Composing contemporary music in the age of sound libraries

I’ve been trained to write music on paper. My main teacher, one of the best composers of his generation, was also a copyist, and insisted on good and accurate calligraphy. Writing on paper seems like the most obvious way, when dealing with a very rational type of music, based on proportions and semi-automatic processes. It’s also the fastest way to notate some tightly integrated music gestures, made of a bundle of pitches, articulations, and expressions, that would be impossible to quickly notate with notation programs (an example: a violin playing a starting pitch, fading into a jété and gliding up to an uncertain pitch).

At the same time, I’ve always felt the need to feel the music under my fingers. Neither my mind, nor the calculated music coming out of a computer when listening to the results of what I was writing, has given me a satisfactory connection with my music. My mind, a powerful generator of music, is only a part of my body; and my ears, receiving the waves of pressure from the loudspeakers, are only a part of the sensorial experience. I need a tactile experience of my music, together with the auditory experience.

When very young, I composed at the piano. Sometimes, I sat at the piano, and went on experimenting with stravinskian overlapping chords, bartókian hammering rhythms, schoenbergian piercing intervals and misty outburst of notes; some other times, I just checked at the piano what I was writing on paper. I had a physical connection with my music.

Later, when I could afford one, I switched to computers. I tried to simulate “real” music and sounds. However, notation programs were unable to make my notes sound as I wrote them; I wrote them as music, the computer insisted on playing them back as arithmetic expressions. The sounds I could feel when playing on the keyboard were not what they were named after: the piano lacked hammers and resonance, violins lacked wood and body, brass did not explode, woodwinds lacked breath and click. The computer was great for electronic music, not for simulating music made with real instruments.

But acoustic sound libraries improved over the years. VSL was a revolution. Other libraries appeared for specialized types of sound. For what I was looking for, VSL and XSample offered great support to my music. At first, I had something resembling realism in the libraries that came with the Native Instruments package (a taste of VSL, then the realistic chamber strings of Session Strings Pro). Then, I could finally afford the solo instruments of the XSample Library with their extended techniques, and the accurate orchestral sounds of the VSL Special Edition. I had a powerful, realistic sonic arsenal under my fingers. I had all the sound tools I could need.

So, I could compose at the computer again. But how? Notation programs continued to be cold as a grave. Wallander’s NotePerformer added life to my Sibelius scores, but still more the life of a lemur than that of a living body. And composing by patiently writing and sculpting pitches on the staff looked like underusing the tools I had. What I had was basically a glorified piano – the same keyboard on which the greatest composers of the past loved to improvise and compose, the same white and black technological interface with music they loved to spend time imagining and feel their music – but capable to really *play*, and not only suggest, a full orchestra.

Is composing at the keyboard legit? With Logic, I can keep the score, pianoroll and controller pages open, in a mix of traditional notation, evolving texture and cluster graphic notation, oscillator and modulator diagrams. I can move the input cursor where I have to insert a segment, and start recording from there. I can step-input pitches as I would do in a notation program. I can have rather accurate notation and realistic sonic rendering at the same time, write notes on staves, and later export a MusicXML file to refine notation with a dedicated program. Logic can also assist me with some serial-based elaboration, unless I want to cut and paste pitches generated by OpenMusic.

What I feel is that, by composing at a DAW that lets me easily have accurate control on the piece’s micro- and macro-structure, I can really go further, and maintain a better control on the piece’s macrostructure and evolution. I can create a general structure and time signature map in advance, insert motives and focal points as placeholders, use the track arrangement space as a blank wall where to attach post-its, and create my piece by going from the general image to the finer details, gradually filling that wall. And always keeping contact with the actual sound, not simply a mental image of the sound.

Isn’t this a lot like the old Maestros sitting at their klaviers, one hand on the keyboard and the other hand writing on a music sheet?

(The above is an old reflection, made in February 2017.)

Sketching libraries and quick composition

Are “sketching libraries” really useful to speed up composition? I’m not a great example of quick and fast productivity, but when writing tonally I like to start playing the piano. Considering how good modern sampled pianos are, I find it liberating to just return to my first instrument and let it help me drawing at raw lines my music.

The new tempo follow metronome in Logic is a revolutionary innovation for me, since I have all my creativity killed by playing on a metronome click. Having the metronome follow me is letting creativity flow freely, as one could do in the age of acoustic pianos, pencil and paper.

The piano sketch is a good place to work on melody, harmony, form. It's just two lines of music and some textual annotations. When done with the basic matters, you can start propagating your music to the other instruments, by copying&pasting or playing idiomatically the new lines.

But I admit that sketching libraries are also great. Not as straight as a piano, they let you write down more information on the first pass. I like Albion One for more booming music, Vienna Smart Orchestra for more classical. The Berlin Orchestra Inspire series should also work great. Orchestra sketching libraries are however already forcing one to follow their pace. String attacks may be too slow, and while you can adjust this with a controller (later or in realtime), here are you already and again facing detailed editing - the thing you were trying to avoid.

On the other side, sketching orchestras may offer you inspiration. I can't wait to try British Drama Toolkit.

The horrors of the ideas about horror music

Jump into a discussion about sound libraries like Spitfire Audio's Albion IV "Uist", Sonokinetic's Espressivo or 8Dio's CASE and CAGE, and you see that they are automatically associated to horror music. Some also associate Spitfire's EVOs, with their intrinsic instability, to horror music.

To be honest, some sound library manufacturer does nothing to prevent this automatic association. Native Instrument called their dedicated library, developed with Audiobro, "Thrill". 8Dio is not hiding this is the intended destination. And it is true that their CASE and CAGE library are very dedicated to the genre.

In my view, however, some of these, like Uist, Espressivo and the EVOs, are simply great tools for modern classical music. They are not "effects", but "words" or "phrases" typical of a particular modern language. In particular, Spitfire's Evolutions are more on the subtle side, so I would exclude them from the "horror effects" category.

All considered, we often consider "horror music" the soundtrack assembled by Kubrik for his movie Shining. But these were, in origin, modern classical pieces from Bartók, Ligeti and Penderecki. The ones to whom the finest of these libraries are inspired.

Presets, templates and the good practice

All considered, making an universal preset schema that can work for all your sounds, and arranging the sounds in a template that will make your ensemble sound coherent, is not dissimilar to tuning the instruments of an orchestra in the old times.

With digital instruments, we no longer need to spend time tuning, unless you have the old-fashioned idea of calling in some acoustic instrument. In the pre-digital era, you had to accurately tune everything, including some analogue synth.

Renaissance and Early Baroque – a bit earlier than the birth of the opera, and at the times of Monteverdi – you had to choose a tuning among the many experimental ones. Bach had not yet come with his propaganda for completely equal tuning, good for all the scales. Meantone tuning, for example, was one good for great sounding major thirds and decent sounding fifths, and you had to think to the most used ‘modes’ to choose the best sounding intervals. You had to patiently tune by ear by listening to beatings between intervals, and ultimately following your taste.

Creating presets and templates is our preliminary work on what would lead to great sounding music. You have to think to the music that you will want to do, and decide which articulations, which layout, which selection controls and which space to use. It’s nothing more than what our ancestors did with a tuning fork and good ears: tuning their instruments to make them their immediately collaborative musical partners.

Composing at the sequencer or notation software

If you are like, a considerable amount of time is spent, before even touching a key, to decide if the project has to be done in a sequencer/DAW software, or a score notation program. If you can’t read written music, there is only a choice. If you can, you are falling between two stools, torn between two possible choices.

In general, I tend to go for a sequencer when I have to write for visual media, or to create a credible mockup of classical music. If I have to compose something in a style that implies sophisticate notation craft, I go for the notation software. If you are like me, you know that a written page of music is something more than music – it is an art in itself, where the composed symbols on the page translate into performed music, and are never just a mere transcription of resounding music.

There are situations where the choice continues to be hard. Hybrid scores, for example, might require so much realtime control, that notation software may lack the needed tools. Sibelius, for example, allows for MIDI controls written over the score. Handy, if all you have to do is to send an articulation switch here and there. Not much so, if you have to control the hectic filter opening or a synthesizer.

Dorico seems to promise to be the best of both worlds. As a notation program, it thinks are a contemporary composer does, with an innate flexibility in recording, transcription, separate editing of the two parallel graphic and performance layers. And then actual playback. As a sequencer, it has a clever piano roll page, where you can access notes as two overlapping layers (graphic; performance), running next to lines representing MIDI controllers and a lane with articulation changes.

Still, I feel that a sequencer will continue to be my preferred tool to model sound as clay; and notation software will mostly serve for art music, where either real performers are involved, or the graphic art is simply too important to leave it to a bare Score page in software conceived for noisier music.