Form that Makes Sense

As I always tell my students that music should come from a real place that relates to our human experience, to how we see the world and experience it.

I really believe that. Music theory should be a manifestation of something that is real and not something forced and artificial, and I live it everyday in my own writing.

For example, I am currently completing a new commission for the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra, and I am using some simple ideas of form based on what I think would be a universal human experience: confusion leading to clarity.

Here’s the passage from this piece that led to me writing this blog post.

Screen capture from work in progress

The counterpoint is very tight and overlaps, leading to lots of dissonance and lack of clarity in the lines as they get kind of jumbled together. It’s confusing, it’s messy, it’s nasty and unclear and and filled with tension on its way to a resolution.

I love this simple idea of confusion leading to clarity. I am sure this is something we instinctively understand because it is an intrinsic part of our daily lives. And so it has become one of my most commonly used guides in my writing.


An organic goal

Here’s something that explains in a few words what I aim for in music. It’s just a few words so it’s no thorough by any stretch … but still, putting your m.o. in a few words helps to attain clarity, so here it is.

My goal is to write music that is as organic and natural as the best improvised solo yet as tightly constructed as the best screenplay.

My Workspace

This is my workspace.

Although I use plenty of music technology, my room is set-up to have lots of space for good old-fashioned paper. It is as rich, bright and energetic as possible with my one small window. I used to like it darker but tastes change. I am no longer a fan of dark, gloomy studios for writing music. Now I think the next iteration of my writing space will have lots of windows if possible, as long as there is nothing outside to take my mind away from my writing. Tress, I’d like if it was only trees outside.

If usually sketch on the big board in the back to various degrees of completion then bring it over to the smaller board where I do mockups and fix-ups and whatnots. What I’d like to add next is a writing board on the desk that I can write more easily on. That’s next, will make writing the inevitable changes as I do my mockups more convenient. Right now I use the side of the desk. Works fine, but not as elegant.

Why I Don’t Write “Works”

There is a divide between audiences and concert composers. Orchestras are suffering everywhere. That’s in part because it is a musical museum and also because, perhaps, composers take themselves a wee bit too seriously?

Let’s face it, music is not an essential to life like water, food, air and shelter. It is an extra. But it is those extras that we live for, the extras that make our lives special.


During the Second World War, Winston Churchill’s finance minister said Britain should cut arts funding to support the war effort. Churchill’s response: “Then what are we fighting for?”

In the decade since I graduated with my master’s degree in composition, my perception of my role as composer has gradually changed.

And now, you won’t see me writing numbered symphonies or concerti, or a 30 minute song cycle where people must sit still without clapping through uncomfortable silences as pages are turned. You won’t hear me talk about pitch systems or extended techniques to an audience at a pre-concert talk.

My aim is to write melodic, evocative music that is, fresh, unique, engaging and often fun to play and hear. Music that is an asset to the musicians who plays it and a joy (with a bit of challenge) to the audience who listens.

Because I believe the concert hall can be a place of wonder, excitement, emotion and awe. That concert music can be new. youthful and full of life. Not just a place for a good nap!

So that’s why I say that I will no longer refer to the music I write as “serious music” or “art music” and I will not refer to my pieces as “works”.

They are just pieces of music. No more, and certainly no less.

John Williams and me (on the Maestro’s 80th birthday)

My Star Wars album from 1977

My first musical love affair was with John Williams’ score for “Star Wars”. I remember clearly lying down in my mother’s living room as young lad of 8 or 9, chin in hands, listening to the entire soundtrack on the vinyl I received as a gift.

I read and re-read the liner notes as I listened to the music, a single page containing descriptions of all the tracks and all the themes. Even though I was quite young, I treated that piece of paper like gold and it is still intact in the original record sleeve from 1977, here in my studio.

I was taking piano lessons at the time and asked to play the music from “Star Wars”. I received a photocopy of the music, which I practiced very hard. I drew my own cover for the sheet music, taking great care with it. It was a x-wing being pursued by a tie-fighter with the Death Star in the background.

I can still sing you every single note of the Star Wars score. And now, many yeas later and with a master’s in composition behind me, I can tell you which parts of Star Wars come directly from the Rite of Spring. And you know what…?

I don’t care.

My love for this music is a link to my childhood, and there’s nothing that can change that. And on top of that, now that I know what happens during the composition of a film score (deadlines and temp scores) I can easily forgive a few minor “hommages”.

After my Star Wars score I received the vinyl for Superman. Same story and now I know every note.

After that it was the vinyl for E.T. Same thing.

I had brief affairs with Vangelis, Danny Elfman and Henry Mancini, but they never lasted. I always came back to John Williams.

To say that John Williams is the reason I love orchestral music so deeply is perhaps not a stretch. Our adult lives are shaped by our childhood experiences, and John Williams’ music was a big part of my childhood. In an era before VCRs, his music was a connection to my favourite films and I listened and listened until the scores became the central element.

Now, as I make my way as a professional film composer, his music is a constant reminder of the level of excellence I aim to achieve in my own career. From the indelible melodic writing to the glowing orchestrations, to the perfect dramatic placement of the music and the pacing of the score, John Williams music remains my biggest source of inspiration.

Tell a Story

Second post regarding the new VMO commission.

This piece is about 9 minutes long. I’ll tell you right away, this is the longest single movement concert piece I have ever written.

Up until now I have focused on other aspects of composition and did not feel ready for something this long.

Now I was ready for it.

I was discussing our perception of long pieces with a friend and professional musician. And we both admitted that, even though we love music on a very deep level, many long movements can really be… well, boring.

So to prepare for this 9 minute piece, I listened to tons of long pieces and had very deep thoughts :) as I paid attention to my own reactions as a listener.

What interested me? Where did my attention wander? Why? Did I have to work to be interested?When did I get bored and feel like turning it off?

I reached many conclusions and still many more to come. Here are a few:

  • Beautiful orchestral colours, the sheer beauty of sound.
  • Melodic continuity and clear form.
  • Variety, limited but obvious.
  • A definable arc.
  • Some surprises that still make sense

Yes, these are all obvious, but they are simple yet important concepts that are badly used in general. Too much of the same during a long piece and you get bored, too much variety and the music appears random and disconnected and the audience drops out.

The piece is a journey for the audience, and the melody (or central idea) is the character that leads them through it.

Just like a story! And ever more to the point, just like a film which, like music, are experience temporally.

This is something I have thought about for years, and now I see it makes complete sense and will write some posts on how concert music (especially long pieces) can benefit from an understanding of movie story-telling.

Now back to my piece!

Lead the way

Still composing the VMO orchestral piece. I have some thoughts I want to put down in my blog and I’ll try to do it in short, frequent posts. Here’s the first.

I had many ideas for this piece, and being of longer duration, I had more material prepared to fill the formal plan I had in mind.

However, once things got under way, my themes would transform slightly, suggest different things and lead me somewhere else.

Sometimes I resisted if the direction they wanted to take seemed too obvious to me, and other times I would follow if the new direction made sense and wasn’t obvious. That’s the best place to be, when you write something that wasn’t obvious but makes sense, then you got a winner!

This reminds me of Elmore Leonard and how he described his writing process. First he forms the character, understands him and then he puts him in a situation and lets the character write the story.

This process of following where the melody wants to go reminds of life too. It’s good to have a plan, an itinerary, a goal to shoot for and a place to go. But if you keep your eyes open along the way you might discover little side roads and end up in marvellous places you had not even imagined when you started.

That’s what it’s been like writing this piece.

Orchestral commission: taking the time

The core idea for the VMO commissioned piece has been chosen and it’s time to write. Today I am exploring the idea freely, seeing where it takes me instead of going straight to paper. I will not write anything final today.

I am jotting ideas down and recording myself improvising freely.  I am exploring the sound world of the melody and harmony, seeing where this “character” will take me. (See previous post.)

Gradually, I am getting a sense of the whole, of the possibilities, of the form, of the arc of the piece, of what I need in terms of contrast and climax.

I am always looking for different avenues beyond what is obvious. I always fear that the obvious will be cliché, and it often is. So I look further and dig deeper. I could not do that if I started writing the final right away, at least not without fear of screwing up!

So for now I play and explore without committing to anything. Tomorrow I will likely start writing if I like what I have and if I can see where I am going. Otherwise I will explore some more.

Comforting Skin – Day 2

After almost a week of dealing with my upgrade to 64 bits I was armed with a shiny new OS, loads of RAM and was off to the races yesterday on the feature film “Comforting Skin”.

I don’t have the film yet. Just read the script and saw a couple of scenes that Derek, the director, brought over just over a week ago.

Writing music without the film is always tricky, but right now this is an exploration phase. Based on the scenes I saw and my talks with Derek I had a pretty god idea of the direction for the music, so I was able to come up with many ideas (total 7) and listened to tons of stuff, mostly Gubaidulina.

I will now listen to those ideas, see if they are still good and send them to Derek. He will then react and then I will write some more. It’s really just playing around, the best first step to creativity.

Oh, actually, the first thing I did yesterday was run through most of the synth sounds I have, looking for things that fit my general idea for the score. The budget for this film is low, so it might be necessary to supplement the live instruments with samples and synths.

Still, the plan is to do a real chamber score, so it might be all live… we’ll see. But considering budget and musical direction is an important part of film scoring.

Silk Boy – Score Analysis: Introduction

The CD of “The Legend of Silk Boy” is out, the reviews are coming in slowly and very positive. As I approach other film projects I wish to bring Silk Boy to a close by doing a series of blog in the vein of my favourite Film Score Monthly articles: a theme analysis.

So in the next little while I will be going over the score theme by theme and track by track, explaining how they were written, what was the inspiration and approach taken, and how they fit into the film (without giving too much away.) There will be examples from the final engraved score, scans from sketches and whatever else would be fun to include.

This will work great with the CD release because it was released in chronological order and has only a few cues missing. So I’ll be referencing CD track numbers to those who have it!

Let the party begin!