One of the great things about film music is the immediacy. You write something and record it.

But samplers have always been a hindrance rather than a help. I just couldn’t write what I wanted, I was limited to writing for the sampler’s limited abilities. It was just a completely unmusical experience.

Things are changing. For the first time I can imagine something for real instruments of an orchestra and just play it with the sounds inside my computer.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s not the same as a real instrument and I doubt it will ever be, but I can finally write what I want as if I were writing for real instruments and just play it rather than program it.

Today I want to present my newest toy: Clone Ensemble.

Choir samples are as limiting as you can imagine. You just can’t write as if it was a choir, forget it. Some get close, though, but it still becomes programming rather than music. And what about capturing the right inflection and emotion in the voice? Forget it. Only singing can do that.

Enter Clone Ensemble. With this plug-in I am able to sing what I want and it takes care of making my voice sound like the different sections in a choir.

Here is an example I wrote in about 5 minutes and then recorded in about 10. It has a Mozart meets Orff vibe. I sang all the parts independently, letting the plug-in take care of making my tenor voice jump up an octave to create the sopranos and altos. I just had to make sure I sang falsetto.

I doubled the choir with instruments to increase realism, because the choir plug-in sound when exposed is not as satisfying, but I haven’t finished experimenting with it.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Not bad. Not bad at all. Let’s what else it can do.

Composition Rehab

hourglassIt is so easy to start judging what you write as you write it, and you really shouldn’t.

Of course you should consider technical aspects during composition, things like form and counterpoint and motivic development, that sort of thing. What you shouldn’t do is ask yourself “is this good”? It’s too early for that.

Judging slows down writing to a snail’s pace. Judging hinders creativity. Judging should come after, not during composition.

I know this, but still, this is what has been happening to me lately, and I know it is partly because of fear.

Fear of my music being bad.

I want my music to be worthy of living in the same universe as Bach, Stravinsky and Ravel, a worth-while goal for sure (I mean, what else should I aim form?) but this can sometimes result in a bit of pressure…

So to break the habit I started doing what I think of as “writing rehab” in order to remove that tendency to judge too early and thus, hopefully, open the floodgates to all those ideas waiting to come out.

The rehab plan is this: write a given amount of music in given amount of time. As I relax I will increase the quantity of music to write and the length of the writing session.

Today, I had set for myself a goal of 2 pages of music in one hour. I ended up with a page and a half so, close enough.

I decided to write whatever came out and not stress out about trying to be new or different or anything like that – this is rehab after all! Must relax and focus on the process.

So I wrote this nice little tonal andante for strings, lying down on the nice futon in my studio, pretty relaxed and singing very, very badly…

Here is a roughly sequenced rendition.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

If anyone is interested in my sketches, I could scan those once in a while…

Q & A: Long Forms

“Dear, Alain

“I am able to write short one-movement pieces (2-4 minutes). However, I find it difficult to write convincingly or interestingly for longer streches of time. How can I achieve coherence and thematic unity in larger musical structures?”

- Javier Canseco, student composer at HCC Holyoke, USA.

Hello Javier,

That is a very good question, and a big problem for all composers. I will avoid discussing standard forms but instead will give you a flexible guide to discovering your own path.

First you have to find what you want to achieve in long forms.

Ask yourself this: What pieces of long form do you enjoy listening to? Which ones do you feel do not overstay their welcome?

Everyone’s answer will be different for this, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that.

Then break down the form using timings, not measures. Music is experienced in the context of time, thus form (balance and symmetry…) is achieved on that basis.

Figure this out and you will have set some personal goals to shoot for in your own writing, then you can grow from there.

I would also suggest writing some Theme and Variations as exercises. Longer form generally require that you present your ideas in many different shades.

The Inventions and Sinfonias of Bach are also a good place to look for manipulation of material.

Another place to look, and this is a personal take on it, is at movie structure.

The entire film is broken down into short scenes of a few minutes in length. Each scene, ideally, has a logical self-contained structure (beginning, middle and end) while also serving the film’s material and overall form.

Since a scene in a movie will last only a few minutes, your current ability to write 2 to 4 minute pieces can be seen as the foundation for writing larger works.

Here is one way to go about it; think of the form of your larger piece, plan it out, then break it up into smaller sections – or “scenes “- of a few minutes each.

Each of those scenes must make sense on their own and together form a convincing dramatic arc.

Have fun writing,


Dukas’ Apprentice

Now that the film score is completed I can throw myself into the saxophone and piano piece. But I can’t just write whatever comes, I have accepted that to be gainst my nature.

I always strive to learn, to grow, to reach that goal of perfection. As Maurice Ravel said:

“My objective is technical perfection. I can strive unceasingly to this end, since I am certain of never being able to attain it. The important thing is to get nearer to it all the time. Art, no doubt,
has other effects, but the artist, in my opinion, should have no other aim.”

And I really believe that and live by it. It’s not easy, though, and it has caused me considerable grief in the past. But no more! Goals are good things to have,and growth is essential!

So, with this piece, my goal is to extract and apply concepts taken from Paul Dukas’ “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time but never stopped long enough to do it.

What I want to understand is how the basic phrase works (not melodically or harmonically, but psychologically) and how the form is manages to feel as natural and well shaped as it does.

What I am looking for here are core concepts; an essence that can be applied to any piece using any melodic or formal outline.

Of course, that means I’m sweating blood developing the idea I am working on at the moment but having a grand time doing it!

Feeding the Machine

Step number one in my process is what I call “feeding the machine.” I have written for saxophone before with good success (instrumentally speaking if not compositionally…) but now I want to completely understand the instrument.

So I am dissecting method books, treatises, websites and more.

I am also asking Jake Swanson, soprano sax of the Erie quartet, a million questions! Not what he bargained for I’m sure!!!

I am also writing progressive pieces for saxophone in the process to get a really strong understanding of all playing levels.

Learning to write for the saxophone by writing for the saxophone, not a bad idea, eh?

(Summer’s here. A fly got into my studio and it’s buzzing around my head as I write this. It’s driving me mad!)

It’s work, but it’s worth it.

You don’t get to kick butt by sitting on yours.