As many composition tutors will tell you, the key to developing properly as a composer is to be able to hear the music you are writing. This presents the distance learning student with a particular problem, namely, where to find performers.
Students, writing for instruments they don’t play, have to be able to network in order to meet instrumentalists and singers who can realise their art. It could be said that music isn’t really music until it is heard!
But what if you live more remotely, or are writing for large ensembles, where the opportunities to collaborate are even fewer? This is a problem faced not only by distance learners but by students at traditional university music departments.
Users of music notation software will be familiar with the often less-than-impressive computerised playback quality. This can give the composer an impression of what it might sound like, but can also require a fair bit of imagination in terms of how balance might be achieved within the ensemble. To others, this basic MIDI playback is often quite synthetic and off-putting.
However MIDI is gradually taking great leaps forward in terms of audio quality. Digital Audio Workstations and ‘Virtual Instrument libraries’ use many small clips of audio recorded from the actual instruments to play back the score. In fact, many people would have already heard music produced this way on TV and Film without even realising it. You can sometimes only tell something has been created synthetically when you’ve been warned in advance!
At a recent masterclass on achieving a realistic balanced MIDI sound at BFI Southbank, engineers and composers David W Hearn and Stu Kennedy played a well known piece of film music to a room full of composers, asking them to raise their hands when they could tell it was a MIDI realisation. By the end of the track, most of the hands were up, and it was revealed that despite most having heard something synthetic, it was actually a genuine orchestral recording! So perhaps there is a performable outlet for composers struggling to create a more accurate realisation of their work.
In my final year studying composition with the Open College of the Arts, I chose to write for large orchestra under the supervision of Patric Standford; a seven movement orchestral suite based on different areas of my home county of Cornwall. I didn’t want ‘The Kernow Suite’ to be confined to the page, and without a symphony orchestra at my disposal, I decided to give ‘virtual instruments’ a go. Clearly without the same resources as the Film/TV composers it was going to be difficult, but I was pleased enough with the sound to investigate further. See what you think.