Third post! This time I’m going to take a look at a recent musical project. My plan in this blog is to jump around between my “career advice” type posts, and posts about my music. Even with these, I hope younger/newer composers will gain some inspiration or insight.
Restore is an album of piano music for yoga classes. The project had a pretty long gestation, so I am quite relieved to finally put it out into the world. Yogis on Fire is my first album/playlist for yoga classes, made at the suggestion of my wife, a yoga teacher. I thought it would be nice to turn this into a series.
I’ll talk more about Yogis on Fire in a future post. That album is timed to fit with CorePower Yoga’s “Hot Power Fusion” class, and is more upbeat than Restore. For this new album, I wanted to make music to fit a more chill class.
Restore consists of 20 tracks which are each 3 minutes long. These are all compositionally related, which I’ll talk about below, and they are all for solo piano.
Finding the notes
The notes are derived from my collection of singing bowls. These bowls, from low to high, play (approximately!) C#, D#, E, F# and C#.
I bought a cheap 5-bowl set for use in Arlynn Zachary’s dance piece Listen. In that piece, I made an electronic track, but the dancers also played the bowls live.
I originally intended to include these bowls in the Restore project, along with some humming and light electronic touches. In the end, it made the most sense to keep it just with piano.
Still, the notes of the bowls are at the center of the composition. The first piece I wrote ended up being track 9, which uses these notes at the start. Since I really only have 4 notes, obviously I expanded, but the keys in Restore are centered on those notes, in major and minor.
As I was composing, a few different categories or styles emerged:
- Minimalist, Philip Glass-esque
- Pop-soul, improvised
- Atmospheric, with a repeating pattern
- Purely atmospheric
I sketched these out pretty quickly, and played them occasionally for over a year, before I finally sat down and wrote out a real draft. The sketches had a bunch of chicken-scratch for number of repeats, arrows where I would shuffle sections around, etc. So I needed a solid draft to play from.
Since I was working on this during the pandemic, I found I was spending tons of time in front of the computer (Zoom meetings, normal email and spreadsheets, etc.). While it may have been faster to put these compositions in the computer, I wrote them out on paper. (I had a pretty popular video about writing music with pencil. . . I took it down but look for a blog post soon!)
Since much of this was repetitive, I used a lot of repeat signs and shorthand. Some parts I planned to be improvised anyway, so I didn’t need to write out more than the basic chord structure. After some time practicing, I started recording.
I feel like I’m giving away some trade secrets here, but the purpose of this blog is to entertain and educate composers. So here we go.
I didn’t record a real piano.
In my previous project Icicle Harvest, I insisted to myself that I record real instruments. You know, for “authenticity.” I recorded long takes (it’s a 60-minute piece) on vibraphone, marimba, celeste, toy piano, and grand piano. When making Restore, not only did I not have access to a nice grand piano, I was basically stuck at home. And, to be honest, I was a little lazy about the practicing.
I performed all of these pieces on my digital piano, and recorded the MIDI tracks into Reason. I used their Radical Piano instrument, which sounds great and is very customizable. With this instrument, not only can you choose some stock piano sounds, you can also select the reverberation of the room, and the amount of key and pedal noise! Having some of that noise really adds depth and realism to the recordings.
Since I recorded MIDI notes, I could make edits to my takes. I’m not a great player, but I did play each piece to a metronome. Flubs are easy to delete, but mainly I wanted to improve my iffy timing. MIDI notes are easily moved around, and a process called “quantization” will align them to a grid. This process can make the notes sound super mechanical.
Fortunately, Reason’s quantize function allows you to choose a percentage of quantization. Usually I did about 30-50%. This pushes notes closer to the grid, but not quite on. So my performance sounds better but not inhumanly perfect. I was also conservative with editing the velocity of each note (how hard I pressed). That helped retain some humanity as well, since not every note was the same volume.
Is it cheating? Maybe. But it saved me a ton of time and left me with a product that doesn’t make me cringe!
Restore is available for free streaming on Bandcamp.com, and you can download it for $5. Yogis on Fire and a couple other albums are on there too. 🙂