Phoenix

 
A couple of weeks ago I posted about my experiences of using a newly-purchased sound library and the huge difference it made in sound quality. Over the last couple of weeks I have been diligently re-recording a whole bunch of my compositions and over the next few weeks, I aim to get throught the majority of the pieces up on this site, as well as a few others.

To celebrate the start of this exciting overhaul, I am digitally releasing an album containing eight re-recorded pieces of music, all written from 2011 to 2016. The album is called Phoenix, which is an apt new for a fresh start in musical sound! Please do show your support by heading over to Bandcamp and buying it if you wish. Individual tracks are also available for separate purchase.

Also it’s my birthday today, so this seems appropriate!

I have plans to re-release the other compositions here as digital albums in due course. Watch this space in the coming months… In the meantime however, why not re-visit the shiny new recordings at their home on this site:

Adventure From Tora

Diamond Digger

Blue Is The Colour

Sketching In Sherbet

Spoon Thief

Super

Juliette

Real Women

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Real Sound

A very exciting thing has happened! I’ve  upgraded my music-making tools, the most significant of which is the purchase of a sound library.

A what? I hear you ask. Well, to explain why that is exciting, I have to talk about how I go about writing music that is designed specifically not to be perfomed live. How often does that happen? Very often, actually.  Much more so than the other kind – because, unless you have easy access to a world-class orchestra and a recording studio (a group that consists of practically no one outside composers for big-budget films and TV), you are going to get a much MUCH better recording off using computer-generated sounds. Computers don’t make mistakes, and they don’t require hours upon hours of rehearsal and recording time. And let’s face it, what TV show or video game is going to splash out on all those human-hours of rehearsal and recording? A bill that’s going to run to many thousands of pounds, when for much less faff and money, you can get a computer to do all the work. Where this goes pear-shaped, of course, is that computers generally don’t do a very good job of sounding real.

Most music produced by computers uses a system called MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), which is a language that codes music as a series of instructions about note pitch, volume, duration etc. This language is then interpreted by a MIDI instrument (such as a digital synthesiser inside your computer) to produce sound. The better the synthesiser, the better the sound. I already use music software that comes with a decent synthesiser, but there’s a limit to how realistic a synthesised sound can be. If I’m comissioned to write something that isn’t going to be performed live (like any kind of soundtrack), I spend a long time using every kind of trick to get my computer-generated synthesised instruments sounding as real as possible.

After finishing to write the actual musical score, I spend several hours of fiddling with notes, dynamics and expressions on the musical score to make my music software play it exactly how I want. This includes writing things out explictly and trying to add in all the little nuances and changes that a real player would express when they play. Some of this is already done by my excellent software, but usually not enough. Once that is done, I import the whole lot into sound editing software, and spend a while adding panning and reverb to every single individual instrument based on roughly where they would sit in an orchestra or band. Panning changes where the sound comes from in stereo (left to right), and appropriate amounts of reverb determine how far back/foward the ear perceives the instrument to be. More echo and less dry signal make the instrument sound further back from the listener, and vice versa.

The result of all these manipulations at the moment is something that sounds kind of real if you’re not listening too closely. I once had an actor during Super come up to me and express admiration at the effort I’d gone to record an entire orchestra. I mean, it helped that the music was being broadcast into a large theatre, and so the real acoustic effect of the space was helping to blend the sound – but where this tactic really falls short is solo instruments. Have you ever heard a solo MIDI violin? It’s just the worst. I usually avoid this by never using solo instruments in works of this kind, which is a shame. Some of them are OK – the woodwind generally come alright – but don’t talk to me about the solo trumpet. Or the viola. My god, the viola. So I stick to things that sound kind of okay in my current sound library, and that’s quite limiting. At the end of the day, no amount of reverb is going to replace a live recording. If you want something to sound real, you have to go further than using purely computer-generated sound.

This is where a sound library comes in. A sound library is a collection of sounds pre-recorded from live instruments, which are then used together with a sampler to create music. Since the music is created from live sound samples, it tends to sound much more realistic than synthesised sounds. The better the samples, the more realistic the sound. A recording made using a good sample library and sampler should make it very hard to spot the difference between a computer-generated recording and a live performance, at least where soundtracks are concerned. Many movie, TV and video game sound tracks already use them. And so I am currently in the process of re-recording pretty much everything I have ever written with my new sample library. It’s going to take a while to get through it all, but the results are worth it! I will slowly be updating all the music on my website as it becomes ready.

To demonstrate the huge difference in sound quality, I made a quick and dirty recording of Onwards! using both systems (turns out, despite my earlier assertions, it seems that Windows Movie Maker is good for something…) so that you can compare and contrast them. Let me know what you think in the comments!

 

Farewell, SmartMusic SoftSynth. It’s been real.

Real Women

 

My (hugely talented) cousin Kayla wrote this poem a while back, and there were some plans to turn it into a short film somehow. The project was shelved for the time being, but not before I wrote this for the soundtrack. It was partly desinged to be used as the main theme for the film and partly was just what I was inspired by the poem to scribble down. I hope the project will go ahead someday, but in the meantime here is a sneak preview of the music.

I had a lot of fun writing in a super-irregular time signature of 13/8 (divided up 3/4 + 3/8 + 2/4 for those curious folks) and in the key of D it’s come out in a pleasant pastel minty green colour. It’s scored for woodwind, strings, piano, harp and a whole bunch of randomn percussion. I hope that one day it’ll get used for something, because I think it’s quite catchy and soundtrack-y, and it would be a shame not to. But for now I guess it can be used for listening to, and also for slightly promoting awareness that real women are, y’know, women who are women, and are not defined in any way by what they look like.

The poem is reproduced (with permission) below, and a video of its performance together with Kayla’s blog post about it can be found here.

(Also note the reference in the poem to that time we saw Bridge to Terebithia, accidentally inspiring Pebbles…!)

Real Women Have Curves

I come from an army of curvy women.
Of long haired ladies
With blue eyes and thick thighs
And asses that never quit.
With these childbearing hips
(That, according to my mother, didn’t make it any easier)
We could sway and sashay
Away from any problem.

I come from queens who stomped around the kingdom
With our too-big feet
Tell our skinnier friends to put meat on their bones,
And leave the laxatives at home
Kick their bony asses to the curb
Because real women have curves.
Right?

Real women have curves,
And big girls don’t cry,
And good girls will be virgins on their wedding night.
Black girls are sassy and can twerk on command,
The Asian girl gets on her knees for a man
And the band girl is kinky as fuck
You’re always in luck with a Latin girl.
Or the one who’s got issues with Dad
Cause she never gets mad if you’re late or forget-
She’s used to it.
The feminists are gay,
And so is that one that you “didn’t fancy anyway”,
The bisexual’s just out for attention
Did I mention
The slut who didn’t say no
Or the whore who dumped you three years ago
Or the bitch who said you were full of it
And called you up on your bullshit –
Let’s admit that these things are true.

They’ll put you in a box, too.
If you let them.

So, tell me.
Tell me that real women have curves,
So the numbers on a scale won’t get on my nerves,
And I’ll let you build me up
And watch you crush the skinny girls to dust.
But, that’s okay.
They were barely there anyway.
Watch my stiff upper lip start to quake
As I ache,
And I bawl
At the end credits of Bridge to Terabithia because I don’t care how big you are, if you don’t cry at that you’re made of fucking stone.
Twenty-one, still a virgin, that’s a bit of a joke,
But you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t
It’s the slut-virgin binary,
With nothing between,
And to be seen as either one is tainted.

Tell me I’m a real woman,
As if there is such a thing.
As if there’s a code
Made of ones and ohs
Lit up in green
And that numbers on a screen mean anything.
Tell me I’m too ‘white’ to dance,
That I can’t shake my ass
Unless you tell me to.
Tell me that my brand of feminism makes me gay,
And then get out of my way
So I can talk to that girl at the bar.
But, because I told you no,
It’s just for attention
It’s just pretension
Just repressed sexual tension.
And nothing is real unless you say so.

I come from an army of curvy women,
And I am a goddamn queen.
But that’s not real, that’s fiction,
It’s friction
Between the real and the invisible
Divisible by the walls between our boxes.
If real women have curves,
Do I end at the wrists?
Or the squareness of my shoulders?
Do I become a real woman when I cast a shadow?
Is the only power
In my willingness to tower over others?
Pulling up the covers
To hide my edges
To shield the sharpness of my bones
Because no one wants to see the chinks
In the armour of a strong woman.

Real women have curves,
And corners,
And sharp bones wrapped in muscle and flesh.
What makes us women isn’t strength
Or servitude,
It’s the army at our backs.
It’s the shield and the sword
And the chord of our fight song,
Our battle cry
Of asking why we aren’t allowed to be our own.
What makes us women isn’t sisterhood, it’s lifeblood,
It’s the tracks we have made in the sand
And the brand of that word:
Woman.

 

 

Juliette

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Playing the harp was always a secret childhood dream of mine, like riding horses. Both were prohibitively expensive (I grew up in NW London, when horse riding was realistically accessible only to the upper- and upper-middle classes). I never voiced the desire to do either to my parents, because a child knows when not to push their luck. When I was eleven my parents bought me a piano, which given that I did not grow up in a musical household was extremely generous. As well as being a dream come true, it was the catalyst for both the genesis of my composing career aged twelve and my sister’s singing-songwriting debut several years later. As a teenager I had several friends who played the harp. Despite having a magical, entrancing sound, it was a big, cumbersome instrument and ferried around in large cars by their respective parents in all respects A Faff.

Fast-forward many years later. I went to visit the family of a kid I used to babysit, and while there I found out they’d been learning the harp, but didn’t like it and gave it up. This was not one of the massive monsters I had seen growing up, but a lever harp – small, nimble, portable and sweeter than any large pedal harp could be, as it had no need to compromise on sound for volume like the orchestral harp. Although I understood that it wasn’t for them, I can remember thinking, “this kid had the chance to learn the harp and they just gave it up!” The realisation that I was now an adult and could do whatever the hell I wanted came a little while after when I was at dinner with my friend Di who also played the lever harp. Suddenly that pipe dream I’d forgotten about was not only tangible but achievable. By then, I’d been immersed in the world of folk music for many years so I understood the role that the lever harp played in the context of its music. So I went off to make it happen, and just over two years later managed to nab that grade 8 I’d desperately wanted as a kid but was never good enough on any other instrument to get.

I did a lot of self-teaching, but found an excellent harp teacher to keep me on the right track and help me with the grades. My teacher rented me my first harp for a few months which was nice but kind of bland in tone. I was on the lookout for a harp of my own. Unfortunately, the opportunity to try lots of different harp models in the UK only rolls around once a year in April at the Edinburgh Harp festival, which was almost a year away. So in the meantime I found myself a nice little Fountain harp, the twin of Di’s. Di’s harp was called Henriette, so I named mine Juliette. I eventually sold her on to a nice home once I found my perfect dream harp in April, but I have very fond memories of Juliette from that year. Juliette is the harp that is featured in the photo that I use everywhere (the one where it looks like I am in the middle of a forest. Which I was, but it was totally unposed, I promise).  While I had her, I wrote a nice little duet for me and my boyfriend at the time to play, and named it after my sweet little first harp. The duet was written for clarinet and harp but works for any treble solo instrument and both harp (lever and pedal) and piano can accompany it. We never did anything much with it, but it’s still nice to have. Maybe one day I’ll turn it into something bigger. In the meantime, here is the track to listen to, which you can purchase here.

The sheet music is also on sale for anyone looking for a nice duet or accompanied solo. Scored music is provided for the Bb clarinet, flute and violin and accompaniment for harp and piano, and sheet music for other instruments is available on request. Buy the sheet music here.

Oh and I eventually got to ride horses too. Adulthood sucks, but there are some perks.

I think I’ll go play my harp…

 

The Cannon

Start as you mean to go on – I’m aiming for one post a fornight now on every other Thursday , and certainly no less than one a month:) I was hoping to talk about drowning cats this week but that’ll have to wait for next time…

This was the first game soundtrack I ever wrote, for the same company as I went on to write Diamond Digger and Adventure from Tora. The game is called The Cannon and was released on Xbox Live Indie Games and IndieCity a few years ago. The premise of the game is that you are in control of a cannon that can shoot fire, ice, lightning and vines. Coming to destroy you are, with varying timing and intensity,  ninjas, pirates, robots, monkeys, zombies and aliens. Each attacker has different strengths and weaknesses with regards to the things you can shoot. As the game progresses, increasing complexity is added – if I recall correctly, shooting lightning at the aliens made them multiply and so on. To complicate things further, the enemies could attack each other, so zombies could attack pirates and make zombie pirates. Much fun was had by players and reviewers, who gave generally positive feedback.

The soundtrack for the comprises a track for the survival mode, one for a timed mode, and one where the enemies come in waves. In addition, there was a track for every new enemy that was introduced in the campaign mode. Struggle for Survival was the first one I wrote, and possibly the one I’m most pleased with. This was where the tune line that came to be associated with The Cannon first appeared, and I had great fun incorporating it into later tracks. The survival mode track is tense and fast-moving.I took the tune and built it up for Wave Me Goodbye, which is much more chill, but still with a driving beat. That theme got reworked and taken further in I May Be Some Time, along with unifying ideas and themes from the previous tracks. This track for the timed mode is exactly 5 minutes. An ascending chromatic scale heralds the passing of the minutes, which are signified by a slight change in pace and style of the music. The track gets increasingly frenetic as time goes on, to the backdrop of a tick-tock sound, until time finally runs out.

The campaign tracks are a little different from the other modes. Where’s the Ninja evokes night-time and stealth sounds. Piratical Tendencies includes sounds of the sea and a piratey slip jig, as well as the chromatic theme from I May Be Some Time. Both of these tracks touch on the theme in Alienating, meant to evoke the grandeur landing and parading of visitors to our shores. Robot Rumble reworks the pirate theme to sound metallic and choppy, like robots moving. Monkey Madness has sounds of, you guessed it, monkeys, along with a new theme. This theme is used again in a lurchy zombie way for the final campaign track, The Zombie Lurch.

And finally, there’s the music played on the menu screens. The track is called Eighteen Twelve (geddit?) and uses themes from Wave Me Goodbye.

And that’s it, really! Sadly the game is no longer on sale as IndieCity went under a few years back and those involved went on to bigger and better things. Happily, the soundtrack is still kicking around on Bandcamp, so in a sense it has outlived the game itself. As all the tracks (apart from the timed mode track I May Be Some Time)  loop endlessly in the game itself, each track is presented with two repetitions.

I’ve posted the trailers for both the XBox and PC versions above (the soundtracks for which are taken from Struggle for Survival and I May Be Some Time respectively) and the link to the Bandcamp page with all the music below. If any one is interested further, the company webpage for the game is here. Enjoy!

 

 

 

Sketching In Sherbet

 

In the last few months, my musical exploits have been somewhat less composer-y and more performer-y and musical director-y, particularly in the realm of theatre. At the beginning of the year, I got to be all opinionated at other people in a legitimate setting (which is the best part of being in charge…!) and play some creepy harp music dressed in period costume while a slightly deranged Peter Grimes drowned a (puppet) cat on stage in a vat of water. Despite the cat thing (or maybe because of…?), it got excellent reviews and particularly favourable mentions of the music (more on this another time). Later on in the year, I teamed up with another couple of musicians (/fellow partners in crime), an actor and a comedian to remove the urine from Shakespeare’s The Tempest in celebration of his birthday in a “unique blend of traditional music, storytelling and comedy” which is great fun and I look forward to performing again (and again…) in the future.

I’ve got an exciting new film soundtrack project coming up (film music and feminism, what could be better) but in the meantime I thought I’d share with you this piece of music, which I’ve been saving up for some time now. I began writing it in the summer of 2011, which was a very interesting and eventful summer indeed, and remains to date probably the longest thing I have ever written for full orchestra. I left it mid-way for a good long while and finally finished it in the spring of 2013. It has been performed twice by two different orchestras in Cambridge as one requested it after hearing it performed by the other, in 2013 and 2014.

It started off as a small piece of music for someone specific, but it quickly became something bigger, ending up as a tribute to the most important lesson I learned in my undergraduate degree, which is that how good a person you are has nothing to do with how intelligent you are, how pretty you are, how hard you can work, or a million other things that are mostly outside your control, but how you can help  those around you and how they can do the same for you. How you treat the people you care about, and how a moment’s thought or effort can spare someone more pain. To all my friends in those difficult years, I thank you for being brave enough to tell me the truth to my face even though you knew it would hurt, for being courageous enough to lower your guard as I lowered mine, and for being patient enough to teach me how to be a better person. In real life it’s just a piece of music and you’re not going to hear any of that in it, so here are my thanks in words.
The piece is written in a pleasant sherbety-gingery orange, with bits in hot summer’s day yellow (the kind that’s fizzy and tastes of lemon). I hope you enjoy it.

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!