Blog: Composing the Cosmos Bit by Bit

7/30/14 - Composing the Cosmos Bit by Bit

"Wow, I never thought that I would EVER finish that piece!"

"I sure learned a lot about LSDJ and integrating electronics with live performers."

"This might be the most hip thing I've ev-"

Oh, hello there. Didn't see you click through, don't mind me. Feeling a bit lost? Why don't we start over...

In The Beginning...

Two years ago I started learning how to create 8-bit music as a summer project to increase my experience with electro-acoustic audio production. After a year, I felt comfortable enough to try and integrate those chiptunes with live performers in a concert music setting. The resulting piece MINIBOSS was selected by the Los Angeles New Music Ensemble for their call for scores, and was quickly premiered and recorded. I talked to flutist Meerenai Shim about the project - she also performs live with Game Boy - and she mentioned that her friend would possibly be interested in looking at the new piece. So I emailed the Chamber Cartel in April and sent them a copy of MINIBOSS:

Their response was enthusiastic, but percussionist and group leader Caleb Herron said that he would really like to be involved if they were doing a piece like MINIBOSS. Rather than shoehorn a percussion part into the existing music, I suggested that I write something new specifically for their group. He agreed and we started talking about instrumentation over the summer. Originally I was thinking a wind duet with percussion, or perhaps 1 wind + 1 string + percussion, then it dawned on me to score it for the exact instrumentation of MINIBOSS + percussion. Ensembles could program both works if they had the correct performers! Sneaky, eh? Caleb asked if it would be possible to add piano to the quintet, and after a bit of initial panic I agreed. At this point we've gone from a small 5 minute piece for a few players to lots of players, so the next logical step is to increase the length of the piece for maximum composer suffering. Actually, I believe I came up with the concept for the piece around the time we nailed down the instrumentation, and asked if we could do a longer piece since we're setting up the percussion and all the players would already be on stage.

Initial Concepts

One of my biggest struggles during graduate school was coming up with compelling titles for my works. I was actually put on the spot during my dissertation defense to come up with a new title for my horn concerto (I didn't do so well, hah). To combat this compositional hurdle, I am always on the lookout for possible titles and keep a huge list of spare words and phrases to use in my work. One such phrase had been kicking around for about a year after I watched a documentary on the planets of our solar system; one of the scientists described planetary motion as a "symphony of the spheres" and learning about their orbits "a kind of 'cosmic musicology.'" I have known about Johannes Kepler's Harmonices Mundi since high school astrophysics, and of course Gustav Holst's "The Planets." But, WOW - cosmic musicology - now THAT is a title. I was actually going to use it for an overall concept of a new chiptune album, but decided to shift those concepts to this commission. I did end up changing the quote slightly from "cosmic" to "celestial" since it sounds a bit more fancy, and the scope of the piece fits the definition of celestial.

So now I have the instrumentation, a good title, and an overall concept for the piece. I pitch it to Caleb and he loved it, so we are off to the races. The next step is to come up with individual movements since we wanted the piece to be around 13 minutes long. I was trying to come up with a solution for the problem of the limited memory of the Game Boy. Each measure in LSDJ is separated into "chains" and then those chains are grouped as phrases. If I did the math correctly, there are only 255 possible measures per song file - not very many when you consider that they must be shared between 4 audio channels! My solution was to write four shorter movements so I would not run out of chains; essentially writing a piece like MINIBOSS four different times. A huge undertaking, but it solves the memory problem and allows me some flexibility with the rigid, metronomic approach to the Game Boy track.

Movements of the Heavens

In fourth grade I remember walking down to the library in the summer each day and checking out a series of books about the planets of the solar system, complete with full-color pictures provided by the Voyager probe. My dad also raised me on Star Trek, watching it together every weekend when TNG was on the air. So it is not much of a stretch to say that I have always been a huge space nerd, and this project theme was immediately compelling to me. Since I had already been thinking about this project for an album, I knew the first movement would be about the Very Large Array in New Mexico. The rest of the movements were a complete mystery to me, so I did a bit of research and came up with a list of possibilities:

click to embiggen

Some of these are completely unusable - the Methuselah Star and shapes of the galaxies being particularly uninspiring - but a few of them seemed promising. The Dyson Sphere was interesting, but I eventually discarded it for not being an actual phenomenon that has been discovered in the cosmos. In a stroke of good luck, I was kicking around these ideas in September when NASA announced that Voyager 1 had finally left the influence of the sun's heliosphere and was now in interstellar space. There have been several false alarms of this event over the past few years, but their data showed the expected drop in particle emmissions and they felt confident making the announcement. This event sounded perfect for a second movement; a slow, ethereal journey with an exciting event somewhere in the music for a climactic section AND it was something real rather than science fiction. Perfect!

As you can see on this list, I had two of the movements, nothing for the third, and a tentative idea for the finale:

click to embiggen

At the bottom of the sheet is an orchestration technique that I learned from Jim Barnes. The object is to list every possible arrangement of melody (top), accompaniment (middle and bottom), or rest orientation of the ensemble. I was working on these ideas when I was still thinking trio, so it seemed logical to make this chart in my notes while the musical ideas were few and far between. Rather than spend an unknown amount of time doing more research, I decided to get started on the first movement and see if inspiration would strike for the final two. At this point in the project it is late October and I am thinking the piece will be done by December at the latest.
*ominous music cue before commercial break*

Load / Save Track > New Track

One of the challenges that I faced in MINIBOSS is how to effectively integrate the Game Boy with the live performers. My experience up to that piece kept live performers completely separate from electro-acoustic music, so it was a bit of a shot in the dark. I think one of the things that made the process easier for MINIBOSS is that the piece is essentially the kind of things I write in my regular chiptunes with instrumental accompaniment (not counting the opening, which took a LONG time). Now that I had a piece under my belt, I was confident enough to propose a project of this magnitude to the Cartel. However, I knew that the first movement would be entirely unlike MINIBOSS, and in fact entirely unlike anything I have written before. This combination of stretching myself artistically with not knowing how to do what I wanted caused a huge amount of stress and completely stalled the progress I had made up to this point. November came and went, and I still did not have any useable measures after several false starts. How was I going to produce anything if I didn't know what I wanted to do, and didn't know how to do THAT once I figured out what I wanted?

Stay tuned for the next blog installment where I discuss the background and composition of the first movement!