A Composition Journey: Part I

Dave Cracked Up (Blog), Creating

Lately, I guess I’ve gotten this odd urge to document my personal artistic endeavours. I have no idea why.

Rest assured, I’m not writing a memoir. In addition to my recently expressed plans to release an EP, I’ve been writing music to be played by a stand alone ensemble – NOT film music.

My “Own Stuff”

I get asked quite regularly if I write a lot of my “own stuff” to which I answer:

“No, not really.”

NOT that I don’t want to… It’s hard to explain, but after spending hours per day in the studio working on film scores, sound designing, recording and/or mixing for others, it can be a tedious chore to produce yet more creative stuff for yourself.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely LOVE what I do. But, much like working on a client project, working on a personal project requires an investment of creative time and creative energy. Finding either of those in adequate supply is a challenge to my EP and this particular project.

Without getting too much ahead of myself, the music director at my sons’ school and I have aligned planets to get this project off the ground. At the last Christmas concert, we made it official by announcing the premiere of the piece in the spring.

We’ve joked for almost four years about me having one of my compositions played by the senior band at St. George’s School here in Vancouver but never really getting serious about it. I started writing something applicable over the summer and come fall, I had an orchestral mock-up of what I am calling “Morning Routine” that I shared with him:

We got to chatting about adapting it to concert band and over the fall, after some heads-down work in Sibelius, I had an arrangement of the score that looked like it could work.

In The Beginning

So, let’s back up a bit. I’m getting ahead of myself as the original intention of this post was to be the first chapter documenting how I wrote “Morning Routine”.

I think anyone who’s labeled themselves a composer has had visions of writing a spectacular epic that gets performed by 50+ musicians in a grand hall to an adoring audience just itching to jump out of their seats to shower you with heaps of applause. There are undoubtedly variations on this fantasy for pretty well any artistic or athletic endeavour out there.

To set your expectations, that’s not my intention with this piece. Writing for an ensemble of musicians is a monstrous task in of itself. I’ve written for ensembles (real and virtual), but this is one of the first that I’ve done as the “alpha creative”. In other words, I started with a true blank slate. I didn’t embark on this project with any illusions that I was going to climb Everest after exploring a few of the local mountain hiking trails.

The goals I set out for myself were to create a modest composition – somewhere in the 5-minute range – and create it in such a way that the vast majority of the audience were still awake by the time the piece finished.

The first thing I had to do was get a starting point and a structure.

Storyboard of “Morning Routine” (click to enlarge)

Where to Start?

I started by pulling all my composition and creative books from my bookshelf. A lot of the music composition books talked about traditional forms and structures – Strophic, Variation, Sonata-Allegro, Rondo… – yeah, I fell asleep too.

I needed something that was going to be … well … not boring.

Musical forms have evolved to provide guidelines and structure to music. Without them, music would be a rambling mess resulting in a trail of bored and disinterested listeners. Seeing as none of the traditional forms seemed to spark excitement, I decided to create my own. It actually was one of those face-palm “duh!” moments. I’ve been creating and manipulating themes that support stories and narratives throughout my stint as a film composer.

Why not do the same for this? – Create a story and use THAT as the structure for my piece. “Brilliant” I think I yelled. …but what story?

Some of the theme sketches for “Morning Routine” (click to enlarge)

I was inspired by – if you haven’t guessed it already – some of the happenings (real and imagined) of a family’s morning routine. I chose to base my composition around the perspective of an adolescent who stumbles through their (a-)typical AM drill. With a piece of paper and a pen, I sketched out an over-the-top slice of life (from waking up through to arriving at school.

After a few rounds of trying out ideas at the piano and adjusting the story, I had more than enough material to create a piece of music that could accompany the storyboard-turned-visuals that was now playing in my mind.

As I continued to try out, assemble and re-assemble ideas in my Digital Audio Workstation, the structure started to materialize and all the little details started to fall into place.

… but more on that in the next installment!