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.

Tags: , ,

Composition Study #13

Posted by PH on October 15, 2014
Composition Study, Music & Technology / No Comments

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!

Tags: , , , , ,

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.]

Tags: ,

Composition Studies Vol. 1

Posted by PH on August 05, 2014
Composition Study, Education, Music & Technology / No Comments

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 #8

Posted by PH on May 04, 2013
Composition Study, Music & Technology, Students / No Comments

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:


Tags: , ,

Composition Study #7

Posted by PH on May 01, 2013
Composition Study, Music & Technology, Students / No Comments

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.


Tags: , , ,

Composition Study #5

Posted by PH on March 24, 2013
Composition Study, Music & Technology, Students / No Comments

This week: another one-note composition. I felt that the students did not engage with problem last time around to the extent that I would have expected at this (Masters degree) level. And so after a long conversation—taking in the nature of the sound, musical structure, and conceptual art—we agreed a slightly different set of rules for this one.

With the previous one, I had focused on the sound of the single note, and so this time I was thinking in terms of shapes:

Again, not entirely successful as a piece of music, but simply as a “composition study” it is: it has led me to explore musical ideas that I never would have gone near otherwise and there are at least two things in here that would work really well in a more straightforward piece that allowed tonal movement.
Furthermore, I am convinced that the discipline of finishing a composition every week (no matter what) is beneficial in every way: creatively, conceptually, technically, emotionally…



Composition Study #4

Posted by PH on March 15, 2013
Composition Study, Music & Technology, Students / No Comments

In last week’s class we looked at The Futurists and the emergence of “noise” as an explicit element of our musical language. We began by tracing the development of the idea of noise through Busoni’s Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music (1907), Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto (1909), and finally Russolo’s acidic Art of Noises (1913).

Moving chronologically through the music we listened to and discussed:

Of course there were many, many examples we could have chosen… Great fun. Here’s my attempt at a “noise” track:

Despite the fact we limited ourselves to only two groups of all possible noise sounds—electronic machines and the kitchen—it is still incredibly hard to do this kind of music well. There are just too many options and, as with the previous composition study, no obvious way to use pre-existing musical structures. Consequently, in the limited time available to complete the track I found myself resorting to some rather well-used sounds. Still, it has a certain quality that I do like very much and it’s something I’ll perhaps come back to.

Well enjoyable.


Tags: , , , , ,

Composition Study #3

Posted by PH on March 10, 2013
Composition Study, Music & Technology, Students / 1 Comment

For this week’s study I didn’t use any previously existing music as exemplar. Instead we sat down as a group and “performed” a couple of the most basic of John StevensSearch and Reflect exercises, namely ‘1-2’ and ‘Sustain’.

Why? The object of this week’s compositional study was to write a piece of music using only one note and the source material simply doesn’t exist. These were the rules:

  • A composition using only one note (one pitch).
  • Multiple instances in any register.
  • No drones or sustaining instruments.
  • No drums or percussion.

Permitted instruments:

  • Piano.
  • Mallets (vibes, marimba, xylophone, etc.).
  • Acoustic guitar.
  • Harp.
  • Acoustic bass.
  • Pizzicato strings.

Here’s my solution:

What is the point of this exercise, you may ask? Abbreviating, I think that:

  • The sound of that note had better be pretty compelling.
  • It becomes impossible to compose using any of the standard methods: 32-bar, 12-bar, verse-chorus-middle 8, canon, theme-and-variation, sonata form, serialism, additive, phase, modal, etc. Any attempt to fit a one-note composition into these pre-existing formulae or systems is doomed to failure because they all depend upon tonal movement.
  • It highlights register, timbre, and rhythm as compositional tools.
  • You need an idea.


Tags: , ,

Composition Study #2

Posted by PH on February 27, 2013
Composition Study, Music & Technology, Students / No Comments

This week’s class saw us still in the early 20th Century with the key work this time being Ionisation by Edgard Varèse.

I remember hearing this for the first time when I was in my 20s and it just completely blew me away: music with no notes, organized sound.

Of course outside of the Western tradition percussion music is relatively common. Whilst in London I went to see South Korean percussion group SamulNori a couple of times:

Stunning. And of course we have various modern interpretations, an obvious one being Richie Hawtin thrashing an 808:

Or here’s another: not quite strictly adhering to the “rules” as it includes some tonal material but it’s an excellent track and of course we love Dave dearly:

Anyway. After absorbing these tasty drum treats we (myself and aforementioned MA Creative Sound Production students) agreed a basic set of compositional rules for this week’s exercise:

  1. Drum & Percussion sounds only.
  2. No notes.
  3. No sampled loops.
  4. Can’t all be in 4/4.

We are exploring:

  • Rhythm.
  • Time signature.
  • Tempo.
  • Dynamics.
  • Frequency range.
  • Contrast (dynamics, frequency, etc.)
  • Human “feel” or expression.

And to cut a long story short, here’s my attempt:


Tags: , , , , ,