ATTACK OF THE SYNTHESTRA I – “Willie Feeds”

Welcome to Detholz! Mp3 Blog, Episode XXXIII!

Also, welcome to April 2008, in which I will be incredibly selfish and depart from regular Detholz! programming to bring you the… ATTACK OF THE SYNTHESTRA!

*cue screaming hordes of Japanese businesspeople flooding the streets in terror (and the trombone section)*

Seriously, folks, I am doing a crash course in orchestration and scoring to image (film, TV, etc.) and need some honest feedback. This is largely “Dark Territory” for me, and my MIDI piccolo is essentially whistling in the digital dark. Since I need some outside opinions, I thought: what better place– what better PEOPLE– to go to, hat in hand, MIDI cables in hat, than the venerable, trusty readers of the Detholz! blog?

So. Every week during ATTACK OF THE SYNTHESTRA, you can expect:

1. A customized orchestration of an imaginary scene/character

2. Discussion of instrument/color combinations & composition

3. Discussion of synthestration techniques (toward the end of the month)

…and so much more! You’ll think General MIDI hisself kissed you full on the lips!

Egads! Run for your lives! It’s ATTACK OF THE SYNTHESTRA Part I: “Willie Feeds”

I. SCENE

Though I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, for the past 6 months or so, I’ve played in an online RPG forum– more like collective story-writing than role-playing, hack, cough– and have developed an old-school-mobster-cum-vampire character. Since I have no images to write to yet and need a lot more practice at orchestration, I decided to use his story as fodder for these initial forays into underscoring a scene.

In the scene depicted here, our hulking antihero prowls the greasy backstreets of Chicago in search of a midnight snack. He pauses by an alley and spots a drunkard mumbling to himself, who immediately senses danger and looks up. Alarmed by the menacing aura of the vampire, the drunkard springs to his feet (as best he can) and makes a sloppy break for it. Of course, the gangster/vampire catches up to him, collars him, and drags him, kicking and screaming into a dark doorway, where he bares his fangs… A few seconds later, the drunkard falls to the ground, devoid of blood. So long, drunkard.

Yes, yes, the scene is a cliche. I thought it best to keep things relatively simple for practice.

2. THE SCORE

Note: I am inches away from owning a new studio system which will endow me with the CPU balls to make these synthestrations sound much more believable. For now, however, I am stuck with what I have. Please listen THROUGH these demos and try to imagine what they would sound like played by red-blooded humans. I’m doing a lot of reading about various orchestral instruments and have attempted to write idiomatically for them. Also, as a side note, let me say: I can’t believe it took me this long to switch to Steinberg Nuendo as my primary Digital Audio Workstation. Being a creature of obsessive habit, I had been using a 4-year old version of Emagic’s Logic Audio Platinum (which is no longer made for PC). It’s really a great program, especially with respect to these MIDI-strations I’m doing.

Those of you who are familiar with Bernard Herrmann’s music will recognize a lot of Herrmann-istic elements in this little score: lots of thirds and tritones, so-called “cell” composition (where large portions of a piece are based on just a few intervals), repeated figures, heavy usage of bass clarinet, contrabassoon and other “darker” elements of the orchestra, etc.

Orchestration is a game of combinations. What I’ve been doing lately is saturating myself in film music– even from composers I don’t particularly care for– to get fresh ideas about orchestral instrument pairings. Herrmann, in my opinion, is the king of film orchestrators– cf. his score for “Torn Curtain,” which famously called for sixteen French horns, twelve flutes, nine trombones, two tubas, two sets of timpani, eight cellos and eight basses…! Also, I have a lot of respect for the late Jerry Goldsmith, who scored “Star Trek: the Motion Picture.” (You know. Sexy bald lady.) The sound of that resonant industrial spring (or whatever it is) was burned into my brain as a kid!

In this little practice score, I’m experimenting with brass pairings– horns plus muted trumpets, trombones bleeding into horn blasts, etc. Other useful combinations: flute and harp (harp goes well with just about any woodwind or string instrument), double bass + cello + contrabassoon + bass clarinet (one of my favorite Herrmann combos), and I’ve just started to get the hang of flourishes in the piccolo, which go well just before or after large stabs.

The muted trumpet represents my vampire character– a stereotypical Chicago mobster turned into a vampire during a stretch at Joliet in the ’70’s. There’s a faux jazz element with the trumpets, walking bass and triangle figure. Underneath it, however, are tone clusters in the strings– first in the cellos, later in the cellos and violas– to let the listener know that despite the whimsical “walking jazz,” that all is not well with the world. This idea is copped from Howard Shore’s excellent soundtrack to “Naked Lunch.”

Is it Beethoven? HELLS no, but it’s good practice, and if a few of you get a chuckle or two out of it, then, to quote our esteemed President, “mission accomplished!”

Tune in next Wednesday for the second wave of ATTACK OF THE SYNTHESTRA!

*Narrator explodes into flames*

p.s. Here’s what I’m listening to to prepare for these, in case anyone is curious or looking for new music. Also, please bear in mind that some of these movies, in fact, suck a monkey teat. No composer in the world could redeem them. Still, if taken on their own or examined for how they interact with a film, I would recommend these scores:

Bernard Herrmann – “Psycho,” “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” “The Naked and the Dead” etc.

John Barry – “The Black Hole,” “Man with the Golden Gun”

Goblin – “Suspiria,” “Zombi” [you Detholz! graybeards would love this stuff]

Jerry Goldsmith – “Logan’s Run,” “Star Trek: the Motion Picture”

Howard Shore/Ornette Coleman – “Naked Lunch”

John Williams – “Memoirs of a Geisha”

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8 Responses to “ATTACK OF THE SYNTHESTRA I – “Willie Feeds””

  1. JS Says:

    Hey! I was at the Abbey Pub show with little Chignell and loved to hear some of your new songs. I used to be in the Conserv. over at Wheaton and was shocked to learn of your history! In fact, I first heard you guys when going to a Danielson Family concert last year. The one song that I remembered was Club Oslo. Anyhow, I like Club Oslo FAR, FAR better in concert. I have the “live at Schubas” version on my iPod and like it way better than the more sterile, less full, less dirty sound we here on the demo. On the demo, I feel like you guys are just on the precipice of “letting ‘er rip”, but you never quite get there. Also, (since you won’t get offended) the synth drum on the demo is REALLY prominent and it needs to take a back seat. I find the salience of the synth drum on the demo to be obnoxious.

    Lastly, I’m a HUGE fan of your Napoleon Tex song! I actually find it really “groovy”, and I can’t wait to see it in your new album.

  2. detholz Says:

    JS: Thanks for weighing in, and welcome to the DH! Blog!

    It’s gratifying to hear that you prefer listening to a live recording. Live recordings always bother me a little– with the notable exceptions of Bob Marley, Prince and the Residents– because I feel like the inevitable chaos of live performance detracts from the music. That you would spend time listening to a DH! live recording is high praise, indeed! Thanks!

    Have you heard the album version of Club Oslo on Cast Out Devils? It’s much more gritty than the demo which is, admittedly, a pinkies-out affair.

    “Napoleon Tex” has been getting a consistently good response from listeners. Frankly, I’m a little surprised– originally, I felt like it didn’t work that well given its elephantine construction. But… the people have spoken! I’ll be discussing that one with the rest of the band over the next month or so.

    Comments like yours are comments we crave, JS– keep ’em coming!

  3. bp Says:

    Jim,

    There’s some decent stuff going on here. The lower chord clusters work well for instance. I’m just not sold on the “faux jazz” thing. It really locks the orchestration into a particular era of film-making/film-scoring (about 50 years ago or so). Are you meaning the music to evoke that particular era?

    BP

  4. detholz Says:

    BP: Whew, thanks for commenting. I was beginning to think the Synthestra Monster had scared everyone away!

    To answer your question: yes and no. In my opinion, the way film music should sound was the way in which it was written 50 or so years ago, when it appropriated techniques used in the “modernist” era. So, this is definitely a nod to that time.

    I wanted to give this a more cartoonish or whimsical flavor as well, which accounts for the elevatory flute/harp figures, etc. I guess in retrospect, it sounds pretty “retro.”

    Also, I am directly copping orchestration/composition techniques from the 50’s/60’s for learning purposes, so if it sounds a little like the incidental music from classic Twilight Zone or even The Andy Griffith Show, then my mission here is accomplished!

  5. kebabdylan Says:

    i don’t know if I can give any input of the orchestral stuff. it’s so way beyond me. Interesting about the pairings and using specific instruments for characters. I would be interesting to hear a little more about the process of coming up with the layers of melody. Do you compose on paper or by laying down tracks? What did you start with? just curious.

    and to derail the conversation again. I too am a fan of Napoleon Tex. I see your point of it being elephantine (but since when has being “elephanite” been a had thing?). It would be interesting to hear the band give it a go.

    And for the lucky souls at the last show. how was xmas palsy? I have come to really like that song. Jim feel free to comment as well — what has the band brought to it?

  6. detholz Says:

    ‘Bab: Orchestral music is definitely intimidating– as I am discovering. There is so much @#$%in’ stuff to know about tone color and what each instrument is capable of.

    From there, you have to know how to notate each instrument properly, in the correct transposition, etc. In the case of the harp, notation of pedal settings is required. Gahh!

    To answer your question, usually it’s either/or. In the past, I have used Finale, music notation software, and written each piece a note at a time. This current example was done via sequencing– my first attempt, in fact.

    The basis for the composition was a loose series of intervals – tritone followed by major or minor thirds. There is no melody, per se, only gestures or block chords containing these intervals. In underscoring an image, I have discovered it’s almost always more interesting to provide “color” rather than homophony or “melody/accompaniment.”

    That’s not always true. Cf. “Star Wars” where just about every character has a melody (“leitmotif”) attached to him. Howard Shore’s score for “Lord of the Rings,” which I initially was very disappointed by, is also makes use of the Wagnerian leitmotif. I’ve since come around– it’s not his best score, but it fits the picture very well, for the most part. [I thought the scoring for the sequence in the Dwarrowdelf– where the merry band is surrounded by orcs– with its triumphant brass strains was puzzling, at best.]

    We’ll definitely give “Napoleon” a whirl over the next month or so. Speaking of “elephantine,” the current DH! priority is to phase out Jonny’s hulking sampler (which is responsible for many back injuries and taking out the tail light of his new car) and phasing in a new laptop, so we won’t be having regular rehearsals for a week or so.

    We’ve played “Xmas Palsy” live now twice– it’s a real barnburner! Got a great response both times and feels really good to play, at least for me. It’s about as simple as simple gets and is easy to key into.

    Plug and play, baby, plug and play. And it’s a plug and play world, isn’t it?

  7. Jim Says:

    Firstly, I have to agree with Kebab. The orchestration has not been my world for a few years now, so it’s hard to give input. Of course, your rock is more up my alley, but I haven’t been scared away. I think it’s cool you’ve branched out into this realm.

    And now: All aboard the Derail Train! (sorry Cooper. I’ll try to give the input that I can concerning the Synthestras when I can.)

    Napoleon Tex has excellent melodies and vocal layering going on. I think the only real elephantine portion of the song lies in the harpsicord/bass line. It kind of sounds a little too clunky compared to the rest of the layers in the song. It fits, but I believe that’s where the elephant lies. It would certainly be interesting to hear the band give it a go.

    And I’ve really been enjoying the X-mas Palsy demo. It’s got such a great groove to it. It mooooves. It doesn’t have the same, wild dance feel that Club Oslo or Chapel of Love have, but it’s more of a confident, straight forward kind of dance track. Played live, it’s even that much better. Well done. I sure hope it makes the cut.

  8. Amy Says:

    I liked it. Took several listens to get the gist of it, but it’s effective. Quieter than I expected, which is actually a pretty good thing. Soundtrack music is an accompaniment, not the story in itself. The trombone works especially well.

    Anyway, looking forward to more in this vein.

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