Compostitions

Symphonix

 

Submitted for assessment as part of : MA Composition 2012, Durham University

 

Commentary:

 

Symphonix is a large scale work for orchestra and tape. The piece serves as an exercise in orchestral and electroacoustic composition and seeks to offer an example of how both traditional orchestral writing and modern electroacoustic techniques can be combined to create satisfying musical possibilities. The structure of the music is organic, although the piece is roughly divided into 3 continuous movements: movement I between bars 1-115, movement II between bars 115-189 and movement III between bars 189-end.

 

The opening passage bars 1-20 serve as an introduction, setting the tone of the work and introducing many of the themes that dominate the entire work. Indeed, each movement is represented here with key thematic material appearing in subtly altered forms throughout the opening 20 bars. The purpose of embedding all the key thematic material early on in the work is to create a sense of expectation and fellowship with the material, so that when the themes finally appear in their complete form, the listener already feels a sense of familiarity with the music. 

 

A significant challenge in the writing of this work was to effectively combine scored orchestral music with electroacoustic material in live performance conditions. Whilst the entire piece can be performed by sequencing software using a combination of midi software synths and audio tracks, the intention was to also create a score that would allow for the piece to be performed live by musicians. Perhaps the main issue that arises when attempting to achieve such an end concerns the issue of synchronisation. Achieving parity between pre prepared electroacoustic material and an orchestra requires a dedicated tape operator to accurately cue tracks from a laptop or similar digital media player by following the conductor’s direction. However, once a track has started, the tape operator has no influence over the tempo at which the track plays. Therefore, whilst the conductor can be flexible over tempo during orchestra only sections, it is also their responsibility to ensure that once they give the cue for the electroacoustic track to be introduced, that they faithfully maintain the written tempo (crotchet = 50). Using a metronome would ensure accuracy and would therefore be extremely useful to any conductor wishing to perform the piece. However, to account for inevitable break-downs in synchronisation, each electroacoustic track has been engineered to ensure that slight tempo errors or timing difficulties are not catastrophic to the coherency of the music.

 

The electroacoustic material in this work was produced using both Soundloom and Sonar 8.5. with the exception of vocal recordings, all of the material found in the electroacoustic tracks were derived from audio material sourced from midi recordings of the orchestral score. This not only made the process of layering harmonic content less problematic, but also increases musical interest by allowing the listener to enjoy the results of electronic processing by putting each sound within their original context. Following the editing and mastering of each individual track, the three main processes used to manipulate the sounds were Soundloom’s ‘extend’, ‘granulate’ and ‘stack’. “Extend” involves the freezing of an audio track at any given point and extending that moment in time. This is a particularly useful tool for capturing harmonies that can then be layered to create interesting harmonic textures and timbral effects. ‘Granulation’ allows the composer to slice the audio content of a track into very short slices, producing a stuttering effect. The composer can alter the length of each slice and re-order them, in addition to being able to adjust other features such as speed and transposition by modulating the frequency of each audio slice. ‘Stack’ is a processing tool that enables the composer to create interesting timbral effects by layering different transpositions of the same material on top of each other. ‘Stack’ in this case was used to manipulate audio files into high frequency, shimmering textures that aim to add a euphoric characteristic to the music.

 

In the case of Symphonix, Sonar 8.5 served more as an arranging tool rather than an audio processing tool. However, Sonar created a useful platform on which to create a midi interpretation of the entire work. This would be useful for any commercial application such as film or television where composers often produce music using only sequencing software, since small budget productions are unable to justify the huge expense of hiring and recording a full orchestra. As such, the composition of this piece works within the confines and limitations of available software. Rapid changes of tempo and extended performance techniques are not easily achieved using plugins such as EastWest (orchestral instrument synths) and RA (ethnic instruments eg. uilleann pipes, duduk and sogo drums) and therefore the piece aims to accept these considerations by working within each program’s own constraints.

 

Improvisation also features within Symphonix, adding an extra dimension to each individual performance in addition to allowing a greater degree of creative freedom amongst the musicians who perform the work. Improvised passages are controlled to a certain extent by defining the modal or harmonic content to be employed. In the case of the boy treble trio passage found between bars 32-59, the modal scale of C locrian is given, ensuring that harmonic cohesion between improvisers and reading orchestral players is maintained at all times. The cue sized notation found in the piano part from bar 340 is written in such a way to encourage the performer to improvise using the harmonic shorthand provided. The written notation is simply one possible option and is given in order to provide for players who are not familiar with leadsheet style interpretations, in addition to providing chord readers with a suggestion as to the appropriate style in which they should aim to conform. This degree of improvisation allows for a certain degree of creative freedom within the confines of a formally notated work.