Saturday, May 28, 2011


It would be an understatement to say that I'm not a huge fan of Philip Glass.  That said, there are a handful of his pieces that I like and Koyaanisqatsi, its initial theme and the work as a whole, I actually think is brilliant, even though much of its effectiveness must be credited to his visionary collaborator, Godfrey Reggio.  The job of a film soundtrack, normally, is to guide the viewer as unobtrusively as possible in how to feel about the images being presented; in the case of Koyaanisqatsi, the soundtrack carries the additional burden of serving as dialog (or monologue, in this case) and so remains very much in the foreground.  As a consequence, it is intended to be heard overtly and, therefore, can theoretically stand on its own.  Although, like any soundtrack, I cannot hear the music without seeing in my mind's eye the images it was written to accompany, I think in this work, Glass transcended himself and created a work that is both surprisingly varied and yet emotionally relentless, giving Reggio the hammer he desired to drive home the film's message.  In the opening theme, Glass provides a musical foreshadowing of both the grace and the violence that he and Reggio have in store for the audience.  Because of that, and for other reasons, this brief, transparent work remains one of my favorites from the film. 

I started this project as a quick bit of playtime before starting on my next, more challenging piece and I had an idea that I'd like to do a spoof of Glass's works; given how homogenous most of it is, a sequencer like Tracktion makes this pitifully easy.  However, as I began to work on it, a) I realized that a really good spoof would just end up sounding like another Glass piece and, really, why does the world need another piece that sounds like what we've already got too much of, and b) I recalled that there were a couple pieces of Glass' I actually liked.  As a result, I remembered Koyaanisqatsi and looked it up on YouTube, where I discovered that the entire film is actually available (although it is in relatively low resolution and, since the images are the heart of the film, if you want to see it, do so on DVD or Blu-Ray).  After listening to the opening theme, I heard again how elegant and transparent it was and thought, "I bet, just for fun, I could transcribe that in about five minutes."  And, indeed, it was even simpler than I had remembered, with just four voices alternating and building on each other.

As with most of Glass' music, this should be listened to at high volume.

A Glass devotee will notice that, in this arrangement, I doubled three voices and added two cycles (eight measures).  As the preface to the film, it appropriately does not build to where it might; however, as a standalone piece, I felt that it wanted to and could be indulged a little.  With the above additions, it rises to the cacophony that it seems to reach for when it is pruned in its role as an entree to the film, which is something I love about the piece:  that, by merely stacking a few well-defined linear motifs, Glass carries us from foreboding to damnation in just a few bars, finally leaving us hanging, drifting alone in empty space, wondering how long eternity will be.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Debussy: Reverie

Well, I've been working on this (and kvetching about not having finished it) for so long, that this may be a bit anti-climactic, but, at last, it's done -- or done enough, anyway.  This is the piece I've been working on since February that the completion of which has been variously interrupted by school demands, computer issues large and small, and operator problems.  It feels like a long time coming and a commensurate relief to post it.  Strictly speaking, it's unfinished; there are some mixing issues that I could fix and I still feel a little lost as regards how to best to implement dynamic expression, but, between the facts that this is my first big project and that I am really ready to move on to something new, I decided it was time to call it done.  All that said, I'm actually pretty happy with it overall. 

It's no accident that I chose this piece for my first big synthesizer arrangement.  When I was in my teens, my father brought home a copy of Isao Tomita's Snowflakes are Dancing, and in it Tomita did an arrangement of Reverie.  Up to that point, the only real synthetic music I had heard was Wendy (then Walter) Carlos' Switched on Bach and The Well-Tempered Synthesizer, which we used to listen to all the time.  Tomita's virtuosity on the keyboard and timbral imagination was so radically different from what Carlos had done, at first it seemed to go too far, but the more I listened to it, the more I heard his genius.  Although I don't intend to emulate him, I do aspire to Tomita's level of imagination; I still hear new things in his work every time I listen to it. 

My arrangement here is not intended as a "remake" of Tomita's performance (that would be almost as silly as remaking King Kong).  Instead, as Reverie is simply a piece I have loved for many years and, despite its relative simplicity, I hear many voices woven into it, so it seemed like a good place to start learning the basics of synthetic music production.  Only one of the voices in this arrangement is original; several are mods of stock voices, and one or two are unaltered stock.  I ran across the two voices at the beginning of the piece quite by accident, but they set the tone for the rest of the work.

I hope you enjoy this as much as I have enjoyed making it.