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!

It’s Like Riding a Bike … Until It’s Not

For a while now, I’ve been wanting to make a return to music – in particular, music composition, and writing scores for orchestras, and pianos, and more. Factoring this in with the enormous amount of other creative work I want to do – writing the fourth book in “The Redemption of Erâth” series and continuing work on young adult novels – means it was unlikely I was going to really make a move on this in the near future, but the dream was always there.

And – foolishly – I assumed I would remember what to do when the time came.

It’s funny – it’s been more than ten years since I last focused my energies on creating music, and whilst I’ve certainly not forgotten the basic principles of playing music, there is a surprising amount that I have forgotten – and it makes me sad.

I (obviously) devour music as a listener; whether it be classical, rock or symphonic metal, I am always, always listening to music. And in my past, I was a somewhat accomplished pianist, played bass moderately well, and knew my music theory like the back of my hand.

And while I can still pick up a bass and pluck away, or tickle the ivories in a half-assed manner, there’s a huge amount that I no longer remember. It’s funny – it’s almost like the old, “I’ve forgotten more about making music than …”.

I recently set up a kind of office in my loft, with a nice, large desktop computer screen, electric keyboard to one side, and plenty of great music-writing software. And once the setup was complete, I fired up Logic Pro, downloaded some beautiful piano samples, and tried to play.

I couldn’t remember a single song.

Isn’t that weird? I know the keyboard, I know the layout, and can play in any key – but I can’t remember how to actually play anything. A few measures at most, and the rest is just gone.

Oh well, I thought – playing was never my main gig. So I opened up my music notation software that I haven’t used in a decade, and suddenly I couldn’t remember how to use it. As in, almost every single feature and capability of the application is a mystery to me. I’m going to need to relearn it.

They say playing an instrument is like riding a bike – you never forget how to do it. And whilst to an extent that isn’t entirely wrong, it certainly isn’t entirely true. I’ve just discovered that there is a huge knowledge gap in my mind when it comes to music, and it’s bothering me greatly; I used to know my arpeggios from my appogiaturas, and now I can barely remember what an ossia is. There’s literally terminology for musical notation that I’ve completely forgotten.

I’m confident I can relearn it, and it will eventually come back to me, but it’s disturbing to see what a lack of practice can do to something you once thought of as a part of your very being.

Is there anything you used to know well, that you feel like you’ve since forgotten?

Music I Love: Piano Trio No. 1 in B, by Brahms

Work: Piano Trio No. 1 in B, Op. 8
Composer: Johannes Brahms
Year: 1854 (Original Version); 1889 (Final Version)

Movements:

  1. Allegro con brio
  2. Allegro molto – Trio (Meno allegro)
  3. Adagio
  4. Finale (Allegro)

Brahms is a fascinating composer to me; aside from the beauty and passion of his music, he was a notorious perfectionist, burning old manuscripts if he felt they weren’t up to his standard – even years after he originally wrote them. His piano trio in B – listed as his first, and only his eighth composition ever – is dated 1889, only eight years before Brahms’ death in 1897. Brahms wasn’t a particularly prolific composer – following in the footsteps of Beethoven and Schubert, but he wrote more than eight works in his lifetime.

The reason his first piano trio has such a late composition date is because it was, in fact, originally written in 1854, when Brahms was only twenty-one. A sprawling opus, it’s one of the few surviving early manuscripts that Brahms left behind; so many others were lost to his passion for perfection. Brahms rewrote the piano trio in 1889, significantly shortening several movements and almost completely rewriting others.

It’s interesting, because to listen to the two versions side by side doesn’t immediately reveal one as better than the other; in many ways, they’re simply different. The opening melody of the first movement, introduced on piano for a few measures before the cello and violin enter, is heart-meltingly beautiful, and luckily one of the things Brahms didn’t change, but it isn’t long before the two pieces diverge, and don’t really come back again at all.

It brings up the complex relationship between the artist and the audience. If Brahms had had his way, no one would ever be aware of the 1854 version of the work; we’d all only know (and the version that is most often performed, is, of course) the 1889 version. But are they two distinct works? Or is one simply a revision of the other, to be known and played whilst the original settles to dust?

Once published, who does art belong to? Does the artist have the right to retract a piece of music that, for thirty-five years, stood untouched and was beloved the world over? What happens to the original, when the new one is so significantly changed?

I don’t think there are any simple answers to this, but it is a curiosity that, in this instance, we have the ability to hear what Brahms thought was good music at twenty-one, and to hear his opinion of that same music at fifty-six (clearly he didn’t care for most of it).

As for me, I’ll gladly listen to either version – from the gloriously melodic opening of the first movement (one of Brahms’ best melodies by far) to the jittery unease of the Scherzo and the passion of the Finale, this is easily one of my favorite pieces of music in the world.