studio diary 20150126 or, the making of a monster (concerto)

I find an evening at last, to sit down and attempt a final mix of my most-ambitious-to-date piece of modern classical music, the above referenced “concerto no. 4 in F major for harpsichord & strings“. I’ve been working on the score for weeks, and for the past couple of those weeks, I’ve been reviewing the score, the arrangement, the instrumentation, the relative instrument levels, and actually, over a period of many days, I have made numerous small edits to the instrument levels in particular, trying to make sure none of my brash, overbearing solos are indeed, too brash or overbearing.

trying to keep the beast tame and submissive, without taking away any of his brute strength – maybe that is easier said than done. I know this piece like the back of my hand, better, in fact, because I really want it to be the best of breed, my first classical release of the new year; the second longest in duration, but, it has also become, what is almost certainly the most ambitious classical piece I’ve composed so far..

so to that end, I’ve spent even more time, than I lavished on my previous classical works, let’s face it, classical music is slightly more serious than rock, prog, or even ambient loop guitar, and, due to it’s relative complexities, it does take more in the way of time to acheive the perfect mix, the perfect master, the best sound quality that I can manage, and I don’t mind in the least that it does – because I believe it’s worth any amount of time – if the results are what I can “hear” in my head. and…they are.

concerto no. 4‘ to me, is like an old friend, that I’ve recently spent a lot of extra time with, and in doing so, learned new things about that old friend – and I think that’s really the best analogy that there is, a friend, and now, as I sit down to mix and master the piece, it will be like taking that perfect snapshot of my friend, as I wave his / her car down the drive and he / she heads off into the sunset.

the snapshot that maybe at the time, you take, and set on the top of your desk, and forget about for a while, and then, you run across it, weeks later, and you reflect back on the time you and your friend spent together – and you smile, because the snapshot has successfully caught the image, spirit and soul of your friend, as perfect of a moment in time as can be.

I undertook a piece of work last year, which was the rebuilding of the studio in a new premises, and that work is finally “done” – well, at least to an acceptable stage, so what I am doing now, is that each time I engage in a musical function, I make sure I have my tools and processes in tip top shape, so as to consistently get the best sound quality possible, to try and instil as much life and joy into the recordings as I possibly can.

in this case, that means a standardised mastering session in SONAR X3, one developed by me over the passing weeks, this one’s current template is called ‘Audio-Masteringx2’ and it is a very straightforward session indeed, consisting of two audio 24 bit 48 Khz stereo audio tracks, a pro channel preset that includes a compressor, an equaliser, and an RC-48 reverb from the world of komplete.

various presets have been developed, and this piece uses a fairly standard one, with a subtle, evenly matched compression that is hopefully undetectable to the ear, a gentle frequency enhancement from the hybrid equaliser, and finally, one of my very favourite reverbs at the moment, from the RC-48, “large random hall with random echoes” which at the moment, is set at about 32% wet. in this case, that might be the final level of the reverb, or not, depending on how the master I create tonight plays back in the morning.

I’ve carefully readjusted both the compressor and the EQ until they sound right to my ears for this particular piece of music, and the reverb level is the icing on the cake, the large hall is perfect for the boldness of this piece, and the keyboards and the strings fly out into that beautiful stereo reverb with equal beauty – it just enhances everything that I drop into it.

so I have done what I can as an engineer, after rejecting the first exported Notion file as too hot, the second export came out just perfect, still strong but never clipped, which is right where I want to be. I’ve spoken elsewhere of my penchant for producing music that is not slamming the underside of zero db; preferring a nice, gentle -4 db or even -6, occasionally moving up to a -3 or -2 db final output level if it’s rock, or prog, and it’s meant to be very ‘in your face’ and ‘LOUD’. I do like a good sense of dynamics, but I don’t like senseless or extreme volumes battering my poor, tired ear-drums.

for a piece like this, my final target will almost certainly be -4 db, but that will be subjected to several listening tests before I accept it. if need be – I will adjust it as my ears dictate.

but – there are many other things to consider when mixing and mastering this piece of music. I’ve made some unusual mix choices, for example, I have purposefully “placed” one of the main instruments in the piece, the harpsichord, panned almost all the way to one side. this is because I visualise this piece as being performed live, so I am sitting in the centre of the audience, the harpsichordist is on my far left, for example, the pianist, on the far right, and the poor celeste player is sat dead centre on the stage.

yes, this is to simulate a live situation, yes, it is intended to create an unusual stereo effect unlike that on many other classical recordings, but there is an even more unusual reason for my unusual stereo panning set up – it enables me to perform live circulations, a la Guitar Craft, using the keyboard instruments. and furthermore, I have also set up the string players into a similar scenario, because I have called upon them to harmonise with the keyboard instruments, while what happens is in essence, a “classical double-trio circulation exercise’ during the performance.

If you listen to the second movement, which begins at 7:18, after a brief introductory piece, begining at 7:39, you will hear the world’s first harpsichord – celeste – piano ‘circulation”, which at this point, is just single trio, from 7:39 to 9:00; but at 9:00, you will hear the second trio arrive; string trio of violin, viola, and cello, also set up with similar radical stereo imaging, ‘join in’ with the keyboard circulation, playing in unison or harmony with it up until 9:43, so from 9:00 to 9:43, we have the world’s first ‘classical double trio circulation’ – which was very interesting and exciting to score – I love the idea of using one of the best things about Guitar Craft, in my own classical music of today – why not? To my ears, a circulation of guitars is one of the most beautiful events in music (just listen to the California Guitar Trio or indeed, the League or Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists if you don’t believe me!!) so why not create one (or two, indeed) in my music now? And why not use keyboards instead of acoustic guitars?

I don’t have the luxury of having half a dozen Crafty Guitarists at my beck and call, so I can engage in acoustic guitar circulations, whenever I please. years ago, I solved that problem by making an album of ‘solo’ circulations for one electric guitar and a very long delay; now, I just add my circulations into my latest classical score! why not?

I’ve described now, in broad strokes at least, some of the physical work that has gone into this piece. but – I still have questions. metaphysical questions:

how is this even possible?
where does the knowledge come from?
how is it that, almost as if by osmosis, I can score classical music?

on a more practical level how do a handful of piano lessons as a child, one semester of piano theory at college and a long career as an ambient loop guitarist (and sometimes-member-of-the-orchestra of crafty guitarists), prepare me to be able to score classical notation? starting at the tender age of….fifty-six??

and the honest answer is: I truly do not know. I have no idea how I am able to do this. I start with a melody, I add in more instruments, I build the pieces measure by measure. but what I really don’t understand is…where do the classical melodies, harmonies, counterpoint, come from?

when I write rock music or pop music, I can hear the influences, I am conscious of playing in the style of guitarist a or bassist b. but for classical music, I don’t have the education, or the mad skills, to copy or mimic any influences…I just start scoring melodies and the rest, takes time…and days or weeks later, yet another concerto appears.

this one being perhaps the most musical and surprising one to date.

but I am not rejecting this particular ‘gift horse’, he / she can stop by any time if this is the result,

I give you, ‘concerto no. 4 in F major for harpsichord & strings’ by dave stafford, created in the Notion for iPad application.

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seems like a lifetime ago… (or, studio diary 20141101: arriving too late to save a drowning fungo bat)

A blast from the past as it were, sometimes, when you are involved in one project too many, various routine tasks (such as, uploading completed pieces of music) slip through the cracks.  This is the story of one of those projects – a project that was actually completed at the end of October, 2014, was rough mixed on November 1, 2014, but is only just now seeing the light of day.  The rough mix was acceptable, but for reasons unknown, the final mix was not made, and the piece just sat in the completed masters section of the database – done, complete – but not published!

That would be, my “third”, the “concerto no. 3 in d major for piano & strings“, my third concerto, but, the first to feature piano and strings, I’d always worked with horns before, specifically, oboes (my lead instrument of choice it would appear – see concerto no. 1 [in e minor] and concerto no. 2 [in a minor] – both for guitar and oboe – do you see a pattern emerging there?) so I wanted to test some uncharted waters, and see if I could “say” as much with just piano and strings.  It was challenging, but in the end, I believe I have succeeded quite well in that particular aspiration.  But I will let you be the judge of that…

A curious melody, sounding for the life of me, like a lost European folk melody, begins the piece, but then, suddenly, a banging and clashing of strings and timpani takes over, with urgent, repeating “morse-code”-like bursts, which then settle to almost ambient, mellotron-like strings, which wash over the listener in beautiful, deep waves…or so I hope, anyway! 

That folk melody established at the very beginning, then re-occurs in various places within the larger work, as do other themes – I really like to try and establish a number of different, short musical themes or ideas, in the first (and sometimes, second) movement, and then, reiterate them, often in totally re-arranged or re-configured ways, at various points during movements 2 and 3 – I like to always refer “back” to earlier themes wherever possible, I find that gives you a cohesiveness that can otherwise, be lacking – you can hear the relationship between the movements, as well as their own unique characteristics.

What I found was, that of course, you can’t really have the strings or the piano “soloing” endlessly, so various interesting musical events probably “take the place” for me, of the missing oboe, short instrumental passages, plain and simple chord sequences; lovely pizzicato sections (I find pizzicato strings to be absolutely gorgeous, and I will use any excuse to include them in my work – I really will); but what I found very interesting was that I continued to turn to the percussion section, to take over sections of melody!

In particular, I began to rely heavily on the timpani, to express musical ideas, that normally might have fallen to a more common solo instrument (my missing oboe again, or clarinet, or flute…) – so I found that timpani alone, or, timpani with xylophone, became my new weapon of choice, and even better, when you contrasted those two percussive instruments against the best percussion instrument of all, the piano – it sounds great!

So I found myself playing xylophone a la Ruth Underwood, taking my cues from the world of Zappa jazz more than from the world of serious classical music, and I tried to think like a Zappa would (not an easy task) – however, I will say, that this concerto has a far more…”modern” sound to it, it’s far closer to jazz then my previous two works (in places), and normally, I am not a huge fan of modern classical composers or modern classical music, but I learned here, that it can be very invigorating and indeed, a joy to take those sort of almost jazz-like flights of fancy, and then keep bringing back to earth with the strings and piano, making sure that the normal classical motifs and forms are still in place, so that it still retains a flavour of non-modern classical music – elements as old as the hills – the piano, leading the way, the strings, supporting, questing – I really enjoyed the composition process in this instance, as I always do, and each time I produce a new piece, I learn something – actually, not “something” – many, many things – new.

Then, it’s almost as if the percussionists have temporarily “lost the plot”, as they seemingly almost wander off onto a strange melodic quote from “the firebird suite” – played on the xylophone in a humorous style [between 5:59 through 6:25].

More Ruth Underwood-style solo xylophone follows, which then resolves into the most incredibly ambient section of strings I’ve ever scored, which is the long, flowing section that ends the first movement – in such an incredibly calming, slow, and luscious way, and, the first time I’ve used a long fade out in a classical piece– the calm after the modern jazz storm I would almost say.

A strident string and piano theme begins at 6:42, but very quickly, loses its stridency, and becomes calmer, with pizzicato “dropped chords” occasionally appearing, long, deep strings, fade gradually along with the ever-calmer piano melody, which is now dream-like, almost ambient – eventually, the piano disappears altogether, leaving those gorgeous strings on their own for the last few moments running up to 08:07; until the first movement fades to complete silence, when another “first” is to immediately follow; the start of the second movement, has an even longer “fade in”, which then becomes a new piano theme (which, curiously, had originally been part of the first movement, had been rejected and removed to the outtakes section – and then, because I really liked it, re-instated as the first new piano theme in the beginning of the second movement; which then begins to merge and intertwine with more timpani and more xylophone, but, fleetingly; once again, the long, beautiful ambient “string chords” threaten to overwhelm, they just flow over what is happening whenever they will, often, at unexpected moments, and I really like the sound of those long, string section held chords – simple, effective.

Then we have a section of string madness, where more new themes emerge, including a brief, bowed solo from the bass (another first for me, I think) I have tried to be a bit more bold in terms of allowing individual players to have more solo “moments” – and probably, more solo piano than in any other piece.  Some really lovely violin and viola leading up to ominous bass notes, long, held notes.

At some point, we are briefly re-visited by the opening “European folk music” theme, which is a nice place for a re-iteration, tying the first two movements together nicely.

Normal string melodies, trade off with pizzicato ones, followed by more moments of madness, from 11:18 thru 11:29 for example, when the lead violinist, begins playing high speed pizzicato riffs way above the top of his/her normal range, a piece of musical joyousness I simply could not resist, which started out as just one instance, and soon grew to a full 12 seconds of high pitched pizzicato madness – a temporary loss of sanity on the first violinist’s part, no doubt. 🙂

The second movement then settles into a sort of strange mixture of piano, timpani and xylophone, in more supporting roles, as violin, viola, and cello play interlocking lines, this section gave me a lot of grief at the time, but it was worth the pain, I persevered, and it all came out well in the end.  Some sprightly up and down arpeggios for both the piano and for the xylophone are interspersed, accompanied by powerful timpani, the pianist playing with some wonderful flourishes and beautifully underpinning the piece with subtle low bass notes, while his/her right hand is playing double-quick arpeggios in the top octave of the piano keyboard.

Our familiar D suspended 4th to D major theme re-occurs too, extending out into a timpani–led improv section, followed by more mournful, long mellotron-like string parts that bring the second movement to its inevitable conclusion…

…the third movement begins immediately, without the customary rest between movements, at 16:02 on an eerie, ominous minor chord, with the bass alternating with a short-duration minor chord, a cello melody begins, and we are once again, away…

More new themes are immediately presented, piano and strings being featured heavily throughout this movement, we then move into some “octave” piano work, followed by a beautiful, strange almost Rundgren-esque chord sequence [17:31 – 17:42], involving both major seventh chords and bass notes that are not the root note – as example, C major 7th with a G bass, or C major 7th with an E bass – anything but a C bass!! (two of Todd Rundgren’s trademark devices, the major seventh and the 3rd or 5th in the bass – why  not!) – which are then reiterated briefly by the strings –and then on into the next emerging theme, a descending chord motif…which then resolves to a piano theme first introduced in the first movement; our bright, major key sequence of D suspended 4th to D Major chords once again; which then resolves to a really stark, honest solo piano section that I am inordinately proud of [19:51 through 20:30].

A tension-building exercise is next, using a new piano riff to drive home a musical concept via repetition, and I love the powerful way that works, once again, resolving back to a reprise of that stark solo piano piece with its odd tempo slow-down [the one just referenced, from 19:51 through 20:30] – I love the fact that the tempo changes so often in this piece.

Again, the tension-building riff, but this time, for a shorter amount of time, it then dissolves into a piano and strings section that builds and builds in volume, until finally I reach my “Beethoven moment” [22:41 – 22:47] which while it may sound simple, it actually took some doing to get that part to sound right.

SPECIAL NOTE: since we are for now only producing recordings of the full concertos (previously, we have offered both the full concerto; and recordings of the individual movements, but we have discontinued that practice, and for the foreseeable future, we will be producing only complete, full versions of the concertos online) – here are the start times for each movement, and the total time as well, for those who like to know such things:

  • Beginning Of First Movement                       00:00 Approximate Duration: 08:07
  • Beginning Of Second Movement                 08:07 Approximate Duration: 07:55
  • Beginning Of Third Movement                     16:02 Approximate Duration: 13:09 (13:15 with added silence at the end of the piece)
  • Overall Duration                                         29:11 (29:17 with added silence at the end of the piece)

 

As is my custom, it would seem, the third movement of every concerto I do, seems to always end up to be by far the longest of the three; I do not know why this is, I am not intentionally doing this, it just works out this way – partially, I suppose, because I want to add in themes from the first movement, and sometimes the second, that if all three movements started out life roughly equal, that the third would always end up having several minutes added, because, first of all, I want to re-insert certain earlier themes, but also, there just seem to be more emerging new themes, as well as sometimes, I like to re-arrange or sometimes, radically modify earlier themes, to present them with all new instruments, or with one instrument taking the lead and another a background part, the reverse of how they were in movement one, and so on – a place to experiment, a place to really stretch out both compositionally but also, as a player.

The piano parts are where I get to compose what I would love to sit out there in front of that audience and play, so they are special to me – I do tend to spend inordinate amounts of time working on the piano parts, solos and other instances of piano – which I use for everything – bridging sections, supporting the strings with some percussive, piano “rhythm” – I love to play piano, but I have also learned – that I love to score piano – it’s a real delight, and I love it when things work out well, and it ends up sounding just as I “hear it” in my mind – and that is an accomplishment, it’s not often easy for musicians to do that, but Notion is an app that actually does allow me to do that – it lets me wander compositionally where perhaps my mere, human hands maybe never really quite could – but my mind – my mind can!

To date, then, my “third”, the “concerto no. 3 in d major for piano and strings”, also remains, as of January, 2015, in any case, the longest in duration of my published concertos, although the Concerto No. 4 is nearly as long, clocking in at 27:22. I think this longer form suits better, allowing me more chances to introduce new themes or refer to existing ones…

In this case, the third movement of the third concerto becomes a vehicle for a fair amount of solo piano, which appears repeatedly in between other musical events; in my humble opinion, the piano solo in the third movement is one of the most surprising bits of music that I have come up with in recent times, it really surprises me, and, it contains a wonderful slow-down of tempo at one point, which really drives home the melody playing at that moment.  After the long piano improv, a longish section of strings, with cello and viola soloing over the top of short chord bursts of strings, follows, again, this time, gradually slowing in tempo, with the cello leading the way to a long, long final sad chord…and then, back to the bright, beautiful string section with piano, theme of D major suspended fourth to D major, repeating, that originally appears in the first movement.

That piano theme fades away completely (I seem to really, really be on a “fade in / fade out” kick at the moment), or is that, rather, a “fade out / fade in”?? – the latter, in this case, and a completely new section, mostly piano-led, appears very gradually, fading in – to take us away into the lands of solo piano once again, repeating the wonderful “slow-down” tempo section, and then – to an incredibly Peter Hammill-esque duet between the lower registers of the piano and the string bass – it really, really is reminiscent of early Hammill there for a moment. [from 26:23 – 26:50 and beyond…] – I like how the piece lingers in this very lower register, where things are dark and deep – but then, moments later, the sun emerges again in the form of that persistent, sunny D suspended 4th to D major melodic section – what a swing of mood that is!

So many different moods and emotions are present here, especially in the third movement, which becomes a very rich and complex juxtaposition of themes, but somehow, I manage to make all of those recurrences, alternate versions, variants and mutations, all fit – and all work together nicely.  It was sometimes not easy to fit it all together, at times I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but in the end, I made it work – and, I think I have some nice tension built in certain places, that resolves into some of the quietest, most ambient sections that to date, I’ve been able to include in a classical work.

Notion has been absolutely instrumental in helping me to learn how to score, but by the time I reached concerto no. 3 (September – October 2014) I had gained enough skill with Notion, and with scoring, that I could, somewhat playfully I admit, insert these short sections of odd music just for the sheer fun of it – and when you listen, you might think, hey, wait a minute, did I just hear…the firebird suite, by Igor Stravinsky, played on a solo xylophone?  I am afraid the answer to that question is – “yes, you did”.  Or “hey, wait a minute, wasn’t that Todd Rundgren on the piano there?? “yes – I am afraid so!”.

You are not imagining it, it’s really happening!

Therefore, I present, better late than never; completed on November 1, 2014, but not uploaded until January 2015, with a great amount of pride and happiness, here is my third major classical work to date, “concerto no. 3 in d major for piano & strings” by dave stafford – we hope you enjoy it.

🙂 🙂