, and then the B theme returns, but now it is also in C Major. The piece ends with a coda where the A and B themes are played together in counterpoint.

DAW was a Week 9 exercise to “compose a short musical idea using DAW software.” I originally set out to fight against some of the tendencies of writing in a DAW, but I quickly saw why those tendencies happen. I was originally going to use separate tracks for each instrument, and focus on their lines, but I quickly realized that I couldn’t keep the chord progression in my head, let alone each individual line. If I had to do something like this in the future, I would probably just pick four chords that repeat, instead of a 16 bar phrase. Either that or I would write it down first.

Notation was another Week 9 exercise to “compose a short musical idea using notation software.” I used Sibelius (which I’ve been using since the late 20th century), and it was easier to write a melody, chord progression, and countermelody that all match, because I could see all of the notes at once. I came up with an ostinato, but I was also able to easily change articulations, and adjust the ostinato to fit the notes of the chords, because I could see what the chord progression is, as well as the instruments’ individual lines.

Workflow was the end-of-the-week assignment for Week 9 to “write a piece that is one minute using a workflow you typically don’t use…if you typically write with DAW software, try writing at a piano or in a notation program…if you typically write in notation software, try writing at a piano or in a sequencing program.” I wanted to compose something on acoustic guitar since I hadn’t played guitar in a while, but I didn’t want it to be “performed” on guitar. I wanted to see how well I could get the guitar to translate for the orchestra. When I write for guitar, I like to create  contrast by using open-string chords, bar chords, and/or power chords in different sections. I like that open-string chords tend to have better voice leading, but bar chords work really well for power since they all have root-5th-root on the bottom. After I had the chords, arpeggios, and rhythms down, I notated the guitar part in Sibelius so that I could arrange it more easily, and then reference it when orchestrating it in Logic.

The A section is orchestrated for woodwinds and strings: the strings are just sustaining the chords, and the woodwind section plays arpeggios (except for the oboe which sustains the highest note of each chord as a melody. The B section (which I envisioned being played on electric guitar) was orchestrated for brass and percussion (and still included strings). I also wanted to focus on the other thing guitar does really well besides arpeggios: repeated notes. I also incorporated muted strings, which I translated to snare drum. The C section is a retransition back into the A section, and I returned to arpeggios in the woodwinds and sustained strings. I also used one of my favorite techniques on guitar which is to start by playing an open-string chord, but then slide my fingers up (usually a M2 or m3), so that those notes change, but the open strings stay the same. For the return to the A section, I continued the arpeggio pattern from the C section, but with the chords from the A section, except now all of the minor chords have become major. The use of guitar definitely influenced my choice of keys, chords, and how I moved from chord to chord, as well as the use of arpeggios, repeated-note rhythmic figures, and using open strings as pedals while moving other notes of the chords.