Composition in a Live Coding Environment

by Jordan Berg

Live coding in an interesting practice that I first attempted this semester as a member of the ICE Integra Contemporary Electroacoustics Ensemble at the University of Lethbridge. I am a composition major in my final year and have participated in the last two ICE concerts primarily as a percussionist and improviser. This fall I was introduced to live coding and learned the basics over the course of the semester in order to perform what I had absorbed live in our final concert on December 3, 2018 at the Zoo.

Live coding requires a musician to type lines of computer code into an interface to produce sound. It is not just as simple as pitch, dynamic, rhythm and duration – all of these parameters are controlled by the code as well as reverb, modulation, placement within the stereo field, repetition and more. There are so many aspects the performer can control that it would (and does) fill a small book and continues to be developed by musicians and programmers. It is possible that a live coder could perform Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (with difficulty), but due to the nature of the constant looping that is essential to this practice, the style that has developed is different from the linear world of classical and popular music (although not necessarily). My first attempt at this was to figure out how to code ‘Walk This Way’ by Aerosmith using strange sounds for the first assignment. I felt that I was successful in this and for my second attempt I tried for something more ambitious. This attempt failed miserably because the complexity of having to type in pre-planned pitches, rhythmic groupings, and layers of commands in a live environment can come crashing down if the performer misses something as simple as a single character. I felt that the more successful attempts by my classmates relied less on pre-planning and more on aleatory. The understanding of the code and a rough idea in advance lets a performer engage in the live sculpting of sound rather than a frantic attempt to type pre-existing pages of numbers and characters into a computer under low light with many people watching. The latter seems to guarantee failure.

As a composer, I have always found it difficult to reconcile the relationship between being hyper-controlling on a measure-to-measure basis and letting things form over time without judging them instantly. Part of the problem is the ability to immediately listen to what I’ve composed on my computer at the touch of a button. I have no idea what makes me decide why I think something sounds good and something else doesn’t. I compose something based upon a concept and then I listen to it and hope that it sounds acceptable. If it doesn’t, I delete it instantly. I’ve been told constantly by my composition professors that I need to allow my music to travel into zones that I might not be comfortable with and I’ve never been sure how to accomplish this. My experience with live coding has taught me to value the randomness of initiating a concept and then allowing it to form and develop on its own before I decide to nudge it in a different direction. I realize now that the same is true on the manuscript page. Sometimes you need to allow an idea to come to fruition based on the parameters that you set into motion earlier rather than to judge the perceived acceptance of the results on a note-to-note or measure-to-measure basis.

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Composing with a DAW vs Traditional Notation Software

By Jordan Berg

As a composition major, I find that in order to best realize my ideas, I must use several different methods of composition as I develop my project. I compose with an instrument, I compose using traditional notation methods, and I also compose directly into a digital audio workstation (DAW). For most of my projects I will use all three methods.

I began my composition studies very traditionally and trained my ears so that I could write my ideas directly to a piece of manuscript paper and also notate my improvisations with instruments. I eventually began using Finale (and later moved to Sibelius) because of the ease of editing parts and the rudimentary MIDI playback. I found after a while that the horrible MIDI playback of Sibelius and Finale was not getting my ideas across to anyone and my portfolio was stagnating because I had no ready access to performing musicians and recording equipment. This was the case even when I invested in better sample libraries. I began studying production because I felt that I was hearing many pieces of music coming from the world of popular media that were not very deep compositionally speaking, but sounded fantastic due to the production value. University is an excellent place to collaborate with other musicians and have your pieces played and performed, but I think that once I graduate, I will need to rely at least a little more on computer-assisted composition to produce music quickly and have good sounding results.

Both notation software and most of the major DAWs are aiming to be a ‘one stop shop’ where you can compose using whatever method you prefer and also get a great sounding audio file at the end. This has not been convincingly achieved yet. We are (in 2016) quite far from having the ability to compose traditionally using the score edit function in Logic and Protools (frustrating!) as we would in Finale and Sibelius. Likewise it is difficult to trigger your samples properly and mix/edit the audio in notation software the way you can in a DAW. I am rarely happy with the sound of my audio file using notation software, even when using a professional sample library. It is useful to be able to export a MIDI file from your work and then import it into a DAW.

I find that my approach to composition is very different when using notation software than when using a DAW. I find composing music into Logic is sometimes limited to the level of my keyboard playing abilities. It is possible to enter one note at a time using a mouse and it is also possible to edit, quantize, rearrange and perfect your performances (which I need to do every time) but I find my creativity is heightened when using traditional notation because I can work out harmonies, manipulate rhythms in ways I might not be able to intuitively or at a MIDI keyboard, and create counterpoint that is more developed and thought out. I also have a better perspective on the trajectory of my piece and the progression of the harmony when using traditional notation.

I find composing into a DAW more like jamming and improvising. This is extremely powerful when, for example you want to improvise or work out a part using, say an oboe over a string section. I also feel that effects and spacialization can be expressive tools and instruments in and of themselves. Likewise the ability to produce music that is a blend between a traditional orchestra and electronics is much easier in a DAW than it is on paper or in notation software.

In conclusion, it is true that samples and computer-assisted production have themselves become instruments in the modern composer’s arsenal. Most of us don’t have consistent access to a live symphony orchestra but unfortunately samples are still not able to capture what a live performance does. When composing at a computer, one is in danger of writing the piece ‘for the samples’ rather than for instrumentalists. I feel that both traditional notation and the ability to produce music with a DAW are of equal importance to the modern composer.

Composing for Integra Contemporary Electroacoustic Ensemble

by Morgan Krause

Composing for the Integra Contemporary Electroacoustic Ensemble can be a great challenge when you consider the diverse interests of the members. The group can have people who are very skilled in electronic applications and computer music, people who are skilled at an instrument, people who are great composers, or people who are interested in a wide variety of other things. The diverseness of the group means it is difficult to write a straightforward symphony piece or a rock song but, it is a great place to get out of your comfort zone and test the limits of your compositional reach with the different styles and skills of each performer.

A year ago, with the help of my colleague Ethan Lentz, I created a piano piece that when I started my degree I never would have believed I would perform. We plucked the strings with guitar picks, slammed the lid of the piano to create intriguing harmonics, banged on the low end strings to emulate thunder, and even screamed into the piano for the resonating harmonics. All of these elements were enhanced by my computer driven system of looping piano sounds controlled with my iPad. This piece was a terrifying endeavour for me to compose and then perform as I had never written such a piece before and it was definitely not a classical-style piano piece. The response from the ensemble, and from the audience we performed it for, was encouraging and made my second attempt at writing for this ensemble all the more exciting.

This year I’m composing a piece that is sample based using iPads and pre-recorded samples as the instruments to be performed at “Computer Blues” this November. The piece consists of different blues rifts played by different members of the group. Three iPads will be used to control the musical elements of the composition. Each player will stand between two speakers that create his/her stereo field and they play their individual riffs to get the audience familiar with the sounds that will eventually be layered together to create the larger image. Bit by bit the sounds compete harder with each other and eventually fall into place to create a cohesive sound unit.

The piece is a difficult one for me to put together as I’m trying to gather samples of blues riffs that will coincide together to create a larger picture than they can create themselves. I am adding a theatrical component that is meant to appear as though the performers are at war with each other in the beginning as the piece is more dissonant and appears to be out of sync, but then it falls into rhythm and harmony to create a cohesive sound unit.

Releasing a piece into the hands of a performer is always difficult as a composer. Composers have a vision in their minds about how a piece should play out and performers have their own interpretation. However, performers can add that extra input that the piece needs which excites me greatly and working with more different people through Integra Contemporary Electroacoustic ensemble creates a new perspective that helps me as a composer expand and explore my own pieces opening new doors in my own mind.

Jordan Nobles speaks at the STUDENT COMPOSERS’ FORUM

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During Jordan Nobles’ visit to Lethbridge, we asked him to tell us more about his musical background, his compositions and current projects. He agreed to speak at our STUDENT COMPOSERS’ FORUM.

We find an interesting musical tension in his ‘open form’ compositions – a tension between a lot of musical activity (dynamism) and at times, am almost static harmonic rhythm.

Perhaps this ‘essence’ (of dynamic and static) are captured in these great photos, taken during his highly motivational talk.

For more information about Nobles, go to: http://jordannobles.com

A Consideration of Starting: Beginning Some Meanings

by Tomas Morante

As contemporary composers we are often faced with duelling and often conflicting ideas and impulses when we consider our objectives and motivations for writing/producing a piece of music. I make note of the fact that we are contemporary composers since much of my, and perhaps your, current compositional dilemmas are and can be directly situated in a historical discourse regarding music tradition and revolution. For instance this very morning as I was walking with a fellow student of mine we found ourselves comparing our respective engagement/disengagement in what we saw was a tendency in contemporary art composition and composition instruction to push avant-gardism and the modern/romantic ideal of revolution or innovation for its own sake, or, arguable, for the sake of curiosity. Although brief and mobile, our consensus seemed to suggest that it was personal conviction and taste that ultimately moved us most to compose, as opposed to internally perceived external expectations.

I for one have, for the last three years or so, been and continue to be entangled in an aural, textual, and (less so) graphical obsession with the doctrines and practices of common practice counter point and harmony, specifically the motivic writing, voice leading, and voicing/orchestration seen in Beethoven’s opuses 131, 132, 133 and 135. Some, I must assume, would see this lengthy concentration on such a narrow selection as perhaps being myopic, clichéd, and ultimately hopeless unproductive since in the end all I can hope to achieve are some perhaps convincing imitations in the now dated or irrelevant style of such and such a composer. I have many varied responses to this attitude, for as I see it there is still a great deal that antiquity has to offer in terms of stylistic discourse (this is a very broad label that is inclusive of musical practices and philosophies of Beauty, Spirit, and tonal culture throughout history), balance (this includes asymmetry), structure both sonic and temporal, and the nature of musical energies (i.e. cultivating the expressivity and momentum of a melody/phrase). I am by no means suggesting that contemporary avant-garde music is without these considerations, not at all, in fact there are innumerable examples rife with the most compelling demonstrations of these considerations. I know for a fact that what I say next is only an indication of my lack of musical exposure, however given a limited vantage point I remain loyal to the ancients since it is they who as of yet have withstood the tests of time and can thusly be relied upon for the novice’s instruction in timelessness. Since, in art, it is this quality I am most desirous of I trust the classics and cumulatively expand my good faith from there. For as artists we are above all developing an aesthetic sensibility¬— a morality— of right and wrong, of working or in need of work… we must develop an aesthetic ethic in ourselves that entails self-reflexivity and constant engagement/participation in the reservoir and rivulets of our culture. Despite the dubious nature of citing some unified theory of Canadian or Albertan identity/culture, our individual/relational aesthetic ethics must strike past the uncertainty and in so doing create unity through the timelessness and truth of our aesthetic. In fact personal integrity and truthfulness become a kin to aesthetic truth and timelessness— a word that implies integrity or the unchanging truth of a thing. For it is often stated in numerous ways that the objects of one’s heart and mind craft the lens through which one finds the world. So ultimately our aesthetic question is really just a human question: what is timelessness and what things in art and life are timeless?