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!

Tales of Despair: The Fantastic Descent into Hell

Perhaps disheartened by the difficulty of writing an actual opera, in 1804 Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) had the bright idea to tell a musical story without the words, and so was born the programmatic symphony. His sixth orchestral masterpiece, the “Pastoral” symphony, was one of the first great musical creations to not just paint a scene or don a mood, but tell, from start to finish, a coherent and structured tale, through wordless music alone.

And it was a phenomenal achievement; through five intertwined movements, we are taken through the experience of the composer as he travels to an idyllic countryside, breathes in the beauty and serenity of the pastures and streams, and revels in the joyous dancing of the country folk. In a dark turn, we are overcome by a terrifying and violent storm, threatening to ravage the countryside, until finally it passes, and we rejoice with the shepherds. The story is, admittedly, rather naïve, but Beethoven was one of the great advocates of Goethe‘s humanism at the time, desperate for the belief that man was a better creature, and could aspire to beauty and greatness.

As the world moved forward into the romantic era, the youthful idealism became tainted with the dark reality of industrialism, war and poverty. Stories continued to be told, but they became ever darker. Composers and pianists, the rock starts of the nineteenth century, became corrupted by their popularity. Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869), the infamous French composer, wrote many of his greatest works under the heavy influence of opium. In fact, perhaps his greatest tribute to Beethoven – a twisted retelling of his tale of beauty and serenity – is the Symphonie Fantastique, in which that very drug is the catalyst for a descent into murder and madness.

Being a child of the romantic era, Berlioz was infused with the passion and impetuosity of many of those of his generation, and he found himself infatuated with several women in his life. One of these, an Irish actress called Harriet, caught his fierce attention in Romeo and Juliet, and she became the inspiration for what is today perhaps his most enduring work.

Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is, as was Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, a song with a tale to tell. Our young musician, in a dream of passion, discovers a woman who embodies his every ideal, and cannot rid her from his mind. He is delirious, love-struck, despairing and joyful, and sees her in his mind every waking moment. These thoughts consume him even as he passes through life – at a ball, a festive, joyous occasion, he cannot see the lights or the music. Wandering in the fields, by the brook and past the shepherds, he cannot but brood on his terrible loneliness. He wishes – hopes – that he may soon not be alone, but thoughts of betrayal of evil creep through his mind.

And then, the story takes a dark turn, and does not return. Convinced his love has forsaken him, he poisons himself with opium, and as he lays dying, he is plagued with the terrifying dream that he has murdered his only beloved. Powerless from the drug, he watches helplessly as he is captured, and led to the gallows. The crowd looks on, he cries out in despair – and, as the guillotine’s blade descends, he sees her in the crowd – alive.

And it does not end there. Dead, he finds himself transported to hell, lost in the midst of a witches’ Sabbath. Shadows, demons, sorcerers dance sickeningly around him, taunting and teasing him in his own death. And then – horror upon horror – he sees that she is a part of the diabolical gathering, that she is dancing to his death with the witches. As the bells of his death sound, the terrible creatures conspire to mock god, dancing over the ancient music of his wrath, and all is lost to perpetual darkness.

Inspired by the beautiful Harriet, Berlioz went on nonetheless to become engaged to a Camille, instead. When she spurned him, he raced to Paris, seeking to murder her, her mother and her fiancé. Eventually, when this plan failed, he returned to Harriet – and there, he discovered the painful truth behind infatuation. The two wed for a mere two years.

Berlioz would go on to produce one of the most famous renditions of the legend of Faust, who sold his soul to the devil. He separated from Harriet, and though he continued to provide for her for the rest of her life, she died not long after from severe alcohol abuse. His mistress, whom he eventually married, died eight years later. A girl for whom he had affection, only twenty-one years old, died also, and Berlioz was left with nothing but his grief.

At the age of only sixty, he began, in his despair, to wish for death, and not long after, he was stricken with violent abdominal pains. The pains soon grew and spread, and in the end, consumed him. On his death bed, he spoke these final words:

Enfin, on va jouer ma musique.