Orchestral Evolution Part 3 – ‘Modular Music’

In my last blog I delved into some of the compositional ideas going into Orchestral Evolution. Looking at how we can bring the best out of players of all abilities, by working in a minimalistic way.

This week I wanted to talk about how that minimalism is also rooted in being modular! Hopefully it will give you an insight into how I’m writing for a pop-up orchestra and maybe even get you thinking about your own compositions…

When we create music, the tendency is to create manageable ‘blocks’ of music. A ‘block’ of melody, a ‘block’ of rhythm.

A verse, is a block of music, so is a chorus. A ‘bar’ like this thing…

Is a ‘block’ of music.

Us human folk have this amazing tendency to break things down into manageable chunks. Our day is broken into seconds, hours, am or pm, days or weeks, seasons, breakfast, lunch… you get the idea. The reason you and I do that is, of course, probably because we have been culturally conditioned to do this, and that’s because it’s worked very well for …well…like ages…

It helps us, and others, to be able to comprehend what is happening. It helps us to summarise when explaining and even subatize when understanding. (Thats one for the teachers out there!). Ultimately it not only helps us, it helps those we are explaining ideas or concepts too.

As Ive already mentioned we do this in music all the time. And interestingly I think we are doing it increasingly so…

As more and more people use computers (DAWs of all shapes and sizes) to create music the idea of working in ‘blocks’ is becoming a really tangible physical reality, rather than a concept…

Just look at how Logic ( a common DAW) looks… just look at those ‘Blocks’ of music.

And the thing is, for the composer it works really really well as it gives them the feel of perspective, and a sense that the task is manageable. The end result is also something that is extra tangible for the listener.

Now this isn’t to say its a new idea in music. But, undoubtedly the introduction of such visual ‘blocks’ or such a focus on modules of music in DAWs, (thats digital audio workstation if ya didn’t know…the programmes we use to record music) means its becoming something that ingrained in composers heads and listeners ears…

‘Modular music’ is simply there all the time, its incidental, because its almost always part of how a human works. In fact its so common place that as a composer your focus often is to remove the sense of ‘modularness’ by desperately trying to blend sections together. Battling with the inevitable.

Now… My piece Orchestral Evolution has some unique challenges, firstly the fact that I don’t know what type of instruments I will have and secondly how many of them (thats the joy of a pop-up orchestra). So short of writing the composition in its entirety when I first meet the musicians I basically have to create a composition which I can work around the situation.

So…how? what is the solution? The solution is to be modular, really modular. Instead of letting modular thinking be the incidental and inevitable approach it will become the focus and strength of the piece. To create blocks of music that can be placed together in an infinite number of ways, according to the sound I want to create and the situation with which I am presented.

Doing this means I can really work with the players that I have. In other words; ‘the piece works for the players rather than the players working for the piece’. It also has another major affect… that the performance will be original to that orchestral line up. Cool huh?.

It also means that as the ‘conductor’ I can act as a DJ/Producer, bringing loops in and out, change different parameters within the piece as I go…perhaps I will make ‘loop A’ or ‘block A’ louder, or maybe I want to to make ‘Block B’ to have more of an aggressive feel to it. I can communicate all that as a conductor. My roll as a composer and conductor becomes one that is truly live and truly musical, working with the players in a symbiotic way…responding to the sounds the players make and the facial expressions the audience pulls. 🙂 🙁 😉 🙂 🙁

So if you like… we are somehow dragging the orchestral composer and conductor into a new modular, more musical and modern age.

Check out the previous blog to see some of the modular examples used already and how Im using these ‘blocks’ to give players the chance to get into ‘flow’ and really ‘get into’ playing the piece.

and in the meantime…

Want to have some fun with making modular music… give this a go.
https://musiclab.chromeexperiments.com/Melody-Maker

Orchestral Evolution Part 2

This is an ongoing blog delving into the process of composing ‘Orchestral Evolution’ a piece of music for an infinitely sized orchestra of all instruments and abilities.

The piece has been written by The Chris Woods Groove Orchestra in conjunction with Soundstorm, the Music Education Hub for Bournemouth and Poole. The project is for young people of a huge range of ages from schools in and around Bournemouth – Funded through support from Arts Council England.

If you are a teacher wanting your school to be involved, or you have any questions you can email contact@chriswoodsgroove.co.uk or direct to Soundstorm rachel.Sene@Bournemouth.gov.uk

In this instalment of the blog Im going to be revealing some of the processes involved in composing this piece…

I want to create a piece that unites and inspires those playing and listening, overcoming the various challenges of the pop-up orchestra. So the concept behind this piece has two very specific important points.….

 1. Be emotive and powerful –  to help draw the players and listeners together

 2. Be minimal/simplistic at heart – to bring out the best in, and play to the strengths of, each player.

This is the foundation and subject of the work. No images of lakes or political statements here… this is a piece of music to bring people together and to bring out the best in the individual and the orchestra.

Point one, be emotive and powerful, is going to be relatively musically straightforward. Although I will delve into that a little in this blog, the main challenge is point two, how to bring the best out of each player. In other words, rather than simply challenging each player within an inch of their ability how do I create a piece of music that allows each player to flourish and develop whatever their skill level. Crucially, without loosing sight of creating something musically emotive and powerful.

After thousands of cups of tea and hours of gazing thoughtfully out of my living room window, I have borrowed a simple principal from my previous ‘Guitar Revolution’ project. The principal is to work with incredibly repetitive and simplistic patterns, which enables players of all abilities to reach a ‘state of flow’ and to enable all abilities to focus on articulation and detail in a near macro way.

Sound complex? – In other words…. base the piece on a simple idea that gives everyone the space to play it amazingly. – by the way I recommend looking up ‘flow state’.

Borrowing from ‘Guitar Revolution’ I took a basic repetitive quaver pattern alternating between two notes. Now the choice of those two notes is quite important at this stage. I’m looking to create something powerful and emotive (remember point one), however many of the instruments and players I will be working with may only be able to manage a few notes. In the case of clarinets and trumpets for example this is likely to be D,C,Bb and E. So I need the repetitive pattern I am basing things around to create a tention or emotional feel when placed with these notes….

To cut a long story short I settled at the repeated pattern of G to A#. Of course, at this point I have no idea if there will be a clarinet player or ten…oh the joys of the unknown! 😉

Once we have this simplistic pattern we can then begin to play with the articulation. Experimenting with what notes we accent, and really bring it to life.

Here’s an example of the part played with accents on  the ‘and’ of 1 and the ‘and’ of 3. At this early stage of composing I tend to use ‘Guitar Pro’ a programme as powerful as sibeliues but a bit more user friendly….Its purely for perspective to get a feel for how things might sound – it also only costs about 20 quid.

So, if you can hear past the terrible midi sounds, you would have heard a repeated pattern with a pulse that is more interesting than 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and. Now… This would be very achievable for most levels of player (Im thinking guitars, ukuleles and keyboards here!). But we can really start to have fun by using the orchestra to our advantage and have opposing accents from a different group of players. Like this example…

Suddenly we have something more interesting, and definately working towards a phillip glass intensity and something that would create a state of flow in even the most distracted of players.

By sharing the complexity within this part between two groups we give each player the room to really focus and flourish without being overwhelemed. In other words it gives them room to think…whilst making the music even more powerful.

Of course we can take things further and share this simple part out amongst for sections all playing different accents… like this:

At this point the complexity has literally taken away that beautiful quality we previously had, or atleast not added to it. Interesting how simplicity can even become too complex. If you look at the notation you will see that the accents have begun to in some cases cancel each other out, so without introducing a crazy and possibly unachievable pattern which goes in and out of phase, it just wont work!- so two parts it is then.

With my foundation riff in place, my next stage is to head to ‘Logic’ and quite literally begin playing. Using Logic gives me a bit more flexibility and a bank of sounds that are a little more realistic, but remember this is only here as guide for me to take to the real life players. In my next blog I’ll delve into how I did this…and how everything is focused on being modular in order to be flexible. In the mean time, here’s 30 seconds of a sketch for you. Hopefully you can hear our foundation riff that I have been exploring in this blog, played by two sections of the orchestra.

Orchestral Evolution Part 1

What is Orchestral Evolution?

A brand new commissioned score for a revolutionary ‘pop up orchestra’….

A piece of music for an infinitely sized orchestra of all instruments and abilities. The piece has been written by The Chris Woods Groove Orchestra in conjunction with Soundstorm, the Music Education Hub for Bournemouth and Poole. The project is for young people of a huge range of ages from schools in and around Bournemouth – Funded through support from Arts Council England.

Students from every type of school ensemble traditional or unusual, from orchestras to jazz bands, an after school ukulele club to the in house rock band are all invited to learn the piece with me and a visiting member of the Chris Woods Groove Orchestra, in a morning or afternoon workshop. (27th Feb: AM or PM 28th Feb: AM or PM 1st March: AM or PM 2nd March: AM or PM)

Further content will be made available for free online, to help students practice and further develop their playing.

All of the groups will then be invited to join a mass pop up orchestra hosted by one of the participating schools ; to perform alongside some of this country’s finest players as part of ‘The Chris Woods Groove Orchestra’ at a one off inspirational concert. Interested?..get in touch by email contact@chriswoodsgroove.co.uk or direct to Soundstorm Rachel.Sene@Bournemouth.gov.uk

The Project was born out of an idea to inspire students, irrespective of their interest in classical or contemporary ensembles, to help all students engage within a modern orchestral setting culminating in a shared finale. A focus on making the orchestra, and orchestral thinking inclusive and exciting. Soundstorm approached the CWGO to bring these aims to life.

Over the coming weeks as I compose the piece I will be writing about my processes, successes, failures and more in this blog. So sign up now to watch it grow.


Why?

As many of you may know who are reading this, in septmember of 2016 I launched a project entitled ‘guitar revolution’. A piece of music for an infinite number of guitars, all ages and abilities. You can find out more here.

After an oversubscribed launch at the london olympia we went on to tour the pop guitar orchestra project across the uk. Bringing together hundreds of guitarists of all ages to perform together. It was an inspirational process. From two angles it has to be one of the most satisfying and exciting things I have done as a musician and composer…and has inspired this next project.

Firstly because of the social element; the idea of bringing together people of all ages and abilities was idyllic in concept and idyllic in practice. To work with people who may not spend every moment of their life playing an instrument is seriously refreshing. There is a genuine passion that hasn’t succumbed to the gigging fatigue that many of us ‘professional’s’ have. There is an almost more pure love for the music, and this pure passion comes out in the playing regardless of physical skill.

Secondly the process was a compositional conundrum. And a compositional challenge is one that feeds creative thinking. In short, composing for a mix of abilities is a challenge. Having boundaries to keep within, though, is often really constructive. I had to compose to be prepared for huge unknowns (how many would turn up to the pop up orchestra) and crucially I had to compose something that was simple enough to be played by the most beginner player and crucially simple enough and intuitive enough to have room to be an expressive performance.

So here I am again in a new compositional scenario, with similar challenges but also very exciting new ones…here’s what Im facing with Orchestral Evolution

1.Composing for all abilities.

In this project whilst it is only open to school children, it is not for one specific age or ability. So within the the parts there must be room for all abilities. And crucially we want it to be an enriching experience for all, so there also needs to be value in it for even the most accomplished player.

2.Composing for an unknown orchestra (unknown instrumentation)

This time, its not just guitars. We are making a truly modern orchestra welcoming all instruments. But it is a pop-up orchestra  so until the day of the workshops I wont know what Im dealing with. Do we have ten violins? three bassoons and a hundred ukuleles? or… well, ultimately it could be anything. So I need to categorise the instruments in a non-traditional orchestral way.

Over the coming weeks, as I compose the piece I will be blogging about the processes and experiences. Ill be sharing audio clips and maybe even a video or two too.

Drop your email in the sign up form to stay up to date.



‘Unfolding’ – Coming Soon – The Chris Woods Groove Orchestra

This is an EP of four compositions. All recorded Live. To be released EARLY DECEMBER

Stolen Lines and Amygdala were recorded live at Real World Studios for Audio-Technica. Splicer and The Chine were recorded and filmed live at Absolute Music in Dorset.

The pieces all feature me (yup!) on guitar with; Ben Taylor (Double Bass), Arthur (Electronics), David Youngs (Hand Pan and Woodpack drum) Harkiret Singh-Bahra (Tabla) and Andy Chapman (Drums).

Its been a long time coming. I’ve been working away with some of these guys for a good two years. I’ve been Particularly spurred on from the Guitar Revolution project and from working with everyone in the orchestra (people are good) its been a creative time. I’ve had an opportunity to leave some of the less creative parts of being a musician behind recently, and I guess I’ve never felt so focused on making music that’s orchestral at heart.

The tracks are undoubtedly dark, the choice of playing them live is very deliberate. I hope these recordings capture us all at our best and most expressive.

On release of the EP and all the full videos I’ll be delving into the tracks in an in-depth way, and how they were recorded sine this was not just about chords, rhythms and harmonies; it was one hell of sonic journey too working with one of the most innovative microphone companies (Audio-Technica) on earth and working in a truly out if this world studio (Real World Studios).

For now, I wanted to leave you with our first video release of Stolen Lines performed Live in the Wood Room at Real World. As well as of course an album taster. (If the video hasn’t loaded CLICK HERE)


Thanks for listening. Before ya go I wanted to extend a massive thank you to lots of wonderful people including, everyone one of the Orchestra members you gentlemen are all true gents, stunning musical beings and an inspiration to me. Tim at Audio-Technica for being one of the most amazing communicators I’ve worked with and of course his team of fantastic people and fantastic mics. Ollie at Real World Studios for being such a great engineer. Dan Henry and Mark Harris for making sound and look great at Absolute Music. Jordan at Red Pepper PR for being so generous and a general legend. Jess for the stunning artwork. Christian and David for amazing mixing and putting up with OCD ears. And David Holder for the epic mastering. Thank you to you for reading this far….

Thank you one and all

more soon
C

Chris Woods Groove Orchestra Rehearsals Pt 2

This extract of the blog delves into how I have been communicating my ideas to the rest of the orchestra…as we work towards recording.

One of the best/worst/most interesting challenges of getting a band together…or ‘Orchestra’ as I like to think of it is communicating your ideas. I come from more of a contemporary/rock/jazz/pop background and the usual way of things is ‘heres the song’ and let players go crazy!

This time things are different, I’ve really tried to approach this project in a more orchestral way, composing with different instruments in mind, at the same time as recognising the strengths of the musicians who join. So how do you go about composing specific parts for other instruments when you cant play that instrument…did someone say notation?

‘Notation?!? oh my god!…you mean dots and all that rubbish!??! – surely without the magical skill of reading music I wont be able to do this?!’

Now, I’m not really a ‘reader’. I have never really had the need, and groove, swing and feel always seem so distant from the score not to mention the whole changing tuning thing. I also have some pretty strong feelings on the teaching of it to children – notation really has got in the way of some good common musical sense… (see my Jimi Hendrix blog).

I admittedly have a good grasp of reading rhythms, but as far as sight reading goes its something I don’t practice so I don’t do well. But it really hasn’t put me off and I don’t think it should put you off either… I use Guitar pro. Its an amazing programme and really helps in creating your ideas. By using the TAB function, writing parts for cello or double bass are easy and importantly you can HEAR what you create… so with a bit of trial and error you can compose something quite stunning with very minimal reading ability! thank you Guitar Pro!!!

I know there are a host of similar options; but I think what is important here is how we can now just intuitively tweak a score with very little knowledge, quite literally play until its what you want it to be  – Giving you the ability to pass on information in a range of ways and bring those stuffy and slightly redundant dots to life with some creative dabling. Interesting…hmmm…

Below is an extract from the score I have for a recent work in progress. Just guitar and double bass. The main theme worked out…and then I let Ben Taylor work his magic.  You can listen to the recording/video here…

2Spooky new track

It works a treat, and once again the abillity to hear what you are creating is mega powerful. As a contemporary acoustic player, writing the melodies and riffs on other instruments is amazingly liberating too. I find the textural difference amongst instruments is so much more exciting than trying to squeeze it all into one guitar part.

Refering back to a far older track Amygdala part two, which you can listen to here, I used the same process. And as you can see from the music below, the TAB function makes it really clear as to what is possible to be played…

cello

Ultimately, this has been a really exciting journey for me as some of you may have seen as the CWGO has grown over the past two years. The main lesson I have learnt here that I’m keen to pass on is how technology really is such an amazing tool when it comes to orchestrating, and also the balance between sticking to written parts and building on what the player has to offer. With regard to technology, I think we can safely say it is facilitating a new inclusiveness, giving people the tools to access worlds that used to be and perhaps are still ‘exclusive’. With regard to other players I have to say so many of the musicians I have worked with in the orchestra always have an amazing idea to offer that I would never have thought of…that balance of ideas is the nirvana of orchestration in my mind, the ability to create an overall piece with a feel, themes and structures but being open to fresh ideas from other creative people….I guess in some ways that’s what is making this orchestra that bit different. I wonder without these new technological aids, would this kind of thinking be possible?

Chris Woods Groove Orchestra Rehearsals Pt1

So… Rehearsals…I thought it might be interesting to share the process a bit. who knows…ya might just be interested.

With a new group of amazing players together we are working hard, and hurtling towards recording and filming. Today I was working with Ben, just me and him focusing on bringing the best out of ‘us’. Ben Taylor was our double bass player for the Guitar Revolution tour…and this guy is sticking around, we regularly drink together which has undoubtedly helped our playing… He lives locally to me and we’ve been meeting up regularly and really really getting stuck into the details… there is nothing I enjoy more than working on the detail.

Here are two full videos from the rehearsal, a new tune which I would love to hear your thoughts on and ‘Saol’ which anyone who has seen me recently will have heard, we’ve been working on the nuances for this bad boy for a while, it feels like its getting there…

Saol

NEW TUNE IDEA!

Guitar Revolution: Politics Is Not The Only Way

Politics is not the only vehicle of change…

Just after the brexit vote announcement I launched Guitar Revolution…a project thats aim was simply to form pop-up guitar orchestras around the country to play one of my compositions.

Now, the timing was coincidental really; I’ve always been fascinated by the role of community in music, those of you who know me personally will know that actually the majority of my adult life has been focused around those two things – I also like donuts, walks in the park and John Grisham novels ;). So Brexit wasn’t the driving force, this project did not have any allegiance to leave or remain (and don’t worry this is not a blog about Brexit). But nevertheless, guitar revolution was riding on a wave of Brexitness. 

Since then, as Guitar Revolution jetted (in a white diesel van) around the country forming pop-up guitar orchestras, all manner of political bizarreness has occurred. Of course most recently we are witnessing a whole new level of political insanity….

Now as I said this blog isn’t about Brexit and nor really is it about my political standing, although you can probably take a guess at what I voted for. This blog is instead about how important it is to remember the ‘real’ stuff. How your role in community is even more important than that one vote you have… Crazy, I know! 

This Guitar Revolution project showed me that your real actions really are so much louder than words or Facebook posts.  We engaged with thousand of people across the country and built a collective orchestra of hundreds. These actions are so much louder than Facebook rants and drunken arguments in the pub that result in a hangover of lost friends and upset egos. Continued below….

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plym promo image

Here are three points from that experience, that I believe are worth a read:

Number one, ‘Actions – this is not going to be easy’…

 Ive got plenty of experience of trying to bring people together in a musical context and it never gets any easier, I’m not sure it gets harder, but definitely not easier. The human race are a funny bunch.The general public are majoritively quite resistant to getting together for anything less  in size than a political rally, football match or an adele concert. Something that is mainstream and massively controlled, the idea of venturing out for a socio-musical experiment to play a minimalist piece of music, organised and composed by a scruffy guitarist from the west country is apparently not on the average brits list of priorities. Its seemingly niche, which is a shame because I was hoping the revolution would be relatively mainstream. Disappointing, I know!?!?!…..but hey, it just meant we had to work harder.

Number two ‘ Louder! – there is a reason we are scared of getting together’…

It takes a lot of energy and ultimately bravery to come and join a group of strangers to play music. It takes a lot of energy and bravery to join a group of strangers to do anything. Aside from the usual ego risks that playing music comes with it, it comes as a disruption to a busy schedule, it comes with all manner of social anxieties or pre-conceptions. Ultimately the idea of getting together with strangers to play music is powerful in a positive way but comes with powerful challenges too. As life increases in complexity and difficulty the idea of breaking out of that gets harder…Just like the idea of breaking from your normal comfort zone and views. I gotta be honest, if I was invited to join a pop-up guitar orchestra, I may well be the first to bottle it.

Number three…. ‘Words – The results of actions like this are far more positive than angry Facebook posts’…

There’s a simplicity to all of this, something I touched upon in my first blog. The simplicity of gathering people together to play. In this case it was gathering people together to do something different. Now in these crazy political times, of constant bombardment of ‘facts’ and strong view points the abstract simplicity of playing guitar together might seem like a token act of togetherness, but Im quite convinced that it is actually far more than that. (I would like to point out, I fully support your Facebook rants too)

Im not claiming that after each performance of guitar revolution, people spent hours discussing with others, rationally debating their political views. Im pretty sure no-one mentioned politics once or, in fact, the future of humanity. But! It did this…. and this is something I think we all need to focus on more than ever. 

….It got people out of their comfort zone, it got people out of Rupert Murdochs comfort zone and made people feel welcome and part of something positive, peaceful and original….something that was about being together not attacking others. Something vibrant and inquisitive…its a foundation of confidence to question the world around you.

For everyone on this messed up little island, being open minded, peaceful, and social is key to helping us progress. Whatever your political views, being social, community minded and open is the key to getting along, moving forward and generally not descending into being a country of absolute morons. Getting behind something musical is massively uniting. There are no ‘facts’ or view points, there is only the music. Because really, everyone wants the same thing. Don’t they?…

So, go and create something…  bring people together. Show the world that together is better. Do something! Organise a gig, get some people together to do something creative and pointless…something that is for nothing more than breaking the monotony of modern life and reminding us that we are human and we are here to laugh, dance, sing and share our smiles.