Fleshing It Out

The creative process is mysterious, but Rule #1 is, follow your nose. Go with the flow. Do the next indicated thing. Sometimes you may have a fairly definite outcome in mind, sometimes not. Even if you think you know where you’re going, you may be surprised.

At one time I did a fair amount of composing in a computer-based home music studio. In recent years, not so much (and that’s a story for another time). This week I wanted to give myself an incentive to get off the dime and actually finish a piece rather than let yet another sketch gather dust on the hard drive. So I thought it might be fun to document the process of turning a sketch into a finished piece. As of today, it isn’t quite finished, but it’s far enough along that I can share the process step by step. I’m not even sure of the title yet, but I may call it “Casual.”

This is not, I hasten to add, a profound or deeply emotional piece of work. My personal view is that it’s just sort of mildly cool. It’s a flexing-my-rusty-muscles sort of piece. I decided up front that I would use nothing but Propellerhead Reason 4. I’ve done a couple of all-you-need-is-Reason pieces in years past, so I knew I wouldn’t be shortchanging myself in the sound resources department. Giving yourself some artificial boundaries for a given piece can help the creative process by reducing the choices to a manageable set.

I launched Reason and soon came up with a modest little groove in 7/4 that I liked. This initial sketch used a stock bass tone, but the chimey pad sound was my own layer of two factory presets, and the lead tone was processed through a stereo delay setup of my own devising. Having the bass start on the third of the chord rather than the root creates a kind of harmonic instability that will have ramifications throughout the piece. 

Hmm … where to go from here? I added a bar of intro and a shaker pattern to support the rhythm. Then I extended the chord progression and started building on the melody. At the end of the A section I tacked on the beginning of a B section, still in 7/4 but with more of a Motown lilt. Here’s the result. While rough, it was starting to sound vaguely like a piece of music. The Clavinet tone in the B section was too thick and rough; I later got rid of the distortion effect.

The third version of the file added a second bar to the intro, and a cowbell pattern. (At this stage the cowbell was too loud for the mix, but I was just roughing it in.) I layered an arpeggiated pattern behind the second “verse”: In later iterations of the tune, this pattern would move back to follow the B section. The B section seemed to lurch into view too abruptly, so I added a little fanfare (also too loud) to herald its arrival.

The intro gets a little more melodic in the fourth iteration. I worked some more on the melody (with results that I’m still not completely convinced by). The B section has acquired an interesting chord progression, and I’ve started to work with the return of the A section. The return has the same melody and chords as before, but a different lead tone. The arpeggio rhythm pattern has found a new home.

After another work session or two, I have a slightly more complete piece. But that ending doesn’t quite make sense, does it? I think I’ll turn it into the fanfare for an entirely new C section in 13/8. (Think of 13/8 as 7/4 with the last two quarter-notes compressed to three sixteenths each.) The return of the B section has modulated down a half-step relative to its first statement, a fact that is not readily apparent owing to the somewhat meandering chord progressions. In fact, this piece has no clear tonal center at all, even though it’s obviously tonal.

I had no idea what I was going to do after the repeat of the B section. But when I went off to run some errands, I found that little singsong rhythmic figure stuck in my head (it’s based on a rhythm the Clavinet plays earlier in the piece). So I thought, what the heck. Let’s try it. That’s what I mean when I say you may be surprised by the kinds of twists and turns a piece takes.

What will happen after the 13/8 fanfare is sketched in this clip. The melody tone in the C section seems right, but I just doodled the melody, and haven’t worked on it yet. What will happen in the bars of 7/8 I don’t know yet — maybe more of the same melody tone, maybe something different. And the ending is not there yet.

The point of this little essay, or the subtext, is this: Often, when I listen to pieces that non-professional musicians have composed in their home studios, I find myself thinking, “Gee, that’s a nice idea. I wish he had developed it! It’s just lying there like a dead thing.” Maybe it doesn’t occur to people that they need to work with and expand their ideas — or maybe they’d like to, but aren’t sure where to start. In either case, this little peek behind the scenes might be helpful. It’s prog, to be sure, not hip-hop, but some development ideas transcend style.

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