Composing for a String Quartet

Recently my muse inspired me to push myself as a musician. This last weekend, I met a string quartet in a bakery. Set up some microphones, and recorded them performing a piece I wrote completely from scratch. It has been one of the most satisfying experiences in my musical life. I have zero classical training and I’m a beginner level at reading music. I wanted to document here how I pulled it off in the hopes that others might find it useful.

First. I listened to a ton of quartet music. I created a playlist of pieces that had elements I enjoyed or wanted to use.

Then I went and found the sheet music for those pieces (musecore was an absolute treasure for this). Sticking with more well known masters made the sheet music easier to find. Then I studied all the sheet music. Just mostly listening and taking in the notation and how it mapped to a player playing it. Did some music theory studies for the chord qualities and progressions for phrases I liked.

The above process went on for probably 3 months. I also watched all the youtube content about quartets and string players I could.

I waited for the Spitfire Audio Sacconni Quartet string library to go on sale and picked it up. Once I had that in hand I started making little doodles. From this I learned how to set up my daw sessions for midi composition. Learned how to swap sample banks based on the tonal quality and volume I was going for, and also midi automation.

At this point I started emailing quartets. Following local chamber music groups on facebook and instagram is a great way to connect in to your local classical players. Also going to performances.
Smaller venues yielded much better experiences than the big performance halls. I found a quartet and we figured out a timeline and fee that worked for both of us.

Then I started composing the piece. I knew it would be 8 mins long so I chose a very slow tempo of 50bpm to help fill that space easier and picked a key i was comfortable in. i decided to hand draw in every single note. no midi performance at all. the intention here was because this would eventually end up as sheet music, so being rigid would translate to cleaner midi files and onto sheet music better. This was pretty tedious and time consuming but yielded what i feel are better results. i was able to dial in the exact emotions and phrasing i was going for. if what i had didnt fit, it was deleted or reworked. I would work for 45mins to an hour at a time. it took probably 5-6 weeks to get a first draft.

Then i exported a midi file and imported it into musecore and began cleaning up the sheet music. All the dynamic markings had to be redone by hand. I made a “read along” video with the sheet music and “mockup” library music and sent it and a PDF to my quartet contact who was the Violist.

They gave some good feedback, I had to change the key to something with no more than 2flats/sharps. Luckily Gm was only a half step down so I transposed everything to that key.

I then listen to my piece every couple of days and made notes about what i didnt like and made very small adjustments. i sent the final version to the quartet a week before recording. They ran through it at their regular weekly practice which I was not present and told me everything was good to go and they were ready to record.

I did a “practice” recording where i brought all my equipment, set it up, ran REW, and banged on my acoustic guitar for a sound check about a week before the recording. I uncovered all sorts of flaws in my setup and process that i ironed out over the next week.

The day of the recording went nothing at all like I thought it would. I was bombarded from all sides by the players with questions about various phrases and how they should be delivered. i did my best to answer them but i think that there was still a bit of ambiguity and uneasiness with a few of the players. two of the players immediately understood that this was more “jazz” than classical. as long as they delivered the “feel” of a phrase that there wasn’t a need to 100% accuracy for what was notated for some of the phrases.

The players were very good at policing themselves when they got it wrong. One player was rushing(a natural thing to do for a 50bpm piece) and another player asked them to count out the part, then corrected their rushed tempo when they started counting.

We had 2 takes where we had to stop then punch in a few times. These were pretty much the practice runs and mostly unusable. I was nervous everything was going to fall apart at this point. Then the players asked to play to a metronome as 50bpm was just too slow i think for all the nervous energy that was in the room. we setup the metronome and saw good results immediately. we had two fantastic takes, then we had one final take without the metronome. The take without the metronome was a full 30secs shorter than with the metronome!

There were mistakes but with 3 good takes, splicing together a perfect piece was easy enough. All in all the whole thing the took 1.5 hours.

If i could do it again i would do these things different:

  1. A simpler piece. Whole and half notes go further than you think.

  2. Never write a phrase you cant count and/or hum. Midi can get you in trouble with this.

  3. Be very familiar with the notes during transitions. I was more familiar with ”number” of the note in the scale/progression. “Right after the Eb.” is how the players communicate about the piece.

  4. Simplify at every step. Parts that i thought were “a tiny bit tricky” had a 4x multiplier in complexity the day of and were way more troublesome than i thought they were.

  5. Don’t make composition decisions based on the “players boredom” or to “impress” the players. It wont be boring.

Im trying to keep this short so i left a ton of details out. Feel free to ask questions or share your own composition experience!

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This is a beautiful piece of music, and it sounds like it was a beautiful experience for you. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and I think I’ve gotten a step closer — I’ve received a small commission for a local music festival, so there’s a venue, and a reason to do it.

Would it be alright if I messaged you about a couple of the particulars of this process? I have your exact level of classical training (none), and how you’ve described putting this together is more or less how I thought I’d go about it.

Also — I’m sure that your leaving the more personal impetus for this project out of this post was deliberate, and I want to respect that; just know that this is very, very moving, and that I admire the manner you’ve found to express such a difficult and insurmountable experience.

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Of course I’d love to chat about the above. There are so many details I left out for brevity.

You are correct though this is a deeply personal piece of music and I left that out for brevity but not for privacy. My wife and I lost our baby at 22 weeks and this is part of her Requiem I’m writing. She was my muse and the reason I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone. My motivation was entirely to make sure she was remembered and I did the best I could possibly do on her music.

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I’ll get at you in a couple days! Need to revisit my plans for this thing.

Ah, that is so heartbreaking; I’m so sorry for your loss. You’ve done well, the music is gorgeous. Are you going to be writing more music for the string quartet, or will you be branching out into different instrumentation?

I’m sure that all of us at Lines would be more than happy to lend assistance, if need be.

The quartet is the tragic finale of the piece. There is a solo guitar part in the middle that I’m currently writing then a full on ambient part at the beginning that still needs some work. Went at this project backwards for some reason.

Thank your for the kind words! Lines is an amazing community and a safe place to put such sensitive material out there to. There is alot of trust there.

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Wow, I can’t wait to hear this together. That is an excellent sequence of genres (also a pretty smart way of working in reverse order — after all, how are you supposed to tell where you want to end up until you get there?)

Please let us know when you have more to share!

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Beautiful & heartbreaking…

A few years ago I got to write for string quartet (& choir) for a film score, and have similarly minimal classical training… In my case I benefited hugely from collaborating with an experienced orchestrator, who also conducted the choir. (Finding that orchestrator was a bit like auditioning band members, and making sure that they did know and appreciate my aesthetic references… as I loathe ‘epic’ scores) For film it seems this is not an uncommon approach, with the orchestrator offering up ideas and suggestions, as much or as little as is required.

It was an incredible learning experience and one of the aspects that really struck me was the profound difference between having played & listened to VI/sample based draft versions of cues and then hearing it performed. Did you feel the same, progressing from the Spitfire based draft version, to real players, with such gorgeous expressive vibrato and dynamics?

Also have to ask, were you tempted to record pieces or sections purely for later use/manipulation in other pieces of music? I managed to fit in a bunch of extra cues to our recording session, and next time would definitely have more material prepp’d for ‘if there is time’…

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Thanks for taking the time to post such a complete, detailed and useful insight into your creative process. I am not far behind you in my interests to do the same - compose, arrange and produce a musical performance so your roadmap will be a beacon that will illuminate my path.

John

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Working with an orchestrator would have been so helpful.

The first thing I did when the players got to the session was ask “what could I improve?” One of the violinist gave me some great feedback that my “barring” was strange. I realize then I didn’t bar ANYTHING manually. it was entirely autogenerated by Musecore. We went through one of her phrases and she asked if I had a preference for a few different versions. The differences where notes on different strings and the “hammer on” and “pull offs” that were natural with them. The differences were very subtle and given that they didn’t really change the emotional content at all, I told her to play whatever was easiest to finger.

A conductor would have been super helpful especially with the piece being so slow at 50bpm. One of the Violinist who had a super long rest asked if it would be helpful if he conducted in his rest but they other players said no.

Did you feel the same, progressing from the Spitfire based draft version, to real players, with such gorgeous expressive vibrato and dynamics?

I spent quite a bit of time on mockup especially with changing the sample banks and automation. It could have easily have passed as “real” especially with reverb or some other effect. In fact several people thought it was real, and didn’t notice that it was samples until I pointed it out. That being said, I did A/B after I got a solid recording and good god real players were so much better. The recording did have more “flaws”, like bow scratching and chair creeks and people breathing. Which could be less desirable or problematic for some projects. It was greatly welcome for this project though! There were a few phrases that I preferred the libraries “take”, but I took those away as learning experiences that I couldn’t articulate in sheet music well enough.

Also have to ask, were you tempted to record pieces or sections purely for later use/manipulation in other pieces of music?

The thought totally crossed my mind! However it was my first time working with the players and I didn’t want to wear out my welcome. It was also later in the evening and I didn’t want to keep anyone from their families unnecessarily. We went 30mins over what I budgeted for so getting anything extra was never an option for this project. However I realized that so much of my work only needed 2 or 3 voices. I barely used the second Violin, so maybe one day in a session with less players and lower stakes some fun can be had.

Super interested in hearing your piece and you experience for writing for a choir. Writing a choral piece is totally on my list of things I’d like to accomplish as a musician.

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I made a short Making Of vid of my score, will post below…

My orchestrator described the potential improvement (before recording) as being that the musicians would ‘connect’ the notes via performance, ie through playing with feel through phrases etc, as opposed to my MIDI temp versions… I used quite a bit of Olafur Arnalds Spitfire evo quartet as temp, and that definitely had an impact in terms of articulations which my orchestrator had to direct, as sometimes the performers would take it too far (eg playing very close to the bridge but not too raspy etc) But I really felt all of the performers breathed life into every aspect of the score…

Part of the process for us involved my music editor identifying any external issues (eg ext building unwanted noises) as he prepared the cues for predub, and i would RX the issues and send back fixes to him etc…

One of the extra cues we did was a short theme for the local NZ Film Festival - its a freebie/contra I have done every year for a while, in exchange for movie tickets… As I knew we had a choir for 2 sessions I wrote a cue for them and we did it t the end of our choir sessions. As they were warmed up by then they totally nailed it first take, and it was pretty unreal to hear it for the first time ever, and so well done. We also did a lot of aleatoric choir cues for the film - again a suggestion from my orchestrator, and that was an incredible experience. I made really basic graphic score for each cues referencing other elements/dynamics etc, to help direct it… which the orchestrator used, but the choir didn’t see or need…

This wasn’t my first film score, but first time to have a budget for orchestration, recording etc… Learned so much, but what made it really possible was the quality of the Kontakt & UVI instruments, for strings & for choir, as with film have to get the directors approval before anything gets handed to an orchestrator… The real choir was especially interesting as they had so much power we really had to be careful to not let them overpower a cue (which was always on its own stem in the final film mix, but still really want to present a version to the final mix that is as close to intent as possible)

One Thousand Ropes Score making of:

NZIFF theme Making of:

The most difficult part of film scores is that you have to be totally invested in what you are doing, but also pragmatic if something is not working in its final context with DX and FX, which no one may be able to forsee… That may well mean a cue gets pulled apart, parts dropped etc… A few times I felt like I was a patient on the operating table, watching as my innards were dissected, altered and reassembled… Having attended 20+ film mixes as sound designer I realised why it is rare to see a composer at a films final mix (the music editor handles all of that)

Stream of stereo downmixes of score:

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Oh wow this is wonderful thanks for sharing. Awesome to see the mod synths get a feature, they are such interesting tools.

Part of the process for us involved my music editor identifying any external issues (eg ext building unwanted noises) as he prepared the cues for predub, and i would RX the issues and send back fixes to him etc…

It looks like a dream to have been able to record in that church. We recorded in a bakery my friend owns that had a nice big room. The trouble was that the freezer was loud enough to hear and we couldn’t turn it off, so our noise floor was pretty poor. I recorded with a pair of blumlein Royer ribbons and put them very close to the quartet to try and help with the noise. This made for a very wide stereo image that ended up being tricky mix side. RX was way more effective than I thought it would be so I wish I could have moved the mics back a little.

Learned so much, but what made it really possible was the quality of the Kontakt & UVI instruments, for strings & for choir, as with film have to get the directors approval before anything gets handed to an orchestrator…

Yeah having a realistic mockup was a huge asset. I think it’s an essential skill for a media composer.

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re the church, Peter Jackson bought it a few years ago… no one was really sure why… But a great advocate for local film scores convinced him that the acoustics were excellent for recording, and he was right! And other than a full orchestra that is where most film scores are recorded now…
Apart from the amazing space, of course its kitted out with incredible mics/preamps etc… Great space & great tech is a priviledge but the entire process of that project was an invaluable reminder of the power of lovely supportive creative humans. Despite me being totally outside my comfort zone, every person involved was a positive force.

Film is so weird, in the end you aren’t being asked to write ‘your music’ - you are being asked to write what the film most needs… Oh, plus there is an immovable deadline.
Sound design for me is quantifiable, music has never been. But since that project I have loved this quote by Leonard Bernstein:

“To achieve great things, two things are needed;
a plan, and not quite enough time.”

One last comment FWIW
“Traditionally” with film scores the musicians often have no idea what they are playing for. They play their parts to the best of their ability and its all good. The conductor will have a video feed with streamers so they can track tempo and hit points etc… But this does not wash with me, so after a conversation with the director I made a point of explaining the context for each cue, and showing them the scene/s from the film etc…
The film is itself quite bleak, a father (who it turns out was a wife beater) is confronted when his estranged daughter turns up at his house, pregnant and beaten… Seems odd to me, given the context of the profound moments in a film, that musical performances are often made without knowing the intent.

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Remembered one aspect of writing for choir that is worth commenting on… In hindsight it is obvious but the question is do you give the choir words to sing? My orchestrator asked me and while I did not want words per se, words and phrasing influence how people sing so after discussion we agreed upon an approach not using words, but ‘ooos’ and aaaahhs and similar influenced by Samoan language and its use of multiuple vowells (since the film is based in Samoan culture)

While writing I used a quite amazing UVI choir Voices of Prague which has a word building aspect ie enter text, and the assigned sections will sing your words!

https://www.virharmonic.com/voices_of_prague

So if you are considering writing for choir this is worth a read:

The Spitfire Eric Whiteacre choir wasnt released back then but for aleatoric it would have been incredibly useful too… Saving up for it…
https://www.spitfireaudio.com/shop/a-z/eric-whitacre-choir/

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thanks for sharing the music and process thoughts.

for my sins, i studied string performance and composition. hopefully it’s not out of line to offe ra couple tiny tips in addition to the really excellent points in the top post (all of which are really spot on.)

  • if you’re a guitar player, try to string and tune an instrument in fifths to get a feel for the intervalic relationships involved and where things sit under the hand. string players are just like guitar players in that they like to keep a static hand position when crossing strings. a 25-inch guitar is about equivalent to a 3/4 scale cello. (if you’re a guitar collector i can’t recommend the eastwood warren ellis tenor/baritone models enough, which are basically viola-guitars and cello-guitars…)

  • orchestration reference books can be really helpful. my favorite is probably anatomy of the orchestra by norman del mar. remarkably, it is actually fun to read, contains tons of specific score references and gives you a lot of context and color not just about absolute ranges, but what kind of character and fluidity you can expect in different parts of the range.

  • it might be easier to get a little one-on-one session with a string player, to go over parts / passages, than to get a rehearsal with a whole quartet or whatever. if you’re cool with it, invite the person to improvise a bit using your parts as a starting point, and record the sesssion. people are often happy to do this; it’s fun and can be super helpful early on in the writing process.

in fact i’m sure people on this forum (myself included) would be happy to look over parts or even do a skype session. sample libraries are great but can also be misleading because they make no distinction between comfortable and awkward figurations.

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Wanted to circle back on this conversation and post this video of the quartet recording the piece.

Took a little while to stitch together the video to the final music. The music has some modular synth and tape delay decorations which were recorded afterwards.

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