Medium-well

I have a lot of friends who are not composers. But their listening skills are invaluable when I test out new ideas. They aren’t looking for a motivic nod to any predecessor, or if the form is a sonata, or even if I am using a romantic kind of style or something more atonal. They hear the big picture; which is something that can be lost while composers sweat the smallest details. Ask anyone who knows me and they will probably tell you about the endless times I’ve told them to step in my car and listen to four minutes of music while I eagerly watch as they react to it. The only problem with this sort of trial and error of the writing process is the listener’s expectations of orchestral music can meander because of their previous exposure to this particular brand of music. If the only time they’ve heard a french horn is from watching a Star Wars movie, there is a good chance that their thoughts on good orchestral music is instinctively thematic. Have you ever written a heroic piece and your friend says it sounds like it should be in a Zelda game or a mentor versed in concert music heavily scolds your blatant disregard for form when you are trying to write a cue? I've been there multiple times, and rather than argue what they should focus on in real time, I figure it would be beneficial to all parties to talk about the creative process in writing for specific kinds of projects; because how things are written depends heavily on the medium it will be displayed. Likewise, how things are experienced varies drastically because of this. We will explore three mainstream mediums of orchestral music that everyday people have been exposed to and what composers are focused on when they write in that vernacular. 

Let us start with an easy one: film music. The film industry’s relationship with the music industry is a long and decorated one. It is an all around sensual experience by directly stimulating your eyes with stunning visuals, your ears with complementary music; while passively enhancing the experience with the smell of popcorn, the feel of a loved one nuzzled in your nook, and the taste of snack foods. Film music is created to support the visuals and enhance the story being told to the audience. Sweeping melodies and complex motions can be traded for simpler harmonies and effects so that the sonic qualities introduced do not distract the audience from the dialogue or the scene. Of course, this is respectfully different if the film is a musical, but we will talk about musicals another time. 

The music in film is decided through a spotting session between the composer and the director (along with anyone else who oversees the music). They sit and watch the movie together and the director will usually point out where they want a musical element; usually with broad visual terms that the composer will have to interpret musically. Each of these musical sections are called cues. An effective cue may not even have a perceived musical quality to it; it could just be an instrumental effect. For instance, to depict a sense of hesitance or anxiety, a composer might write a long high-pitched tone in the violins with an unmeasured tremolo (rapidly playing the same note to the written duration). That might be one whole cue to itself. No melody. No style or form. Just this effect. A composer really gets to flex their musical prowess when they get to write a montage cue or develop a theme for the beginning or ending credits. But for the most part the music is sparse and speaks only to support what the director wants the audience to pay attention to on screen. 

Of course when we look towards the big names of film composition, a generic listener will refer to those thematic parts in the beginning or end credits, or a scene’s cue worked so perfectly that it is forever etched into the mind of the viewer. John Williams used a technique that operatic composers like Wagner used to play with the anticipation and relief of the audience called the leitmotif. He wrote small motifs (musical ideas) for each character in Star Wars and would employ them in the cues that either had these characters or mentioned them. It would allow the audience to subconsciously relate a character to the scene. Say what you want about The Phantom Menace, but the music is brilliant at playing with the nostalgic elements of the original Star Wars trilogy while introducing new themes. Even if you did not have any of the dialogue and just the music with visuals, you are given a haunting suspicion that Anakin will turn into Vader, as well the tonal premonition that the phantom menace of the first prequel uses a series of musical references to the looming nefarious presence of a subject that will inevitably stage the major turmoil of the next movies. But, I say this knowing full well that most of my friends will say, “Dude, eff’ the prequels, but Duel of Fates is epic!” 

There we have it. Exposure to thematic material overshadows the detailed cue work to a generic listener when they think of orchestral music. But make no mistake, sometimes you are doing things right when you are not singled out at all. The thematic material can be a hybrid of all the catchier parts of the cues, smushed together to deliver a listening experience sans visuals. That means the style, form, and orchestration will be limited to what was interpreted through the scenes they were used in. It's akin to a series of flashbacks without the visuals simulating the experiences you had from each scene without having to show you them all over again. Film music has this wonderful way of honing in on even the most diverse audience’s spectrum of synesthesia to add an enhancing filter to what they see. Because of its existence, people who wouldn’t normally be able to correlate a mood with a color, can imagine and even anticipate snare drums when they see a war sequence or a sweeping string orchestra when they see a lover they want to embrace. Therefore, if you choose to showcase your music to a generic audience, keep in mind that film cues or even thematic content are best criticized with the actual visual element present. 

It is pretty funny that not even fifteen years ago, parents would scold kids that video games would melt our brains, make us violent, and distract us from our school work. Yet, gaming is a huge industry. The more advanced the technology gets in providing smooth, believable experiences to us with these applications; the more fascinating the music becomes. I would credit that the real reason I got into music in the first place was because of the music of the second and third Castlevania games on NES. Even for something as low fidelity as 16-bit synth sounds, the music stands the test of time. My older sister and I would play those games endlessly and marvel at how the music evoked our sense of heroism and reflectiveness. It was dynamic, exciting, and expressive; and like the origin stories of our favorite superheroes, people have been arranging their own takes on it for the last thirty years. I can imagine the folks the arranged the music for Symphony of the Night looking back at the old themes and thinking how metal it really sounds. The same goes for The Legend of Zelda, the Mario franchise, and certainly Final Fantasy. When the music was that good, even the developers couldn’t help but shine the spotlight with secret codes to help you unlock a listening experience. Streets of Rage was so proud of their sound design and music, I think the only reason I beat that game was to unlock the music and sound effects at the end. Don’t believe me? Try listening to “Evergreen” from Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse and not feel anything. It’s beautiful. Let’s explore this experience a bit before we get back to the future. Thematic music would loop a minute’s worth of an idea for each level of a game until completion. Depending on the intensity of the challenge, a kid would be exposed to that same loop for hours and eventually the believability of even a chip tune with a 2D platform would manifest itself. You became Link or Trevor Belmont. Not only that, but in those games, musical effects were used primarily as sound effects. Think about getting that 1-up or fire-flower. Think about every time Link unsheathed his sword or Mario jumped. These effects were triggered by the player; and in that sense, the player controlled minor elements of the music. Of course, you don’t really think about that when you are six years old and trying to figure out where the damn silver arrows are so you can defeat Ganon (yeah, they had been silver before they were light, kids). Subconsciously, you were reinforcing these fantastic worlds by hitting a couple of buttons to physically be in it. Then there was Tetris… nothing made panic ensue faster than when the music sped up when you didn’t clear the stage properly. The music created a sense of urgency to trick you into thinking you had to rush through your block placement. But the speed of the game didn’t change when that happened, it only got faster when you ascended to higher levels. 

Cut to 2018, and music’s role in games haven’t changed, but how it's done has created a brand of composers that not only know how to support the visuals and react to your choices but develop where the player sits in the middle of everything. Breath of the Wild uses your nostalgia to reinforce the game’s stress on remembering who you are. Arkham Knight took a small motif played before the Joker talked over the intercom in Arkham Asylum and exploded it into a deep theme that ties the Joker’s development in all four games. The point is, the music in modern games are just as important as the game mechanics because they speak to a player at a deep level, and because of that, composers are employing unique techniques in their writing to capitalize on this type of experience participation. Now, everything from distance music and aleatoric concepts to prepared pianos that would make even John Cage seem conservative are fair game. From chip-tunes to fully realized symphonic orchestras that can loop a minutes worth of a theme, to a metal band playing a completely asymmetrical form; the sky is the limit to how a composer can contribute to a game, as long as they have the time, patience, and skill to meet their deadlines. 

Film music has the esteemed position of telling the story, but games actually involve the player. The listening experience of game music is highly active, almost like popping on headphones while you do an escape room; only where you go can dictate the timbre, speed, intensity and even the instrumentation you hear. So, listening to a game score without playing the game might be a jarring experience with so many repetitions or instrumental effects played sequentially. Unless you have cultivated a theme for the credits, it might not be very effective to have your everyday listener stay put and listen to music that they can’t interact with. Where a film composer may employ their skills to support the visuals and story of a static video, game composers will have contingencies depending on the mechanics and story of the game. But neither is superior to the other. They are just different, and they all still rely on huge chunks of the oldest form of compositional repertoire: concert music. 

Concert composition is where it all started. Musicians with a scholarly background were forced to follow the greats when it comes to style, orchestration, and application. The rules are in our books, sighed by our mentors, and scrutinized upon all the time. The idea is, if you want to achieve an authentic sound, everything should work in the performance before tracking it for a recording. In other words in order to be original… try to sound like everyone else before you that succeeded. You need to have the right number of strings to balance out how many brass players you have! Otherwise, it will not sound balanced or blended! But in this brave new world, the perspective of authenticity is skewed. More people these days think the classics sound like Star Wars or Final Fantasy themes, and less like Bach, Mozart, Strauss, and Beethoven. We now have electronic applications to reinforce our sounds in real time, notation programs that can playback every part with human-like inflections, digital audio workstations that can place instruments, tune them, widen the stereo image, and change the room reflections of an entire orchestra. In addition to that, we listen to pop music differently than orchestral, but we still have separate (and still high) expectations to what it is supposed to sound like. The thing about so many advances in music creation technology is I don’t think there is anything blasphemous about writing with and for it. If Beethoven was introduced to MIDI, he would be breaking all the rules of what a traditional instrumentalist could do, and how a symphonic orchestra would sound. Don’t believe me? Look up Beethoven’s contributions to music that weren’t the music itself. He championed metronome markers and solidified our equal tempered tuning style that we use now. He made the basses play low enough to need a trigger (essentially starting the whole drop tuning idea for all you metal heads). Plus, look how happy he is with all those synthesizers in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure! The thing is, concert composers were making new bold techniques a reality so that it could get a rise out of people who sat and watched their concerts, and that included mutating the instruments that were available and redefining traditional landscapes. Their bold decisions honored the audience, and consistently raised the bar of what musicians should do. 

But somewhere in time, the concert world got stagnant. There are only so many times you can listen to Beethoven’s 9th, before you figure out that this tune is more played out than some of the pop songs you hear on the radio. It is one thing to honor the classics, but it is another thing to be stuck in reverent nostalgia. Can you imagine Mozart even remotely coming up when his medium was dominated by only dead writers deified but never improved upon? Well… by today’s standards he would have probably been on a viral YouTube video when he started rocking out at age five. Then he would be dancing on Ellen, and sponsored on Instagram with the newest keyboards. But I don’t blame the musicians. The music of the old days (when really analyzed) is like reading stories about the Greek gods. As a writer, you are baffled by how someone could develop these ideas without being dipped into the river Styx, yet oddly comforted of how absolutely human and organic their techniques feel. But this is a niche market. Music students and professionals get it, but what about the thirty-two-year-old kid playing Pokémon Go in the neighborhood? Do they feel the same things I feel when I listen to Stravinsky? Listening to the Rite of Spring in 2018 is like listening to a lion roar at a zoo. Instinctually, there is enough scary sounds to make you a little puckered, but you are not going to riot or run because of it. You have been conditioned to expect the sound of a lion in a zoo and a healthy amount of dissonance with consonance in your music. So, with that kind of energy sucked out, what is an orchestra to do? They play what has worked for them for centuries. Meanwhile, concert composers find a majority of their income coming from the other mediums we discussed. 

It’s funny. When film scoring started, it was concert composers who dominated the field, because they paid their dues and thought it would be a nice side hustle to their “real work.” But now these muppet babies are thriving. A concert composer relies on the philanthropy of his or her commissioners and has to suffer through the minimal exposure their music gets in favor of film and gamers. So, they teach, and scrutinize young artists, and create a feedback loop and echo chamber of the old ideologies, effectively becoming the next Statler and Waldorf. I bet Bach was critical to the new guys, too. You aren’t really an artist unless you take part in such cycles of abuse, right? Wrong! Even if they lay claim that they have effectively written the book or publicly set the bar of what you are trying to do; if they aren't even conservatively embracing new ideas then they aren't artists, they are automated factory workers. If a composer wants to thrive, they need to respect how the majority listens to music and make it work for the medium they want to write to. That is why some orchestras fight back with Pops shows, or playing an entire film sound track while screening a movie. In Seattle there is an orchestra dedicated to rock music. Grant it; it's still living in the ideological past, but it is a start for clawing your way out of nostalgia to do something different to get a rouse out of the butts in the seat. 

I say this with plenty of bias. Working with an orchestra funded by the adoration of music and not real cash is romantic and tragic at the same time. It is kind of like watching Rent. You get amazed at the chemistry and relationships built-in the entire show, you make beautiful music, but then everyone dies or will die from AIDS at the end. Even ensembles made with best intentions of showcasing new music succumb to the need to play the hits. Or… they decide to hang out in the opposite side of the spectrum, and they try something out that even Yoko Ono would think is too much. I won’t discredit the creative types who set out to cleanse the musical palate with their interpretation of sound. I also made it a life goal to never confuse people into liking my music. But this is an ambiguous situation best left to another article. The whole point of this rant on modern concert music is that to effectively write for this audience, you need to keep your attention to the idea that what ever you do needs to engage the audience and bring fresh people (not academics and other professionals) in. I do not think there is a particular style or instrumentation that achieves that. Your burden as a concert writer isn’t how supportive your score is to a scene, or how well it leads a character to a treasure chest. It is naked and struggling to gain the attention of people who don’t want to leave their house, or be separated from their phone, and have become accustomed to disconnecting the listening experience of concert music to playing it on their HomePod while they eat dinner with their in-laws. How you come up with the ingredients for this magic sauce is anyone’s best guess, but it is not impossible. But then again, if you are writing concert music without the desire to connect to people at a reactionary and emotional level, while keeping them so engaged that they bring their friends to see you over and over, then you will be no better than the people who ignore you. 

Think carefully of how you craft your notes and know your people. Your listeners should have an expanded repertoire if you think they can offer criticism constructively. Don't expect to hear workable advice on your concert music if your friends only know about film or game music. Likewise, don't expect progress if your friends don't know about those other mediums. If you need music to better understand what a director is trying to do, then be as clear as possible, and show your music with the film. If it is meant to inspire active participation from your listener, then have them demo something as you play the music. If its meant to physically bring people to a place and sit them down to pay attention, then write something stunning. Most importantly, when you lure one of your non-musical friends into your car, lock all the doors, and suffer them eight minutes of making a marimba sound like a violin, and a violin sound like a kazoo; prepare them by finding out if their ears are attenuated to that kind of discernment. Other wise, your avant-guard master piece that is meant to make people vomit rainbows in a concert hall, might seem ineffective to the person thinking that you are writing the next Zelda theme.

This entry was archived from my Facebook Page 1.11.19.

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