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Eye of Miranda (choir SSAA and piano) and an attempt at teaching my computer to sing

[Edit 11/29 - Replaced audio file with a new one, featuring a slightly-less-clunky piano!]

Here's a fairly melodramatic piece I wrote a few months ago for women's choir and piano. The words, by Canadian science fiction writer Rhea Rose, were inspired by Voyager 2's images of Uranus's moon Miranda--haunting images of a scarred, once-volcanic alien world that raise more questions than they answer.

The audio file is my first foray into word-building technology, which admittedly has a steep learning curve. The sounds are Virharmonic's Soloists of Prague, which I acquired as a cost-effective alternative to other word-building libraries. Although this is vastly preferable to MIDI "ooh"s and "ah"s, it's still no match for a real choir with regard to expression and English pronunciation, so it's a good idea to follow along in the score while listening.

Please let me know what you think. I'm particularly curious if the lack of counterpoint in the voice parts gets boring despite my efforts to create contrast in other ways (register, harmony, piano part, etc). Thanks for listening!

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Very nice "atmospheric" piece. And yes the voices much better than Oohs and Ahhs,

I don't think there is a problem with how you have structured the voice parts. There is enough suspension and divergence, more I think would be distracting.

Without having had the opportunity to analize the piece more closely I think it is a beautiful piece, that evolves naturally, and has just the amount of variation to keep my interest throughout the piece. I think that the only thing I racted to as repetitious was the piano part sometimes, but that feeling might have been enhanced by the playback which wasn't really flattering for the piano, since it sounded a bit more clumsy than it would have played live.

On the whole the piano part was however fitting as a partner to the choir and I only think that you might benefit from writing a two-line score for the choir with stem direction separating the upper and lower sopranos and altos, especially because they sing so much in unison within their parts. It might be easier to read then.

Good work! Keep it up!

David

Thanks for your thoughts, Michael and David!

David, thanks for pointing out the issues with the piano part. I think you were right, so I made a new audio file (see above in the original post!) where I did some mixing and mastering to make the piano sound more resonant and less clunky. Piano parts like this one--which rely on big, widely-spaced block chords--tend not to sound very good in MIDI because the sound decays faster than a real piano. Hopefully the new recording clears at least some of that up.

Thanks again for pointing this out!

Nicholas, I thought this was great.  I second everyone's thoughts that there is no need for additional counterpoint.  I am an admirer of the way you write appealing melodic lines, yet keep the thing feeling fresh and modern.  I am surprised there have not been more sci-fi operas of late...

Re: word-building choirs, can I ask how long this took you and whether you did it all with the MIDI file post-notation?  I was playing with Word Builder for East-West Symphonic Choirs and found it quite difficult to navigate while still working in Finale.

BTW, I recently started using East-West's $30/month "Composer Cloud" option, which gives you access to a bunch of their libraries, including the Choirs, their Pianos (I am a fan of their Steinway) and Reverb.

Thanks, DricollMusick! I'm glad it sounds "fresh and modern" to you--my inner critic (probably in the voice of my former composition teacher) keeps telling me that this piece needs more "salt and pepper" to be even remotely interesting, but it's reassuring to hear that not everyone feels that way.

I can't say for sure how long this took, but I probably worked on the recording on and off (a few hours a week) for at least a month. And it's obviously still not perfect. So yes, word building (and all the dynamic shaping, etc. to make it sound realistic) is pretty time-consuming for me, but I'm not sure how much of this is just because the Virharmonic samples are so finicky with English pronunciation. I got this library just a little while before East-West announced their Composer Cloud--back then, it would have cost something like $400 U.S. for their Symphonic Choir. Now that it's cheaper, I might give it a try as an alternative to what I'm currently using.

How are you finding the Symphonic Choirs so far? Are they relatively flexible and easy to use (outside of Finale, at least)?

And yes, all of this was done post-notation... I exported the MIDI to my DAW and did all the word-building there. I think it would have taken even longer to get it to sound realistic in notation software, where it's not as easy to shape the precise envelope, duration, etc. of each note.

Thanks again for your kind feedback!

I played with Symphonic Choir for about a week.  At the moment I only use the DAW as a VST instrument player, so was trying to finagle it all using Finale playback.  It seemed like in order to hear back what you've just entered, you always had to start from the beginning?  If I write more choral music, I may go back and play it with it at some point, but for now, I'm not convinced it's worth the (considerable) effort.

Re: the need for "salt and pepper", the one comment I'd offer is one of the most valuable lessons I got from my undergraduate thesis advisor (one of only a few valuable lessons).  As a primarily tonal composer, I didn't really see eye-to-eye with him on many points, but he did get me to develop a sensitivity to the use of octave doublings.

My takeaways were this:

  • As of course you know, octave doublings were very commonly used in the 19th century.  
  • These doublings therefore lend a certain color that a knowledgeable ear associates with music from that period.
  • This is especially true for open octaves (i.e., no intervening notes) and music for piano, because the sound of the two notes are so similar (as opposed to an octave scored with bassoon and flute, say).
  • Because of this (and multiple other reasons) most 20th century practices eschewed octaves (as well as any *standard* tonal harmonies, of course).  But you don't have to throw the baby out with the bathwater!
  • By removing octave doublings in otherwise tonal music, one gets a much *cleaner*, more modern sound.  I think of it as scrubbing off some of that fusty 19th century layer.

This idea was an eye-opener to me at the time.  And ever since then, I've been extremely careful about my use of octaves.  

Sometimes I will slip and think "Oh this really needs the strength/power of an octave above it" but I am always disappointed with the result (now I actually feel it weakens the musical idea somehow).  The solution for me is almost always something else entirely.  

For example, there are only two small parts of my orchestral song you heard where direct octave doublings are used (and in those places it is a doubling of the two-different-instruments type--i.e., a deliberate color choice).  Most everything else is non-doubled harmonic/melodic progression and register shifts.

At any rate, the short of it is that I have found interesting modern cooking is not always about adding elements ("salt & pepper"), but sometimes eliminating the outdated ones (the... musical "trans fats"?).  :D

Something to chew on...

I like very much your piece as music (not so much the lyrics-don't take it as criticism, it is purely subjective).

The music sounded sonorous and inventive harmonically to my ears and well balanced in terms of relative tension/relaxation, and I think it gives plenty of ground for further speculative development. So I think you have something very good in your hands harmonically.

Contrapuntally (although you say that this was not your first concern) I think could be more adventurous by simply staggering the entries of various voices on the same words (and the melodic material concerned). It would take a bit of thinking and work but it would add interest imo.

I know next to nothing on the technology that you use for the voices, so I cannot comment on that, but it seems to me that it is still in its early stages and it is bound to improve in the future. (let's hope it remains affordable), but I do admire people like you for their patience and willingness to try rid us from the "ooh, ahhh, ehhh" sounds. It would be beneficial for the whole of vocal music to have words sang credibly. Gluck once rid us of "the tyranny of the soloist" and put all primadonas and drama queens in their proper position in music, but by the time of Verdi they had once more got the upper hand.

Time to regain lost ground. ;-)

 

Thanks for sharing

Hello Nicholas,

I have no qualifications or experience with choir, or choir-piano.  I am just a regular listener of your piece.

There is a certain special atmosphere to this piece that is in fact, in my mind, compatible with an "out of this world," exploring other planets type of imagery.  I felt the atmosphere, the melody, and the "modern" feeling (do you mind if I use the term 'slightly eerie') were all highly appropriate for this thematic. 

You used the term "melodramatic" but I would like to comment that the emotions expressed are very non-traditional.  None of the traditional romanticism, it is really a sci-fi type of romanticism expressed here very effectively.

Some harmonic transitions are very striking in a good way, such as @ 0:50. The crescendo following 3:50 is also very striking.

I'm very glad to have listened.

Well, I enjoyed it! I know next to nothing about music. So I suppose if you want the answer to "would an average person listen to all 4 minutes" then it is yes.

Thanks for the comments everyone!

Driscoll - I like your analogy about the octaves. In piano melodies, they certainly are a bit of a 19th-century cliche, though I'm not sure if I'll remove them in this particular piece. There are some issues in balancing a choir with a piano that I'm still adapting to, being more accustomed to writing for more varied instrumental ensembles--the piano can sound kind of brittle when contrasted with the richness of a choir, and occasional octave doublings were probably my lazy way to address this. More creative solutions to come in future pieces, I hope!

Socrates - Glad you enjoyed it. I appreciate your suggestion about staggering the entrances, and I do this a bit in the middle section. I guess the real question is, in a piece this length and with this (relatively straightforward) level of complexity, if that provides enough textural contrast.

And yes, this technology is still in its early phases (although it seems to me that it hasn't really been developed much since EastWest first came out with the Symphonic Choirs, which I think was like 8 years ago). I, too, hope they'll develop it further. Although the goal is still a performance by a real choir, I think this kind of technology at very least will help composers of vocal music to create decent recordings to send to conductors and publishers. (Fortunately choirs, unlike orchestras, seem very happy to perform the music of living composers!)

Mariza - Thanks for your kind words. I'm glad you heard its "eerie" and "sci-fi" connotations, since this is exactly what I was trying to accomplish. I guess I was referring to the big, eerie chords (like the ones at the climaxes you mentioned) and other overtly Bernard Herrmann-influenced moments when I called this piece "melodramatic"

Andrew - That's actually one of the most important questions a composer can ask--and the best answer I could have hoped for! Glad you enjoyed it.

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