Project Teaser - September 2019

Hello everyone! It’s the 11th of the month, so it’s time for a monthly project teaser.

This month… I have been slowly tapping away with my keyboard and my computer. Each piece is being handcrafted note-by-note as the music comes to life. The video below demonstrates a bit of this process. The keen-eyed amongst you will notice the piece of music in the video has three pianos and a tripled string section!

At this point I have prepared four pieces of music, with ideas floating around for at least a dozen more. It’s just a very time consuming process! For comparison, I am aiming for well over twenty pieces of music in total. There is a long way to go still!

Composing Spotlight: Into the Beyond

Hello!

This month’s composing spotlight looks at the bold string-only video game theme song Into the Beyond, the main theme from my Adventure_RPG album in 2016.

I wrote Into the Beyond in mid-2016 after someone requested I add music to a video-game coding project. The game, titled Adventure_RPG, was all about adventuring out into the world to hunt down the menace Eric the Slayer and saving Adventure Town.

The composing work for this involved writing different themes for different areas in the game; forests, caves, fields and town. Into the Beyond is the theme written for the game’s loading and menu screens. It is the main theme, from which all the other pieces borrows aspects from.

So.. how and why did I write it the way I did?

Well, first, I wanted to capture the general feel and premise of the game. Tense and mysterious. Everyday the character was going out into the unknown in search of a supervillian they probably cannot defeat. Perfect. A driving timpani beat underlying the entire piece will drive it along. A minor key is absolutely fitting to this, along with a moderate military-style tempo and rhythm.

But there is one caveat; the opening three bars. In the game it is already known that you are in danger, so I saw no need to dwell on peaceful and happy times. Instead, I chose to use it to introduce and foreshadow the intensity to come.

The opening bars for percussion and piano.

The opening bars for percussion and piano.

The piece is written exclusively for an extended string section, with piano, percussion and organ added on top. It is not intended to be melodic, or even harmonic. It is a rhythmic piece that pushes further and further forward into the unknown. I did not intend anything grand, so I kept a very simple melody and supporting chord throughout the piece. D-minor for the entirety of every bar, with a small lift to A-minor at the end of the bar. The melody intended to be simple and curious as danger approached.

Main theme, first appearing in the violins.

Main theme, first appearing in the violins.

Then, the music changes. The focus goes back to the town, the melody and harmony changing to reflect the realisation of certain doom, almost like wailing. But never does the pounding of drums stop. Not once in this section does the home chord of D-minor feature, for D is for danger. Instead, we have things like A for adventure. The sequence follows a somewhat unusual Bb, F, Gm, A progression, repeated twice before finally allowing the return to the D-minor home.

Then, we have the calm before the storm. For five whole bars the beating of the drums stops and the strings give us some open air. Making full use of this, the piano borrows motifs from the theme and plays a solo. But it’s an uneasy and suspenseful moment - the final cadence signalling the introduction of the organ and the intensification of the music. This is where I imagined under still, starry night the watchmen of Adventure Town could see Eric the Slayer and his band of misfits approaching.

Piano solo directly before the organ enters the piece; notice similarities to the original theme.

Piano solo directly before the organ enters the piece; notice similarities to the original theme.

The organ. I waited an entire minute and a half to introduce the organ. Inspired by Hans Zimmer’s organ work on Pirates of the Caribbean and Interstellar, the organ was brought on board as a harbinger of fear. Its entry is entirely unexpected, yet immediately it establishes itself as the centre and feature of the music. In the build up back to the return of the melody I made full use of the organ. The right hand introduces a rapid and intense countermelody, the left hand rising in harmony as the dynamics intensify, and the feet playing one long, deep resounding D to counterpoint everything and convolute the chords. The result is that by the end of the segment the music is begging for resolution.

This resolution occurs as the music breaks back into the main theme. I wanted to give relief, but not too much, so opted to let the organ begin proceedings with its haunting version of the melody before kicking it back into the strings. By this point the dynamics have creeped up from pianissimo to fortissimo. The two styles merge and follow a general repeat of the opening sections, this time with the organ playing a counter-melody over the top.

Introduction of the organ and it’s counter melody.

Introduction of the organ and it’s counter melody.

Then, the drums stop and all melodies combine into one, with the strings taking the organ’s frantic semiquavers and blending them with the scales seen earlier in the music. At this stage I was going for chaotic and unknown, yet still familiar. Counter melodies are played together, backed by the original harmonies.

Then, finally the piano and percussion show us out. The tubular bells ring away as the threat recedes. Tomorrow will be another day of adventure.

The end result is 3m 17s of curios adventure and intense survival. These are the very essence of the game and this is what I tried to capture in the music.

Strings and organ mashing all the counter-melodies together to finish.

Strings and organ mashing all the counter-melodies together to finish.

And that is how I wrote Into the Beyond.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this spotlight!

Composing Spotlight: Ruminations

Hello!

I have written a wide variety of music and I felt like writing a series on my compositions and how they came to be.

So, first up is Ruminations.

I wrote Ruminations over the course of five days in October 2017 at the request of a friend who was in dire need of a piano piece for a university project that was soon due. The brief was simple: it had to be mysterious and melancholic, like a person with amnesia slowly remembering their past. The piece also had to be seamlessly loopable and for piano only. An interesting challenge for such a short timeframe.

First, I needed to set the tone and find inspiration. I was supplied with a few example pieces to help me understand the tone the designers were going for: the entire Dear Esther soundtrack and Hundred Waters - Blanket Me. In addition to this, I explored the Last Last of Us soundtrack as well as the iconic Minecraft soundtrack.

Knowing what I wanted to create I set about coming up with ideas. The first thing on my mind was to make it easily loopable and do this I opted for a simple and recurring rhythm that I can return to in the bass while crafting an ominous melody to overlay on top. This presents itself immediately when the piece starts and continues largely unabated throughout the music.

Opening four bars, which sets the rhythm and tone for the first half of the piece.

Opening four bars, which sets the rhythm and tone for the first half of the piece.

The key signature and time signature were difficult choices. I didn’t want to pick a minor key for fear of draining the mood entirely from the piece, but nor did I want it to be overtly happy. After all, it is a piece about mystery and confusion. I ended up settling on G-Major, but put a twist on things by rapidly shifting into the lydian mode, meaning it had two sharps (F# and C#) rather than the usual one (F#). The time signature was no easier; I definitely did not want the standard 4/4 common time. My first preference was for something more unsettling like 11/8, but ultimately to assist in the loopability of the piece I went for 3/4 while trying in other ways to mess with the beat. As such, I took care not to stress the first beat of each bar, instead choosing to put more emphasis on the second beat.

The next step was to decide the melody and harmony. The brief made it such that the harmonies were more important than the melody. So, to reduce emphasis on the melody I created something simple without any fancy bells of whistles. Creating the melancholic feel of the piece was all in the interaction between the rhythm and the harmony. This meant no explicit chords and no natural chords. Everything had to be broken down into the chime of the bass and every chord had to be ominous in some way. Namely, this meant the chords were generally either augmented, with a seventh or totally outside the key signature. This is profoundly obvious as soon as the piece starts, with the first eight bars of the melody going through the following chord sequence:

Gmaj7 | Am7 | Gmaj7 | Am7 | Bm7 | Caug4 | Fmaj7 | Emin7

This then leads the melody into the lydian mode and augments itself into:

Dmaj7 | Em7 | Dmaj7 | Em7 | Gmaj7 | Caug4 | Fmaj7 | E7

Main melody of the first half of the piece, in G-lydian (or D-major).

Main melody of the first half of the piece, in G-lydian (or D-major).

Later in the piece we get a series of descending chromatic diminished chords that slowly bring the piece back to it’s Gmaj7 home chord to finish and loop back to the start for a total length of 1m 30s.

After applying some ambience and convolution the result was a very ominous and melancholic piece of music that really gives you this feeling that something’s not right but yet it still is. The developers were pleased, but not pleased enough. They requested a second piece of music for when you finally do overcome your amnesia. or in their words, an '“intensification”. Perfect! That’s my specialty.

Originally I intended to write a seperate short piece that could pick up where the first left off, but ultimately I ended up put in a dramatic ritardando to mash the two into one piece with two halves. This was not easy task. The music I had written did not owe itself to the kind of intensification that was sought. So, instead I had to come up with something new that still felt familiar. This is where the melody comes in. I decided to tie it back to a common theme in the melody by choosing the first two notes of the melody - those two very first notes you hear on the upper end of the piano - and went to town with them. With those two notes and a transitional note, plus exploitation of the Gmaj7 chord and its close friend the Dmaj7 chord, I crafted a gradual intensification which is different, yet strikingly familiar.

Transition between the two halves of the piece. Notice the similarities to the melody, but in modified form and in the home key of G-major.

Transition between the two halves of the piece. Notice the similarities to the melody, but in modified form and in the home key of G-major.

Slowly and subtly I changed the underlying rhythm to shift the emphasis from the second beat to the first and third. The tempo increased, the dynamics increased and finally the melody was playing more than one note at a time. No more was it to be a simple melancholic jingle, but it was to become requiem of memories as you rise out of the confusion of the storm and into the brightness of day. Finally, when you emerge from your ruminations and, for the first time, your mind is clear, the piece swells into greatness and joy.

At this point I dropped almost every reference to the original themes, after all it was meant to signify a reawakening. The ‘7’s were dropped from the chords, simply becoming G and D. The rhythm had been broken down into something more forceful and driving. The harmony found itself with full chords being pounded out under the melody. The melody itself taking those first two notes and pushing it into something so simplistic you absolutely relatable to the melancholy that came before it.

The grand climax of the piece, with significant developments from the initial themes.

The grand climax of the piece, with significant developments from the initial themes.

Then, the final trick: bring it all back to the Gmaj7 chord and make it loop. Once all the dust had settled this was as simple as deintensifying, gradually slowing down the tempo and reintroducing the main rhythm underneath the melody. Then, to end, a gentle mash of the two themes and a full circle back to the start for 3m 25s.

That is thought process behind the piano piece Ruminations which I wrote in its entirety over the course of five days.

Did the developers like it? They loved it, and into their project it went.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this spotlight!

Have you heard? 01. Red Planet Nocturne

Have you heard? is a showcase for the unconventional, unique and inspiring music out there that never seems to get the limelight it deserves.

Red Planet Nocturne - Christopher Tin (2016)

Red Planet Nocturne” is a short piece of music written for piano and synthesiser by grammy-winning composer Christopher Tin. Generally known for his work on the Civilization franchise, particularly “Baba Yetu”, Tin composed the work as the main theme for the economic strategy video game Offworld Trading Company.

So how does a mix of piano and funky space synth constitute an unconventional, unique or inspiring piece of music?

First, it is important to understand the context of the music. Tin is tasked with writing music for a video game set on Mars where almost every action taken needs to be carefully considered in a competitive live (space) market environment. Now, how many orchestras do you think there are in space? Believe it or not, we have an International Space Orchestra, but they haven’t actually performed in space. No, there are no orchestras in space and fittingly there are no orchestras in “Red Planet Nocturne”. Instead, Tin opted for a soft bell, a typewriter of some sort and a fuzzy firework when playing with his synthesiser, giving the whole piece the ‘otherworldly’ feel that it needs. Then, he ‘earths’ it with a soft piano chiming away in the background, bringing wholeness and familiarity to the music. After all, it is still us humans that are colonising Mars.

The result is gentle piece that meanders in its own way. The music almost feels as if it is floating around, curiously adventuring into a new unknown. That doesn’t sound too much different to Mars anyway. In any case, the music is mysterious, but soothing, and well worth a listen!

“Red Planet Nocturne” has influenced some of my work. Most notably, the piano chimes in the piece inspired similar chimes in my own piece, “Crop Circles” from the Adventure_RPG OST.

Happy listening and enjoy!