Tag Archives: contemporary classical music

“Toys in the Attic” and “Assassins” for Orchestra

Toys in the Attic and Assassins were my last two pieces from my Berklee Online 2022 Spring semester. They were my two projects from Orchestrating the Film Score with Live Sessions. Similar to Lunar/Solar in Composing the Orchestral Film Score, I had to submit evidence of the various stages of composing a film score which would be recorded by a live orchestra, however in this class there were two recording sessions: one for strings and another one for woodwinds, brass, and percussion. I had to pick “scenes” to score, and I chose a horror movie scenario for the string session and a montage for the woodwinds, brass, and percussion session. Again, I had to submit a sketch, a mockup, a score, a full set of parts, and a Pro Tools session for each piece for the remote recording session with Budapest Scoring. I will also be editing videos of the recording sessions for these two pieces once I have more time.

Here is the scenario I chose for my string session: “Teen ghost hunters searching the attic of an abandoned mansion, looking for signs of a young changeling poltergeist that’s been encountered by several late-night visitors. All of a sudden, every toy in the attic springs to life, and the kids run for their lives!” I ended the piece with music that is supposed to signify that the kids have been turned into toys by the changeling poltergeist. I also had to make it a “hybrid” cue by including sampled instruments or synths. I included snare drum, bass drum, and prepared piano.

For my woodwinds, brass and percussion session I chose a “Montage of professional assassins preparing for a hit.” I chose to take an “Assassin’s Creed” approach to the scenario. This cue also had to be “hybrid” with the addition of sampled strings, in order to make it a full orchestral cue. In previous recording sessions, I noticed that the drums tend to be very boomy and bleed into all of the other microphones, so I had them muffle the drums with towels (except for the timpani). This gave the drums a dry, punchy sound which I liked and it was much cleaner when mixing afterwards.

Genre Reels

In my Berklee Online Spring 2022 Semester Professional Film Scoring Skills 2 class I had to create reels for a variety of genres to show potential clients. I had to have a total of five reels: a general reel, a horror reel, a comedy reel, an electronic reel, and a fifth reel that was my choice. By the end of the semester, each reel had to have at least eight tracks. The first assignment was to put as much of my preexisting music as was relevant so that I could get feedback from my professor. Some of my tracks were too long (they shouldn’t be any longer than two minutes), some of my mockups were not up to par, and some reels just didn’t have enough tracks in them. I worked to implement this feedback throughout the semester.

Circus Clown (my rescore for He Who Gets Slapped), and A Date with a Ghost, (my score for Date) were two tracks for which I created new and improved mockups. A Mouse and an Elephant and Quirky Waltz are two brand new tracks that I composed to meet the requirements for my comedy reel.

Most of the tracks I’m not going to post because they are either short clips taken from one section of much longer tracks or a slightly shortened version of a track that was a little bit over two minutes. If you are interested in listening to any of these tracks in their “new forms” you can follow the links here: Classical/World/Electronic Hybrid, Cold and Hollow, Dracula’s Tomb, Electronic Groove with Drops, Floating in Space, Haunted House (from Complements IV), Lobsters, A Prophesy of Auras (from Aura), Sci-Fi Car Chase, Space Shooter, Suspense (from Complements IV), and Synthia. If you want to listen to any of my complete reels you can follow these links: Classical/Rock/World Music Hybrid ReelGeneral ReelHorror Reel, Comedy ReelElectronic Reel.

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.

Heavy Guitar Riff 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.

Remembrance (acoustic version) 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.

Aleatoric Acoustic Guitar 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.

Remembrance (rock band version) 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.

Hero and Lyrical Themes 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.

Minimalist Build 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.

Pastoral Theme 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.

Woodwinds vs Brass 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.

Expanding My Tone Color Voice

These next three tracks were from my Berklee Online Winter Semester, Week 7 in Compositional Voice Development in Film Scoring.

Orchestra/Rock Hybrid was an exercise to “…compose a short phrase that combines orchestral and popular music instrumentation. You may combine orchestral and pop elements in any way that is musically interesting to you.” I combined bass guitar and drum set with strings and brass, and had the strings and brass play power chords in place of an electric guitar.

Orchestra/Ethnic Hybrid was an exercise to “… compose a short phrase that combines a world or historical instrument with the orchestra. You may combine orchestral and world/historical elements in any way that is musically interesting to you.” I used a Middle Eastern Zurna as the melodic instrument and accompanied it with sustained strings, concert toms, and concert bass drum. I used the scale C Db E F G Ab B and came up with a bass line for the strings to play, then improvised with that scale for the Zurna part. I also experimented with using extra reverb to try to counteract its very nasal sound.

Orchestra/Rock/Ethnic Hybrid was the end-of-the-week assignment to “…write a one-minute piece using an instrument or tone color idea you’ve never used before. You may use common or rare instruments, acoustic or software sounds.” I continued with the concepts that I experimented with in the two exercises this week: combining rock/pop instruments with orchestral instruments, and combining world instruments with orchestral instruments. I used a combination of all three, and while I was combining things, I thought it might be interesting to use 12 Bar Blues as my form. For rock/pop instruments, I used electric bass and drums again. For orchestral instruments I used strings, and had the low strings play a pad, while the violins played a melody in octaves. For world instruments, I used the Indian Tanpura, the Middle Eastern Zurna, and a Middle Eastern Darbouka. I also used a vocal synth sound in the C section. The drum set has such a wide range of colors between bass, snare, toms, and cymbals, and there is such a punch to it that you don’t get from orchestral percussion. Similarly with electric bass, you get a nice percussive attack that cuts through (especially in the higher register) in a way that string bass doesn’t. I didn’t want this to sound like pop music or a chamber ensemble, so the strings give warmth and a roundness, and also make the track sound bigger. The Tanpura has a buzzing, sustained sound, with a fuzzy attack, so there is only a vague sense of rhythm, all of which creates a meditative bed underneath everything else. The Darbouka has a nice high pop sound which makes it work well with, and stand out against the drum set. It functions the way bongos might, but with a more unfamiliar sound because it isn’t used as often as bongos are. The Zurna comes in for the C section and final A section, and it cuts through everything with its intense nasal timbre. Once again, I used a huge wash of reverb on it to try to give it a less abrasive sound. In the last A section it is playing in unison/octaves with the violins, which also warms the timbre.