Recently, a listener at TheSixtyOne asked me how I went about recording and composing a track on my album (“Washington Subway”, available on the Media Player). So I thought others may be interested in a brief overview of the process.
1) THE IDEA
Obviously the idea is the first thing that needs to happen when writing music. I tend to wait for inspiration to strike me, rather than starting off with anything particular in mind. As it’s rare for inspiration to strike when I’m away from the piano, this process usually involves sitting at the piano, not doing much, for considerable amount of time ! However, without a good idea, the composition will never be worth listening to, regardless of how much time you spend editing & arranging, or how great the musicians are. So, it’s worth taking time at this stage.
I have a piano at my studio and I also have a piano at my home and I have found that many of the ideas for this album actually came at home. Maybe, it feels less like work-time when I’m at home ? I know the first two bars of “Milan” were written at the piano at home just as I was about to go to bed. I saved them, forgot about them and then found them several months later after which followed a couple of days intensive writing to write the remaining 100 bars :)
2) PERSPIRATION NOT INSPIRATION
Once I have an idea that I feel has potential, the next part is usually the hardest. Some tracks, particularly those with less of a structure like “Sound 8″ or “25th March 1996″ can be fairly quick to finish writing but others like “Milan” or “Gone … but not Forgotten” were not. Even a seemingly simple solo piano track like “Dawn” actually took a very long time to finish. Much of this “perspiration” stage I do away from the piano / sheet music as, to me at least, it is a mental process: trying to decide the best way to present and then develop the idea. Conciously or sub-conciously, I’ll be thinking about a new idea permanently until I have solved the puzzle.
In some cases, this is a process of trial and error. One track I wrote recently, entitled “Radiant” which never actually made it on to the album, was the most extreme example of this as entire sections were written and then re-written. Fortunately, that’s quite unusual for me but to be honest it can get quite frustrating when you know an idea has potential but just can’t find the best way to present it. This is why it can take people such a long time to write a new album …
In theory, recording classical music, even contemporary classical, is more straightforward than popular music. Of course, that didn’t stop me obsessing for days over the mix for “Milan”, but anyway …. Once the track is arranged it’s time to get the other musicians involved. The majority of my “This Is What I Live For” album consists of piano and strings. I play all the Piano parts and I have a handful of violinists, violists and cellists that I regularly use. 99% of the time the musicians play exactly what I wrote. On occasions I will ask for their advice and the obvious example of this was “Washington Subway”.
This is a melody that I had written on piano – again, at home – but didn’t really know what to do with. In this case, I knew that a big emotional arrangement, which was the most obvious thing to do with this melody, would not work on the album. I imagined it would end up sounding like Jean-Claude Petit’s arrangement of “La Forza del Destino” by Verdi (aka theme to “Jean de Florette” / “Manon des Sources”) … a fantastic work, to be sure, but not right for my album. So, the idea just hang around for months gradually heading towards the rubbish bin.
But then, after listening to some old CD’s, I came across Michael Nyman’s Zoo Caprices, which consists of transcriptions of his score for “A Zed and Two Noughts”, for solo violin played by Alexander Balanescu. Whilst I don’t think there’s much in common stylistically between “Zoo Caprices” and “Washington Subway” I certainly got the idea to present it as a solo violin, from Nyman.
Whilst most of the album consists of piano &/or strings the only exception is the last track, which was infact the first one to be recorded: “Gone … but not Forgotten”. This originally was the first movement of a string quartet so the lead melody would have been played on violin. However this didn’t seem right to me so I spent a long time thinking about how best to present it.
I had, for a long time, been a fan of Davy Spillane, an Irish Uilleann Pipes and Low Whistle player. He used to be signed as an artist to Sony and previous to that I had discovered him when he did a solo spot in Riverdance. For reasons that I really can’t remember, I suddenly had the idea of asking him to play the lead on “Gone ..”
So, feeling unusually brave, I managed to contact his manager and sent over an MP3 of the track. A few weeks later I heard that he liked the track and wanted to do it, so a few weeks after that he recorded the part at his studio in Ireland. Davy told me it was pretty hard work on the pipes, because they are such an incredibly difficult to control and uses up so much energy.
Now that I’ve mixed Uilleann Pipes & Low Whistle with Contemporary Classical strings, I’m keen to use more “World” instruments in non-traditional ways. All too often, when people use instruments associated with a particular style of music, they seem to end up creating a pastiche of that style. Next on my list is the Armenian Duduk, which may make an appearance on the next album …