Album Writing Discussion, Part I – Creation

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, but I’m starting a series of blogs over the next several weeks detailing the creative process behind each song on my album. It’s gonna be a lot nitty gritty details, and I’ll include audio samples from each part of the process, so this will be specifically for that rare person who loves those kind of details.

Lately though, I’ve been busy with trying to do self promotion stuff. It’s my least favorite thing to do because I hate the process of trying to draw attention to myself. It feels narcissistic and self-serving, but it’s what every artist has to do in order to be noticed. I hate putting myself in a marketing mindset and trying to sell myself, but I can’t just throw a match at wood and expect it to catch fire, so to speak. Once the music was released, I had this feeling that I was putting my music in a bottle and throwing it into the ocean, hoping that someone would find it by chance, and enjoy it. After a couple weeks of feeling helpless in that way, I decided that I put way too much work in this project for it to be ignored, and that it’s worth my extra effort to try and get it noticed.

But still, it’s a soul-sucking task for me. So as a more interesting way to do this, I’m gonna blog about my music. I’m also going to make a few videos on how to play each song on guitar. Specifically for those guitarists out there. I’m not a trained guitarist, so most of my stuff is a bit unusual. It might be interesting. But whatever, YouTube is free publicity and I have some spare time while work is slow for the next month.

Anyway, so let’s start at the beginning of the album with “Creation.”

As a sort of spoiler alert, I’d like to mention that reading all the details of my writing process could result in your interpretations of the music being altered. I did intentionally write the album with loose hanging symbolism so that it could be flexible to interpretation. If you cherish the associations, experiences, or images you may have already assigned to the music and don’t want them tainted, then I’d caution reading on.

This one is important because it serves as a sort of overture for the rest of the musical work. It contains several of the musical motifs (fancy word for ‘themes’ or ‘patterns’) that are introduced throughout the piece. I was apprehensive about starting my first album with a strictly orchestral piece, which is not quite representative of my style, but it’s just how it came together.

The first theme is spoken by both the piano and string section. I came up with this idea while I was messing around on the piano (as all my piano ideas come about). I didn’t originally have an exact phrasing established at that point, but I knew I wanted it to move in parallel 10ths (a 3rd plus an octave, which makes a nice consonant sound), and feel like it had a poignant, yet hopeful story to it. Here is my original recorded idea, from April 29, 2016:

 

Hopefully the mistakes are more encouraging than repulsive.

I knew that at this point I wanted this motif to signify God’s plan for humanity, and for each of us. Although this isn’t explicitly Biblical, I like to imagine God wanting to create a beautiful and complex love story. Even though He made a wonderful world that was designed to be perfect, He knew that it would ultimately fall into the hands of Satan, be wrought with death and destruction, and that we would have the ability to choose good or evil while having to wrestle against the harsh forces of nature, and the temptation of sin. It seems that a good, dynamic story isn’t written without strife, and I believe that’s what God intended for us. So to the listener, I wanted to, in a way, address that God knew that your life would be hard and full of both amazing experiences and difficult ones. So this melody is to signify both the sad and hopeful mixed together, that all our strife is part of His plan, and that we can be hopeful that God is true to His promises, even in the midst of strife.

I thought of the piano as being God the Father, and the strings being the Holy Spirit. Genesis seems to indicate that They were communicating with each other. I don’t completely get the Trinity (who does, really?), but I’m trying to depict what their conversation might have been like when they were planning out the universe and stuff. I intentionally made it sound a little bit Gregorian (as in, like, monk chant stuff). I wanted it to feel kinda epic and classic with a vibe that goes back as far as western music history is identifiable. But also, monks used modal scales more prevalently than we do today. These days it’s usually major or minor, with occasional songs having a nifty mode. The theme is first introduced as Mixolydian, then Lydian, then Dorian, then Ionian/Major. Throughout the album the theme reappears in different modes, each having their own vibe, but echoing the same story… although, I never got around to using the Mixolydian mode again. Whatevs.

Anyway, so They get done planning and foreseeing everything, so God sets to work on actually making the physical world. I’ve always enjoyed a bit of minimalism, like Steve Reich or John Adams, but I found some of it emotionally unfulfilling if it didn’t grow and develop. So I wanted to drive this piece with a minimalist piano pattern that sort of represented God’s constant Hand throughout the process of creation while everything else builds around it. There’s something really poetic about Genesis 1:2 that gives me a very curious vibe: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

Here is the original ostinato pattern I came up with in 2016:

 

So I imagine God hovering over the waters, making things happen to go from nothingness to eventually a life-filled world. But it seems that these things probably happened incrementally. While I was orchestrating this, I wanted to assign each group of instruments to an element of nature. They would play a fairly specific pattern and then repeat a similar pattern throughout the rest of the development. This would signify more and more things coming together in the creation of the world as we know it today.

This was the first piece that I completely orchestrated. I think it was around October of 2017 that I finished it. I can’t say I’ve legitimately finished an instrumental piece with this much instrumentation, so I was doubtful of myself that I could do it. I talked to Stephanie Berg, a local composer that I attended Mizzou with, and asked her about her process for writing. She was very encouraging and also said that composing is hard-fought. When you hear the final product, you like to imagine that the composer just had all those ideas in their head at once and they magically transcribed it to music, which is why I was so intimidated by trying to orchestrate something this thick. But she said her process starts with an idea, whether it’s melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic, and then follows that idea to get through the bones of the piece. Later she orchestrates the other stuff around it, splits the main subject into different sections of the orchestra, and voila… Something like that.

Anyway, so there’s sheet music to all this, but it looks a bit rough because I’m not a professional music copyist. I’ll include some excerpts here and there.

Creation Water Light Score

The first group ended up being the low strings: cello, viola, & double bass. I thought of water, with its ripples, being dark and void and stuff. So low strings, oscillating up and down a whole step seemed appropriate. For the next few audio excerpts, I’m using the practice tracks that I sent to my musicians sometime in January of 2018. I used accordion for most of the string parts so that I could get a dynamic swell, and then a bad keyboard patch for the other instruments. They are hilarious. Here’s the water theme:

 

The second group was high strings. In science books, some guesses on Earth’s formation seem to indicate the atmosphere was full of volatile gasses that probably clouded the sky. So I imagined the atmosphere first clearing, like sunlight coming through the clouds. So just a tiny bit of light, then eventually a full amount of light. So high strings eeking in with a tremelo, then filling out a melody and harmony seemed fitting. This is, by the way, another musical motif expressed most plainly in “Morning Waters” and “Hardly Eden.” The theme is light, specifically a guiding light. More on that in a future episode. Here’s the original light theme:

 

The third group was woodwinds to illustrate–yes, it’s on the nose–wind. You might have already noticed that it starts the same basic triplet pattern that the piano does at the very beginning. I honestly can’t remember if that was consciously intentional on my part, but it works. Wind is a super prevalent theme throughout the album. You’ll notice it if you think about the album artwork a while (the windchimes, the windmill, the sailboat, the geese, the storm), and you’ll notice it in several of the songs on the album. This melodic theme isn’t repeated throughout the album, but wind is expressed in different ways at different points. Anyway, so I thought that wind is affected by sunlight. The sun warms part of the earth, creating water evaporation, temperature differences in the air, and pressure differences, which is what causes wind, so it had to come after the light theme. I don’t know why I had to think of it meteorologically, I’m just quirky I guess. Here’s the wind theme that I tried to play on keyboard:

 

Creation Wind Score

Then the fourth group was a big brass section. I wanted to think of mountains moving, volcanoes going off, oceans parting way for the land, and other epic geological happenings. Who knows how violent and dramatic the process really was, but I’m summing earth’s history in like 40 measures here, and it has to be exciting. Here’s a fascinatingly bland MIDI version that I created via Finale (a music notation software). I decided not to give it to my musicians, but it’s at least entertaining at some level:

 

Then it goes on to the fifth section, which is everything sort of swirling together with the creation of life. The strings and woodwinds just go up and down scales at staggered timings. I did yank an idea from Claude Debussy’s “La Cathedrale Engloutie” (The Submerged Cathedral). You’ll recognize the parallel intervals moving upwards:

 

Here’s the MIDI version of this section set next to a near-final unmastered version:

 

Creation Life Score

The section with the piano drifting down in those three-note chords is kinda supposed to represent the creation of humans. God did bless us with abilities exceptionally beyond what the rest of nature is capable of. Unlike any other creature, we have the ability to create many different things. Bees can make hives, and beavers can make dams, but no creature can make a variety of things like us. In this way, God created us in His image. The next part is sort of God handing the keys to His creation over to us, to both enjoy and maintain. As a tangent here, I do feel that when God asked us to “govern and reign over” creation that the implication wasn’t to conquer it, kill the scary animals, and destroy all the mountains in search of resources, but to maintain and preserve it. I do enjoy the outdoors, and I want my grandchildren to enjoy it too. *end soapbox*

Then it ends with a Lydian iteration of the main theme, as if God is kinda leaving us, but then comes back as the piano at the end as if to reassure us of His plan. To me, the Lydian mode has always seemed to sound hopeful. It’s a bright mode that feels like it is almost resolved to peace, but that sharp 11 (or sharp 4) really gives it a poignant tug as if to say, “almost home, but not yet.”

Here’s an overview excerpt of “Creation” starting with my original ideas, then evolving into the final product:

 

Thanks for reading about “Creation”! I hope it was enjoyable. I’m gonna do this sort of dissection with the rest of the songs over the coming weeks and months. This one is probably the most complex and in-depth, probably on par with “Wanderer’s Tale” and “Hymn of the New Earth,” which is this piece’s reprise. Hopefully reading these will add a dimension to your listening experience. Of course, in doing so, you do run the risk of replacing your unique associations and interpretations of the music with mine.

Let’s do “Hardly Eden” next week. Subscribe to get updates when I post. See you then!

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