Notes on For the Beauty of the Earth

After Martin Prachař had spent many hours working on a beautiful instrumental recording of my men’s choir arrangement of Abide with Me, I asked him if I might arrange one of his favorite hymns.  He said, “as the spring came in fast this year and brought in hope, I have been really feeling like singing For the Beauty of the Earth…”

I began work immediately on an arrangement that I soon discarded.  When I arrange, I want to bring something fresh to the song.  If I cannot improve upon the original, an arrangement is a waste of time.  I felt that the tune of the hymn was already well harmonized, and I didn’t want to tinker with it too much.  I got frustrated and walked away from the project for over six months.

In January 2013, my family and I attended the funeral of a brilliant mathematician and scientist, John Downing.  The closing hymn at the service was For the Beauty of the Earth.  This brought the song back to the front of my mind.

Last week, I was sitting at the piano and working out a little tune, and the lyrics to For the Beauty of the Earth began to fit with it.  I wrote and harmonized the tune, and then I went back to the original hymn tune by Conrad Kocher.  I was able to quote that melody in the bass line of verse 2.

To me, beauty in music is achieved through shimmering dissonance as much as consonant chords.  That aesthetic idea guided the voicing of this piece.  See and hear the results here.

Technical Notes about O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

This year’s Audio Christmas Card project was again recorded in Audacity.  Last year I took a little more time, but this year I had a strict 2-hour time limit for arranging, recording, and processing.

To save time, I arranged as I recorded, and I didn’t bother with any notation. The arrangement is pretty simple this time – simple solo first verse, duet with a drone for second, and fairly standard four-part third with a brief tag and pickerdy third at the end.

I began with the solo line for the first two verses.  Then I recorded and looped the oohs over verse two, followed by the second verse duet harmony.  Then I recorded the third verse, beginning with soprano, then bass, then alto and tenor.  I usually record the inner voices last because they anchor themselves on the soprano and bass notes.

I was not pleased with the stock Audacity reverb plugins, so I installed and applied Freeverb.  I wanted to apply some chorus effects during verse 3, but I wasn’t satisfied with the sound I got from the plugins I tried.  If any of you have a recommendation, I would love to hear it.

For a two-hour project, I thought the results were decent.  Obviously not studio-quality.  Hopefully Santa will bring me a Blue Spark Digital microphone for next year.  🙂

Merry Christmas!

Silent Night

My audio Christmas card this year is an arrangement of Silent Night.  I’ve been playing with Audacity recently in preparation for some projects I’d like to do with my students at the high school.  As part of that, I started working on a Christmas example.

Oddly, I’ve been listening to a lot of Steve Reich this year, so the Silent Night arrangement was a minimalist-inspired experiment.  Before the music geeks get on my case, this piece is not true minimalism or a phase piece, and it’s probably definitely not the way Steve Reich would have approached it at all.  Steve Reich is Steve Reich, and I have little interest in copying his style.  However, his idea that a piece may stay on the same chord for sustained periods without becoming boring intrigues me.

I used ostinatos to repeat and overlap.  You may notice that the ostinatos don’t always line up numerically – the bass line repeats on a 2-measure cycle, the brass motif is on a 6-measure cycle, and the high ah singing the “Silent Night” motif repeats every 8 measures.  One verse of Silent Night is 24 measures.  It’s just a fun little experiment for me, using a low-quality PC microphone.

As far as my process on this piece, I literally arranged by performing, as though using the computer as a simple loop machine.  I did clean up my loops a bit (balancing the two voices in the brasslike motif, for instance), but most of the sound loops remained minimally processed.  I did occasionally use a chorus plugin and the standard Audacity compressor and leveler.

Each new loop I sang was built on the previous ones, in the final order of the song.

Enjoy, comment, and have a merry Christmas!