Compositional Process, Technology and Reception: An Interview

This is a post from the archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date.


Following on from my past blogs regarding compositional tools for students, I want to take a look at how technology can affect the process and, in turn, the reception of a composition.

Last December I happened upon a music video made by talented RAM undergraduate Jacob Collier, an arrangement of the traditional Christmas carol ‘I Saw Three Ships’. This captivating video demonstrated my past points about how composers can use technology to realise their work. However, this example went further than any audio could by visually displaying the layers of the piece and giving the viewer an opportunity to follow each separate part.

Take a look:

Visually compelling (an art in itself), it’s no wonder that it has attracted a lot of attention and spread well throughout social media platforms, making it a potentially very useful tool in the reception of a new work.

Like me, many students, and composers, might now be wondering just how Jacob has put this piece together, what programs he used and how this use of technology might have affected the composition approach. On invitation, Jacob very kindly agreed to answer some questions for OCA Music:


How do you approach an arrangement? Have you decided on the format and number of parts beforehand or do you just go with the flow?

First off, I choose which song I’m going to arrange – this seems logical, since without a song there’d be nothing to arrange. I try to look for a song that is simple in essence, and which also I love, or have grown up with. Having chosen a song, I begin by giving it a bit of thought away from the piano/computer – outdoors if I can. I try and imagine what the whole sound might eventually sound like, as opposed to trying to work out very specific events – although occasionally, if I’m lucky, an idea might pop into my head for one specific chord or rhythmic idea or bassline or something like that.

Once I’ve experimented a little and the bare bones are in mind, I just jump right in and go with the flow. For the vocal arrangements, I tend to stick to 6 parts because it’s a format I know and love, which I suppose comes from having obsessed over Take 6 for years, as well as groups like the Kings Singers and Swingle Singers who often work in 6 parts. I arrange first, and then I record, part by part.

For non- or partial-vocal arrangements, there’s more scope for a whole variety of different sounds, so that is something which is incredibly exciting to explore. I tend to start with a section or one instrument, and work with that, and then I follow and build a path in equal measure until I have something substantial which I can work up or down from.


Do you score out your arrangements and compositions in full before recording?
I do. That said, sometimes things happen when I’m recording with voices that change how I might want to voice/not voice/revoice something, so I always follow my instinct with that.


Preference on scoring?: (Sibelius / Finale / Handwritten / Improvised / Other)
I think it’s always best to start on real-life paper and a piano than jump straight to Sibelius, because it makes you think! Sibelius comes in brilliant when you want to hear the piece as a whole, and change small details fast – and back it up.


What program/s do you use for recording/video editing and how have you gained the skills to operate them?

I use Logic for audio and Final Cut for video. I sort of grew up with Logic – I have used it for about 10 years now. As nobody has ever told me the way to use it, I have found my own way around, and I tend to be able to get the sounds that I want by trial and error, and by using methods that have worked before. Logic is one of my best friends.

Final Cut is a comparatively new addition to my setup – I’m still finding my way around that too. I tend to try and make the videos as clear and simple as possible without a lot of effects and clutter (I’m still yet to work out how to do all that!).
I use just my trusty SM58 microphone for recording everything – and I’m trying to find a replacement for my old analogue cassette video camera, which is pretty useless now! I tend to work with fairly little recording equipment I suppose, and stick to making the music a priority.


Any tips for student composers thinking of sequencing their music or producing their own videos?

I’d say that compositionally speaking the most important thing is to find what it is that you love in the whole of music. I’ve always loved to sing, and always loved harmonic and rhythmic play.

One of the main harmonic events in my childhood was singing the role of Miles in Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn Of The Screw“, which completely blasted my mind and fully inspired me. At the same time, I listened to quite a lot of jazz, and also a lot of choral music, across all eras. Also, a lot of simple music, like songs and folk music – not that these are simple at all. So it seemed like a natural thing to combine all these different aspects of my musical life and to make something of it.

So work out what it is that you love, and do that. I would hugely advocate getting one’s hands on Logic or ProTools and recording some sounds and experimenting with them… Endless fun, and endless scope for creativity and more. Also – sing! And simple is the best place to start.


How do you view the role of social media in the career of composers and arrangers nowadays?

I am not a huge fan of Social Media as a concept, but it has been unbelievably great for sharing music – I’m extremely lucky to have reached the right people – I seem to have people following me and my music from all over the planet!! Once you enter in, it can be tough to get out, as it sucks you endlessly in and can be soul-destroying. However, it is a massively powerful tool, and if you’re willing and able to use it, I would definitely say it’s a good thing for a musician rather than a bad thing. Used in the right way, it can change lives!

Of course, there’s the issue of music being completely free, but again I think it is better to embrace this rather than regret it. The more people you can reach, and who like what they hear, the more people will come to gigs/concerts and remember you… I’m not making any money from my YouTube music, but I don’t really mind – I think music is really about sharing.


Finally, perhaps a difficult one, what do you personally find exciting about the current (and/or future) music scene?

I think the best thing about music today is that, stylistically speaking, there are no borders, if you’re open to ideas. We live in a musical place where boundaries are almost not there… styles clash and make sparks all the time, and musicians can work across different countries with each other so easily – as well as the whole thing of experimenting with electronic sound, sampling, sound manipulation, looping, and visual image in ways that have simply never been possible before.

The fact that everything is available on the web also means, in some respects, that everything is also possible, if you put your mind and energy into it. This is absolutely hugely exciting! There’s a whole world to explore.

Many thanks to Jacob Collier. Jacob’s work can also be found on Facebook and Youtube.


  1. Andrew Watson 18 April 2013 at 1:18 pm

    Blimey, Chris – and Jacob – this is really striking. It’s the compositional skills to hear the eventual sound in his head that I find most impressive. Sure, the performances themselves and technical wizardry are also impressive, but without the original concept of how it was all going to come together, they would count for nothing. Those who know my tastes will not be surprised to learn that I particularly enjoyed the organ sound from the Nord Electro (the red keyboard in the first video)!

  2. Robert Enoch 19 April 2013 at 1:34 pm

    Wonderful! Pure inspiration!

  3. Catherine 19 April 2013 at 1:44 pm

    What a multi-talented young man. Jacob creates a great sound and if I had a video camera I no longer used I’d certainly donate it to him. I like the way he changes his hairstyle slightly for each part as well.

  4. Pingback: Compositional Process / Technology interview for OCA | Jacob Collier

  5. Laurie Keefe 31 May 2013 at 11:42 pm

    I came across Jacob Collier a few months ago on YouTube. I was blown away by Mr. Collier’s arrangements as well as his instrumental and vocal skills. Thank you for your thoughtful questions. I now have a better understanding of his creative process.

    “Having chosen a song, I begin by giving it a bit of thought away from the piano/computer – outdoors if I can.”

    I’ve often thought Nature carries endless harmonic themes; with the right mindset, one might actually hear them as well as see them. Yet, in Mr. Collier’s case, I would wager he is able to compose every part all at once in his head; indoors or out.


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