Composition Study

Force Field

Posted by PH on January 15, 2017
Composition Study, Music & Technology / No Comments

A new track. Some basic information:

  1. Derived from a graphic score.
  2. In keeping with my current philosophy, completed very quickly.
  3. It uses the most basic sonic materials: sine waves, noise, simple synth pads.
  4. It is what it is.

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Composition Study #13

Posted by PH on October 15, 2014
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Something of a curio: I used Rainwaves this year in the Contextual Studies module as my algorithmic composition, but it was actually done back in 1992 when I was a student myself (at City University, studying Music Information Technology under Jim Grant and Simon Emmerson).

The piece was actually written in Lightspeed C (on the original Mac LC) for my programming module. The finished software outputs four channels of MIDI notes, each generated by a separate equation. However, each of the equations was of a similar type, a variant of the “hailstone equation” I found when reading Clifford Pickover’s book Computers, Pattern, Chaos and Beauty. The main characteristic of an equation of this type is that it initially outputs a haphazard sequence of values which then settle down into a rhythmic cycle.

So: work out a way to map the outputs onto MIDI note numbers; fiddle with the starting values to get some artistically satisfying results; record some sections into a sequencer (Opcode Vision); add an outro. I only had one keyboard at the time (a Korg Wavestation) and so just took the stereo output from that directly into a hired-in DAT machine. Finished.

Interesting. I didn’t do any manipulation of note values at all, and yet it all sounds very musical despite the fact the “melodies” are being generated by equations playing themselves out. Yes, there was a selection process and, yes, there was an element of quantization going on in terms of the choice of notes (insofar as the numbers output from the equation had to be mapped onto the 0-127 range permitted under the MIDI protocol). But otherwise I didn’t manipulate any of the variables or play a single note to make it artificially seem musical: it just is.

22 years old and still fresh as a daisy!

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Composition Study #12

Posted by PH on September 23, 2014
Composition Study, Music & Technology / 1 Comment

Quick recap: I teach a Contextual Studies module on the MA Creative Sound Production course at UWTSD. Students have to produce a series of short “composition studies” to a given brief, and I usually do one as well. This year, however, due to all sorts of craziness going on in my life I wasn’t able to keep up. A shame, and I humbly apologize to my lovely students…

Anyway, I promised them that I would at least complete this one, the brief being very simple: produce a piece of music using only a pencil and paper (provided!) as sound sources. I’ve tried to keep in the spirit of things and have produced it very quickly, as they would have done. I reckon to have spent about 15 hours in total, most of which was spent processing sounds (MetaSynth).

I’m not entirely convinced by it. I love the basic sound set, but at a certain point I wanted to stop just using the pencil-and-paper sounds and to add something completely different, synths or flugelhorn or whatever… Still, it is what it is.

[PS: I shall consider entering it for next year’s £8000 Jerwood Drawing Prize.]

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Composition Studies Vol. 1

Posted by PH on August 05, 2014
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Last year I taught a module on the MA Creative Sound Production course at UWTSD. As part of the module students had to compose a short piece each week: I did one as well, money where your mouth is and all that…

This album is the result. An unusual experience insofar as:

  • All the tracks were done to some outside brief. I didn’t choose to do any of them and, Hell, I don’t even like some of them.
  • All the tracks were done very quickly (usually in a couple of evenings).
  • These were the first tracks I’d produced in nearly 10 years. I was on a steep learning curve myself.

Hugely enjoyable and very satisfying in an odd, oblique, way that even now I can’t quite pin down.


[You can track back on the blog—or search using the “composition study” tag—and find posts describing the methods used to produce each of the tracks. If you’re interested.]



Composition Study #11

Posted by PH on June 27, 2013
Composition Study, Music & Technology, Students / 2 Comments

For our final composition study we looked at the early work of Brian Eno, in particular his generative or systems pieces.

By way of introduction, it is perhaps worth noting that Eno’s career did not begin with Roxy Music: like Brian Ferry he had a lengthy and decisive art-school background informing his every move. Whilst at Ipswich he was tutored by Roy Ascott and Tom Phillips, both now elder-statesmen of the British art scene. It was Phillips, in particular, who opened up the conceptual doors for Eno: Cage’s Silence, jazz and beat poetry, Minimalism, the New York school of composers (Tudor, Wolff, Feldman, Brown), and the British experimental composers (Bryars, Skempton, Nyman, and perhaps most importantly, Cornelius Cardew). Later, at Winchester, Eno became notorious for his chance/non-intentional activities which included a solo performance of La Monte Young’s X for Henry Flynt. Another influential figure, Peter Schmidt, introduced him to the first Velvet Underground album. In 1968 he even wrote an “analytical essay”, a “brief theoretical discourse inspired by lessons learned from John Cage, Christian Wolff and George Brecht” entitled Music for Non-Musicians (Sheppard 2008: 54). The seeds were sown.


The first of the pieces we listened to and discussed is ‘The Heavenly Music Corporation’ from 1972’s No Pussyfooting with Robert Fripp. The set-up is very simple: two tape recorders connected in a feedback loop (a configuration directly derived from Terry Riley’s “time-lag accumulator”) with something like a simple mixer inbetween them, allowing control over what is exactly fed back.

‘The Heavenly Music Corporation’, as a system, anticipates Eno’s own ambient style. First of all, the piece is a system, or process: it represents a way of making music, a concept of music-making, as much as it represents a composition in the traditional sense. The process allowed Eno to operate in his favoured gently guiding, rather than authoritarian, role. Making the piece required thought and attention; Eno had to contemplate and inspect the sound as it rolled by, making changes and adjustments. The process, meanwhile, yielded maximal output (a lengthy, complex piece of music) from minimal input (selection of pitches and switches). Finally, the signal-loop procedure itself, with its gradually decaying tone quality, exemplified one of Eno’s cherished axioms: “Repetition is a form of change.”

Eric Tamm

‘Discreet Music’ from 1975 was the track we looked at next: it uses essentially the same process as ‘The Heavenly Music Corporation’ but with synth sounds as the musical sources and a graphic EQ in the feedback loop. The things that affords this track its mythical status are a) it us usually identified as the first example of ambient music, and b) the chance conditions that surrounded its creation. Legend has it that Eno was trying to make a backing track for Fripp, but that the phone kept ringing and people came to the door interrupting what he was doing, with the consequence that it almost made itself. As Eno describes it “I almost made it without listening to it”. And “I thought it was probably one of the best things I’d ever done and I didn’t even realize I was doing it at the time” (both quotes from Tamm 1995: 135). Pure Eno.

Finally we considered ‘2/1’ from Music for Airports from 1979. Again, a very minimal means: nine recordings of a female voice singing “ah” at nine different pitches. Cut these up into tape loops of different lengths. Play and record the resulting process:

And so onto this week’s composition, which simply required the students to make a piece using one of the two techniques described above, or a mixture of both. Although I didn’t start out intending it this way, my piece ended up as a mixture of ‘Discreet Music’ and ‘The Heavenly Music Corporation”: looped synth melodies (actually going through a delay plug-in rather than being actual loops) and a distortion track that I generated using a variation on the “time-lag accumulator” idea (that is, using a plug-in delay but sending the delayed signal “out of the box”, through a valve EQ unit, and then back into the system):

Sheppard, D. (2008) On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno. Orion.
Tamm, E. (1995) Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound. Da Capo.


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Composition Study #10

Posted by PH on June 01, 2013
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This week: Minimalism continued. Having focussed on Steve Reich with the last study, and having had an intermediate lecture where we looked at the cultural context of the form, we concentrated this week on Philip Glass.

As I mentioned in the previous post, the compositional techniques of Reich and Glass are quite dissimilar. Reich’s fundamental technique is canonic “phase shifting” (notching parts in time against each other), whereas Glass’s basic technique is additive composition, an idea he derived from Indian classical music. A quick look at one of his early scores will clearly show how this works:


Figure 1 on the score is the “basic unit”. In Figure 2 the three middle quavers are repeated giving us an 8-quaver pattern. In Figure 3 the two first notes of the basic unit are added onto the end of Figure 2 twice, now giving us a 15-quaver pattern. Etcetera. Hence additive composition. Although this seems ridiculously simplistic it has some interesting consequences.

Firstly, the piece has no given time signature as such. It may have a basic pulse but effectively the additive process “automatically” changes the time signature as we move between figures: 5/8 to 8/8 to 15/8 and so on.

Secondly, if there is a “minimalism” at work here it is in the extremely limited amount of musical material being manipulated: in short, we’re not using many notes. There is no sense of any “teleological” harmonic progression towards some musical climax or cadence, and in fact in his early pieces (up to and including Music in 12 Parts) it is not uncommon for Glass to fashion a compelling and sometimes very beautiful 20-minute piece out of four or five notes.

Thirdly, Glass’s meticulous planning of the development of the Figures give his work that incredible sensation of rhythmic “wheels-within-wheels”. In fact it is exactly because he uses so few notes that this mechanism works so effectively: note how in Figure 4 the G-Bflat-C triplet in the top line changes position from the previous pattern, how the partial repeat of the next descending triplet creates a little rhythmic hiccup, and how the repetition of the opening two-note figure now closes the pattern. It is almost as if using the same notes over and over again in different combinations forces us to concentrate on their rhythmic interplay.

Finally, although you can’t see it from the example I’ve included here, even when you’re limiting yourself to just a handful of notes the patterns cycling against each other in their dizzying permutations generates the harmonic structure of the piece. In other words, as the parts layer up you effectively create a harmonic “stack” that changes configuration as the additive elements modulate against each other.

So it’s all very clever and incredibly hard to do well (and just how hard I found out for myself of course). This week’s composition specification read something like this:

Create a piece that has at least two distinct rhythmic streams:

  1. Fixed.
  2. Uses additive composition to produce polyrhythmic effects against (1).
  3. With a coherent harmonic scheme developed between them.

I decided to create a (synthetic) vocal piece, inspired by “Part 1” of Music in 12 Parts and the “Vessels” section of the Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack. Here it is:


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Composition Study #9

Posted by PH on May 25, 2013
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Picking up the “story” in the late 1950s and early 1960s we moved on to consider Minimalism.

And before we go any further of course we’d need to at least mention in passing the dubious provenance of that moniker and the fact that it’s almost meaningless when one considers the diverse outputs of four composers normally associated with it (La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass). Admittedly they emerge from a common milieu and share at least one important conceptual frame—a rejection of both the straightjacket of serialism and Cage’s indeterminacy, and a subsequent embracing of the consequences of these rejections—but their solutions are all markedly different. Even the apparent family resemblance between the key Minimalist works (Riley’s In C, Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, and Glass’s Music in 12 Parts) is deceptive: as compositions and as musical structures they have very little in common. If there is a “minimalism” here it is at the most superficial level.

Steve Reich then. I chose Reich to introduce the subject because—accepting the genre stereotyping—his work seems most typical, and in it we can trace the music’s development most clearly. To start with then we have his early tape pieces (in turn inspired by his work in San Francisco with Terry Riley):

Having “discovered” the phasing process, the next step was to apply this to performances on “real” music instruments:

Experimentation with this limited palette was then developed to embrace his own ensemble and a wider (and by now typically Reichian) tonal palette:

Crucially, this was followed by the realisation that the actual “phase transitions” were unnecessary, and that is was both possible and preferable for parts to simply “jump” to the next beat. This, along with an expanded harmonic language and the introduction of strings and woodwind into the existing mallet-dominated ensemble sound, allowed Reich to produce his only bona fide masterpiece, Music for 18 Musicians. This ECM recording remains the definitive version:

Following this piece (in 1976) Reich moved away from Minimalism, firstly by writing for standard orchestral resources and secondly by embarking on a musical investigation into his own Jewish roots (and all that implies). His later major works such as Tehillim and Desert Music are just not very good. Perhaps his most successful “post-Minimalist” piece is Different Trains, but even though this is musically and sonically successful it is hamstrung by the stubbornly undramatic nature of the speech materials that form the central armature the work (which, considering the almost cosmically tragic nature of the subject matter, is difficult to overlook).


Anyway. We created a set of compositional rules for this week’s piece:

  1. Create a modal pattern using quavers in 12/8.
  2. Build up texture and harmony using canonic “phase shifting”.
  3. Use substitution: rests for beats and vice versa.
  4. Try and experiment with dynamics to accentuate rhythmic interplay.
  5. Homophonic instrumental texture.
  6. Produce a ‘B’ section using another mode.
  7. No bass line or downbeat.
  8. Try and keep it under 5 minutes long.

Here’s mine:

This one’s in danger of being a pastiche—and I hate pastiche—but because I’ve had to jam the whole thing into two-and-a-half minutes and because it’s 2013 not 1976 I think I just about get away with it. You may disagree…


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Composition Study #8

Posted by PH on May 04, 2013
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This week’s class looked at drones and modes. A very straightforward session on two related and relatively straightforward musical ideas that pre-date the Western tonal system (although the modes we use today are “rationalized” versions of archaic proto-modes). Modal composition and drone-based musics have become far more visible and “respectable” since the late 1950s, particularly because of the interest in non-Western music.

Here’s a YouTube version of the sort of things we listened to (again accepting the range of possible musics we could have listened to here is very broad indeed):

The composition specification simply said create a piece using two main elements:

  1. A drone. Use any sound source but it must evolve (be “organic”).
  2. At least one mode (from a basic set of seven as described in a handout).

There were some very inventive and fresh compositions from the students. Here’s my rather conservative attempt that uses the Aeolian and Locrian modes in A:


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Composition Study #7

Posted by PH on May 01, 2013
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The first week of term after Easter things were slightly disrupted because of a trip to Dublin, but in the Thursday session we got around to looking at John Cage’s work in some detail.

Of course no review of 20th Century music could claim to be complete without at least some consideration of Cage. In our case we only looked at a limited number of his compositions, specifically those that used electronic means as an important element of the composition or realisation. Having said that, it could reasonably be claimed that, in any case, it is Cage’s ideas that are the crucial aspect here. Briefly, his key ideas are:

  1. All sounds are equal. The naturally occurring sounds around us are as important as those we deliberately make with musical instruments.
  2. Silence is never really silent. There is always some sound. In his most famous book (Silence) he repeatedly uses the example of where he went into an anechoic chamber but could still hear two sounds, one low pitched (his blood circulating) and the other high (the whine of his central nervous system).
  3. Indeterminacy: using random numbers or the I Ching to remove the “intentionality” of the composer from the work.
  4. Composer = “organizer of sound”.

The perfect realisation of all these is his infamous 4′ 33″, almost certainly one of the key conceptual works of art from the last century. Labelling it as such should not deter us, because at the end of the day it’s very, very, simple: all he’s really doing is asking us to actively listen without prejudice to the world around us. These are some of the works we listened to:

Fascinating. Finally, though, I wonder whether this non-intentional approach isn’t basically flawed: because everything is random the pieces lack formal development and therefore the emotional and intellectual satisfaction that we seem to crave. Surely the whole point of art is that it isn’t random in the way that nature is; it is the very shaping and manipulation of the materials that determine its special quality.

Taking all this into consideration the specification for this week’s composition looked like this:

Use a random process as the core generative element of your composition, but organize it in such a way that it has development, an emergent musical structure. In other words use a Cageian algorithm but without the piece being a shapeless mess.


  1. Finished piece.
  2. One or more spreadsheets (or similar).

Pseudo-Random Composition

For the “vocals” there were two basic sources of inspiration. Firstly, I had just read Steve Reich’s Writings on Music and became interested in his ideas on speech melody. Secondly, I had just been watching The Wire on DVD and thought this would be a good source of speech: some of the dialogue is fabulously colourful.

I used seasons 1-3, each of which had either 12 or 13 episodes each. A random number generator was used to choose in turn the season, episode, and instant (in minutes) where I would sample. I decided to take five samples: not too many, but enough to give me a bit of leeway…


As we can see, one of the samples didn’t record: very professional. Of course I took this as a Cagean random event and moved on…

For the music itself I used a random website generator (after briefly considering using YouTube). I simply kept clicking until something suitable came up. The first usable site was, which had 208 podcasts of House mixes done by a couple of guys called Apollo Lee and Jay Def. Each of the podcasts was a continuous mix around 80 minutes long, giving me over two weeks worth of music to choose from. Using the random number generator again I ended up with podcast 103, and from this I generated four random instances where I took samples (4, 32, 47, and 74 minutes).

Putting it all together: I had four speech samples but only used one. I also had four music samples: I took a two-bar loop from one, a kick drum from another, and discarded the other two. The whole track was made from these three elements.

I improvised a single EQ “performance” on the synth loop but edited quite heavily afterwards. I then improvised a dub-like echo track from a part of the vocal sample using a software delay line and an external tube EQ unit. I made three passes, discarded one, and edited the other two together into a single track.

Finally, I just edited more stuff out (e.g. an intro, drum fills, FX): it’s pared down to an absolute minimum. It seemed right to me but judge for yourself:

Can I just say I loved making this track? I love its simplicity, I love its funkiness, I love the way different elements of the loop emerge as the EQ sweeps across it, and I love the way it appeared magically out of thin air. I’m sure John Cage would approve…


It also brings up some interesting questions. Is this track something I’ve “composed”? All the sonic materials were derived using random selection, and I didn’t play or compose a single note of the music. However, there are clearly crucial points where I have made artistic decisions that have shaped the outcome decisively: I chose to use vocals, I chose to use The Wire, and I chose which samples to use and which to discard. I am the epitome of Cage’s “organizer of sound”, but whether that makes me a “composer” or not is another matter. Perhaps what it means is that our definition of “composer” needs to be reviewed (as perhaps it has done since the “Electronic Tonalities by Louis and Bebe Barron” credit on Forbidden Planet)?

Taking this one stage further: is my track “original” or is it a “remix”? The main loop I’ve used is from DJ Moguai‘s 1998 track Beatbox. But it isn’t the original version I’ve used, it’s the Inpetto remix and the synth loop is from this latter version: it’s not on the original at all. So, in theory, the track should go down as a remix of the DJ Moguai track, but he hasn’t actually contributed to it in any way!

Finally: assuming we credit Inpetto with writing the loop, at what point does “organizing sound” take us from making a “remix” into the creation of an “original” work.

My point being: the technology takes us into very strange places where our archaic copyright laws just don’t go. And it just isn’t as cut and dried as the music business lawyers would have us believe…


And this is why we should all spend some time listening to and thinking about John Cage’s work: he calls into question some very basic conceptions we have about music, composition, and listening.


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Composition Study #6

Posted by PH on April 20, 2013
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Just to recap: this semester I’m teaching a Contextual Studies module on the MA Creative Sound Production degree at Swansea Met. Each week the students are invited to produce a composition study based around something we’ve been looking at in class: I said I would work alongside them and produce something of my own each week. Great fun it’s been too…

By now we were up to the 1950s and had been looking in some detail at the short-lived but very real rivalry between the studios in Paris and Cologne, between Musique Concrète and Elektronische Musik in other words. Schaeffer’s work we had already looked at in the context of “noise” so we ran through a few of the other usual suspects:

Having arrived at these last two pieces by Stockhausen and Berio, we decided this week’s study was to be what is usually known as a “text-sound composition”: that is, one where the entire musical material is derived from a vocal recording of some kind. The “product specification” looked like this:

The Piece:

  • Choose a text.
  • Record it.
  • Spoken voice or sung; male or female.
  • Produce a piece using only the recorded text as your sonic material.

The Rules:

  • No samples.
  • The text must be intelligible.
  • The nature of the piece must reflect the meaning in the text.

Here’s mine:


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