Composing Music and Orchestrating A Space Opera

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When I was a small child, I thought everyone composed music in their heads.

It was obvious. I made up music—albeit not very good music—so it must be something everyone did. I figured they just didn’t talk about it.

I don’t come from a family of musicians. But my dad loved listening to classical music, and as a child I would stand in the living room and let the strains of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake wash over me. If I was very good, sometimes he would let me put on the record myself so I could listen.

When the next-door neighbor’s kid started piano lessons, I visited and plunked on the keys and declared that I, too, wanted to learn the piano. My mom, being an Asian parent, took me at my word and started me on piano lessons the next year. Ironically, I hated those piano lessons! Especially since my mom actually made me practice.

But the piano was worth it, because now I had an instrument that I could write for. At first I wrote simple songs or the musical equivalent of fanfic. I wrote a C-major variation of François-Joseph Gossec’s “Gavotte,” complete with quintuplets and accidentals because I didn’t know any better. Nevertheless, my 4th grade music teacher was impressed enough with the endeavor that she made me write it down, at which point I discovered that the ability to read music and the ability to notate it correctly are not the same thing.

I also learned the obligatory soprano recorder in 4th grade, took up the harmonica (I still have a small collection of diatonic harmonicas, although I do also own a Hohner chromatic), took three summers of classical guitar, learned viola (and alto clef!) for school orchestra, obtained a couple ocarinas, and inquired after harp. My parents looked into it and informed me that it was too expensive. I accepted this as fair, considering all the other instrument habits I had formed.

I was never going to be great at any one instrument, but my interest wasn’t in becoming a performer/instrumentalist. I wanted to compose music, and I felt that having a basic working familiarity with a variety of instruments would enable me to write for them more idiomatically. Even today, although it’s been almost two decades since I touched my viola, I can read orchestration charts for violin and viola double-stops pretty decently because of that experience.

I worked up to pieces for more than one instrument. Some of the combinations worked better than others. I wrote one piece for two soprano recorders and C diatonic harmonica, which makes me cringe to think of today because oh my God so shrill. But some things you only learn through experience.

In high school, I had just enough experience with student orchestra to venture into writing orchestral pieces. I was lucky enough to have access to the music department’s computer, which had Cakewalk and Finale. Cakewalk is a DAW (digital audio workstation) and Finale is an engraving program (more for notation), and using them streamlined the process of writing for orchestra vastly. An upperclassman, Robert Murphy, walked me through the basics of using Cakewalk. This was in the mid-’90s, so the software had some quirks. It wouldn’t allow me to enter very basic syncopation, which meant that I ended up editing note lengths by hand and, down the line, resulted in glitchy MIDI files. Still, for the first time, I could compose ensemble music and hear it played without resorting to recording myself and playing along to the recording.

My high school music teacher, Mr. Raatz, encouraged me to keep composing. I wrote odd little mood pieces for the piano, experimented with a song accompanied by piano (a structural disaster, although I may salvage parts of it someday), wrote a small piece for French horn and strings for a good friend who played the horn. I also tried my hand at arranging Pachelbel’s Canon for recorders and messed it up by choosing not to transpose the key, but it was educational. And there was the one piece that I wrote in alternating G and F Mixolydian, which was a lot of fun.

For my senior project, I wrote a suite for chamber orchestra, meaning my school orchestra. This was doubly exciting because I was one of two violas, so I was playing my own music, although I therefore couldn’t conduct—which is probably just as well, because conducting is a whole different kettle of foxes—and because I was going to hear my music played by real, live musicians. (I hope my classmates forgave me.) Back then, especially as a viola player, I was determined that each section should get a chance to shine by playing an interesting bit. These days, because I use a computer and samples, I feel no guilt about doubling or condemning the double basses to a sad lifetime of roots.

Years later, I reinvestigated computer music, partly because the price of software had gone down to the point where I could afford it. I started out with GarageBand, then saved up for Logic Pro 8 and had some fun with that. I looked lustfully at the big sampled string packages like EastWest and Vienna Symphonic Library, but they were out of reach for the moment, so I explored electronica instead with the synths I had on hand. That might have been a blessing; certainly I enjoyed the opportunity to write in a completely different style than neoclassical.

These days I use Cockos Reaper as my DAW, and I’m excited because after some years of saving up and researching, I’ve finally obtained some string/orchestral libraries, Orchestral Tools’ Berlin Strings and Metropolis Ark 1. Sampled instruments are not the same thing as a live orchestra, but at this point of my life, the chance of getting a live orchestra to play my work is pretty much zero! I’m going for a more cinematic sound anyway, for which I think these libraries plus some others in my toolkit will work pretty well.

My latest project is “Ninefox March,” which is an orchestral piece with bonus electronica meant to accompany my novel Ninefox Gambit. (Horrible truth: I sometimes fox-wax by composing themes for characters or stories.) It all started because I was convinced that my character General Jedao was an oboe. (I explained this to my husband and he gave me the weirdest look ever.) I still need to install a RAM upgrade before I can dig in, but I have a mock-up and I’m really looking forward to ripping out the old instruments and putting proper ones in!

Sometimes when I tell people that I compose music, or they catch me scribbling down ideas in my music notebook, they’re very impressed. I keep telling them that writing music isn’t hard. Almost everyone has some sense of music—preferences, dislikes, the bone-knowledge of rhythm and tempo. What’s hard is writing good music.

The only difference between me and someone who doesn’t have experience writing music is exactly that: experience. While I’m only a hobbyist, I’ve been doing this long enough that I can winnow out the really terrible-sounding chord progressions (I have strong feels about chord progressions) or melody fragments and go straight to the material that’s worth my time. And in this regard, composing is no different from writing (or, probably, many other endeavors).

ninefox-gambit-yoon-ha-leeYoon Ha Lee’s space opera novel Ninefox Gambit is available from Solaris Books. His digital piano is the best thing ever because it never goes out of tune. He lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy cat, and has not yet been eaten by gators.

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