The most difficult and the best result – “Exquisite Machine”

Track 8 of 9 on the album “Painting Music” took major effort. It was the most difficult track on this album and the one of which I’m proudest. I started it on Sept 9, 2022 and finished it on Oct. 6, 2022 – 4 weeks of working on it every day, all day. Doing this kind of detailed composition in Logic is maddening. It requires fanatical attention to detail and extremely close analysis, note for note, second by second. Each of the 28 tracks (stems) on this project took major work, but the piano score was particularly intense, to put it mildly.

The composition was developed from a sound sequence generated on the “Exquisite Forest Theme” web audio creation platform, hence the name of the song. (Refer to the explanation at the end of this post.) I developed this sample into a full score, with a new melody, and a multi-layered structure.

The variations of the melody makes this song a Rondo. The sound is rich and complex, and dominated by two elements: the machine-like synth instruments, and the harmonious human vocalization. It is both machine and nature, both techno-driven and filled with human feeling.

The fantasy-like page design of the Exquisite Forest platform is a foreshadowing of the type of sounds that the user can generate on it: it’s pretty, but it sounds like music for a animation movie about fairies or rainbow unicorns or magical, twinkling flowers, like those in the original 2009 Avatar film. It does indeed sound like a theme. After building a full score from that, there wasn’t much left of the original – one 4-bar section.

Exquisite Machine cover art, track 8 of 9 on Painting Music (Mixing and mastering by Chris Perry)

Around those few notes, I wrote new piano, bass, and synth scores, and for the bridge and verse breakdown, I wrote entirely new scores that only have a slight memory of the original tune. There are still one or two notes in the “Exquisite Forest” audio loops which, to me, sound almost atonally high-pitched, like a bird’s squawk, even after I had sublimated them with the new MIDI tracks. Probably they are only audible to me.

Samples cannot make a song

Samples by themselves – whichever way you source them – do not make a song. You have to build it. My reiterations of these parts of the composition, in order to build it up, turned it into a Rondo:

  • Verse 1 – To introduce the sample, and clarify the basic eight-bar tune
  • Verse 2 – The same melody, but backed up with bass guitar and cello
  • Bridge – Two new melodies that have some resemblance to the verse parts – much deeper, more serious, less sweet, harsher.
  • Verse 3 – Breakdown: A new version of the tune in minor key
  • Verse 4 – Buildup to the Outro: A full sound, all instruments, building to a crescendo

In the search for the ultimate Ear Candy – the most enticing, most moving chords and melodies, you can use a machine-generated sound that has been engineered to be exquisite and delightful, or a sample which has had proven success. When you hear the Exquisite Forest theme on the platform, it does sound quite irresistible. Not memorable, but very pretty. (If I had to hum it now, I couldn’t.)

However, using and relying on that sample might be an error in judgment, because, in the end, the parts of this song that appeal to me most are the ones that I wrote from scratch – the bridges, variations, and the verse breakdown in minor. There is a connection between one’s feelings and the music that one uses to express those feelings. It is a direct, visceral connection that cannot be faked or generated by appropriating it from elsewhere else. When I wrote this piece, I realized that I no longer need to use loops and samples from the Logic library or anywhere else – I can, but I can also write better ones. As David Byrne writes:

“The uncanny perfection that these recording and compositional technologies make possible can be pleasing. But metronomic accuracy can also be too easy to achieve this way, and the facile perfection is often obvious, ubiquitous, and ultimately boring.”

David Byrne, How Music Works, p. 135

Listen to Exquisite Machine

What is The Exquisite Forest?

“The Exquisite Forest Theme”, another platform hosted by DinahMoe Labs, is a demonstration of a music engine created for “This Exquisite Forest”. “This Exquisite Forest” is – or was – an online collaborative animation project which ran from 2012 to 2014.  You cannot collaborate on it any more, but you can view the results. It was conceived by Arron Koblin and Chris Milk, and produced by Google and the UK art gallery Tate Modern. 

Subsequent to that project, “(The) Exquisite Forest Theme” demo lets you create music by selecting specific parameters – you do not have to draw anything or use a brush. 

You can generate a score by choosing  the instruments, mood, style, rhythm, etc., and the program then generates a quite satisfying and mellifluous melody.  It is what it is though.  Within the parameters, the user cannot change the melody that is generated.

That being said, it’s what you do with that audio clip, and how you build a musical context for it, which finally produces a complete composition.

Next post: Lyrical video of Exquisite Machine

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