In January 2019, I collaborated with the choreographer Renay Aumiller to create a modern dance piece called Out of the Blue. I wrote a program that prompted the audience to contribute a list of body parts and dance qualities, and then fed that creative input into an algorithm to randomly generate a series of short dance vignettes.
Each vignette featured a body part and a movement idea contributed by the audience, as well as a short piece of music to accompany the music. Renay improvised modern dance movement on top of this, to sometimes poignant or comedic effect.
I composed the musical backdrops in Alda and my program cross-faded them dynamically based on the randomly generated length of each vignette (30-90 seconds). For this recorded version, each backdrop is played for 30 seconds before cross-fading into the next.
Here is the Alda source code for each backdrop, accompanied by some notes about my creative process. Hopefully you’ll find it interesting!
I employed a little trick to inspire myself as I was composing most of these musical scenes. I wrote a program that picked 2 or 3 instruments at random and played randomly chosen notes on those instruments. The results weren’t usable out-of-the-box, but every few runs of the program, an interesting combination of instruments would occur by accident, and that inspired me to see what interesting musical ideas I could come up with using those instruments.
Backdrop #1 is super simple, just a long, low G on strings, punctuated regularly with timpani hits. I think it has on overall feeling of “medieval suspense”. I thought this was interesting enough as-is, and moved onto the next backdrop.
For Backdrop #2, I took the output of one of the runs of my score generator program and I used it almost as-is.
The generator emitted two instrument parts, a kalimba and a music box. I played up the percussive sound of the kalimba by creating an artificial delay effect; I added three more kalimbas and had them play the same notes, spaced apart from one another in 250ms intervals, and added progressive levels of panning and volume decay. I think it kind of sounds like a ping-pong ball falling down the stairs into the basement.
My generator happened to pick a MIDI ocean wave sound (the General MIDI spec includes a number of other goofy sounds like a gunshot, a telephone ringing, etc.), so I composed something simple and relaxing to accompany the sound of the waves.
A celeste outlining an A minor pentatonic cluster (A - C - D - E - G) seemed to do the trick. I had the celeste wait 10 seconds, then play the same thing, shifted down a note within the context of A minor (G - B - C - D - F). Then I just kept doing that, working my way down the scale. Boom, backdrop done. Next!
The inspiration generator gave me a helicopter sound and pizzicato strings next. Challenge accepted! I wrote some inline Clojure code to generate sequences of D notes moving up in octaves (D1, D2, D3, D4, D5), separated by random-length pauses. I think the result sounds like the score to a movie scene where a spy is infiltrating a military base or something.
For Backdrop #5, I imagined that I was playing some simple arpeggios on a clean electric guitar. I think GM instrument #101 (“FX 5 (brightness)”) is intended to be played in a higher register, but it ended up sounding pretty neat as a bass, sort of like a more electronic-sounding bowed upright bass.
I think I must have been channeling VGM composer Nobuo Uematsu when I wrote Backdrop #6.
It’s always fun to play with changing chords while keeping the bass note the same. In this case, the bass guitar plays a steady stream of B quarter notes, while the electric piano plays a different chord every 4 measures (Bm7 - G7 - Cmaj7 - Bm7).
This backdrop starts with a piano alternating between Gmaj7 and Dmaj7. I added a second piano that plays exactly the same thing, but softer and panned differently, creating a nice echo effect, as if you’re standing in a cathedral and the sound from the piano is bouncing off of the back of the room.
The chord voicings I chose happened to have 5 notes in them, so I thought it would be interesting to arpeggiate the chords from top to bottom in quintuplets. This has an especially dreamy effect with the artificial echo.
Backdrop #8 is conceptually simple, but fun to listen to. There are 8 voices, each playing a randomly generated sequence of pizzicato notes with random-length pauses. It starts with only one voice doing this, and then every 10 seconds a new voice enters. The result is that over time, the music becomes progressively more dense and chaotic, like the sound of popcorn popping in the microwave.