This post is mostly for musicians, composers and musicologists out there — although people who have a general interest in the cross sections of classical and electronic musics might also find this an interesting read. It looks into how music software and notatational programs have changed the way composition is done by composers in a variety of genres.
Last week I had a sprint of inspiration and wrote two new pieces: one acoustic, and one electronic. One was a string quartet — my favorite medium to write for (this one was my 8th) — while the other one was “electronic music”, made purely in Sibelius 7′s playback.
It started with an improvisation I did at a practice room near my school’s Seattle’s Best Coffee:
In fifths at Seattle’s Best Coffee by Ryan Tanaka
Despite the jankiness of it, was able to get a few positive responses to this recording, so I decided to use it as material to build larger-scale works. (For the theory nerds out there, the chords are basically major and minor 7th chords, with its fifths split into different parts, moving in parallel.) It turned out something like this, although it’s just a MIDI rendition for now:
String Quartet No. 8 “Radical Center” Preview by Ryan Tanaka
The piece is inspired by, and written in conjunction with the Radical Center article that I posted a little while ago. I kept the post under the cover from friends and acquaintances at first, wanting to see what the reaction would be from the general public. To my surprise, the response turned out a lot better than I thought it would — I was able to get interest from a number of talented people for both the article and quartet, with minimal promotional efforts. I made a few new contacts, and the quartet will be performed and recorded (with “real” musicians) some time early next year, so I’m pretty happy with the way things have turned out so far.
After upgrading to Sibelius 7, though, I noticed that the playback function of it had gotten really good since it was first introduced about a decade ago. The MIDI sample quality improved a lot, and it came with enough built-in effects that I thought I could maybe produce a track just using the program by itself. The subject material of the quartet ended up being kind of heavy in a lot of ways, so I wanted to write something (using the same harmonic material) to lighten up the mood a bit:
This track took only 2 days to make, which is about the pace I need right now because things are starting to get really busy. (School, work, life, etc.) I’m always looking to cut corners where I can.
Some quick thoughts on my experiences with writing electronic music in this way. I know I’m not the first to do this, but there doesn’t seem to be much written about it so far.
- Most composers and arrangers I know would write things out on paper first, then input it into Sibelius for its ability to improve legibility and ease of making individual parts for performers. Classical musicians tend to see it as a word-processor for music notation, so doing things in this way would probably be considered unusual.
- Sibelius has a MIDI export function that some people use to import into other programs such as ProTools or Logic. If Avid improves their sequencing abilities in this area this might open up new doors for new methods of composition while making the former process unnecessary.
- Sibelius is not all that useful for composers looking to experiment with extended effects or gestures that rely on timbre. It’s definitely a “note-based” method and not very friendly to sample-based musics either. (Unless you want to program your own VST plugins yourself…which is a whole ‘nother thing.) For myself this is fine because I’m interested mostly in harmony and rhythm at this point. I also tend to like the editing power that comes with using MIDI.
- Both sequencers and Sibelius use MIDI, but in my opinion, the notational display of Sibelius makes it easier to understand what’s happening from a “vertical” standpoint. It could just be the result of my classical training, but for me it’s much easier to see relationships of harmony when it’s displayed in note values, rather than the feature-less “grid” of MIDI sequencers.
- Sibelius handles information of duration much better than MIDI sequencers — I can change a whole note into an eight with one click, rather than having to “adjust” its length with the mouse. In a similar vein, creating rhythmic sub-divisions within existing note values is much easier as well.
- Being able to insert new bars in between existing measures is highly useful. Sequencers can also do this as well, but the process of it tends to be more cumbersome.
- The copy-paste functions of Sibelius is much more intuitive, since it feels more like copy-pasting a paragraph in a word-processing document, where as sequencing programs tends to be similar to duplications you might do in graphics-based programs such as Photoshop. If you’re into copy-paste-edit processes, this is very useful.
- I found it easier to make small tweaks on individual notes since I could just insert individual commands as needed (the “mp mf mp” of the last bar in the second picture is one example).
- Sibelius’s quarter-tone playback plugin has a lot of potential that’s largely underutilized at this point. If I had more time I’d work on this a little more, but microtonal theory is extremely time consuming so it’ll probably have to wait a few years at least for me.
- If the piece ever gets popular enough for people to want arrangements of it, the note information is already there, ready to go.
In short, there’s nothing Sibelius can do in sounds that existing sequencing software systems already can’t, but its intuitive interface may be able to bridge the compositional, “literary” practices of classical music with that of the recording-based “oratory” approaches utilized in jazz, rock, folk, and other types of popular musics. Arguably, it’s one of the first times where the two things have been found in an integrated package that’s both intuitive and user-friendly. It reads like a score and it plays sounds back to you at the same time. (For a closer look at the “literary” vs. “oratorical” issue, there’s an article about it here.)
Given more tweaks (better editing and placement for audio samples, in particular), it’s likely that the practice will start proliferating into other genres, but for now, it’s likely to remain an electronic music phenomenon. Composers working from the classical music genre (those working in video game, film and tv industries in particular) are likely to take advantage of these developments first, since there’s already a similarity in methodologies in those fields.