Ballad of The Troubled Souls | The Nguyen Composes

My Composition Process:

It’s the first time that I attempt to compose a long(er) piece. I aimed for 10 minutes but ended up cutting it down for the sake of a coherent story arc, and because keeping interest for a long period of time is hard. Well, that took 3 weeks to write.

I drew some of the ideas from the sea that is Cowboy Bebop OST. In fact, there were so much materials to choose from that I didn’t know which to choose from. At the end, I decided to finish up this project as it is, and keep the more upbeat fast jazz and the blues for some other projects.

This is truly an endurance test. Since music is repetition of ideas, as soon as I introduce something new in one part of the song, I have to go through everything to make sure that fits in well, and potentially introduce some similar ideas at different places. This gets compounded quickly as the piece grows longer and longer, to the point that I’m afraid to add new ideas, because know I would need to listen through the whole piece ten more times just to make sure it fits in well.

This also runs the risk of getting used to listening to something. When I got used to it, other ideas are much inferior compared to it.

Artistic Decisions:

In this piece, the different melodic instruments and their respective motives represent the different characters of Cowboy Bebop. Saxophone: Spike, Trombone: Jet, Glockenspiel: Ein, Clarinet: Faye, Trumpet: Ed. They shows up in the order that the characters are introduced in the show.

The saxophone, trombone, and clarinet motives are introduced in three different keys: C, E, and Ab, then concludes in the same key. If you are a music theory nerd like me, you may realize that C, E, and Ab are the three keys that are furthest away possible in the circle of 5ths. And while saxophone, trombone, and clarinet lines bring a certain degree of somberness, the glockenspiel and trumpet lines are more playful.

The opening saxophone line is a reference to Spokey Dokey, the music that plays when the tv series first introduce us to Spike and Jet. In my piece, I call this the “weight” motif. This motif is played exclusively by the saxophone, accompanying by bell-sounding organ as a reference to Rain, the music that played in Episode/Session 5: Ballad of Fallen Angel. Apart from the opening, whenever this motif appears, it interrupts the intricate dynamics of all other instruments. This “weight” motif, at later iterations, is immediately responded to by the unison/octave motif by all the instruments, signifying their together-ness.

Other motives are first introduced by their respective instruments, but then played interchangeably as the story progresses and instruments come together. I intended this to represent the characters starting to understand other’s past and pain.

Some other musical Easter Eggs were thrown randomly in the piece at various points. The Glockenspiel plays the opening bass line from Tank! at measure 56. The trombone plays the melodic line of The Real Folk Blues at measure 125, conveniently near the end of the piece. The bridge with growing ambiance sound and far-away saxophone calls back to Space Lion. The trumpet plays a varied melodic line from Cats On Mars at measure 83, because it’s the most Ed thing ever (and I can’t help it). I also paid particular attention to the bongo sound to replicate the feel of Tank!, among many other pieces with bongos in Cowboy Bebop OST.

I thought of composing a more upbeat section to expand on the individual motives with similar feeling to Tank!. But since I was quite fatigued with the piece at that point, I decided to save that for future compositions.

What I Learned:

The mixing process takes up a huge chunk of time for this project. Since there are many instruments, along with drums, I had to make sure that their dynamics (loudness) fits well together.

The bass part was introduced last as I feel the lower sounding part of the mix is missing. The bass notes were originally played by the piano, but the timbre it provides isn’t low enough to support the bass part repeatedly for such a long piece. Furthermore, the repeated hammering piano sound on beat 1 gets tiresome quickly.

I thought I knew about mixing before, with the basic control of loudness and panning. But now I realize timbre and frequencies serve as important factors to a balanced mix as well. I should analyze professional mixes of good songs.

I also start to see the limit of a notation software. I wanted to bend some notes for the bluesy feel. For example, I wanted the first saxophone note to be slightly lower, then bend up to E. But the notation software I’m using, MuseScore, doesn’t have that option. I would either have to record a real instrument or buy expensive sound libraries along with a professional audio software (or DAW), to use it.

There were a lot of clumsiness from my part when it comes to varying the harmony to keep audience’s interest as the piece gets longer. For future projects, I think I will keep working on shorter pieces to hone my skill on specific areas. Though I can still put in my back pocket “composing a piece that is twice the length of a normal radio song, and is acceptable to my own ear”.

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