This is a really important track. Big thing to say, I know, but it is. Not because it’s the best composition ever, or a perfectly mixed thing, or anything like that. It’s important because this track is the exact reason I do Song-A-Day. In fact, this track is the reason I write music at all.
Yesterday, I spent more time mixing and finalizing Transcendental Existentialism than planned, normal life went on, and I didn’t start composition until around 7 or 8 pm. Sitting down to write, I really wasn’t sure where things would go. I was just about to ask Mary if she had any stylistic requests when I decided that it was time to do a piano piece.
I used to write a lot more solo piano works, and need to dust them off, record them, and get them released. As my paintbox has gotten filled with more and more colors, piano is still present in a lot that I do, but it’s not the focus as often.
Sitting down at the keys, my hands landed on familiar chords. And those chords went to familiar chord changes. And nothing was really floating my boat. Pausing for a moment, I worked out the chord1 that opens this piece and because it had both hands interlocked, started doing the eighth note pattern. I liked the sound of it. Decent starting point. I’ll just record it real quick in case I forget it when I figure out a different chord.
- Unregistered System Ray Toler 4:20
Here’s where this track diverges from my normal compositional style, and I don’t have a specific recollection of ever working this way before. I recorded eight bars of that chord pattern. Then I moved the start point to the beginning of bar nine and worked out another chord. I played eight bars of that, moved the starting point, new chord, eight bars, move start, new chord, eight bars, move start.
Basic composition was done pretty quickly, but on complete playback heard a chord change that would work better with a few more chords in between. I opened up a 32 bar space and repeated the process four times. All told, the piece was finished in under an hour.
Mary said she was going to bed to read for awhile, and I considered posting the piano piece and doing the same, or watching a movie, being in bed by 11 and getting a full night’s sleep… any of the normal things that take a backseat during Song-A-Day.
I Hear Music.
There was still music in my head, so I told Mary I was going to work on it a little more. The next thing I knew, it was 3 am and I’d experienced one of those wonderful moments where magic happens and time just disappears.
I often “hear” music in my head, but it’s not like what you hear when you think of your favorite song. It’s normally not so much a pristine playback as it is an instant-flash of what the final form is. I know what this piece of music is supposed to sound like; translating that flash into the real world is a different story. Sometimes the limitation is my skill, talent, other times it’s the tools I have to work with. My recordings over the years are, for the most part, decent approximations of the music I had in my head, but few of them really capture the essence.
This piece is one of the best translations I’ve managed. And as I listened back to it over and over, soaking in the emotion, and reveling in the sonic impressionism, I realized one of the reasons that systems music now appeals to me: it’s a reasonable analog for the way my brain works. There’s normally a structure, a theme, a destination, but it’s also full of chaos and many voices with the various themes moving around, colliding, harmonizing, clashing… and the end result is so much more than any of the individual bits. And I can’t explain how I got there.
Like my thoughts, this piece starts off in one place, and keeps shifting, sometimes predictably, sometimes not, sometimes beautifully, and sometimes jarringly, with random things poking in for reasons that won’t be clear until later. In the end, it arrives at whatever it is that it’s supposed to be and that being is correct. And I can’t explain that either.
Have you ever been just obsessed with a song? At that moment, it’s the best song you’ve ever heard, and you have to listen to it over and over because it’s just… perfect? And when you play it for someone else and, even if they like it, really like it, their reaction isn’t anywhere near the proper level of emotional ecstacy that you think they should have? That’s where this track is for me right now. I know others won’t hear what I do, but that’s ok.
I’ve done a terrible job of describing all of this, but it’s why this is such an important composition for me. Music is that language beneath language, hardwired directly into the heart and the mind, and these brief moments of true inspiration and realization, often separated by years, are strong enough and vital enough to my psyche to keep me doing all of this.
It’s why Song-A-Day is so important. The next song may be one of these moments. It may be the best thing I’ve ever written. And I won’t know until I discover it.
It’s Not All Beautiful
As close as I got to what was in my head, there are a couple of moments that I think didn’t quite work. These are largely either me not being proficient with the tools I used, but also because I think it needs another few changes – I like the final chord change that ends the piece, but the one that comes before it is a bit abrupt.
Also, the library I used for the woodwinds, low brass, and strings brings my computer to a crackly halt with more than a single note. I did one part at a time and then rendered it to an audio file before doing the next part. It was a little tricky choosing notes without being able to easily adjust things.
For example, there was one part where I had recorded the woodwinds in, but when I added the cellos, ended up having the same notes in octaves, and that didn’t work, especially with the rhythms I had assigned. There were a few times where I would change a part’s arrangement and have to go back and re-render everything. The computer I hope to purchase later this year will likely be able to handle it without breaking a sweat.
A couple of technical details on the mix: I didn’t do much. For this one I used the Brainworx SSL 4000 E plugin (instead of the 9000). I’ve read that it has a better sound for more acoustic and rock work. I’m not sure if I noticed anything being notably better, but I’d need to do the complete mix in both and A/B them to know.
In any case, I didn’t do much. 0.5 dB extra high end here, -1 dB @ 200 Hz there, a tiny bit of compression on the piano to catch those one or two hard strikes. I had to do a thin EQ notch at about 800 Hz for the horns (just the nature of working with samples, sometimes), and added a bit of reverb to the piano to put it in the same space as everything else. Mastering, similarly, didn’t need much – a light touch of Gullfoss and some gentle compression to catch the one or two moments where things collided and raise the overall level to match the rest of the month.
I’m getting better with my orchestral programming work and feel like the overall pulses work pretty well, but it’s a practice and familiarity thing. I get a little better each time. I’m sure in the future, I’ll look back at this track and marvel at how crude my programming was. For this piece, though, I’ll probably go back and fix it.
- Piano: Piano in Blue
- Winds, Low Brass, Strings: Spitfire Kepler Orchestra
- Horns: Spitfire Symphonic Brass
1. I am pretty sure that this chord is the same voicing used in Only the Lonely by The Motels. I haven’t heard that song in years, but every time I start the piece, I hear that song, so it may even be in the same key.