Which teacher had the most influence on your life?

In my case there were two; a primary school teacher and my grammar school art teacher.

The primary school teacher taught me to be a gentleman but it was my art teacher who had the most effect on my later life as a musician. He noticed that I would occasionally get part of the way through a project and then discard it.

‘Always finish what you’re doing’ he advised. 

He was right. It is futile to begin work on a piece of art or a musical composition intending to produce a masterpiece every time. Things are what they are, sometimes good, sometimes bad and, occasionally, brilliant.


The subject of this blog is a composition for five trombones. Usually, I will name a file ‘Untitled’ until I devise a suitable name if, that is to say, the title wasn’t the stimulus in the first place. On this occasion I actually called the file ‘Awful Row’ because that’s how I felt about it in the early part of the process. This is when I remembered my art teacher’s advice.

The composition is based on number 30 in the chart of seven note master structures illustrated in the book (readers will know that there are 36 seven note scales not merely the major and minor scales and their modal derivatives):

The structure on the left uses the ‘correct’ spelling, to preserve the appearance of major and minor thirds which are the basis of traditional harmony. An enharmonic version appears alongside, which is tidier, in some ways. This structure can be regarded as a major 7th chord with an augmented 5th and a major chord above. This is analogous to classifying scales in tetrachord form.

These seven note scales have the same rights as any but that’s where the fun starts. There is no inherited, conditioned hierarchy or list of conventions to assist the composer. Usually, music that just springs into a composer’s mind will comprise rearrangements of acquired complexes ‘regurgitated’ in a seemingly novel way and presented as ‘original’, or even ‘creative’. But with unorthodox scales it doesn’t work that way. Added to this, an audience can quickly become alienated, depending on their degree of sophistication and musical awareness. (Art is never a one-way process.)

The following illustration shows the *diatonic tetrads available from the chosen scale, written in an open key signature. Some of them appear in open harmony because of their register. This composition is for the trombone section, which determined their low placement. Harmonic progressions are arranged by using the smoothest connections. Here again, there is no acquired set of rules to help us and conventional prohibitions regarding parallels, exposed intervals etc. cease to have relevance. A selective choice can be made and I chose chords 1, 3, 5, 6 and 7:

The most direct way of writing expressive melodies is to use notes that are not part of the underlying harmonies at each point. These are shown in the treble clef in the above illustration. I experimented with passing notes and other melodic figurations but, on this occasion, reverted back to the purity of the original melodic scheme. I just tried to write a good tune with what I had.

A harmonic rhythm was chosen and the bars permed to furnish the following continuity:

We might set out to compose a continuity intuitively and convince ourselves we have succeeded but the method I used guarantees order. It also naturally introduces tied-over notes and situations where the harmonies appear on different beats.

As an introduction to the composition, I duplicated (option-dragged) the harmony tracks in Logic Pro and option-dragged the right-hand edges of the duplicated file leftwards to create a brief passage with shorter note durations. I upped the velocity to make the trombones snarl a little and enhanced this by putting the tracks through Bus 1 with a pedal amp distortion effect added.

The trombones then play the theme, with four of them forming the background to a trombone solo. This section is repeated, with an extension at the end. An arpeggiated accompaniment, using the Arpeggiator plug-in, appears at the start of the repeat. To produce this, the harmonic progression was put through the ‘Sculpture’ synth, choosing the ‘Nylon Fingered Guitar’ preset. I truly believe that the result is a good as anything that could be achieved by other means and I claim that a listener would not be able to derive the method used. A walking jazz bass in even eighth notes appears underneath it all. The bass and guitar are not put through the overall plate reverb on Bus 2 to make them seem to be sitting right next to you.

Following on from all this is another arpeggiated passage using all the notes of the selected scale put through the Sculpture synth, with minimal Echo, this time using the ‘Tiny Plucks’ preset. I could hear melodic fragments emerging from the effect which I seized upon and enhanced with the trombones, both as solo sounds and as a section. The trombones are again put through the Bus with the pedal amp distortion.

The arpeggiator can’t be automated so, to achieve variety, I ‘multed’ these tracks and put a different arpeggiator setting on each:

The result took up a lot of space, vertically, so I bounced this sketch of the arrangement and put the resulting WAV file in with the other midi tracks instead:

I introduced the drum kit in passages where the trombones are largely absent. To do this, I placed long notes in the piano roll, choosing parts of the kit from the ‘Drum Kit Designer’ plug-in, put through the Arpeggiator. This gives a surprisingly authentic drum solo effect which can be varied by adding and taking away notes. A quick way to chop the piano roll parts into sections is to select all the midi notes and option-click at the required bar-interval with the scissors tool. Minimal use of the Echo plug-in enhanced the effect. The final snarling chords from the trombones are accompanied by cymbals only.

I considered multing the drum track as well, for variety, but it isn’t really necessary because the arpeggiator selects notes randomly anyway, so we don’t get the same drum pattern repeated.

The arrangement uses the native ‘Studio Horns’ trombones and bass trombone in Logic. The problem is these sounds will only sustain for around four seconds which is useless. Why Apple allows this is anybody’s guess. I put the suggestion through the Apple feedback facility but there is no acknowledgement and, months later, we’re still suffering from this ridiculous shortcoming. I really do wonder how minds work, sometimes. Perhaps, listening to this, people may wonder about me, too.

Incidentally, you can’t glue the three tenor trombones into one track to save time and space. This doesn’t work with the Studio Horns, which are assigned 1,2,3 plus bass trombone. I should also point out that, in the USA, the term ’horns’ is often used to denote trumpets, saxes and trombones.

The end result is challenging. It is what it is and I actually like the piece, now. There’s a place for it, somewhere. ’Iconoclasm’ (tearing down cherished notions) seemed like an appropriate title.

Here’s a link to a sound file:

I hope you were all singing along with it!

*Diatonic means belonging to the scale in use, whichever scale it may be.



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