Etched in the Memory

I’m not sure what the majority of teenagers do while hanging out with their friends, but given the lack of teens running around Hampstead Heath in period costume with a camcorder, it’s probably not what my friends and I got up to.

Our filmed scenes of the witches from Macbeth didn’t come to anything much (I don’t remember much of the actual filming but I do remember setting Maeve’s hair on fire and giving Rosie a monobrow and going to Waitrose afterwards to buy food still in full costume and getting a kick out of the looks on peoples’ faces…) I did write a soundtrack for it, but we were much bigger on the filming side of things than the actual editing business so it never got attached. Something similar happened for our next project – a spoof Harry Potter movie – but in fairness, Maeve’s camcorder got nicked with most of our footage and we rather lost enthusiasm for it after that. I really hope someone out there is enjoying our footage of us stuffing Esther in the cupboard under my stairs and Snape/Rosie spitting bitterly on the ground.

The first film project I was part of that actually had the soundtrack attached at some point was a short 20-minute film that my cousin Elad made for his A-level equivalent Drama in 2007.  I wrote three pieces for it over the course of several months and was probably the first real lesson in client relations (i.e. that they are always right (except when they aren’t) and also that they are much better at telling you what they don’t want than what they do). Elad and I at the time were both very stubborn and sure of our opinions (it’s like we’re related or something) and it led to many merry arguments but we got there in the end. I like to think we’ve both mellowed out since…

So the story of the movie is basically as follows:

A girl goes to stay with her gran, who lives in the same apartment block as a friend of hers. This boy has a couple of friends on the block, one of whom is clearly in charge and he decides he doesn’t want to hang out with her on account of the fact that she’s a girl probably so they make this plan to ditch her by playing hide and seek and making her swear not to stop searching for them until she’s found them all. Then they go hide on the roof, and sneak out periodically to fetch sweets. The boy who is friends with the girl is racked with guilt about this but doesn’t have the courage to do anything about it. The last part of the scene is them all going back to their homes and lighting Hanukah candles with their families while she is still outside in the dark looking for them. She carves a message on a tree and swears never to forget this.

Many years later, the girl meets the guy who is now working evenings as a bartender, and she recognises him but he doesn’t recognise her. She leaves him his number and they start dating. They go out for a stroll, and by chance end up coming accross the place he used to live. He takes her up onto the roof and tells her about coming to hide there with his friends. The next day he gets an email from the same in-charge friend who now lives in London asking him to pick him up at the airport. He goes and waits for ages, but the friend never shows and later he gets a text from him saying he missed his flight. He goes to meet the girl and her friends for some drinks, and wakes up the next morning in the middle of the desert with no clothes on, as it turns out she set this all up just to get him back.

The first bit of music (“1. Hanukah”) I wrote is for the earlier years. Elad wanted it to sound a bit like the theme from Edward Scissorhands, so I took a well-known children’s song about Hanukah and made it sad and tinkly and a bit edgy. I remember having a disagreement about what constituted “too edgy”, in the end Elad won out, he was probably right.

The second is for the dating montage (“2. The Dating Montage”). Elad wanted it to be minimal and not very deep, given the girl’s pretence of love, and sent me a piece from the soundtrack of Amelie. I wrote a short thing on the piano and went through until I found a sound I liked and stuck with that.

The third is based on the first, and is for the ending (“3. The One At The End”). I went to town on all the edgy that I wasn’t allowed in the first piece and I remember being pleased with the result.

Elad’s school gave out awards for the movie projects, of which there were six or eight in total, and we as a group picked up all of the awards but one (including best original score)…but then again no one has ever had any doubt about from which side of the family we got the stubborn perfectionism.

Here are all three pieces in full (above), and three excerpts from the movie where the music is playing (below) which a friend and I spent a long evening subtitling the other day (another life lesson: Never use Windows Movie Maker for anything. Ever. No matter how simple. Just don’t.)

Happy Hanukah!

Blue Is The Colour

A low-key harp piece this week after the madness of Master and Margarita. This one started life as a waltz (i.e. a folk tune) during the spring of 2013 while I was down in deepest north Devon hanging out with my folk piano trio. We were staying at the cellist’s house in the beautiful and desolate middle of nowhere…I vaguely recall lots of games of Backgammon, Oware and Rush Hour, and the general cozy feeling brought on by a lingering winter chill soothed by squishy armchairs and cats.

Much like the crazy dress colour saga that swept the internet a few months ago, one evening we found ourselves arguing about the colour of the dragon Toothless in the movie How To Train Your Dragon, a dispute we have not settled to this day. Pip (the cellist) adamantly insisted that he was black, a blatantly incorrect statement.

Anyway, the waltz was inspired by the beautiful soundtrack of that film, partly in a futile attempt to fill the post-film hole of loneliness borne from an aching desire of close companionship as represented by having such a pet dragon… When I took up the harp later that year it seemed to fit better as a proper piece of music and got bits added on and morphed into that. Originally with the piano trio we followed it with another jig I wrote that spring called Over Hill and Under Hill (movie-inspired tunes for the win…). The removal of the jig makes it feel slightly unfinished and yearning for more at the end; I toyed for a long time with extending the piece but ultimately, given the whole aching hole thing, the ending seemed rather apt.

Sheet music for harp (both lever and pedal) and piano available through Bandcamp.

Master and Margarita

Lately I’ve been haunting a small box high up at the back of the ADC theatre armed with just a notebook and a large sound desk that is definitely compensating for something. The show was an adaptation of The Master and Margarita, which was written by a clever Russian dude in the Soviet era who was nevertheless totally bonkers. It’s about the Devil, who basically randomly arrives in Stalinist Moscow with his entourage and they just go around messing with people, specifically the literary elite. Kind of like when you get bored of playing nice in The Sims and just set them on fire and freak them out with ghosts and suchlike. And then there’s the Master, who’s this random writer dude who’s writing a really cool book (in the play it’s a play, duh) about Pontius Pilate, and the literary elite don’t like him on account of implying Jesus was real and stuff so he goes a bit crazy and disappears. And so his lover Margarita goes and hangs out with the Devil in order to try and find out what happened to him. Yeah.

I chose this particular show to write music for in the summer by the careful selection process of going through the synopses of upcoming shows and kind of just going “nah…nah…nah…yeah…nah…”. The director seemed up for it, which turned out to be a good thing because there was a lot more actual music involved in the play than either of us originally realised. I spent the rest of the summer collecting ideas, none of which I eventually used, then ran out of ideas, then put it off, then went on holiday, then continued to put it off, and finally amidst an idea-drought forced myself to sit down and just write something because the show was three weeks away and at this point anything was better than nothing.

And so the first track, Ringing and Rose Oil, happened. I was quite pleased with it in the end, also on account of that fact that it’s very reassuring to know that even on a diet of No Ideas Whatsoever I still can apparently produce something, which has got to be the Number One Biggest Fear for an artist on a deadline. At the director’s request, it’s got the annoying ringing sound that is supposed to emulate Pilate’s hemicrania, and the general idea is to give one’s brain the hey-by-the-way-we’re-in-Jerusalem-now nudge.

The second, Never Talk With Strangers, is for the Devil and his entourage. It was the last thing I wrote for the play because the original piece of music that I wrote was kind of dark and edgy, and it turned out that what the director actually wanted was something much more fun and sassy but also a bit sinister. We hit on the idea of making it jazzy, which is totally anachronistic and weird and therefore perfect for the devil. It’s not very long and so based on the Jerusalem theme, which is also appropriate on account of the Devil being pals with Jesus and stuff. Contrary to what you might think, it’s the weird walking talking cat thingy that’s playing the saxophone in this track; the Devil is playing the bass guitar. (I’m not sure why this is important but it is.) During the run-up to the show, stuck in my little box, I would occasionally mischievously play this track out the front of house when actors were milling around on-stage because they would all simultaneously start dancing and doing funny walks.

The last two tracks are supposed to convey the story of desperate love of the Master and Margarita characters – one is the waltz at Satan’s Ball, the other for when Margarita is flying naked around Moscow. I didn’t mean to characterise them as instruments, but it came out in my head that Margarita is kind of the flute and the Master is the bassoon. I spent a long while waiting for inspiration to strike for this one on account of the fact that the story of how they fall in love is pretty strange and unbelievable, especially in the way it is presented in the play.

Master sees Margarita.
Margarita: “Do you like my flowers?”
Master: “No.”
Then somehow MAGIC-ONE-TRUE-LOVE-HOLY-CRAP!

In my (admittedly limited) experience, this is not how things generally work in real life. Luckily for the play, real life came to the rescue somewhat with some more experience to add to the pile, and so the waltz was written, followed shortly by all the other bits. About thirty sound-effects and other bits and pieces of music later, we had a soundtrack.

The actual week of the show was an insane hectic whirlwind of argh, which made me very much look forward to a time when composing will hopefully be the only full-time job and not balanced precariously on top of another one. It turns out the only time the writing is over is when the show is actually over, because of all the mind-changing and last-minuteness that is endemic in shows everywhere. My evenings were spent finishing work and then rushing down to the theatre to frantically update the cue list with the previous night’s changes and have hurried conversations with the assistant stage manager (Louisa: <3) to sort it all out before the house opened again. The rest of the night was spent pushing buttons and sliders while theatre happened to other people.

My thanks to the director Sarah and the cast and crew (let’s face it; mostly the crew on account of apparently the two don’t mix all that much) and also all those friends who came to see it and/or bring me dinner that week. Also thanks to the reviewers who were all very nice except for that one guy who came on the first night when things were a bit wobbly and was a massive tosspot.

And (aside from the actual music wot I have been blathering on about of course and is available to download using the player above) I will leave you with my favourite line and stage direction from the play, which are:

Master: …

and

A cataclysm.

Celtic Storm

Around my seventeenth birthday, my cousin Leah got glandular fever and it was serious enough for her to end up in hospital. At the time we were a bit worried I would get it too because we were fairly inseparable and in the habit of regularly eating off each other’s forks and suchlike. (I got nothing that summer but a mild sore throat so go figure). To cheer her up, I said I’d write her some music and asked her to pick a favourite colour, she said blue.

At this point, the influence of Lord of the Dance had firmly sunk in (see Piano Trio) and I wrote it in that style, which is one of the few things to which the word “celtic” does actually apply. (What’s “celtic” in a musical context? I’d go for “Irish-folk-music-inspired”. What’s “folk music”? Ummm…another time.) Like “Breakout” from Lord of the Dance, it starts off with a wishy-washy whistle thing and then launches into a full-blown dancey thing. It’s all in F#m, which is a dark, stormy sky blue in this piece. I used sounds of folk instruments like whistles and bodhrans without knowing what they were or why they were there and it’s only now that I listen with the wisdom of folky ears that I understand that it’s based on a jig followed by a reel. There’s fiddles and bagpipes and sound effects and everything (the soundtrack to Lord of the Dance is not played live. Why? It can’t be. I discovered this when I artificially slowed down the really fast and impressive section of the track called “Warrior” in order to notate it, and discovered that notes that sounded straight at normal speed were actually swung when slowed down – meaning that that part of the track had been actually recorded at a slow speed and then speed up afterwards. CHEATERS. (In layman’s terms, basically it was played with too much musical detail for that speed which you could only notice when you slowed it down)). I don’t know why I decided it should have thunder at the end, only instinctively knew it should.
The year after I submitted it together with Natasha’s Oboe Concertino for A-level coursework because of the tickey-box thing again. It only lost one mark. Probably for the cheesy thunder.

Cracking Science

A quick one this week – it’s something I wrote this year and is my shortest composition to date. It’s also probably the first step towards selling out my soul because it’s an advert jingle, or closely related anyway.

The 2-second opening jingle and its non-identical twin ending jingle are for a series of science videos called “Cracking Science” that aim to explain complex and interesting bits of science in a fun and approachable way. The first video is about how you make skintight catsuits spacesuits, and you can watch it here:

I had a surprising amount of fun writing the jingles, which consisted of a two-hour conversation on the phone with the client and constant mad dashes from the harp to the laptop and back. I loved the challenge of trying to create something that was exactly what they had in mind, which mostly involved trying to translate “I want it to sort of feel like this but not like this and do this thing” language into actual music. Often it felt like being a Dulux paint showperson in Homebase or whatever, holding a massive pile of swatches going “How about this one? Or this? Or this?” and the client is saying “um, nah, no, yes but more, you know, deep, no, not that one, yeah, like that, but with the, you know, feel of that other colour…”

Two hours later we had two working jingles that they were super-pleased with, which is intense for 4 seconds of music total – but that’s what writing jingles is like – you have to try and convey as much information and instruction as possible in the shortest space of time.

Now, where was that road I saw earlier which was paved with good intentions…

SUPER

This month I found myself spending time in a place I haven’t haunted for literally years (literally literally. Like, the literal meaning of the word literally) – the theatre. And it was EPIC.

My friend Eli is a writer and unintentional playwright who keeps swearing to give up writing plays but never quite seems to manage it. Every time he puts another one on, I’m like “hey, do you need any music?” and he’s like “naaah” until about a month ago, when bumped into him and failed to invite him round for tea due to his busy rehearsing schedule and I was like  “speaking of which, do you need any music?” and he went “naaayeah….! Why not…?!”

The play was playing in the lateshow slot (23:00-00:30) and is a dramedy about a group of superheroes and supervillains that both use the basement of the same korean restaurant to hold their meetings and end up making friends, not realising that they are each other’s arch enemies. It starts off light-hearted and full of great comedic banter and is very funny until it suddenly isn’t, which is typical Eli. And so it was that I spent a couple of weeks in May playing the great “in the style of” game, trying to squeeze every single superhero theme music cliché into a few minutes of music and having an amazing time doing it.

The idea was that the music would be playing as the audience came in to set the scene, and a few snatches of tune would play between chosen scenes, finishing off the play with the original theme again during the bowing. There are two main themes – there’s the epic LOOK AT ME I’M A SUPERHERO tune, equipped with tastefully over-the-top percussion, harp runs and general ballsy orchestration, ridiculously frequent modulations, rapid rhythms and its very own middle eight. Inspirations include the theme from Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Doctor Who and generally every superhero movie I’ve ever seen ever. Then there’s a softer, gentler theme for the sad bits, based on a chord sequence of a pop song that I heard in Romania. The track I have for you to listen today is a section of the loop that was playing as the audience entered. It starts off with the evil-guy’s fanfare, goes into the superhero music, then the sad theme, then back to the fanfare and finishes with the superhero music again.

I started off with a blank sheet, and gradually added more instruments to requirement and taste until it accidentally became a full symphony orchestra, which just goes to show…something. Once I was done writing, I played a few tricks with the MIDI recording to make it sound less fake and more 3D, and I was quite pleased with the result, although I shall definitely be making improvements for next time.

I was intending just to go along and watch the play with the thought of sneaking into the sound booth one evening to see how it was done, but it turned out they didn’t have a sound operator and so I ended up doing that for the first two nights, and operating the sound AND the lights completely solo for the last two. Despite having never teched a play in my life (only live bands), I discovered that one sound desk is much like another, and managed without any fuss whatsoever to soundcheck and balance the music, and then save the profile on the desk so that it could be recalled every night after the mainshow was over, much to the surprise of both myself and the various stage managers we had. Everything went smooth tech-wise and I had a great deal of fun doing it. A big thanks to everyone involved!

As for the reception, it seemed to go down very well. One of the actors reacted in surprise on learning that I had written the music and wanted to know how on earth I’d managed to get all those instruments together to record it. Cat, the stage manager on the last night (we had a different one every night…don’t ask…) casually asked me what plays I was doing next term, which shows that either I was doing a very good job of pretending to be competent or that the standard was generally quite low (I suspect a mixture…). The play itself got a decent review (see here) and the music didn’t get a mention at all, which everyone who works backstage knows means Good Job. From my friends, the only criticism was that there should have been more of it between scenes, which wasn’t my call, but now I know to push that for next time. Yay experience!

Speaking of next time…I was informed by Cat on no uncertain terms that I should definitely do more of this next year. I had so much fun, I definitely will. Watch this space!

Piano Trio

In 2013, three of my friends and I wrote a short (23,000 words)…well, shortish… hilarious and highly-opinionated guide to spotting composers of classical music by listening to the music (like bird-watching!), which I shall post here at some point. One of the things we talk about is what I call a composer’s “tells”. These are little things that the composer writes into their music, almost always unintentionally, that give away to the listener which composer it is. They can be anything  – little phrases, rhythms, chord sequences that stamp the composer’s music personality into the piece. The longer a composer has been writing, the more pronounced they can be.

I’m not bad at spotting other people’s tells, but I’m damned if I know what my own tells are – and I know for sure that I have them. Most of my early music is written very much in the style of another piece of music that I heard, because it’s easiest to learn by imitation, or at least by inspiration. By there are two musical experiences that irrevocably changed my style of music forever and made it sound like, well, me today. Any old piece I listen to, I can instantly tell when I wrote it in relation to these moments.

The first is my previously-mentioned friend Maeve taking me and a group of friends to see Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King for her birthday. I hadn’t seen the other two films, and I remember sitting through it in open-mouthed wonderment (also plaguing Maeve with questions about the plot. Sorry Maeve.) I went home, got hold of the other two, watched those, bought the soundtracks, and then spent the next three years dissecting every chord sequence, every instrument, every moment that made me feel “wow” or sad or excited or happy or anything. I cannot adequately describe how much I learned from those soundtracks. Before, my music was highly classical in harmony, and sounded inexperienced, juvenile. After I’d digested it all, I slowly began to acquire a personality, and to sound like I knew what I was doing, at least some of the time.

The second is staying over with my second cousin and going out to the cinema, staying up really late eating ice cream and catching up (this is a yearly ritual). That particular time I had to get up obscenely early the next day in order to catch the flight back home and he and his dad kindly gave me a lift. I remember sitting in the back of their car, bleary-eyed and stupidly tired, when they put a CD on and as it washed over me I was thinking “What. Is. This.?!?!?!?!” The CD was the soundtrack to Lord of the Dance and it was the first exposure I ever had to anything even vaguely folk-related/inspired. When I got home I bought the CD, dissected the music, and searched avidly for more like it, albeit in the wrong places. It was this CD that prompted me to join the university ceilidh band when I left home some years later and it was only then that I finally found what I had been looking for all this time. Folk musicians get funny about Lord of the Dance because it’s not folk music but non-folky people think it is, however I owe it a great debt of thanks for piquing my interest.

Congratulations on making it through the long reminiscing introduction. This piece is the first thing I wrote after hearing Lord of the Dance, written in February 2006. It’s written for piano trio (violin, cello, piano. Not three pianos. It’s a naming convention. Don’t ask.), which I found super-hard and thus have not written one since (although if anyone wants one, I’m happy to oblige). Writing it was like having musical constipation – I had to really work for every bar, every section. The reason it’s super hard is because you have a violin, which is high and does tune-type things, and a cello, which is low and does bass-type things, and the right hand of the piano, which is high and does tune-type things, and the left hand, which is low and…hang on. Only, the two tuney things and the two bassy things don’t sound anything alike because one of them is a piano, and so everything sticks out like a sore thumb.

It’s also the most structurally-organised piece I have written ever. It’s all made of ternary sandwiches, like ABA CDC. People seemed to really like it, probably because the rigid structure made it feel classical, but the folk-inspired Lord of the Dance-inspired theme and chords gave it a massive modal kick up the backside, which is basically What I Do when I’m left to my own devices. In short, it’s the first piece I wrote that sounds like Me. You’ll notice (now that I’ve pointed it out to you) that every composition I have posted so far bar one was written after this one.  It ended up sounding kind of Scottish, which is odd when you think about it.

In February 2007 it was performed by the Lawson Trio. They let me make a nice recording of it but I promised them I’d keep it for personal use only, so you’ll have to put up with the horrid MIDI version as usual. It was requested by another trio too, but I’m not sure they ever got round to actually playing it. Sheet music on request.

Enjoy!

P.s A few people have requested the sheet music for Spoon Thief. I’m aiming to have it up on bandcamp asap i.e. this week, but it’s all a bit hectic right now due to the Thing that will feature in next weeks blog post…