Composing, Songwriting and Producing – Pick Two

[As a side note, I’m nearly done with chapter five of the fourth Redemption of Erâth book – that’s a fifth of the way through!]

I’ve written extensively about music here before; whether the genius of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony, or the ferocity of some new death metal album, or even the gothically tragic undertones of The Cure’s Disintegration, it should come as no surprise to anyone that music is an enormous part of my life.

What not everyone knows, however, is that my actual degree is in classical music composition. That’s right – my highest level of education revolves around scores, sheet music, appoggiaturas and cadenzas, and whilst I often slip out of the habit for extensive periods of time, it’s something I’ve never really forgotten, or let go of.

Way, way back in 2004 I started work on this project that I called a ‘heavy-metal symphony’. Not a symphony in terms of orchestration – there are no great brass swells or roaring timpanis – but a symphony in terms of structure: a four-movement album which each movement being a distinct movement within the whole. The opening movement in sonata form, the second movement a slow dirge, the third a scherzo and trio, and the fourth a twisted rondo … so on and so forth.

I actually ended up completing (to a fair amount of satisfaction) the third movement, which was a submitted as part of my dissertation. The second, slow movement followed to completion, but I never quite got around to finishing off the first movement, and never even started the last.

Then I ended up getting caught up in the day-to-day banality of life, and abandoned this project for over fifteen years. I moved countries, wrote a book, wrote another book, wrote a third book that was completely different from the first ones … life took over.

But in the back of my mind, I always wanted to return to this project. In particular, I wanted to remaster it in genuine production software, rather than through the terrible synth sounds built into my computer. I wanted to finish the first movement, write out the fourth, and have a full, complete album to show for myself.

The problem is that I don’t know how to produce music. I’m exceptionally good at putting notes one after the other, but production is a beast entirely unto itself. The best composition in the world will still sound terrible with poor production, and as pop music so often proves, good production can make an otherwise terrible song sound amazing.

It’s funny, too, because I’ve just come off the back of writing a complete album to accompany my alter-ego’s work-in-progress, The Broken, an upcoming novel about a band caught up in tragedy and despair. I wanted to know what their music sounded like, so I wrote eleven tracks which now form their ‘debut’ album. The thing here is that I didn’t strictly compose these songs; I never used notation software, didn’t write it out in score – i just recorded it into Logic Pro X as a songwriter.

Songwriting, you see, is yet another aspect of the musical creation process; as opposed to composing, where every note, every chord, every harmony and melody is meticulously thought and planned out, writing a song is a more fluid, organic process; you come up with an idea – a riff, a vocal line, a chord progression – and basically stitch these disparate pieces together into a coherent song. The lyrics are forefront, even if they don’t come first; the rest of the instruments are backing to the singing.

I think that my background in composition has helped (to an extent) with songwriting, but my ability to produce the music into something even remotely listenable has been stretched and taxed beyond my wildest imaginations. I’ve learned more about music production in the past six months than I knew in the previous rest of my life, and I’m only just beginning to grasp the audio engineering concepts required to get the kinds of sounds I’m looking for. Guitar amp and pedal effects mystify me in particular; I can hear in my head the exact sound I’m going for, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out how to get there!

Still, it’s been a fun ride, and I look forward to continuing to better my skills. Despite it all, it’s a lot of fun to write music (in any capacity), and the recording/engineering part is just another aspect to be learned. Still, I can’t help feeling like the old adage, cheap, fast, good – pick two – only for composing, songwriting and production. Maybe there’s a way to be good at all three, but boy is it a steep hill!

The Headiness of Mania

A few weeks ago, I found myself starting to wake up earlier than usual, unable to get back to sleep. And whilst normally I would lie in bed – sleeping or not – I found I wanted to get up, I wanted to go downstairs, or on the computer … I wanted to do something. At first I wasn’t sure what – I might just go lie with the cat, or make a breakfast I wouldn’t normally be bothered to make – but over the last couple of weeks, it’s gotten stronger.

You see, I have bipolar type II, which normally means I’m extremely depressed, with periods of ‘normality’, so to speak. I don’t usually get manic, and even when I’m in a period of hypomania I don’t usually find myself with increased energy or motivation- I’m just not depressed.

About a month ago, my doctor started me on a new medication (I can’t remember the name just now), and I think this has been a big trigger for me. It was meant to help with my seasonal depression (I usually get deeply depressed during the winter), but it seems to have worked a little too well. All of a sudden, I want to do things, write and play music: things I used to enjoy but fell out of fashion for me due to depression.

In the past two weeks, I’ve written almost 20,000 words of the fourth book in the Redemption of Erâth series, and began re-recording some very old songs I wrote almost twenty years ago, all whilst continuing to do well at work, and I feel … almost happy, for lack of a better term.

I’m not used to it.

It’s an odd feeling for me to have so much energy, motivation and desire to be productive. I suppose there are people who feel like this all the time, but it’s hard for me to imagine it. I feel like I’m riding an enormous wave, just starting to reach the crest before it all comes crashing down again. And I’m not usually able to ride the wave out – it buries me, drowns me, and crushes me to the bottom of the sea.

And it’s intoxicating – invigorating, even, and scary all at the same time. Intoxicating because it’s almost an addiction, something that drives me forward to keep doing more of the same, a drug I can’t get enough of. Invigorating, because it’s refreshing to have such energy for a change. And frightening, because I don’t know how long it’s going to last, and the higher the rise, the steeper the fall.

The good news is that so far it’s only resulted in positive productivity, and I’m (for the moment) not tempted into self-destructive or dangerous behavior. I’m not spending extravagantly, I’m not looking for wild sexcapades, and I’m not going out and getting drunk every night (in fact, I’ve actually almost completely stopped drinking). Instead, I can’t wait to get home to work on my music more; I can’t wait for lunch breaks at work to continue my novel. I feel exhilarated, happy, and free.

Unfortunately, there’s still a danger – a danger that I might get too high and start to be damaging to myself and others. And of course the danger presented by the inevitable fall into despair and darkness, which will come eventually, whether I like it or not.

My doctor’s already taken me off the new medication, but slightly increased another one, in the hopes of balancing me a little bit more. We’ll see how that works, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a part of me that had secretly hoped to stay on it, to ride out this mania for as long as I can; but in the end, I know it’s not healthy, and I have to do what’s best for my long-term mental health.

But while it lasts, boy am I getting a lot done!

Why Peter Jackson Is One of the Most Underrated Filmmakers of Our Age

I, like most of the world, was introduced to Peter Jackson through his seminal and utterly game-changing film adaptations of Tolkien’s timeless classic, The Lord of the Rings. For me, those three movies represent perfection on celluloid (so to speak), and remain to this day my favorite movie(s) of all time.

And yet, today, Peter Jackson is more often than not looked upon as a pariah, a dismal failure who could never live up to his former achievements. Films such as King Kong, The Lovely Bones, and even Mortal Engines are looked upon with disdain by the critical population as an outright abuse of style over substance, and an over-reliance on CGI. In fact, it’s hard to think of a film of his since 2003 that anyone has truly loved the way they loved The Lord of the Rings. Even the sequels, the three Hobbit movies, have been thrown away as an abomination to Tolkien’s vision, and, to some, something that should have never been made. Once gold, everything Peter Jackson touches these days turns to crap.

Except … I couldn’t disagree more. After The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson has either produced or directed no less than eight feature films: King Kong, District 9, The Lovely Bones, the three Hobbit movies, The Adventures of Tintin, and Mortal Engines. I’ve seen all but one of them (District 9, for some odd reason), and I’ve personally loved every one of them, often for different reasons. I shall, below, attempt to explain why.

Many of Peter Jackson’s movies are adaptations, typically of novels, but sometimes (e.g. King Kong) of previous movies. We all know, of course, what an incredible job he did with The Lord of the Rings, so we’ll skip those and move right on to the first post-Rings film he was involved with: King Kong.

King Kong (2005)

When it was announced that Peter Jackson was going to follow his success with The Lord of the Rings with an adaptation of the original 1933 creature feature, I recall people being uncertain what would be in store. So far removed from the grandiose scenery and epic battles of The Lord of the Rings, it seemed an odd project to take on. And I think that, when it was released, people didn’t know what to make of it. If Peter Jackson is to have a fault, it’s that he doesn’t know how to be succinct, and at over three hours long, it seems simply excessive.

And indeed, it does drag along at times, but no more so than The Lord of the Rings did. The key thing to understand about about Peter Jackson’s King Kong is that it most definitely is not a creature feature; despite featuring numerous fantastical beasts, including the titular great ape, these aren’t the point of this movie. Instead, King Kong is an ode to the art of filmmaking, both through the character of Carl Denham and his obsession with creating the best film possible, and through the actual movie itself. It’s a subtle jab at the Hollywood executives who first rejected him, and then demanded more of him. And, above all, it’s an outreach to the outcast and misunderstood, a way of reflecting the part in all of us that longs for belonging, even in places where it is never to be found.

King Kong is a film about film, a story about love, and an example to Hollywood of what you get when you throw money at a project without truly understanding it. And for this, I love it.

The Lovely Bones (2009)

Since I haven’t seen District 9, we’ll skip over that one for now and move on to Peter Jackson’s next effort, an adaptation of Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel of the same name. Telling the story of a thirteen-year-old girl from her perspective in the afterlife after being tragically murdered, it is a touching and heartbreaking tale of tragedy and hope, loss and renewal. Torn between remaining with her family and passing on into the afterlife, Susie Salmon can’t rest in peace until her family finds their own, and so she helps them in whatever way she can to find closure with her untimely death.

As always, this is a stunning spectacle, with vast dreamscapes filled with giant ships, flowering trees and demons in the shadows, but this is only the backdrop to what is ultimately another story of love and despair. Like King Kong, there can be no happy ending, but the final moments, when they come, are bittersweet nonetheless, and certain to bring tears to your eyes.

At only 2 hours and fifteen minutes, it also showcases that Peter Jackson is able to learn from his previous efforts, and condense a novel adaptation into a movie that can actually be watched in one sitting. And like he did with The Lord of the Rings, his adaptation here is beautiful, moving, and faithful to the source material.

The Hobbit (2012 – 2014)

We come now to perhaps the most contentious of Peter Jackson’s films, the three Hobbit movies (An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug, and The Battle of the Five Armies). Panned by critics and audiences alike, these are movies people love to hate.

And unfairly, I believe. When looking at the outcome of filmmaking, it’s worth taking into account the background and context of the project itself. The Hobbit movies were not originally what Peter Jackson wanted to do; in fact, he intended to be involved only in a production capacity, and leave the direction to Guillermo Del Toro. Del Toro even began work on the film before leaving the project altogether, and faced now with the challenge of directing reshoots, finishing the film, and a deadline that Hollywood refused to budge, Peter Jackson very nearly worked himself into an early grave. Forced to produce a trilogy (he originally only wanted two films), Peter Jackson was forced to dig deep into the lore of Middle Earth, restricted again by the renewed copyright on The Silmarillion, held by the Tolkien estate, who refused to allow its characters or events to be used.

Considering all of this, I think The Hobbit movies came out surprisingly well. Whilst they do decline somewhat in quality as each movie progresses, I firmly believe that Jackson did his best to bring to life such a beloved book, and there are many exquisite scenes, such as the dwarves singing before Bilbo’s fire, or the incredible motion-capture performance of Benedict Cumberbatch as the terrible Smaug. I appreciate the fact that, again, Peter Jackson takes his time with the plot, giving due screen time to small details that could have easily been glossed over, such as the stone giants in the misty mountains, or the detailed set pieces of Laketown. The biggest problem with these movies is simply that there wasn’t enough source material to make three movies – something Peter Jackson understood, but Hollywood didn’t. Are they on the same level of The Lord of the Rings? Of course not. Do they stand well in their own right as a very faithful adaptation of Tolkien’s original book? Of course they do.

Mortal Engines (2018)

I wrote about Peter Jackson’s most recent film, Mortal Engines, a few days ago, so I won’t go into it in too much depth here, but again, we have a young adult novel adapted to film, and spectacularly so. From the tiniest details of the steampunk machinery to the epic landscapes of a ruined earth, this is truly a magnificent film, and the plot is classic YA, involving teenage characters battling against obvious evil to save the world.

The thing I’m getting at, I suppose, is that I think Peter Jackson is deeply misunderstood. To me, it’s abundantly clear that he adores reading, books, and literature in general, and the only thing he’s ever wanted to do is bring those beautiful, imaginative books to life. How many of us have read a book and wondered what it would look like on the big screen? How many times have you finished a final page and thought, this would make a good movie? All Peter Jackson has tried to do is exactly that: make the movies that we wanted all along. His films are works of a dedicated and loyal fan, tributes to the great storytellers of our times.

And this, I think, is what Hollywood doesn’t get. Peter Jackson doesn’t make movies for the box office. He doesn’t make movies to please the critics, or to win Academy Awards. When that happens, it’s nice, but his true love and dedication – the reason he makes his movies – is simply because he wants to bring to life what he always imagined when reading the books.

And for this reason, I think Peter Jackson is criminally underrated. If everyone in Hollywood took a leaf from his book, they might realize that you don’t make great films to make money; you make them for the fans. You make them for the people who love the stories, and want to see them visualized.

Peter Jackson makes movies for us, but first and foremost he makes them for himself. And I deeply, deeply respect him for this.