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 Post subject: Transition from sequencers to manuscript paper
PostPosted: Mon Jan 17, 2011 10:08 am 
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The title may not be that clear (I have trouble with the word limit), but... what is the best way to transit from using midi sequencers to compose classical music to composing through manuscript paper?

I started composing using a pattern sequencer (e.g Propellerhead Reason) 2 years ago (see attached file) without any formal training in composition (but an immense interest). Originally used for composing electronic music, it allowed me to do things I wasn't capable of on the piano (barely Grade 8) and easily refine any interval or chord by dragging notes up and down and playing a passage again and again (spacebar). There wasn't a need for much planning at all since you could easily adjust the rhythm, pitch, and position of any note and hear the sequencer playing it back, allowing me to compose on impulse without even hearing anything in my mind's ear, unlike proper programs like Sibelius and such, where it is quite a hassle to do major changes if you were not quite sure about what you wanted (especially regarding rhythm and accidentals, which Reason does not care for). It was also easy to get experimental with harmonies and overcome any technical difficulties presented by runs, scales and appregios etc. With such great freedom at my hands, I developed quite a dependence on it. It was essentially constant improvisation.

Starting off was fine; it helped me get a feel of basic harmony and the general knowledge of what made a piece tick. It was also pretty easy to superficially emulate some of my idols and use the chords they used, and dabble in simple counterpoint; at this level I could overcome theory by sheer force of will and patience. I could even develop my own style and put in some originality into my pieces through the almighty sequencer; it sort of catapulted me into composition faster than other methods (e.g slowly playing the piano and assembling something from scratch, etc.). While there were many slightly disappointing endings and transitions that contributed to a dull ache of the mind, they weren't serious enough for me to really pay attention (since the forms were small), and so I just proceeded on.

However, while I was somewhat proud of some of the things I wrote (e.g below), I slowly became aware of the shortcomings of the above method. As I became more ambitious and started to go towards larger forms like sonatas and what not, I was severely impeded by the 'improvisation problem'; I had many musical ideas which I could easily commit to the program but it became impossible to link them together or to structure them in such a way that makes sense (I couldn't get back to where I started etc.) The freedom I embraced at the start ended up being a constant distraction and a waste of time, since I needed to think musically on a large scale to solve those problems. But my approach discouraged long-term musical solutions in the first place, and so I had no choice but to give up many things. Thus, I'm in sort of a blockade where I can't go any further.

Moreover, I found that, to my humiliation, I could not play anything I wrote! It was quite embarrassing to say to others that you are a classical composer and yet be unable to do anything on an available piano to show it. Much of what I wrote was totally un-pianistic, some of it impossible for two hands, especially regarding legato within three or four parts etc. I did try writing some of my compositions on paper from the sequencer, but it quickly became untenable at some parts. This also meant that I was blind to the nuances of actual piano-playing in my compositions; unable to visualize any form of rubato, shaping or phrasing naturally. The program also does not allow quintuplets or any such complex rhythms, which is an added detriment.

At the end of all this, I find that I had been led on a false trail all this while, and thus have to start all over from scratch and Sibelius, but the sequencer seems to always lead me in again and again. Does anyone have any advice on how to continue composition under these terms?


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 Post subject: Re: Transition from sequencers to manuscript paper
PostPosted: Mon Jan 17, 2011 11:19 am 
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I like these preludes, their vigorous drive reminds me of Kapustin. Did you lend an ear to his music before composing these ?

I find the ending measures of prelude 7 a bit disappointing, the coda starts real exciting at 1:25 but seems to run flat into a dead-end instead of ending in a great blaze of sound. You could work on that, if you can retain the inspiration of the moment.

Now for a real jazzy interpretation with swing, accents, dynamics, and articulation ! These renderings are too mechanistic. I can imagine these being very hard to play, though they sound manageable.

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 Post subject: Re: Transition from sequencers to manuscript paper
PostPosted: Mon Jan 17, 2011 11:59 am 
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Hmm, yes, I did hear a bit of Kapustin when I composed those, but only his 8 Concert Etudes and his Variations (Op.41), but I wasn't thinking about him when I did these. I can imagine No. 12 (11) being a little related to his style though (the second theme), but 7 has some characteristics that doesn't seem very much like him. As for 7, there is something of a personal joke in the ending; if that piece was totally for entertainment, I would certainly have gone for the giant blaze as you put it, but there is something else I want to convey through that piece. Problem is that I can't go very far in the latter if I continue using these sequencers to compose stuff! I'm glad that you liked them though, and I might try making that second section of 12 sound swingy as you said.

Oh, and as for the topic, the lower tones of the piano are totally different from that of the sequencer (they have far more resonance than I would like). I feel that I would have to somehow change the pieces to make them work on the real piano, which is another reason for my need to be more acquainted with the piano with regards to composition.


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 Post subject: Re: Transition from sequencers to manuscript paper
PostPosted: Tue Jan 18, 2011 5:56 am 
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Unless you want to do synthesized music, hip hop, trance, techno, house music, I wouldn't use Reason for classical music composition. It's a DAW designed for the aforementioned types of music. The notation capability is limited. You want a good music notation software that's MIDI capable, and has dedicated music notations and extensive markings. Sibelius or Finale should be your choices. It would be nice to have all the MIDI information regarding dynamics in your recordings. But, if you're set on DAW setting, Logic on the Mac or maybe Cakewalk Sonar on PC may suffice.

My advice is to NOT compose in front of a computer. I have a music studio with Sibelius, Logic Pro, Reason, Sonar, WaveLab, VSTi plug-ins for pianos and instruments, keyboards, etc. Sure it's much easier, but I'd rather improvise on an acoustic piano with a window view of nature.

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 Post subject: Re: Transition from sequencers to manuscript paper
PostPosted: Tue Jan 18, 2011 7:23 pm 
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I like these preludes as well. They show imagination and inspiration. I would just cut the first one before the slow part, which to me, distracts from the creative thrust of what precedes it. The coda is not as good as the rest. The "mechanistic" feel comes from using the sequencer to perform them. Do you have "tap tempo"? That would give a more organic feel to the music. If you can save your sequence as a midi file, you should be able to open it in Sibelius. Once in Sibelius you can adjust it any way you would like, and Sibelius would play it too. I would choose that procedure over printing it from a sequencer. The sequencer I use, Digital Performer, has a very good transcription algorithm, but I never use it. Sibelius makes music to play from, while a sequencer would just show you what you are doing.

Speaking to the bulk of your post, your procedure seems fine - better than you seem to give it credit. The forms you wish to use, sonata, etc., were designed to use what is basically the opposite approach. When composing one note at a time, you can make the fine-tune adjustments necessary for the form, in fact, those adjustments often become the composer's showcase. On the other hand, it is difficult to compose the music you have posted with that technique, and achieve the same confidence and elan. I would advise to not try to put a round peg in a square hole! Only in the last 20-30 years or so has the technology existed to do what you are doing. Even with the tape recorder, transcription was a long and tedious process. Before that, you just had to have a great memory!

Improvisation is a holistic approach to writing/playing music and is much more philosophically consistent, I believe, with the times. Since you commented on my post, I know you have thought about this technique seriously. When I improvise with my sequencer, I do not use a click track, which allows me to concentrate on the music and not the time. I have to transcribe the music from a screen print though, which takes time. But it also makes me go over every note, the way composition does. I find this to be a compromise which allows me to compose music without cramping my improvisatory style, so to speak.

By allowing your right brain to create music improvisationally, you unleash parts of your consciousness that don't work reasonably. It is quite possible to write longer works using only dead reckoning, but it takes a commitment to the process and a willingness to proceed blindly, without planning. Frankly, I find that it is much more fun that way. If you are having trouble justifying what you are doing philosophically, I would look to the Eastern philosophies for guidance. Zen and Taoism provide strong arguments for natural spontaneity. Zen poetry and visual art have been notable influences for me personally.

Don't fret too much about what you are doing. It is just part of any creative endeavor. After a while, we all want to change a little (or a lot). My greatest and most helpful changes have always been mental. Doing something completely different doesn't usually work because what you WERE doing seems so much better! Usually a mental change will trigger a slight change in procedure and you are back to working again. You are quite talented and show a lot of imagination. I would advise just keeping at it and stretching your envelope a little bit.

Best of luck,
Glenn Stallcop


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 Post subject: Re: Transition from sequencers to manuscript paper
PostPosted: Wed Jan 19, 2011 5:42 pm 
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There isn't really anything wrong with using Reason except that when you put it into Sibelius, it won't know which hand is left and which is right. It will assume that everything below middle C is the left hand and middle C and above is the right hand. You will have to do some editing. That is the problem with sequencing the piano for music notation. As soon as you get it into Sibelius, you will notice how flat the dynamics are. You can add some accents but the player will have a hard time if there are too many articulations and you can never have the exact accent level as midi offers 128 velocity steps (including 0). Music notation of the piano is very limited compared with sequencing. A lot of it is up to the interpretation of the musician reading it. I use Cubase 5 and Vienna Imperial Piano (just got the piano software nothing posted yet). I'm putting off notation for now.

The program "Sibelius First" is very inexpensive and allows you to use third party VSTi instruments.


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 Post subject: Re: Transition from sequencers to manuscript paper
PostPosted: Wed Jan 19, 2011 11:02 pm 
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differencetone wrote:
There isn't really anything wrong with using Reason except that when you put it into Sibelius, it won't know which hand is left and which is right. It will assume that everything below middle C is the left hand and middle C and above is the right hand. You will have to do some editing. That is the problem with sequencing the piano for music notation.


You are absolutely right! This is a problem. It can remedied somewhat by extracting what is l.h. and r.h. into separate tracks beforehand, but other problems concerning multiple parts remain. I haven't found a good transcription software for keyboard yet.

differencetone wrote:
As soon as you get it into Sibelius, you will notice how flat the dynamics are. You can add some accents but the player will have a hard time if there are too many articulations and you can never have the exact accent level as midi offers 128 velocity steps (including 0).


This, I actually find beneficial. There is absolutely no reason to transcribe a MIDI sequence except to have someone play it live. The "non-reactive" part of Sibelius helps you realize what is NOT there. You realize you need to put in staccatos, accents, dynamics, hairpins, etc. Piano music often is relatively unmarked compared to, say, orchestral music. Pianist are used to having interpretive freedom; orchestral musicians get fired if they show interpretive freedom, so if you want accents or hairpins or short notes, you have to show them. Sibelius is good for that.

But beyond that, I find it particularly hard to get good piano performances out of Sibelius. It is supposed to read dynamics in the middle for both hands, but it doesn't do it half the time. Furthermore, when you have more than one voice per line, you have to control dynamics in each one separately, which is a real pain. About that time it WILL read a dynamic properly and you end up having to re-input them. If it is too much trouble to get a good performance from Sibelius, I will sometimes put the whole Sibelius file into MIDI and open it in a sequencer. But this is not a problem, if you are transcribing from MIDI in the first place.


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 Post subject: Re: Transition from sequencers to manuscript paper
PostPosted: Fri Jan 21, 2011 8:54 am 
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This is an interesting discussion; thanks for all the contributions.

@88man: In my opinion, notation markings aren't really much of a hassle for me other than the occasional quintuplets and such, because they can simply be added along when you want to transcribe them unto score. The piece on the sequencer could easily be a skeleton for later; simple crescendos and the like could be indicated very roughly but notated fully on score when the time comes. It's more of the second paragraph which holds more interest for me, because it sort of highlights a kind of paradox; when composing on the computer, you tend to lose the sense of what an acoustic piano really sounds like and how pianistically possible the legatos and such you indicate are since it's so much easier, but when composing on a real piano, your possibilities seem limited to what you can do with the piano and it seems more monolithic with regards to finding the right chord and such, making a composition lose its spontaneity. As for electronic music, I have done enough tracks to trust Reason, I suppose.

---

@glenn: Thank you for your kind reply and praise. I suppose the first prelude could end in a different way, and I will take that to heart, though I did want the ending to be sort of sarcastic and understated... As for Sibelius, I have tried converting the piece to a midi sequence and transcribing it through Sibelius but too often it fails at doing more than two voices at once automatically (as differencetone said). It could be the midi itself that could need work (e.g adjusting note lengths), but the solution I have tried so far is to use pencil and paper and transcribe it that way (though it is tedious). Will try Digital Performer.

And how painful it must have been for the classical composers to actually compose their music note by note and write it on their score (even more so if they did not have access to the piano)! You highlighted the ideals that might be needed to continue improvisation, and it was interesting to see Zen Buddhism being a source of inspiration (I feel Cage must have thought about that too), but sadly, over the years my views have changed dramatically due to my being more acquainted with certain forms (like the fugue), and admiring them due to their great logical rigor (which exudes a hidden beauty, in my opinion). I would love to try my hand at planning on a higher level too, which is what improvisation seems unable to offer; I am aware that certain short phrases and musical motifs can be incorporated gracefully through improvisation, but not harmonic movement and progression, which is central to the works I admire. It might not be as fun, but perhaps the above could provide something new.

But perhaps you are right about going further in improvisation... your process of adjusting the notes and adding finishing touches while transcribing seems worth trying. I also admire how your works are rather pianistic despite the process, which is what I do want to achieve in the near future... Again, thank you for the reply (took me a few reads to swallow!)


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 Post subject: Re: Transition from sequencers to manuscript paper
PostPosted: Fri Jan 21, 2011 7:41 pm 
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Affinity wrote:
... And how painful it must have been for the classical composers to actually compose their music note by note and write it on their score (even more so if they did not have access to the piano)! ...

Handel composed his 2+ hour long "Messiah" for chorus, soloists and orchestra in only 28 days! It would take me longer than that to simply copy the score!

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 Post subject: Re: Transition from sequencers to manuscript paper
PostPosted: Fri Jan 21, 2011 11:31 pm 
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Affinity wrote:
I did want the ending to be sort of sarcastic and understated


Be careful with sarcasm, you can't always wink at your audience. The best sarcasm is also GOOD. Most sarcasm is brutally obvious, like the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, but I don't think that is as funny as I used to after I read Shostakovitch's book.

Affinity wrote:
As for Sibelius, I have tried converting the piece to a midi sequence and transcribing it through Sibelius but too often it fails at doing more than two voices at once automatically (as differencetone said). It could be the midi itself that could need work (e.g adjusting note lengths), but the solution I have tried so far is to use pencil and paper and transcribe it that way (though it is tedious). Will try Digital Performer.


The problem with DP is that you can't edit the notation. Transcription of piano music is always a pain. I use pen and paper and re-write as I go, and then just input. But you don't transcribe just for fun, you do it for a performance opportunity or commission. Otherwise you just leave it as MIDI or audio. Even a film composer won't bother with a score unless he is using real instruments.

Affinity wrote:
And how painful it must have been for the classical composers to actually compose their music note by note and write it on their score (even more so if they did not have access to the piano)!


Life was slower without computers, only 30 years ago! My son, a violinist, didn't see hand written manuscript until he was seventeen! ("Dad, the parts are, like, scrawled out by hand!!!") Imagine life without recorded music! Imagine life without antibiotics, it throws a different light on Romanticism! Imagine having children with a 75% infant mortality rate (19th century!) Things change. Also, once you start writing music from scratch, you may actually find the piano a hindrance.

Affinity wrote:
over the years my views have changed dramatically due to my being more acquainted with certain forms (like the fugue), and admiring them due to their great logical rigor (which exudes a hidden beauty, in my opinion). I would love to try my hand at planning on a higher level too, which is what improvisation seems unable to offer; I am aware that certain short phrases and musical motifs can be incorporated gracefully through improvisation, but not harmonic movement and progression, which is central to the works I admire. It might not be as fun, but perhaps the above could provide something new.


Writing music from scratch is well worth it (for appreciation if nothing else!). With improvisation, you work with something that is already there - you transcribe, then stitch, smooth, sand, reinforce etc. With composition, you start small and build. Because you are always working one note at a time, the trick is to always know where you are in the structure you're working with. Start with a simple form, like ABA, and then build the material for the A section. Always draw your "new" material from some aspect of your old material, and keep in mind what your small scale and large scale structural functions are. Structures are hierarchical, so you need to keep track of what you are doing on several levels. (You do this subconsciously while improvising.) After writing your first phrase, model your first section on your first phrase. Model your secondary keys on your harmony, use the timing as a small scale model for a larger structure. Always know where you are going and how far along you are. Then use the secondary material to form your B section, which you also build. When you return to the A section, realize it is a consequent to your original antecedent. You are coming home not leaving. Use a coda to tie up loose ends. Make it as tight as possible. Then go back over everything and add more originality! The frame is done, now do the interior and exterior decorating! It does no good to hurry, the journey is the point! It is like practicing, it takes time and patience. After that, you may wish to arrange the piece for an ensemble, and you then re-imagine it and add more stuff! You can derive a lot of fun and satisfaction from the process. If you want to write music, go for it. When you are done, you will that much better at improvising! Best of luck -

Glenn


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