Brian Eno is apparently my spirit animal this month. He has, of course, been a huge influence on my ambient compositions, but he has also been a source of inspiration and motivation in my musical and creative world in a much more general way.
In 1975, Eno teamed up with Peter Schmidt and created a deck of cards, each with a single sentence crafted to inspire creativity and shake up the reader’s approach. They named the set Oblique Strategies and have done a few limited edition pressings over the years. I’ve never been able to get my hands on an actual deck, but happily there is a website that includes all of the content.
Because I’ve had so much trouble getting going this month, I decided to put the website up on my largest monitor and leave it there for the day. Each day, I refresh it to get a new idea to ponder. The card that popped up first:
Don’t avoid what is easy.
This is a huge hurdle for me! As the old saying goes, we don’t value the things we didn’t work for. There are a lot of styles that I don’t do because I feel, in many ways, like I’m cheating. They’re just not difficult to create, and I feel like there should be a struggle.
This is nonsense, of course, and I’ve worked very dilligently to acquire the skills that I have – I just don’t remember the work. It all happened slowly over the years. But there we have it: do something easy, enjoy a little indulgence. Time for a little waltzing.
- The Stinking Rose Waltz Ray Toler 1:39
- Fire Waltz (Excerpt) (1998) Ray Toler 0:30
- Eastern Waltz (Excerpt) (1988) Ray Toler 0:30
I love waltzes. I have no idea why they’re so compelling to me, but I’ve enjoyed writing them since I got my first sampler that had a string sound. What makes it strange is that I never really listened to them growing up – my childhood was full of big band, modern jazz, concert band, classical, soft rock, and top 40… but no waltzes that I can remember.
Even stranger, they’re one of the few forms that I almost never feel self-conscious about. I don’t consider myself to be an accomplished composer of waltzes, and most of the ones I’ve written are fairly simple, but as soon as I sit down, a melody will pop into my head, and all of the other voices start swimming around. I especially love the conversations that string quartets have among themselves, giving and taking focus, sometimes being the star, and sometimes just doing the grunt work of chugging along. These pieces are some of the fastest I write, not in terms of tempo (though that is also often true) but in terms of discovering the entire piece and getting it down.
One of my favorite purchases in the last year or so has been the Saconni String Quartet sample library from Spitfire Audio. It’s the quartet I always heard in my head, but it hasn’t been until relatively recently that technology put this level of realism under my fingers. The programming is astounding – I used the “Playable” versions of each instrument which intelligently decide which samples and articulations to use depending on what I’m playing. I did some manual work on expression and volume, but it was only to make minor tweaks to the overall balance. I may go back in the future to do a little EQ taming, but it’s already pretty close.
My early waltzes were much larger sounding – the samples were relatively crude, and of full string sections. Compositionally, I think they’re still good, and I have an album that I’ve wanted to put out since the 80s featuring solo piano and waltzes. I may finally have the right tools to execute that in a way that’s as close as I can get in my head without hiring an actual quartet or orchestra – something I could never afford to do.
For grins, I’ve included excerpts from two of my older waltzes in the playlist on this page. The first is from around 1998 and would have probably been strings from the JV-2080 after I got the Orchestral Expansion cards. I think this may have been the first time I tried composing for solo strings instead of a large section. The second excerpt is all the way back from 1988, and features the Ensoniq EPS, with the factory “Epic Strings” patch. You can definitely hear how much better things are today, though the JV held up better than I thought it would.
One thing I’ve always done when composing parts for instruments I don’t play is to try and visualize what I would do if I were actually playing that instrument. Drums, electric bass, and orchestral instruments need this approach in particular, as it’s very easy to write something that doesn’t sound real. When programming drums, I try never to have more than four sounds playing at the same time – we only have four limbs. When writing parts for wind instruments, it’s essential that there’s actually room to breathe.
This was another really fun piece to write. I spent about 45 minutes writing it, another 45 minutes making small tweaks or adjusting a part to make a better conversation, and maybe 15 minutes getting the final piece recorded and uploaded. A full track in under two hours, and I get to go to bed at a reasonable hour. Easy!
- Violin I, Violin II, Viola, Cello: Spitfire Saconni String Quartet library
- Mastering: Ozone 9
Header image includes an element by Bicanski