David Roche Blog 3:
Composing Hansel, Gedeon, and the Grimms’ Wood: basic compositional concerns
Hansel, Gedeon and the Grimms’ Wood is unusual as I – more or less - have carte blanche to write what I want, work on what the music that I want to, and respond to the stage action in whatever way I see fit. The freedom to do this is fantastic – it’s also rarely the case with these kind of productions – and I’ve certainly been enjoying what I’ve been working on… but it is a little scary. It reminds me of when music streaming services first came about. As soon as someone offers you any song you want you have no idea what to listen to. So, with that in mind, I’m still working on putting the music for Hansel, Gedeon and the Grimms’ Wood together. I thought I’d use this blog to take a step back, talk a little about how I have been composing, why I’ve been composing in different ways, and what I hope to get out of it.
As discussed in my previous blog, being present at rehearsals and spending a lot of time with the script is super important. It has shaped my entire compositional approach. The best example of this so far – without giving anything away – relates to a scene in which the Musicians of Bremen, a group of animals that are a lot like the Rolling Stones, are on stage. As a guitarist (primarily rock and some acoustic bits – read more about it here), I was drawn to this straight away. For me, the only way to evoke an appropriate atmosphere for this section was to use guitars. In my home I have a room where I do some recording. I keep my amps there, my guitars there, my microphones, and all my bits and bobs. I’m a terrible neighbour, always have been. I sat down with an acoustic and, owing to an offhand comment by director Jon, I decided to try and make a mixture between that earworming cockerel song from Robin Hood (apparently he’s a rooster, my bad - brace yourself before listening to this, it never leaves your head) and an aggregate of Rolling Stones songs. At the moment I’m not particularly on board with the demo material that I have, it’s too fast for sure, but it’s a start and there’s something there that I’m really in to and developing. For me, there is no other way to get an authentic, gentle rock band sound; midi guitar chords sound incredibly fake; it’s super hard to program the characteristic sloppy, cool attitude; and it’s generally much easier to improvise over a chord progression than it is to craft an expressive, rock-style solo (go and have a look at some rock music transcriptions if you don’t believe me, the Joe Satriani Surfing With The Alien transcriptions suggest that Satriani was thinking in nested tuplets – I don’t believe it for a second, he was just noodling).
I don’t often record music professionally, I work with some people to produce professional recordings and my recent commission for the Royal Observatory Greenwich is a good example of this. When recording music at home my set up is super simple and idiot proof; my Mac, Logic X, a Focusrite Scalett 2i2, Amazon Basics mic stands, a Sennheiser dynamic mic that is so old that its name has faded off, and 2 AKG C 1000 S condensers (powered by the Focusrite). I used to use a Mesa Boogie Express 5 50 amplifier before it decided it didn’t want to work anymore and, as a replacement, I am making use of a few different modelling amps which I mic up rather than DI. I have a rack of guitars that I mess around with, nothing too crazy there other than my Tom Anderson electric. If I am recording an acoustic I tend to use both a condenser and a dynamic mic about 12 inches from the guitar, pointed at 12th fret. I point the microphone there because the internet told me to, it made so much difference and I felt like a fool after doing it (very sad face). I spend a lot of time faffing around with sounds in Logic but, as I said, I’m not a studio engineer by any stretch of the imagination – I have people I work with when I need to make professional recordings. Acknowledge your limits, try to get better at it!
Something that I’m really trying to work in to Hansel, Gedeon, and the Grimms’ Wood is the opportunity to have a live performer in the production. I have a few ideas at the moment but most of these need to be tested so I’ll only talk about one of my plans. I’ve written a few small studies as part of my own preparation for the show (audio here, score here). These all work on piano, they’re all nice and gentle, and they all relate to significant themes from the production. I’m hoping that I can weave these, or some version of these, in to the production. Some of the pieces are inspired by Welsh folk songs too but more on this as I progress... I feel like I am on the cusp of finding what I want! Writing these little pieces relates to 3 different aspects of composition that are important to me; playing at the piano, writing at manuscript, writing at the sequencer.
I write a lot of my music at the piano despite being a dead, dead average pianist. I find that if I’m playing guitar I’ll just start churning out music that sounds like Megadeth or whoever I’ve been listening to… which is great but it doesn’t really have the woodland vibe (except maybe ‘The Trees’ by Rush, sort of). I wrote my two most recently performed orchestral pieces at the piano – My Mind Directs My World started off as a series of improvisations before being arranged for orchestra, as did the first movement of Acoustical Anatomy (listen to the piano improvisation here). They were also both written in the beautiful chapel of my college, which was all very spiritual! Anyway, to get away from the Rolling Stones vibe and make something I could more easily pull apart in a score, I wrote at the piano. When I am practicing away from home I almost always record myself playing (I used my phone, Galaxy S7, for the above improvisations) just in case I play something that works as a piece of music – super helpful, it happens more frequently than you’d think! For this production, and for almost every piece I’ve written over the last year, I came up with my initial ideas at the piano.
When I get home I either pop what I’ve written on to manuscript by hand – although I usually just mock up gestures that use specific instrumental techniques in this way – or I put it in to Sibelius, which is where it will eventually end up anyway. Once it’s in Sibelius I can copy, paste, transpose, and export it to make it meet my needs (which is exactly how Mahler would’ve done it, I bet). It’s a bit unfashionable to say, but I write a lot of music in Sibelius. I find it easier to quickly listen to something over and over, quickly make and revert changes, and quickly make a passable audio file that I can send on. The craft comes much later on, I need the ‘good idea’ first of all. My biggest concern with any possible live music element in this production is making sure it’s easy, repeatable, and impactful. Creating a score is, for me, the fastest way to ensure this. I make it and prune it over and over. Getting the MIDI file from Sibelius allows me to more quickly, less specifically edit files for Logic (also, it’s easier to start in Sibelius as Logic doesn’t copy automation data in to Sibelius).
After I have these ideas, and if they’re not for live performance, I’ll set to working on them in a sequencer more suited to audio production, namely Logic X. If I’m producing a track that will be played during performance then all I have to worry about is the quality of sound, not how practical it is to play on the instruments. I will spend a lot of time faffing around with my MIDI keyboard and sample libraries to make the best possible audio that I can. At the moment I’m focusing on making something festive, exciting, and attention-grabbing to open the show. I’m happy with the material that I have – I love the melody – but the demo needs a little tightening up. If I can eventually mix it to a high enough standard then I will be able to use it (oh, I also use a set of M-Audio speakers) but if it doesn’t meet the standard that I need it to then I’ll head to the studio and get some help to finish it up.
Phew! I hope blogs 2 and 3 gave you some insight in to the process of creating these early sketches. My next few blogs will cover, in depth, the process of creating the actual concretised music for the show. It’s all starting to take off now! Wahoo!
I write a lot of my music at the piano despite being a dead, dead average pianist.