|The Curious Score No. 3: “Don’t Inherit Your Father’s Folly”
||[May. 4th, 2015|06:57 pm]
Hey! It’s a new addition to The Curious Score! How about that?!
I finished my work this past Saturday very early and had the whole day to get ahead on larger projects. So, even though I wasn’t really feeling it at first, I figured to try composing music, since The Curious Score is technically supposed to be a thing that I do, and the long-neglected monthly first-Monday deadline was just two days away.
And I got there! I did the whole piece on Saturday. It’s titled “Don’t Inherit Your Father’s Folly,” and you can listen to it here!
Previously in this series, No. 1 was from The Great Galavar and No. 2 was from Mate of Song. Now, at last, this piece is from After The Hero.
That’s all you need to know. Everything that follows is a long and indulgent description of what this piece is all about. (Though, for the curious of spark, there are two alternate versions of the piece to be found therein!)
This piece is for Rhodes piano and grand piano, and is scored in F minor. The soundfont patch is Saphyr 2000. The tempo is 70 beats per minute. Most sections are performed tenuto for a continuous sound, and I also make use of the sustain pedal—which is not terribly common in my keyboard work—in order to have rests in the score while sound remains without needlessly cluttering the score. Technically, two Rhodes pianos would be required to perform the piece verbatim live without giving up the legato, because sometimes the right-hand staff is sustained while the left-hand one isn’t, and vice versa. (Nor would the sostenuto pedal avail.)
Even though the piece is scored in F minor, the actual key is B-flat dorian, and the tonic (or “home note”) is B-flat. These two key signatures are enharmonically equivalent.
The release version is Saphyr Take 4A / D, which is very reasonable. (For comparison, one of the other pieces I’m working on is currently at Take 32.) This still took several dozen edits; the “4” indicates four total major versions in the course of development. The “A” indicates a sub-version with only minor revisions to a major version, but which nevertheless got the soundfont patching treatment. The “D” indicates that this was the fourth version of the Noteworthy notation file—like a video game save point. I’ll usually save my work as a new file after making major revisions, in order to preserve a “paper” trail to which I can revert later if desired. The 4 and the D are not the same thing, despite having the same value in this case. Major versions are typically more frequent than Noteworthy notation save points.
If you’re curious, you can listen to Saphyr Take 1 here, to get an example of the earliest soundfont-patched version of the piece.
I was inspired by Satie, whose minimalist works like (particularly the Gnossiennes) I find curiously compelling for how humble they are. You’ll hear a clear inspiration from his famous “Gymnopédie No. 1” in the first few seconds of the piece.
Beyond that, I conceived of this piece as a chord exploration. In my compositions I usually stick to safe chords that play a supporting role for the melody, as opposed to drawing attention to themselves, because for one thing I’m a melodic composer, and for another, as someone with faulty hearing, I am acutely aware of how muddy a complicated chord can become if there’s also a lot of other stuff happening.
Chord exploration pieces seem to me to be inherently more experimental, so instead of looking up all the formal chord variants on F minor (technically B-flat dorian) I simply created chords that evoked sounds I wanted to hear in progressions that I found interesting.
As an exploration in the tones of chords, I didn’t initially have a placement for this piece in the soundtrack. However, to explore chords I wanted to pick a scale that I’m fully familiar with, so I went with B-flat dorian.
(Trivia: This scale and its enharmonic equivalents (most importantly E-flat mixolydian) is my favorite scale on the piano to physically play. That’s because, on that scale, the E-flat major chord and D-flat major chord are physically parallel and therefore very easy to shift between. We self-taught music aficionados can certainly make the classically-trained musicians cringe!)
Most of Silence’s themes are either in B-flat dorian or E-flat mixolydian, so much so that I consider those two keys to belong to her. So it occurred to me to assign the music to some part of her role in the story. It would also be an opportunity to deliver on something that you’ve all doubtlessly been expecting, which is a piece of music from under Silence’s umbrella.
“Don’t Inherit Your Father’s Folly” takes place at nighttime in the gardens of the Resistance headquarters in Western Davjoranj. Silence has sneaked onto the grounds to introduce herself to Esmeul, one of the Resistance leaders, to show goodwill and hopefully foment a greater understanding between the two warring sides. The meeting goes poorly, however, and at one point Silence scolds Esmeul not to inherit Esmeul’s father’s folly. This is a reference to Rennem, the Hero of Davoranj, who had led his people to ruin by fighting Gala, and is the source of the title.
Considerations in Arrangement
This piece is scored almost entirely for a Rhodes piano, an instrument I rarely use. As often happens, my aural vision in this case called for an instrument—the grand piano—that didn’t sound the way I intended for it to sound, due to the limitations of midi and of the free soundfont software at Solmire.com. In “Don’t Inherit Your Father’s Folly” I specifically wanted a very soft piano tone, but the midi representation of a piano keystroke is always fortissimo. To achieve quieter effects midi simply reduces the absolute volume—it doesn’t change the tonal envelope. And in this case, that just wouldn’t do.
But I didn’t want to leave acoustic instruments for synthetic ones (never mind that this whole venture was composed synthetically), so I explored the sounds of the other pianos in the general midi list and discovered that the Rhodes piano came very close to the sound I wanted. So while in an ideal world I’d have used an acoustic grand piano with piano dynamics, in this world it was an easy decision to go with the Rhodes piano instead.
A Return to Simplicity
Many of my Curious Score pieces have gotten hung up because of their ambition. I didn’t want yet another ambitious piece on my plate, so I resolved from the beginning to keep this one simple and short. (“Short” in terms of development time.)
To finish it in a timely manner, I limited the score to the two staves on the Rhodes piano—with a little bit of embellishment from a traditional grand piano in the song’s climax and dénouement, strictly for seasoning. By composing for just two staves, the song’s complexity was necessarily limited. On top of that, I also significantly limited complexity in the bassline. This would keep the sound clear and, moreover, keep the work limited in scope and on schedule. I actually finished the whole thing on Saturday, in about twelve hours, which has got to be a personal best! I’d be very happy if I could generally compose my songs in a single day apiece.
But alas that’s pie in the sky! In addition to the aforementioned simplicities—a small number of staves, a simplistic bassline, and the less-demanding “chord exploration” style as opposed to a melodic one—I also didn’t have to do any original thematic composing. All of the themes I used in this piece are years old.
In a recent Curious Tale Saturdays, I mentioned that I much prefer writing situational music to object music. “Don’t Inherit Your Father’s Folly” is an example of what I mean. It invokes four different object themes (all character themes, if we count Relance as a character—and we do), and adapts them to the stylistic mood and tone of a specific situation. The result is an original piece of music built on the backs of familiar character themes. (They won’t be familiar to you, since you haven’t heard them yet, but here I am speaking of myself.)
There are a total four thematic allusions in the song: The first theme you hear (0’24”) is from one of the Relancii night themes. (Relance has more than one night theme.) The second theme you hear (0’58”) is a variation on (a variation on) Silence’s minor theme. The third theme you hear (1’42”) is a fairly literal excerpt from Silence’s night theme. The thematic journey closes (2’47”) with a restatement of the aforementioned Relancii night theme. And, finally, the fourth (3’01”) theme is a very brief statement of Esmeul’s main theme’s motif. (Some of this nomenclature is illuminated in the aforementioned recent Curious Tale Saturdays entry.)
Relancii Night Theme 2 (Motif)
(Begins at 0’24” and 2’47”)
The thematic story of this piece begins and ends with a melodically brief, motif-level allusion to the second of the two Relancii night themes. This theme is very character-oriented, and actually has strong associations with Lilit DeLatia, but in our context here it serves strictly as a world night theme. Its inclusion in “Don’t Inherit Your Father’s Folly” is for reasons threefold: First, it’s naturally on the same scale and is actually very similar to (and was inspired by) the themes from Silence that I’ll discuss below. Second, the scene occurs at nighttime and a world night theme is certainly appropriate here.
Third, and most importantly, in The Curious Tale nighttime represents inner strength and inner adversity. Silence is trying to do something very difficult in this scene: reach out to a devoted enemy. That effort is one of internal power, and her apparent failure is thus a reminder of her own limitations, and of that which frustrates her from achieving her ambitions.
These metaphors are carried by the Relancii night theme rather than either of Silence’s themes, which both liberates her themes to carry other metaphors and, brilliantly (if I may), attaches her failure to the reality of existence. In other words, this theme, in this context, is saying that we can’t always win, that the nature of things is for the world to be bigger than we are.
The statement of this theme in the beginning of the piece is more coherent, and prouder. The chords are simple, strong, and stirring. In contrast, when it repeats at the end of the piece, the expression is introspective and morose, with more confusion in the chords and also the use of pure notes that, I think, constitute some of the most musically inspired sound in the whole piece. In no uncertain terms, this latter statement of the theme tells you how the battle went. The bassline also goes lower than it does anywhere else in the piece, producing a powerful effect.
Esmeul’s Main Theme (Motif Only)
(Begins at 3’01”)
I’ve been working with Esmeul’s main theme a lot lately, and I suppose that’s why it occurred to me, when I was still searching to place this piece in the soundtrack but after I had decided that it would be a piece of music under Silence’s umbrella, to think of the scene with Silence and Esmeul.
In this piece, as per normal, all you hear from Esmeul’s main theme is the motif. This works because the motif is so catchy and self-sufficient, and because the space for Esmeul’s theme in this piece is so short.
Indeed, the statement of her iconic motif only occurs at all in the very tail end of this piece, and it really just shows up, without any introduction. The only integration it has with the larger piece is that it’s in-scale and that it provides some tonal relief in the form of “easy listening.” Indeed, I originally debated including any statement of Esmeul’s theme at all.
The reasons I ultimately did go with it are that I liked the relief it provided, and that I also wanted to provide some kind of inherent proof that this music covers a scene with Esmeul in it as a main character. The scene itself is really about Silence, which justifies Esmeul’s theme’s lack of prominence here, but Esmeul’s contribution to the scene as an antagonist to Silence is indispensable, and I wanted her theme to get acknowledgement in the music, even if only very briefly.
Trivia: Of all four themes in “Don’t Inherit Your Father’s Folly,” the youngest is in fact Esmeul’s theme by a wide margin, even though it’s already something like three or four years old by this point.
Silence’s Night Theme
(Begins at 1’42”)
In comparison, Silence’s night theme and minor theme are both very old, nearly as old as the character. I remember sitting in my dormitory’s piano room all the way back in 2001 and playing the night theme passage from 1’42”—almost fifteen years ago!
Her night theme is heavily inspired by the theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, almost to the point of plagiarism. It doesn’t show up in The Curious Score nearly as often as her minor theme, but you’ll notice from this piece that the two themes are closely connected and could easily be two separate instances from a single, larger theme.
The rendition of Silence’s night theme serves as the climax to “Don’t Inherit Your Father’s Folly.” It metaphorically represents Silence’s effort to reach out to Esmeul against all odds. Like so many good intentions, it becomes thwarted, and finally goes nowhere. Thus the theme itself peters out into nothing, with no internal resolution. However, as the most powerfully expressed theme in the piece, it should make you think about the nature and merits of Silence’s ambitions.
Silence’s Minor Theme (Variation)
(Begins at 0’58)
If you didn’t click on that link up above, to the Curious Tale Saturdays article where I explain some of the different character theme categories, then just take a moment to appreciate that here we’re talking about Silence’s minor theme, not her night theme as in the previous subsection.
Silence’s main minor theme, which is one of her most iconic themes and is the source material for a lot of Curious Tale music, doesn’t appear anywhere in this piece. Instead, the variation on her minor theme takes its place. The variation has the form of a rhythmic rearrangement of her minor theme, to make it sound more poignant and less intimidating, like a stirring love theme or a bittersweet dance.
You have to infer that there’s something special represented by this theme, because I went to the trouble of introducing it on the left hand (the bassline), which draws great attention to it. You’ll also note that this theme has small echoes all throughout the piece, both in the exploratory chords and in the piano embellishment. This is easy to do because the theme is simply a jagged ascent of the scale. This, then, is the central theme of the piece, even though it isn’t the one to deliver the climax.
You can hear it most clearly and completely from 1’20” to 1’32”, including the first “sweet” chord of the entire piece at 1’27”, which serves as a local maximum and tells you where the piece is eventually going to go vis-à-vis the much more powerful sweet chords at 2’01”, 2’08”, and 2’15”.
Its centrality also explains its metaphorical simplicity: Silence’s minor theme embodies much of the pathos of The Curious Tale, the ideal of changing the world or of having an ideal world, and of being unable to get there. Something Silence is always striving to do is to achieve perfection, both in herself and in the whole world. This necessarily endless pursuit of self-betterment and world-betterment is both a source of great happiness and sadness.
Anyhow, this variation on her minor theme is much newer than the minor theme itself (which is even older than her night theme), but still dates to roughly 2009 or thereabouts.
Chords with Secrets
There is some thematic allusion in the chords, too. This is facilitated by the fact that I used a single key signature as my anchor, making it very easy for the chords to be experimental while still referring to the themes. Give the chords a listen! I think you will find some interesting allusions.
Speaking of Chords
Speaking of the chords, you’ll notice that chords intersperse the entire piece. The themes are always being interrupted by, and are always reverting to, exploratory chords. As I said in the beginning, this really is a piece whose structural intention is to explore interesting chords.
As such, I kept other structural aspects of the piece simple. The dynamics are actually fairly complicated (for me), but everything else is minimal: There are no stereo effects. There are only two staves of the same instrument (plus a little grand piano for seasoning), rather than a larger orchestration. The melodies themselves are mainly confined to their respective character themes and don’t attempt to build up together into a grand melody inherent to the piece. The tempo never changes from 70 bpm. And the key only drastically changes once in the entire piece, before immediately changing back (though there are a handful of subtler changes). The time signature is in 4/4 and for the most part stays in 4/4. If I had more finesse, I would have liked to do a free time signature, in the tradition of Satie, but because of my far lesser skill level I stuck with a safe 4/4 signature in order to give myself more leeway to experiment elsewhere.
I even kept the chords themselves simple. There’s very little avant-garde about them. Each one is either two or three notes (notwithstanding a handful that have octaves). More importantly, every chord has at least one note that makes sense on the F minor scale. Using a more adventuresome composition liberates artists to completely ignore the scale and rely on context, but I didn’t go for that here. Every chord makes sense when you listen to it by itself, if you have an F minor scale handy for reference.
Perhaps best of all, the piece begins, and ends, with chords. In fact, the beginning and ending phrases of the piece are identical. It really is all about the chords. Most of my music has a more metaphoric sort of goal, but this piece’s primary purpose is to walk you through a garden of sounds.
The ending of the piece will leave you hanging the first time you hear it, until you go back and listen to the chords more closely, and realize that the conclusion is there after all, and was always there. It even ends on the tonic!
Post-Patch Sound Editing
The Rhodes piano in Saphyr makes a little click whenever it sounds a note, especially in the midrange. This is so annoying that I conducted my first-ever post-patch sound editing to try and fix it, and I spent a great deal of time trying to fix this, both on Sunday and today.
Audacity was happy to oblige me in the ensuing learning experience. Despite my having almost no experience with sound editing, I figured out the tools I needed to use to fix my problem, and correctly identified how to proceed.
The problem turned out to be that the clicks occur in one of the most densely populated bands of the frequency spectrum (around 3000 Hz), meaning that any filtering would necessarily eliminate desirable sound as well. To make matters much worse, and in fact to make the problem completely intractable, the clicks are also wide-band, meaning they exist along a broad range of the frequency spectrum (nearly a thousand hertz), so that any filtering would be especially broad and therefore especially noticeable to the ear, in the form of a dramatic loss of crispness.
Furthermore, the clicks were too well-hidden to show up in any of the spectral plotting I did, meaning they weren’t visually identifiable despite being so damn loud. This made it much harder to do very short-duration filtering (of much less than one second), which could have conceivably overcome some of the aforementioned problems, with the consequence that I instead I only used long-duration filtering (of several seconds at a time). The uselessness of the plotting also illustrated just how well-embedded into the sound these clicks are.
Eventually I determined that the exercise was futile. I would need some combination of much more time, much more skill, and more powerful editing software in order to get rid of the clicks. You can listen to my best effort if you want. For all the work and time I spent on it, my filtering doesn’t even cover the whole piece. Instead I focused only on the worst offenders that were also the most isolable, occurring entirely within 1’40” to 1’55”, and only when the grand piano isn’t playing. You can tell me what you think, but this filtered version is mainly a curiosity.
Someday, for the definitive edition, I’ll simply patch the piece in a better soundfont. The reason I went with Saphyr is that, besides this clicking, it otherwise gave me the best sound by far out of all the soundfonts I tried. The clicking truly does detract from the piece, but I ultimately deemed it a necessary sacrifice in order to deliver the superior sound that no other soundfont approached.
I’m very pleased with how well this piece turned out. I found most of the chords I was looking for—which for me is never guaranteed. I was able to combine the several themes to my satisfaction. I achieved a final product that does produce some “feels” in me, albeit modest ones. And I did it all in a day! Woot! And without actually touching my piano, too. This was purely worked out on the computer.
Listen to this and it’s unmistakable that I’m only an amateur. I have a long way to go before a music enthusiast could listen to my work and not take notice of how amateurish my efforts are. Nevertheless, as far as my personal development goes, this is good practice and represents a small but appreciated step forward.
If you have any critical feedback (positive or negative), I’d be most interested. (I’m talking about the music itself, not the story relevance, although I’ll certainly welcome commentary on that too.)
I hope to see you next month with another installment of The Curious Score.