Composer's Diary

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22.3.99 23.3.99
Diary Dates


9.3.99 3.3.99 21.2.99
15.2.99 12.2.99 3.2.99
31.1.99 29.1.99 18.1.99
9.12.98 3.12.98 22.11.98
24.9.98 21.9.98 16.9.98



A week from now the premiere will have been and gone! I've nothing very specific to say in this diary entry, other than to record that I have all the usual mix of feelings of apprehension, excitement, self-doubt, self-confidence and anticipation that goes along with premieres. At the rehearsal the other day, some members of the orchestra made some very nice remarks about the piece, saying how well-written and clear it is. I am delighted with that, because it is one of my goals in this project to communicate clearly and effectively with the audience. In a week's time, I'll find out whether or not I've achieved that!

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First orchestral rehearsal.

A very interesting and enjoyable occasion. I think the piece is going to work just fine!

We were able to rehearse Movements 2 and 3 completely (with tape for Movt. 2), and the orchestral material for Movement 1 (with amplified double bass). The live MIDI soundfiles for Movement 1 will have to be added at the Hall on May 27th, because we did not have the appropriate technical set-up in the rehearsal venue (St Johns Church, Boscombe).

Movement 3 was rehearsed first and went very well. There were a few balance questions (between string and wind) which will be resolved by suitable mixing since the orchestra is to be amplified. It was hard to judge the extent of the imbalances because the church is so resonant. Most of the rehearsal focussed upon questions of rhythm (getting the right feel) and articulation (how the notes are played). The players settled into this quickly and I'm pretty certain this movement will make an immediate and lively impact.

Movement 2 took some explaining: many of the players had not seen notation like this before. Richard Studt (the conductor) decided to beat 5 beats per "bar", at a pulse of 60 beats per minute - in other words he became a ticking clock against which the players could time their entries depending upon whereabouts the notes were placed within the bar (see previous diary entry for a more detailed explanation of this).

A couple of notational problems also arose during the "gamelan" section. In attempting to imitate the sound of Javanese string and wind instruments, I had written extremely high and fast material for a solo violin, and also some very high oboe notes. Classical players are used to playing exactly what's in front of them, and what I wrote looked more or less unplayable without years of practice! I had to explain that in both cases I was after an effect rather than detailed accuracy - a modal meandering around the tune. In gamelan music, the higher up you go in register the more rapidly the instruments are played, but these are not more prominent than the rest - in fact, the most prominent thing is the slow-moving tune. Anyway, once I'd explained what I wanted to the players they got it just fine and the results sounded very good. I think I will try to find a different way of notating this passage.

The section immediately after the gamelan was the most enjoyable surprise, sounding much richer and fuller than I'd expected. The addition of the flanged electric guitar sounds filled out the texture beautifully and a genuine "tutti" was felt - something which is normally difficult with only 24 players. This was the only part of the Symphony which did not sound exactly as I'd imagined it, and the result was an improvement on what I'd imagined so I was very happy.

Overall, the best thing about the Movement 2 rehearsal was that they played it through once and it all worked! When asked to comment, I suggested that the string players in particular (who make lots of unusual noises) 'theatricalise' their gestures. Live music is a visual as well as an auditory experience and the more the players can give out to the audience, the more likely it is that the audience will be drawn into the piece.

The rehearsal for Movement 1 was necessarily rather patchy, given the absence of the live MIDI, and it will be this movement that requires the most attention on May 27th. The difficulty is making things flow, since there are numerous changes of mood and tempo. The orchestra seemed to experience the most problems with rhythmic layering - pulses moving at different speeds simultaneously. Nevertheless, things were basically pretty good and I'm confident it will all come together. I was also very impressed by the commitment and skill shown by the two featured players: Howard Nelson (flutes) and Keith Wood (amplified double bass). Keith had to work with some effects pedals which changed his sound quite a bit, and we had some interesting technical discussions about these. Howard plays all the flutes: piccolo, flute, alto flute, and bass flute! This meant a change in embouchure (mouth position) throughout the Movement - a virtuosic thing in itself - but his duet with Keith at the end of Movement, playing the mighty bass flute, promises to be the highlight of the whole Symphony.

My approach in the rehearsal was (as it always is) to try to be as flexible as possible, and to take on board suggestions and comments from the players. I'm a pragmatist - I want to achieve something which 'works' and I'm quite happy to drop or modify my ideas to do so. When composing, I'm always exploring and experimenting, trying to create new sound images and textures. Sometimes that leads me into conflict with established practice, or indeed simple playability. By and large this has not been a problem in 'Symphony for Cornwall', especially because the soundfiles are so interesting in themselves, but on the occasions where problems do arise I feel it is my responsibility to ensure that the players are happy and that the material communicates itself well to the band.

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The notation for Movement 2 is time-based. That is to say, rather than beats and bars, I use dotted barlines to indicate 5 second units, then headless notes placed proportionally within the 5" bar to indicate when and for how long to play. Here's a screenshot to show what I mean:

screenshot 23/3/99

Here you are looking at the section from 15 seconds onwards. Each dotted bar = 5 seconds. The single line staff (second down) represents the Tape part, with verbal descriptions of what is heard ("hosed collage" = sample hosing, a process I'll explain in the Electronic Workshop). On this page the top line is the Percussion and the strings all appear divisi below (i.e. one staff per instrument). Thus you can see the first three violinists in the screenshot).

Violin 1 plucks a single note behind the bridge of the instrument (makes a squeaky noise) on 15", then does nothing until roughly 21", when he/she bows a 5 second note (white notes last approx. 5") col legno tratto, which means scraping the wood of the bow across the string (as opposed to "battuto", which is slapping the string). This will produce a strange wispy sound.

Violin 2 plays a five second natural harmonic (lightly touching the string), with tremolo articulation (i.e. shuddering bow) starting at about 22".

Violin 3 also plays a tremolo, starting at about 17", but sul ponticello (with the bow near the bridge) to make an eerie scraping sound.

You can't see the rest of the score here, but all the strings are doing this kind of thing during this passage, and it creates an atmospheric texture to blend in with the noises from the hosed collage.
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Movement 2 finished.

You know, it's mighty difficult to describe the creative process as it is actually happening, especially when there is a deadline looming (in this case, all the scores and parts have to be ready by March 31st). Movement 2 has been more difficult to do than the other two Movements - indeed, I have actually "trashed" two minutes' worth of music from this Movement, which added to the pressure to get the piece done in time. So here is an attempt to summarise the process for Movement 2, written with the awareness that I am probably making some tasteful edits to remove the hair-tearing moments!

Just to recap, I'd decided that the Movement would use the "noise"-based soundfiles and all the guitar samples, and that it would be scored for orchestra and tape (which plays continuously) and that it would last ten minutes. All these decisions have been seen through to the end.

The soundfiles used are, therefore:
The Green Theme (all the various sounds) from Roseland Community School Callington School's PPwav Ed Weston's guitar and jungle files (Penrice School) Humphrey Davy School's noise collage Looe Community School's guitar tracks Torpoint's flanged and twangy guitars I also added to this the sounds of Looe's glockenspiels, and the improvised oboe and bass clarinet duet recorded by members of the Bournemouth Sinfonietta.

This last piece is in A minor, as is a great deal of the guitar material and a number of the soundfiles that appear in other movements ('Relax.wav, David Allsop's tune, etc. etc.) Perhaps I should say the Aeolian mode, because almost everybody seems to favour the flattened leading note - that is to say the scale A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A (white notes on the piano) in preference to the more "classical" A-B-C-D-E-F-G sharp-A. This curious coincidence gives the basic modality for this Movement, although at least half the material is noise and therefore not pitched.

The "recycling" idea, favoured by Roseland, is another theme here, and material is processed in a number of different ways, including a central evocation of the Javanese gamelan (metal percussion orchestra) using the Looe glockenspiels - sampled and played back as a Midi sequence - to conjure up the soundworld, and the notes of the Oboe/Bass Cl. duet as the "balungan" or skeleton melody.

The duet, which has a pastoral feel, also led to the section which I eventually threw away - a kind of dark pastoral meditation, drifting and fairly complex. This material simply would not fit anywhere with everything else, and so had to go. Gardening is a ruthless business and growing a Symphony is no exception! Perhaps what I wrote will re-surface somewhere else one day.

Anyway, the piece runs as follows . Timings given in minutes and seconds.
0' 00"-0' 15" Humphry Davy School's noise collage 0' 15"-1' 15" Hosed collage (i.e. filtered through all kinds of processes, to produce a scattered "random" feel) accompanied by strings and tam-tam 1' 15"-1' 25" GT (= Roseland's "Green Theme") plastic bottles 1' 25"-1' 40" Noise collage derived from processes applied to soundfiles, accompanied by wind players breathing silently through instruments 1' 40"-2' 15" Wind breaths continue, mixed with GT elements. Strings add in and a climax is reached with the glass smash, which immediately reverses 2' 15"-3' 00" Ed Weston's "jungle" rhythm track, but slowed down, with rhythms, sounds and events scattered almost randomly across the stereo image, accompanied by more structured orchestral effects 3' 00"-3'50" The GT noises are combined with the Oboe/Bass Clarinet duet. Romantic, bleak atmosphere 3'50"-6'00" Looe glocks enter, playing a gamelan tune and the orchestra joins in for an extended piece. Solo violin, oboes, flute and bass clarinet all play highly elaborate and decorative versions of the melody, all in a kind of Aeolian mode 6'00"-8'15" the final note of the gamelan launches an extended flanged drone, derived from the Torpoint guitars. All kinds of processes applied here, also to Callington's PP.wav. Strings and some wind pick out the upper harmonics, in a slow spectral shift, while the bass clarinet solos, continuing to elaborate the "pastoral" theme from earlier in the movement 8'15" - 8' 35" Solo cello, doubled by violin playing artificial harmonics, plays a short four-bar tune which seems to summarise elements of everything, from all movements. The orchestra repeats an A minor chord, echoing the end of Movement 1. At the end of this section, Ed's guitars mixed with twangs, fade in. 8' 35" - 10' 00" Pure tape composition. The guitars accompany the oboe and bass clarinet duet. Elements of all the soundfiles are edited together, processes applied, and the GT slapping wet leaves end the movement.

In the next diary entry, I'll talk about the technical and notational requirements of the above. For now... I'm exhausted!
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I've just completed Movement 3! I wrote it so fast that I had no time to write a diary entry during composition, so here's an account of the process:
I had already decided that it would be the shortest of the Movements (about 7 minutes) and that it would be played by the orchestra alone, without live electronics. I had also planned that it would have a dance feel (perhaps with an echo of the tangos that will feature in the first half of the concert) and that it would use soundfiles that were conventionally "musical". This adds up to the following four:
1. Looe Community School's calypso-like flute solo
2. Callington School's oboe and bassoon duet - a syncopated tune by Josie Alderton
3. Penair School's MUM2.mid - a midi composition by Jake Ashworth-Jones
4. Camborne School's 'Scherzo' - a midi composition by Brendon James
The Looe flute opens the piece, but almost immediately a "cha-cha-cha"-type rhythm takes over. This establishes itself pretty thoroughly, as does swirling references to the tango, interwoven with the rhythmic pattern of the Looe flute. Into this 1930's-style dance atmosphere comes the Callington duet, which is briefly heard on its own, before the dancing starts up again.
The tempo then changes from common time to waltz time, and the Penair tune appears. This is stated twice, once by the wind and strings and then again by full orchestra with horns. A third statement is begun, but is rudely intruded upon by the Camborne 'Scherzo', which then proceeds via repetition and development to transform into quite a dissonant, driving, build-up to...
... and that, dear readers, is where we must leave it, because I have a surprise ending in store and I do not wish to discuss it with you before the performance. You will just have to come along on May 27th to find out what happens!!!
Suffice to say that Movement 3 is, I think, great fun and quite a showpiece for the orchestra. The tunes that have been sent to me are all very good and I have been able to develop some amusing and lively ideas from them. The audience should leave with smiles on their faces!
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Movement 1 is completed! It lasts a little bit longer than I expected: 17.5 minutes as opposed to 16. This is because of the postlude for bass flute, double bass and the last chord of Penryn's improvisation, which detached itself beautifully and makes a marvellous repeated chord for this bluesy section.
I see I've not written any diary entries for a week or so - I'm afraid that I've been working too fast and furiously even to find time to sit down and write. It's the price you pay for a tight deadline. Anyway, to make up for it, here's an outline of the first movement, plus a new feature on the website - an Electronic Workshop, to show you how I've treated soundfiles.
Movement 1 makes a kind of journey East to West through Cornwall, with a "coastline" outlined by the flute and double bass, who are featured (and amplified) in this movement. So it is a "movement" in a real sense.
Soundfiles I have not included in this movement will appear in Movements 2 or 3. Altogether, I used 22 files, although some of these are treatments of given files. Although the music travels through some quite diverse landscapes, it retains a sense of unity because of: a. the use of the modem sound as a linking device; b. the constant cross-referencing between sections; and c. the astonishing similarities between some soundfiles.
This last observation also allows a structural return to opening material, because of the similarity between one of the Newquay Tretherras soundfiles (David Allsop's) and the Saltash "relax.wav" - both in A minor, both at 140 bpm, both featuring descending scales, etc. These are not the only files with things in common: many share either pulse, texture or spirit. The number 140 (and 141) kept recurring, and this is reflected in the finished piece - many things repeat 140 times, or contain 140 pulses, or whatever.
The Movement divides into Sections, as follows:
1. Introduction, featuring modem sounds and musicl motifs which derive from them.
2. Saltash theme, repeated through sextatonic "shifting modalities" (i.e.intersting chord changes!)
3. A screeching, free tempo, texture section with modem sounds and electric guitars from Torpoint
4. Bell-like section, with florid flute line and Launcestonian synthesizers
5. Looe pianos slowed right down meet Callington pianos galloping with echo. Over the top, the bass and flute play the tune based on Andy Baker's file, modem sounds, and other files, which you can hear by clicking the link in the last diary entry.
6. Poltair gulls and a moment of stillness, blasted away by "Shock to the System"
7. Rapid transition to "Unite and Unite", with high dialogue between orchestra and accordions
8. Explosion, with bits of accordion, soundfiles and orchestra flying in all directions!
9. That tune again, but stronger this time
10. Ben Simpson's voice synth emerges, declaiming "MU-SICK, MU-SICK, MU-SICK". The orchestra gradually chimes in, minimalist-style, building David Allsop's tune in sync.
11. That combines with echoes of the Saltash theme. Much rhythmicdrive and exuberance in this section, which gradually "fades"
12. The sea splashes over the end of this, and on the sea drifts Penryn School, hitting their beautiful final chord which then, unexpectedly, repeats over and over again to ccompany a sultry duet for the unusual bass flute and double bass (echoes of Andy Baker here too).
I've made a Midi sequence of this and taped it. Score and tape are on their way to the conductor, Richard Studt. I don't think there will be any problems for the orchestra, but you never know...
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Well, actually 22.2.99, since it's 2.00 a.m. and I can't sleep because the music won't let me! This is a familiar state of affairs for me. Half way through a piece, the creative part of my brain just wants to get on on with it, whereas the analytical part works on the slower process of critically examining what has been achieved thus far. Some people in the academic world claim that creative art cannot be research, since it is a primary, impulsive activity, whereas true research is a secondary, analytical activity. At moments like these I can really demonstrate the research aspects of what I do. The beauty and power of making art is that it is *both* at once!
Anyway, what I have thus far is:
Introduction (based on fragmented modem)
Saltash-Torpoint sequence (repetitive, exciting chords)
'Bell' sequence (over Launceston synth)
Looe pianos with Callington gallop (Looe slowed right down, Callington speeded up)
Drifting tune (sythesis of Andy Baker, 'Unite and unite' and bells again)
'Unite and unite' duet between orchestra and accordion (Wadebridge)
Drifting tune again, this time stronger, with more folk-feeling post 'U+U'
The drifting tune is in fact two tunes, and emerges from the flute-bass duet that runs throughout all the above. It has emerged organically from all the other sources, and I like it for that reason. It's also attractive, which is fine too. Here's a Midi file of it - if you can, please set track 1 to Flute, track 2 to pizz (or fretless) bass, and track 3 to French Horn. The tempo is slow, just in case your Midi player doesn't pick up the b.p.m.
All the above material is strong, but my analysis is (as always!) concerned with form. At present, the Movement still feels like a succession of pleasant sound pictures, rather than a fully unified composition. I've included all kinds of cross-references and developments from one to the next, back and forth, but still the problem persists (it's an inevitable consequence of my working method, I guess). My solution to this is to make a virtue of necessity and work on developing interludes derived from the modem call and featuring the flute-bass combo. These will go between the sections listed above (although not in an obvious and predictable way!) and will just develop the main theme of the Movement, which is... COMMUNICATION (of which the modem sound is a powerful symbol).
I won't have the same formal problems in Movements 2 and 3, which sort the source soundfiles by type. There the problem will be differentiation, just wait and see!
Just in case anyone reading this is wondering - these problems are not unusual. In fact, I would consider them the very stuff of composition (the word means "putting things together", after all) and I've faced them with pretty well every piece I've ever written. It's partly a consequence of making one's own rules as one goes along, something which 20th Century art music seems to require.
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I'm taking so many decisions that it is hard to know how to describe the process. Since the last diary entry, I've reached a point roughly half way through the first movement, when we arrive at Poltair's gulls and sea - a moment of stillness before "SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM". I made a rough sequence of all that in Cubase VST and so was able to take stock.
At this stage the flute and bass duet is still not present, so I have to imagine that, but even so I have identified a problem with the first movement.
The sequence of soundfiles means that it is becoming hard to establish a sense of organic unity and I need to do something about this now, before continuing the composition. So I've gone back to the beginning of the piece and thought about everything I've learnt so far. This has resulted in an introductory section of some 29 bars using material derived from - and musically anticipating *all* the soundfiles.
The premise for the introduction is a dissection of Ben Kitt's modem:
1. dialling (a little tune: E-E-D-E-F#-E-F#-E-F#-F#-F#)
2. signal (a dotted rhythm on high C)
3. connection (a syncopated pattern on augmented fourths: quaver-crotchet-quaver etc.)
4. noise (white-noise whooshing)
Each of these ideas gets a brief musical treatment, interwoven with figures from the other soundfiles: Unite and unite, Callington, Looe, Poltair, etc. etc. and Andy Baker's bass, mixed with noise. The notes create a whole-tone scale effect (sextatonic!), and agreeably suggest some kind of seventh chord on E, which provides a nice structural upbeat to the glorious A minor of "relax.wav".
The introduction also presents an opportunity to begin the Piccolo and Double Bass material, and gives all the instruments a first airing. There is considerable variety of texture and colour within a relatively short space of time, and almost no repetition which will, I hope, kill off any idea that Movement 1 is simply minimalist. Anyway, I'm a lot happier with the piece now and I feel the first main section is justified when it appears.
I now have to revise that section to make it less repetitive for the strings and to insert some of the figures from the introduction and elsewhere. The piece is growing!
I also have to compose the fractal duet up to the Poltair moment. I reckon if I can now draw all the lines to that point, I will have a good springboard from which to leap into the fast and furious "shock" section.
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The theme of bells is beginning to dominate my thinking for Movement 1. So many of the soundfiles seem to have bell-like characteristics. Descending "peals" from Saltash and and Newquay Tretherras. Bell-like resonance from Torpoint and Looe (those pianos slowed right down). The modem sounds bell-like to me too - and I like the idea that peals of bells have been used in the past for communication between towns and villages.
I have just completed the passage from Torpoint to Looe, via Launceston. This is 48 bars of music, starting with the big build-up of guitar harmonics from the Torpoint file and heading to the slowed-down Looe pianos. During this passage the Launceston synth file is heard four times, blending with unusual textural orchestration to create a dense bell-like sound.
This is very difficult to capture using Midi, so I will have to resort to showing a section of the score and describing what is happening. Here are two image files of bars 90-95 : number 1 shows the woodwind and brass at the top of the score;
Number 1
number 2 shows the strings at the bottom;
Number 2
I've used change-ringing patterns (a Plain Course of Grandsire Doubles, for campanologists!) to order the sequence of events here, but the continuing series of sextatonic scales (nos. 18-40) for the pitches.
However, that's just the beginning. To create interesting textures, I have all the strings play artificial harmonics at different rates, each with a "blossom" on the note. Artificial harmonics are produced by fingering the given note, then lightly touching the string at the point shown by the diamond notehead. The resulting sound is two octaves higher than the fingered note and very pure and ringing.
Now look at the Oboe and Clarinet lines. The notation here is unusual, with jagged lines in place of the conventional note stems. This is a notation for multiphonics - more than one note produced at a time by a single instrument. These are notoriously variable and difficult to control, so I have not required precise sounds. Instead the notation means "play a multiphonic including one or both of the given notes", which leaves a fair amount of freedom for the players to produce good strong sounds.
The multiphonics and string harmonics blend together to create a slow-moving texture above the more rhythmical Horn, Bassoon and Cello parts. The Horn notes are often marked 'fp', which produces a fairly convincing bell sound. The Cellos play pizzicato (plucked strings) and they are capable of providing a great deal of resonance themselves, as well as marking out the rhythm quite strongly.
The overall effect of this passage will at first be surprising, even chaotic, but as people listen they will start to pick out patterns and shifts in texture, hopefully to good effect. The Launceston file will bind this whole section together, almost a "natural" sound woven into the artificial soundscape.
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Good progress today. Completed the opening section, to bar 69, apart from the decorative flute-bass duet. Here are two MIDI files of the result, the first set to General Midi norms (this should work best through internal soundcards) and the second is not (I'll leave it to you to select appropriate sounds here).
I've also done quite a lot of work on audio editing the opening, and have decided to reinstate Ben Kitt's modem sound as the first thing you hear.
I've applied a great deal of reverb to the second half of it, and out of it will emerge the Saltash 'relax.wav'. This has "tremolo" applied at first, giving it a shaky hesitant feel, but when it settles to its full texture, the orchestra will enter with the material in the MIDI file.
This leads to the Torpoint 1 soundfile of guitars playing a diminished chord, to which I have also applied a reverb-type process to make the build-up even bigger. Out of that will emerge the lovely rolling synth sounds of the Launceston file, and the flute-bass duet will really take off at this point.
I've also jumped ahead to the Looe pianos, which will follow Launceston, and have created a sequence based on the simple riff, which I will work on more tomorrow. Midifile of this will follow soon.
In the process, I tried excessively slowing down the Looe pianos. They produce wonderful deep bell-sounds, which I think I'll use, perhaps in the second movement or perhaps here - I need to sleep on it.
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Work on Movement 1.
First, I've organised all the schools' soundfiles in a geographical sequence, reading East to West, as follows:
Newquay Tretherass
Humphrey Davy
I will not hesitate to alter this sequence, if necessary, in order to create an optimum musical effect, but for the moment the above is the running-order. I'll use only one soundfile per school, and I'll use soundfiles *not* used in this Movement in other Movements. (Ben Kitt's modem will open Movement 2, not this Movement.)
The compositional task, therefore:
1. create a connecting sequence to link the soundfiles
2. write the fractal duet for flute and double-bass around this
Link 1:
The Saltash soundfile is an attractive repetitive tune with some accompanying synth chords and splashy, dolphin-like sounds. It's atmosphere is relaxing, and the soundfile is called "relax.wav".
The Torpoint sound is a build-up of a diminished chord - D/F/Ab/B - played on electric guitars.
The Saltash tune contains six notes in a descending scale-pattern - C/B/A/G/E/D - and sets off an idea for a structure which will influence the entire movement. Apart from the given sequence, there are 140 possible six-note patterns within one octave (with no interval bigger than three semitones).
Taking a cue from the repetitive style of the Saltash soundfile, I have laid out all 140 patterns in a random sequence (by drawing them one by one from a bag).
Click HERE to download a Midi file of them all, in random sequence.
Coincidentally, 140 beats per minute is the tempo of the Saltash soundfile, which breaks down into a four-bar phrase comprising two 2-bar phrases which are nearly identical. To state all 140 scale patterns, allowing 4 bars (4 beats per bar) per scale pattern at 140 bpm, will therefore take 16 minutes - a nice duration for Movement 1.
I'd like to think of this method as "shifting modalities" (where a "modality" refers to any scale pattern). The 140 sextatonic modes (six-note scale patterns) will be present throughout, but the requirements of
subsequent soundfiles will mean that they disappear for long periods, perhaps only present in the flute-doublebass duet. But their constant presence will provide an underlying, randomised logic to the Movement.
I love using chance, and I also love using constraints. I find them both satisfying and productive. I also like the idea of being exact about something inexact - just like a map of a coastline fixes something which, as we all know, is constantly changing.
Anyway, for Link 1 the process is established: repetitive four-bar phrases using the sextatonic scales in their random order until we hit one containing the notes D/F/Ab/B, at which point we reach Torpoint's guitars.
In order to make the resulting music more interesting, I will not repeat each four-bar phrase exactly. I'll change the orchestration, the rhythms, the chord voicings, and anything else I can think of - the structure will enable some free invention!
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Just back from an enjoyable couple of days in Cornwall attending the Music Advisory Service's conference, where I addressed music teachers about music technology and met some of the contributors to Symphony for Cornwall from Newquay Thretherras and Penrice Schools, as well as teachers from most of the participating schools and elsewhere.
Over the two days the form of the Symphony became clearer still, and sound design began to play a part in the overall concept. Here's the current state of play:
Movement 1.
Flute and Double Bass duet to follow the north and south coastlines of Cornwall respectively. The flute will start on Piccolo, move through Flute and Alto Flute, to end on Bass Flute at 'Lands End'. The double bass will be amplified and using effects pedals, including an octave doubler at the Lizard. Bass mostly pizzicato. This duet will frame a "join the dots" sequence in the rest of the orchestra, connecting all the soundfiles one by one in sequence. The compositional challenge will be to make a convincing transition from one to the next.

Movement 2.
Electronic sounds meet natural sounds. The orchestra will take an accompanimental role here (perhaps the electronics will be on tape?) and the movement will explore textures and effects.
Movement 3.
Dance-based, using the tunes sent in from various schools. The soundfiles themselves will not be used in this movement, so it will be just orchestral, but the music in the soundfiles will be used...if that makes sense.
Sound Design:
Movement 1 - begin outdoors, loud, wild... progress to a cavern.
Movement 2 - inside the cavern, echoing, vast...move towards a hall
Movement 3 - begin in a hall, good acoustic...move into a bedroom (real chamber music!)

Thus, overall, a gradual "homing-in" on the sound of the acoustic instruments in the orchestra.
Visual design:

Movement 1 - digital map of Cornwall
Movement 2 - Chthugha-type audio-responsive VR environment
Movement 3 - photographs?
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Further - click here for one of the soundfiles from Newquay Tretherras school with "ping-pong" delay of 1.2 seconds at an intensity of 80%. The resulting effect resembles a peal of bells. See the message board for further discussion on my work.



Well...the life of a composer is never straightforward! Since the last diary entry, I have been up to my neck in preparations for the forthcoming premiere of 'Island Symphony' at University of Hertfordshire (Hatfield Campus) on February 7th. This is an orchestration of my electroacoustic piece of the same name, and I have had to completely rewrite the massive first movement, as well as prepare score and parts for full orchestra.
On top of all that, I find that my study-leave is not quite as free as I would have liked, with a number of important meetings to attend, and about 100 assessments to do over the next week or two. Meanwhile, the clock ticks on 'Symphony for Cornwall'...
However, all this should not lead to the conclusion that I've done no work. This is an important phase of the composition, when much of the activity is taking place inside my head "in the background". I'll attempt to describe some of it.
The first item is the question of form. There are several constraining factors here: firstly, the orchestra is essentially an early-Classical/late-Baroque line-up (two oboes, two bassoons, but only one flute and one clarinet), which tends to suggest that a Haydn-esque approach to form will work best; secondly, the sound-files have tended to form into groups as described earlier, and these combinations give rise to some formal ideas which I'll describe in a moment; thirdly, I want to make the form clear so that my audience will have a good chance of following what is happening.
Second item is the issue of style. Various of the sound-files contain stylistic overtones, in particular the "composed" musical ones, and some of the rock-style electric-guitar based ones. In general, I want to make a piece which is stylistically accurate in terms of the sound-files, but which also presents an engaging and agreeable surface to the listener. Stravinsky's 'Dumbarton Oaks' and Satie's 'Parade' are pieces which keep popping into my mind as potential models.
Over the past few weeks, I've been milling around the sound-files in my head, trying different combinations and seeing whether these give rise to any ideas which might form into a movement. This process is not over yet, but I do seem to have fastened upon the following structure:
Movement 1 - using all the sound-files in a "geographical" sequence, with the map of Cornwall "read" from east to west as a kind of graphic score of the piece, and the individual soundfiles located geographically as they occur. Thus the coastline becomes a fractal melodic line, and the physical landscape becomes the body of orchestral sound against which the electronic sounds "wash up". I'm going to get hold of some good digital satellite maps to help with this, and these could become the visual backdrop for this movement.
Movement 2 - electronic/natural sounds. An "atmosphere" movement, combining and uniting the natural sounds (sea, bags, talking, gulls, dolphins, etc. etc.) with the electronic sounds (modem, electric guitars, synth sounds, etc. etc.). A loose and organic form - what might be called "grey area" music (neither classical nor rock, neither ambient nor collage, neither musique concrete nor electronische musik).
Movement 3 - dance. Tightly structured and jolly, using the various "tunes" that have come in, including folk dance material, scherzos, simple melodies, MIDI sequences etc. The syncopated flute tune from Looe community school seems to be the initial binding element here.
I hope to have some preliminary sketches for all of these ready by the beginning of February, so please keep logging on!
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Yesterday was the first orchestral workshop with the Bournemouth Sinfonietta, and I learned a great deal from it. The orchestra were very nice to me and patiently played through some quite variable material, pointing out problems where they occurred. I have no recordings of the session to put up on the website because this would have turned it into a "recording session", incurring extra costs.
The band is quite top-heavy, which suggests to me that I should consider low frequency ranges carefully when editing the soundfiles. The players are, of course, all excellent musicians, which means they have a beautiful sound with lots of expression. This is great when the music suits it, but it does mean that it is hard to escape that "classical shaping".
The three sketches - "Modem/AndyB", "Nightscape" and "Riff Sketch" were all designed to explore different techniques and aspects of the orchestra. Of the three, only the first derives directly from soundfiles received: in this case, the bell-like modem sounds of Ben Kitt's contribution, combined with the double-bass harmonics at the end of Andy Baker's soundfile. The result worked well and I'll definitely use it, if only for a short period. It had a grainy texture, with shifting textures created by the woodwind playing multiphonics (i.e. split notes, with more than one note at a time) and the strings divisi playing artificial harmonics (very high, pure sounds), whilts the rest of the band imitated bell sounds low down.
'Nightscape' didn't really work, with drifting melodic shapes played in fluid, variable patterns, with some complex cross-rhythms all at a very slow tempo. The main problem was rhythmic synchronisation between voices. Also unison and octave passages did not sound too good from an intonation point of view, and some of the material was just too difficult to play without an enormous amount of work. However, some of the flute writing sounded great, and there were some lovely moments including some effective chord voicings which I will use again.
'Riff Sketch' was highly repetitive, which produced a certain degree of boredom for the players, I think. The music was jolly enough, but again the rhythmic aspects need care. The band is not so strong on syncopated or highly articulated material, tending instead to work better when the music has room to breathe. There was also a balance problem, with a bassoon solo not really penetrating the ensemble. I also learnt about the contrabassoon (for which I have never written before!), and I think I've probably resolved not to include one - they are weak and rather cumbersome.
In general, I would say that I learnt that the best news from the players' point of view would be music that is: reasonably playable but which nevertheless presents some challenges; that is tightly composed, even Classical in character (i.e. pre-Beethoven-ish) but which nevertheless has room for expression; that can use extended techniques, repetition and other contemporary devices, but not to excess. I think a great deal of the new sounds in the finished Symphony will come from the electronics. It seems pointless to upset the orchestra, musically speaking, so the great challenge will be to reconcile the two worlds.
The orchestra graciously received the 'St. George's Island Chorale', despite an initial hiccup when it emerged that I had mis-transposed the oboe d'amore part by hitting "min3 down" instead of "min3 up" in my notation software (Finale)! It's the kind of mistake I would never have made in the days when I hand-copied all my materials. On the other hand, I'd never have been able to produce so much music in two weeks in those days. Anyway, fortunately I had a concert pitch copy of the part to hand, so the melody was played on oboe, which worked fine.
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OK, here is the first in a series of descriptions of operations performed on soundfiles, as requested by the Newquay Treferras School contingent during the live online discussion yesterday.
Today's topic is Normalisation. This is a technique applied to a waveform to bring overall levels (volume) up to a standard mean. The software (Soundmaker, in this case) reads the waveform and selects the highest and lowest peaks, then identifies a mean point between them based on all the other activity. It then raises the mean point until the highest peak just avoids 'clipping' or distortion, and then adjusts all the digital information accordingly. The result is clearer sound, outputting at a standardised volume level. It is usually good practice to normalise every sound file.
Here's an example, using the Penryn College sound. First, the original soundfile as I received it (I have trimmed this to just the first few seconds for the purposes of this example in order to save your download time. The whole soundfile will be used in the Symphony): Click here to play Penryn trimprov.wav
And click here to see the screenshot of what the waveform looks like in Soundmaker.
Now listen to this trnorm.wav after normalisation. Click here to see Penryn norm.gif and see the difference to the waveform.
Thanks for the discussion yesterday, everybody. I enjoyed it! I hope I answered people's questions satisfactorily. If there's anything you'd like to take up, please post a message on the message board.
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22.11.98 we go! All the soundfiles have now arrived from schools and, after a quietish period, I now feel like I can start composing. Well, almost...some of the Bournemouth Sinfonietta musicians want to contribute sounds too, so I'll have to give them a week or two to do so.
Nevertheless, I have some preliminary thoughts. First, all the sounds are terrific! The quality of the recordings and the variety of the ideas mean that I have plenty to work with. I think I'll probably end up with Movements in the Symphony - originally I'd thought I might do a single movement piece - because the sound files divide up into distinct groups, as follows:

1) "Electronic" sounds, including modem, synth sounds, speech synthesis, etc.
2) "Environmental" sounds, including plastic bottles, sea and gulls, dolphins, etc.
3) "Musical" sounds, including instrumental solos, MIDI compositions, etc.
My first step will be to make a complete list of these and, using digital editing, see whether I can create any links between them...
My first step? Not quite, for I have an even more pressing need - to prepare some material for the first orchestral workshop on DECEMBER 8th. Not long! Here are some ideas so far:

1. layered multiphonics and pizzicato strings (from the modem/double bass sounds)
2. rapid figuration drifts and cries (sea, gulls, etc)
3. exploring texture (general use)

I'll put scores and MIDI files of these up on the website when they're done. I'm almost certain that whatever I do at this stage will be thrown away in the finished composition, but I do want to try out some textures and colours, and get a feel for the orchestra.

I also want to make a donation to the orchestra of my short piece 'St George's Island Chorale'. I hope this gesture will be seen as friendly and do something to get the orchestra 'on my side' - I'm going to need all their support and co-operation!

Anyway, I'm at that exciting first stage of a composition. Everything I know about the piece is jostling and jumbling in my head and I'm waiting to grow some form and structure from it all.
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Some thoughts about working method - I'll use Cubase VST 4.0 to sequence a MIDI mock-up of the Symphony, with the sound-files played as audio tracks and the original composition as MIDI tracks. Using an Akai S3000 sampler with a good selection of string, wind and French horn sounds and articulations, should produce a reasonable approximation to the finished piece. This can then be put on the website as it appears. The other advantage of this method is that the score and parts can then be extracted from the MIDI files using Finale or the Score pages in Cubase...
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Symphony for Cornwall is launched! There were broadcasts on Radio Leicester, Radio Cornwall and Westcountry TV news. BBC Radio 3 did a feature on 'Music Matters' on Sunday, including an interview with Graham Devlin of the Arts Council, as well as myself.
The Hall for Cornwall launch was an exciting occasion and seemed to generate a good deal of enthusiasm, as well as a little controversy. After meeting the orchestra and hearing them rehearse and perform, I am confident that the piece will sound great. I asked Richard Studt, their in-house conductor, if he would like to conduct the piece. He was delighted to do so.
With Sound Designer Paul Gatehouse I discussed various possibilities for the sound design of Symphony for Cornwall.
The project was relaunched this morning at a glittering occasion in London, with Chris Smith MP, Secretary of State for Culture, and others giving it and other 'New Audiences' schemes enthusiastic backing. This should be covered on today's news bulletins.
But, on to the real business... the sound-file from Penair School contains a couple of good tunes, and an interesting parallel-harmony accompaniment which is very usable. The problem is that the soundfile lasts so long. It's a finished composition, rather than a "sound-bite". I'm going to have to find out if they are willing to let me make a selection from it, or if they want to make a shortened version.
If other schools/teachers are reading this, please note: the time-limit is 10-15 seconds. I don't mind a little bit more, but I don't want a finished piece - I'm not willing to mess about with someone else's finished composition!
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Mahler said a Symphony should contain the world, contain everything. It is a "sounding together", an inclusive form. On the other hand, it is not just a collection of music - it has to have some kind of structural unity.
'Symphony for Cornwall' is unusual, because my task is to "grow" the piece from received music which cannot possibly have any unity apart from the fact that it was made in Cornwall.
Mahler did not have digital technology. Such a project would not have been possible until a few years ago....
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This page is maintained by Judith Netscher
Last updated 25/5/99