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.

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