I’m posting yet another remix of the first movement of my Piano Concerto. It is, again, a vast improvement over the previous mixes. I still hope to hear the music performed someday by a real orchestra, and a real pianist.
I’m one guy with a few years experience of fooling around with a computer disk drive containing a handful of captured sounds that some sound engineer thought were “representative” of the instrument. They’re nice samples. Really nice samples. But they’re only samples. I piece them together like Lego blocks into something that sounds like music.
A real symphony orchestra is made up of fifty-some-odd people who have each been mastering their single instrument all their lives, conducted by a master musician who merely directs these other musicians to apply their human, musical minds and hearts toward making music together. They understand music — and they have the knowledge and skill to get just the right sound out of their instrument. A dramatic horn swell. A light violin spiccato. A mysterious timpani roll.
There is, in the end, no contest.
The piano concerto is my first major work, and like a first date, a first kiss, a first love, there is something about this music that has become an irreplaceable part of my being. It will never be quite right. It will never be entirely wrong.
It was born in tragedy, finished in calamity, and has always been solace.
The concerto began on a dark night sometime in 1986. In January of 1985, our almost-three-month-old daughter, Christina, died of SIDS in the middle of the night. As I fell apart, then slowly put myself back together (with help) and moved on with life, I would occasionally console myself by trying to recover some skill with the piano, which I’d stopped studying in high school.
One night my fingers started playing a rhythmic little tune. It was a strange experience: I heard the music in my head, and my fingers almost knew how to play it. I knew two things intuitively and instantly: I had never heard or played this music before, and it was the opening to the third movement of a piano concerto. It grew from there.
The second movement came next, a few years later, as a lullaby for my two sons.
The first movement came to me last, well into the mid-1990’s, as the sound of horns blowing through my mind. I had by then written my own MIDI sequencer for the Amiga computer, playing through a Korg M-1 keyboard, which allowed me to do very simple polyphonic orchestrations.
I remember walking across a frozen parking lot to meet friends for a New Year’s Eve drink (or three) in 1994 at an upscale little Italian bistro near my home. I needed a haircut. On a whim, I decided in the middle of that parking lot, between one step and the next, to let my hair grow until the concerto was finished.
My hair was almost shoulder-length in late 1995 when I cut a digital audio tape of original compositions, and made 100 copies through a little commercial studio in LaPorte Colorado, to give out as Christmas presents. I didn’t include the concerto: it wasn’t finished, and I didn’t have nearly enough raw processing power on the computer or the keyboard to perform it, anyway.
I got busy with other things, cut my hair, and stopped composing.
I finally finished the concerto in 2003.
I had bought a new keyboard, a Roland XV-88, and a new PC with a commercial sequencer, Cakewalk. I had all the good intentions in the world, but I was very busy with work.
I went in to see the doctor about a little problem with bleeding hemorrhoids. They told me it was colon cancer.
That’s a hell of a thing to be told on a Thursday afternoon. They wanted me in surgery Friday morning, but could not make it work with their schedules. So I was scheduled for Monday morning, first thing.
I knew that, though the odds were small, I might not wake up on Monday afternoon. What do you do with your last three days of life? My answer was: pretty much the same thing you’d do anyway. Three days isn’t enough time to write out your bucket list and do anything about it. You really don’t want to run around to all your friends and say, “I love you, good-bye.” You aren’t going to “get your affairs in order,” and besides, the last thing you want to be doing with your last three days is paperwork.
After surgery, and throughout chemo, I had a great deal of time to ponder my life, which at that point, consisted mostly of promises of great things yet to come. Promises that might not be kept, now, and by the way, weren’t all that great when you looked at them closely as an epitaph. As the chemo deepened and I found myself with less and less energy, I decided I’d use my good days to finally finish the concerto. I’d worked out all the piano parts by then by playing them over and over: I could almost perform the work, though now I didn’t have the stamina to get through more than a few measures at a time. So I recorded (as MIDI) in little manageable sections, and orchestrated it, and cut myself a CD.
As early summer moved into late summer and the chemo started truly kicking my ass, I would lie in bed, with my crappy little recording on my crappy little boom-box playing quietly into the night as I drifted somewhere between waking and restless sleep, and I would say to myself, “I wrote that.” It seemed like the one unambiguously beautiful accomplishment in my life. Everything else was tarnished or in doubt. My marriage had ended. My mother was gone, my father was slipping into dementia, my sister was long-since estranged. My kids were not doing well in school, and I wondered how badly I’d already failed them, and how much worse it would be if I up and died on them. My career — bah. A bunch of technical challenges solved to make someone else rich selling gizmos to the morally incompetent to increase their power over the rest of us, to be replaced at the first opportunity with the next new gizmo and forgotten.
But this — this was unambiguous. It was beautiful, certainly as I heard it in my mind through the muddled samples and the poor sound reproduction. Even if it was never heard by anyone but me, even if it was a sand castle washed away without a trace, I wrote this.
And yet, I also feel I didn’t write it, I merely wrote it down. It came from someplace outside me, yet inside me, in a way that’s impossible to adequately describe. Those of you who have been seduced by a Muse will know what I’m talking about.
I remixed the concerto a few years ago with Garritan sound samples on my brand new iMac. That’s the mix that has been up on this site for some time, and it’s a lot closer to what I hear in my head than the crappy little recording from 2003. But it’s still not right.
This one is a little closer.
Technical features. I’m still using Cuebase 7.5. These are the East West Sound samples, the Platinum Orchestra and Platinum Pianos collections. This piano is a Steinway D, and it’s pure chocolate gorgeousness.
I’m driving them, interestingly enough, with the same MIDI sequences dating back to my original 2003 performance, cleaned up here and there. I had to do finer cleanup on the piano part this time, because this sampled piano is so much more responsive to touch. A real Steinway keyboard feels nothing like a weighted electronic keyboard, and my fingering in 2003 was — well, sloppy. Lots of weak notes with the fourth finger.
As the samples become clearer and more realistic, I find that I need to do fewer audio tricks to try to get the sound close to right, and I’ve even been able to consolidate or cut parts.
Cutting parts is good if I hope to have it performed live at any point. Most conductors scowl when you call for two glass harmonica and choir of castrati. I think you have to be Andrew Lloyd Weber to get away with that.
And I’m very much looking forward to remixing the second movement, to which I’ve never done justice: I think this electronic orchestra can handle it.