Symphonic Sketches: Behind the Music
Symphonic Sketches is an EP with four instrumental tracks that I released in the middle of June 2022. Many of will have heard the music by now, but I imagine that not many have heard the reasons behind this set of tunes or how they were created. In this blog I'll talk a little about each of the tracks, the concept and the production.
The name of the album is not ambiguous or left open to interpretation as so many artistic things are these days. Instead I called it exactly what it was to me, the musings of a composer writing for members of a symphony orchestra. For those who aren't too familiar with orchestral music, a symphony orchestra can have anywhere between 60-100 musicians playing at once and covers all the instrument sections needed for a wide range of timbres; there's strings (including a harp), brass, woodwinds, percussion, and in my case, the occasional addition of a choir. The "sketches" part of the album title fitted wonderfully with the visual aesthetic I had in mind while writing, and it suitably communicates the fact that these pieces are not recorded by a real live orchestra. They are instead mock-ups of orchestral music that could be played by real musicians if only one had the budget to hire 60-100 professionals! Without further ado, here is a brief breakdown of the individual tracks.
The first tune in the EP was also the first one written. I had released the concept album Inertia just over a month prior and was beginning to think about the next project. Orchestration is such an vast skill and an endless pursuit to master that I wanted to practice by writing a piece that made sense to a set of classical musicians. The goal was to capture a wistful and beautiful sound and I discovered these two non-diatonic major 7th chords that I just loved the sound of. The 6/8 time signature gave the A section a romantic and dance-like rhythm; and this is reflected in its name. The tune felt original and the parts came together fairly smoothly. That is until the B and C sections. I could hear the parts in my head but it was a while of transitioning key signatures and time signatures before I finally made it work.
Almost all of my music is written with film in mind, so while the string chords in the second half are soft and sustained, the lull gives space for other elements to take the limelight before the music sweeps back in to a grand crescendo.
I've decided to talk about the tracks in the order that I wrote them as opposed to the order in which
they appear in the EP. Though, of course there was quite a bit of overlap.
"Childhood Adventures" was a fun track to name. I felt it was incredibly apt between the bubbly woodwind melodies, exciting flute runs, use of pitched percussion (marimba & xylophone), and the adventurous tropes of pirate music in the final section of the piece.
This piece came about shortly after the completion of "Willow's Ballroom". I liked what I had done but knew there was a lot more to writing for a symphony orchestra that I had yet to explore. I was particularly drawn to the woodwinds for this piece. I had previously shied away from drawing much attention to those instruments in my music. Thinking about it, the woodwind instruments are often under-represented in modern film music, and while this EP isn't a film score, I felt that it was time for the winds to take centre stage.
The music of "Childhood Adventures" was largely written in one day. I started with the ending and worked backwards from there. Despite the fact that I was writing in reverse, the tune fell into place very easily and each note seemed to hint at what the next should be. As a composer these moments are inspiring and breath life into you when you need it most. Not every piece comes so naturally and while this one may have taken a day, others have taken months. My favourite aspect of the tune is the sharing of the melody, each member of the woodwind family chimes in to take the melody for a brief moment before passing it on so that the players each have a chance to take a breath. As a result, the tune feels alive and full of energy.
"Rebirth" evolved a lot from its initial idea. I can't even remember how I started writing this piece, but I know that the end result was a significant departure from what I thought it would be. Not a domestic departure either; we started in a local orchestral chamber and ended up in Kenya! So while it might not be your typical piece of music for a symphony orchestra, it does have a lot of flair and culture behind it, making this a stand out track of the EP.
The 5/4 percussion is a combination of many different African drums and shakers and this formed the backbone of the piece. The melody was inspired by the likes of "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid and "I Just Can't Wait to be King" from The Lion King which I suppose gives the music a certain Disney-esque sound. The instrumental B section delves even further into that kind of world by utilising wind chimes and warm strings. There's a certain mystical joy that I really love about that part. Joy really is the defining word for this tune. The Swahili lyrics sing of new life, new creations and freedom from the past. It's based off 2 Corinthians 5:17. The lyrics are written down below in both Swahili and English so you can see their translation.
The Swahili lyrics sing of new life, new creations, and freedom from the past.
"Uumbaji mpya / mzee amekwenda / uumbaji mpya / na maisha mapya yamekuja /
Uumbaji mpya / mzee amekwenda / uumbaji mpya / tumezaliwa mara ya pili"
"New creation / the old man is gone / new creation / and new life has come /
New creation / the old man is gone / new creation / we are born again."
I really enjoyed working with Evano, the Kenyan musician and vocalist who recorded these parts. There's something special about the qualities a real musician brings to a recording that music software still can't compete with.
Past + Present
For the last track it was all about simplicity and power. There's not much of a melody beyond the top note of each chord and a droning arpeggio that cuts right through the middle of the mix. I wanted to see how much emotion I could pack into one idea.
"Past + Present" has a brass heart. It's the horns, trombones and tubas giving the chords weight. I had to get a little creative with how to make them sound like the harsh and biting brass blasts I had in my head, because at this stage I didn't have access to a high quality brass sample library. If you know anything about modes, this track borrows from Dorian. The Dorian mode has one note that's different to a normal minor scale and as a result, the dark tonality of the piece is slightly brightened to give a sound of hope. I used large differences in dynamics to keep the music interesting, dropping back to a single grand piano before the epic orchestral finale.
I'd also never considered using tubular bells until writing this piece. I think I was somewhat inspired by Michael Giacchino's The Batman score which makes use of these pitched percussion instruments to carry the theme.
That's all for now
Stayed tuned for what I do next.