Erlanger Programm – a new album is taking shape

So, this new album is taking shape, and that to a degree that it’s no longer feasible that it will be canned and forgotten, and so the time has come (I think) to write about it.

So what it is about?

First things first: this is going to be a big one!

The Quick Facts

It’s an album project. It’s music with four main parts (currently titled A, B, C and D) and a total of five “minor” parts (a, b, c, d and a’) which somehow tie those main parts together.

As all of my new project since #secretalbum, it’s also a work of composed music, meaning no improvised noodling. And more along that realm, it’s also constructed to use symmetry and other funny compositional schticks. Furthermore, it was initially planned as a solo album, i.e. all parts (with the exception of recycled samples and stems) were performed by me – however, at this stage, I’m no longer sure if I’m gonna stick with that. What will remain is that there’s (again) a large amount of synthesizers – however, guitars, bass guitars, melodica, trombone and maybe even acoustic drums will be part of the melange.

What can be seen as something out of the ordinary is the loop structure: each of the main parts, as well as the entire composition, can be played in a nonstop without any glitches at the loop points.

Genesis

In the album’s history, we have to look back until Q2 of 2014, when I first had the idea for a somewhat larger musical work with four main parts. Planned as a four-piece suite with an “longer EP” duration, this was where I first thought about the idea of recontextualizing musical building blocks in different contexts: for example, a theme might be used in one part in an ambient/noise context, only to reappear much faster in an uptempo electronic track later on. There were some pretty advanced ideas about odd, sometimes non-heptatonic scales. It also would take concepts form Chinese mythology, but strangely, the working title was Erlanger Programm.

The Musical “V”

My musical approach is very V-model (as in systems engineering) oriented recently, meaning I first start with a very top-level, rough concept (or “specification”, if you want). This might be just the very basic structure I have described above, which gets put down in a slightly more structured and formal manner. Next, the specification depth increases in several steps: there might be a more specific description of the four individual parts, maybe adding the ideas of the odd scales, and even a theme or motif or two. This gets refined more and more, until I arrive at a detailed score – and then it’s back to integration, meaning recording those parts, editing and mixing them, and finally to mastering.

Back more than one year ago, I ran out of ideas once I wanted to get the thing more detailed. And there were other matters to attend to (musical or otherwise), and all in all, the time was not right for this work to manifest.

This happening is nothing out of the ordinary – sometimes, I have an idea and then either discover that it can’t be done that way and I need to start thinking anew, or I lose interest in it.

Second Attempt

Fast forward to April of 2015: the first Erlanger Programm idea had been forgotten, as had another album idea called “[]” (or “square”). There had been the idea for, realization of and release of oscillator theory. And I had once again taken notice of the RPM Challenge in February.

Based on that RPM challenge, I had the following idea: that challenge is about creating an album in a total of 28 days. That isn’t really that hard, at least if you’re willing and able to find the time within those 28 days (which might very well result in you not engaging in any social interactions for a full month) – it’s not a complete no-brainer, but it’s well possible. Now I wouldn’t want to work on nothing but an album for four weeks straight – but how about a weekend? Let’s say you return from work relatively early on Friday (say, you’re home around 1600 or so), and continue until later evening on Sunday (so it’s around 0200 the following Monday), have taken care of shopping etc. the days before, then you’ve got around 58 hours, from which you need to subtract time for such things a sleep, bodily functions etc. Is that possible?

A few weeks later, I started into the weekend returning from work early and with a few sheets of paper (manuscript and otherwise) – blank except for the word Wochenende (“weekend”) written at the top. I continued until Saturday afternoon after I had sketched out some ideas, and had discovered that it can’t be done with an album of the complexity. I decided to try it again with something simpler – and to follow up on the scribbling on those sheets of paper.

A few sheets of paper

Sketches of Erlangen
Sketches of Erlangen
Thinking about tonality
Thinking about tonality
a few ideas for Lydian harmonies
a few ideas for Lydian harmonies

Getting serious

Defining Structure

At this point, I had decided on the following:

  • There would be four main parts (A to D),
  • Each main part would be preceded by a minor part (a to d),
  • There would be a minor part following D, which connects to a (called a’).

Tonality was defined as Ab Lydian for A, F in a whole-semi two-step symmetric octatonic scale for B, B wholetone for C and finally D Dorian for D. The minor parts would then modulate between those, with a beginning and a’ ending at Ab harmonic minor.

All this results in no part using F#/Gb – a forbidden note. I decided to remember that in case I went all-chromatic during one part or the other.

I then though about durations…I wanted the entire thing to have a good album length, which in my world is something between 40 and 50 minutes (no hard limits here). This meant that if I though about 6-7 minutes each for the main and 3-4 each for the minor parts, I would be good.

I had also ideas about meters, and on a more vague level, about tempi. And some very clearly-defined ideas how themes would relate to each other – like b using the main theme from D in cancer and performed on guitar. A funny thing to define, considering that all I knew about part D at that point was that it was “downtempo” and about b that it would use an orchestral bassdrum.

Digital Mockup

At this point where I’m slowly defining an structure and move on to actually work out scores, I tend to create a digital mockup. Later in the project, there’ll be maybe some acoustic or electric instruments, or even in electronic stuff, hardware synthesizers (and let’s not forget hardware effects). These tend to be relatively cumbersome in their handling, especially when we’re talking about instrumentalists that are not me. What I then do is sketch out the score and assign rather generic VSTi instruments in my DAW of choice, which for about two decades has now been Cubase. For those generic sounds, I have recently moved a lot towards HALion 5, complemented by some other VSTi instruments. These might get replaced by other instruments later, or the preset patches I use may get adapted. This is something which offers the possibility to make the score also sound if need be.

Hitting Limits

One thing had however changed from my usual way of going at those composed projects: while usually and album consisted of several Cubase project files, each one representing one track, I decided here to contain all fourty-odd minutes into one project. One reason was reuse of material in different tracks – which, using the powerful library features, could have also been done with individual files. However, the fact that all the tracks were to move into each other, and the last one seamlessly connect to the first, made a different approach necessary: there might be a note reverberating out from e.g. part d to part D, which as all major parts were to work seamlessly if put on “Repeat”, would need to have that last note from part d reappear at the end of part D, in turn then reverberating into part a’. This would get cumbersome with individual project files.

It didn’t take my DAW long to display slightly odd behaviour after I started adding all the plugins and samples for all the parts – which had to do with the limits of the 32bit world described here. So I had to move to 64bit, and on the way needed to work without some of my fave plugins, at least for the time being. Not so much of an issue, as it was still digital mockup stage. On the other hand, it meant that I knew I would need some tricks for some specific plugins where I only have an old version and don’t want to upgrade (e.g. Stylus RMX).

So much for now, something about the actual music later on…

[Note that in this series of blog posts, I’m writing up on stuff that has already happened in the past. I’ll let you know when I’m back in the present.]

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