Writing Music – Where to Compose?

Following my post the other week about composing, songwriting and producing music, I started thinking the other day that I might want to take a shift in my music back toward more ‘classical’ music – that is to say, I’ve always wanted to write a symphony. I actually did write most of one back when I was, like, fourteen, but it was awful and I never finished it anyway.

For a long time, I’ve considered whether or not I should try to write something in a more contemporary classical vein. I don’t mean like Beethoven or Brahms – I’ve done enough pastiche in my time – but something that is genuinely original, true to my own musical influences and style, and that could stand in its own right at a concert amongst other contemporary music.

A symphony is an opportunity to explore the textures and dynamics of an entire orchestra, which is something you don’t usually get the chance for in rock and metal (outside of those instances where bands are backed by an orchestra). I’ve always loved the sounds possible from flutes and violins and trumpets and timpani, and with over twenty different instrument lines to work with (consider that, despite there often being over a hundred instruments in a full orchestra, many of them play the same thing, such as the string sections), there’s an enormous range of complexity available.

But this is where things get complicated when it comes to actually writing the music. Conceptually, I understand the idea of composing at a piano and arranging the composition for orchestra. But I find that when I move to try and arrange/compose in a music production application such as Logic Pro X, I lose track of the harmonies, the melody lines, and I don’t end up with music that is as interesting or detailed as I think it could be.

So then I wonder – should I be composing in notation software again? I used to use notation software – Finale, in particular – exclusively, and whilst I still have a copy of the program on my computer, I’ve really not used it in over ten years. It doesn’t have the same level of sound quality for playback, but it helps me ‘visualize’ the music better, so I’m wondering if I should return to Finale for the composition of my new symphony.

I could, of course, always re-produce it in Logic afterward, but that ends up being nearly twice the effort. I did that with some old metal songs originally wrote in Finale, and it took frigging forever. In the end, though, the idea of composing is to get the damn notes down, so perhaps Finale is the way to go; when it comes to making a living, breathing recording of the music, I might just have to bite the bullet.

For those of you with experience with music production and notation software, what’s your preferred go-to?

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 Perils and Potentials of Pastiche

When I was a young composer in high school, I thought the pinnacle of musical genius to aspire to, the composer to emulate and copy and write like, was Beethoven. I had a deep love also for Sibelius, and Liszt, and Dvorák, and sought to write music along their styles, too. Little did I realize as I was cutting my compositional teeth that I understood their music’s beauty, without understanding its importance.

It wasn’t until I got to college and had my first compositional tutoring session that my world collapsed. I proudly placed in front of my professor the culmination of my childhood work – a full-length orchestral symphony that could’ve been written by Schubert – and watched in mounting horror and deepening shame as he methodically tore it apart. It was, in a word, a pastiche.

I had never heard the term before, and had never been presented with its concept as a negative thing; I had never been exposed to the idea that imitating art is not in fact worthwhile, but instead misguided flattery and a twisting of influence into something derivative and necessarily ‘less-than’.

It crushed my spirit.

But from the ashes of my early compositions rose something far, far better, and I am to this day indebted to my early composition professor for what he taught me about originality. You see, I had been laboring for years under the impression that the best works of art I could create would be in the same style as my influences. It never occurred to me to think otherwise; after all, shouldn’t I be writing the music I wanted to hear? And if what I wanted to hear was Dvorák’s ‘New World’ symphony, then shouldn’t I rewrite it with my own notes?

What I learned instead was the ability to see a work of art for its context, and not just its enjoyability. The dissonances and unsettling cross-rhythms of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony are beautiful, uplifting and inspiring, yes – but they are far more important than that, because they represented a moment in musical history when people heard something they had never heard before. But Beethoven didn’t simply create a symphony that was entirely atonal or arhythmic; he wrapped these special moments in a musical tapestry that in other ways harkens back to Mozart, and Haydn, and Bach before them. It was new, but it wasn’t unfathomable.

And this is where I learned the difference between pastiche and originality. You see, I could write a symphony that would sound like Beethoven’s tenth … but why should I? Where’s the value in recreating something that won’t have sounded ‘new’ for 250 years?

Instead, I started working on a style all my own, borrowing from what I enjoyed in others’ music and molding it into a shape that was recognizable, yet (almost) entirely new. I wrote clarinet solos; I wrote elegies for voice and string quartet. I wrote a 14-minute musical essay on the canon form for full orchestra. (To this day this remains one of my favorite compositions.)

And this is something I’ve learned to translate from music into writing, as well. When I started writing The Redemption of Erâth, I more or less wanted to write a story that would read like Tolkien. I realize now that this was misguided (I have nowhere near the mastery of the English language to even place in the same league as Tolkien), and as the series has progressed, I feel I’ve begun to develop my own linguistic style.

When I wrote my young adult novel, 22 Scars, however, I refused to read anything in a similar genre. This story was important to me, and it was important that I write it in a way that really could only have come from me. With short, often incomplete sentences, multiple points of view, and little to no emotion in third-person scenes, I was able to create a literary world that (hopefully) embodies the spirit of numb depression, draws the reader in and puts them squarely in the shoes of a suicidally depressed teen with a tragic upbringing.

The tonal difference between The Redemption of Erâth and 22 Scars is distinct, to say the least; I suspect most people would not assume they were the work of the same author. But there’s a reason for that; the entire world of Erâth is derivative of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and so it makes sense that the tone of those stories would match. The world of 22 Scars, however, is bleak, numb, and highly personal – it is my world.

Now, this isn’t to say necessarily that all pastiche is worthless; I believe there is a value in being able to recreate the style of your favorite artists whilst recognizing that what you’re creating isn’t necessarily meant to stand on its own without context. For my second YA novel, The Broken, I needed to write a few songs to get in the heads of the band members described in the book. However, these songs would be from the early- to mid-nineties, and to write songs that I would write today wouldn’t have fit. Instead, I listened to a lot of Rage Against the Machine, Korn, and even through to System of a Down and Slipknot, and wrote five songs that, to my ear, could have been the bastard children of these bands.

If I were to write a soundtrack to a period film, I would want that soundtrack to sound like it came from that era. The same rules apply. I wouldn’t bill that soundtrack as art in its own regard, but rather to be considered against similar works of the era.

Ultimately, I think that there is a fine line between influence and pastiche. It’s fine to be influenced by other artists, but the moment what you create could have been made by that same artist, you’ve lost the most important thing in art: your own soul.