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”.

Two-Week Self-Employment Trial | A Curious Reflection

Continuing with the music career experimentation series, I tried to work on my own for 2 weeks this time.

“A self-employment trial?”, you may ask.

Yes. We try a trial before we buy a software, before we register for a class. Why not a trial to a much bigger life decision, like, a career choice perhaps? I like music. I want to do more music. But do I really want a music career? A career shift is certainly intimidating, so I want to make sure that: 1. I can endure it, 2. I will be content with my decision.

Good things is I’ve been dutifully writing journal everyday, so I can look back into my notes with details of the ups and downs between those two weeks. I use Daylio app, by the way, great app! It pops a reminder for me to write a journal entry everyday and rate my current mood. It’s mind-boggling how writing can help clarifying out thoughts. I’ve been having a better sense of what activities I enjoyed and vice versa after I write more! Mentioned similar thing back in the July reflection.


Sat 11/2, Sun 11/3: Organize priorities. Meditate and think about what I want for my career. Organize computer. Think about platforms to upload music. Decided to create a YouTube channel since that platform support easier navigation between songs. The blog will focus more on philosophy of life and music discussion.

Mon 11/4, Tue 11/5: High-performance. Write a lot of music, do MCG work. (even with different timbre, if the melody is not the top voice, and the top voice (not melody) is also moving, actual melody will sound muddy). Noted that I accidentally paid for something but stay calm, learn, and move on.

Composed Clash of the Clans and a short jazz-influenced piece.

Wed 11/6: Exhausted from composing, so read book and watch cowboy bebop, jazz jam at night. Thought of balancing between working alone and working with others in music (ie: film) Learn that if I improvise random things, I will soon run out of ideas, but if I stick to an idea and gradually develop it, I have more material to go on.

Thurs 11/7, Fri 11/8: try singing, practice for an audition. Realize that there is so much to singing that I have yet to master. Followed through with going to the audition even though I tried to chicken out at the last minute. Confronted my fear. Even I suck, nothing happens.

Composed a meditative music piece inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night.

Sat 11/9: Give myself time to relax after one week, watch a movie, do some low-key tutorials of a Ableton.

Finish composing Dante The Doubtful Detective.

Sun 11/10: Workout, try Tai Chi Chuan, decide to try Brazilian jujitsu. Decided to stop going to beginner band practices. Actively think about priorities in life and things to say yes or no to.

Mon 11/11: Frustration from thinking I’m not able to write music after sitting for quite some time in front of a jazz-influenced piece. Took a break to walk and got out of the negative mindset. I’m not good yet, but I can train to be better. Realize that I will face this in more ways and different forms in the future if I follow this career. So beside the ups, I start to catch glimpse of downs in a self-starting career.

Tue 11/12: Jot down idea for a longer music piece. Tried Brazilian jujitsu. Experienced chicken-out effect at the last minute again but pushed through and happy that I tried it.

Wed 11/13, Thu 11/14: Balance doing work on my own and go to places to hang out with other musicians. Went to SVL open mic on Wednesday and SFO and jam on Thursday. Realize that there could be different groups and activities to join for different purpose and different level of commitment as well as skill, I should choose to spend my time wisely, not just go to any meeting. Realize also that I have the tendency of sleeping ever so slightly but progressively later during the day if not monitored tightly. Some people recognizes me from performing at the open mics in both SVL and SFO, probably because I pour my heart into the performance and do something unique of my own. Should apply this philosophy to any type of content creation if I want to be a distinguishable artist among others. Solid time of being in the music community.

Finished composing Something Romantic, Something Ruined.

Fri 11/15: Should prioritize time of what I do and who to hang out with. Out of politeness yes or fun. Should practice politely decline.

Finished revising Dawn with A Crescent Moon.

Sat 11/16, Sun 11/17: Organize things and focus on the business side of music. Adding videos to my old musics and upload them to YouTube to potentially reach more people. Workout. Read. Doodle some music. Find out about music workflow, administrative stuff.


The goods:

I have learned from the last time and be more content with myself for reaching my exhaustion limit and not able to produce constantly. This is a marathon, not a sprint, so it’s important to take time to relax and do other things, take care of myself. Music is a communication device, so while learning music theory is necessary since I’m still a novice in music, but having a story to tell with music is essential, so get a life, do other things we enjoy as well.

I realize the importance of balancing between music craft and music business. If I want to work in the music industry and make a living, being skillful is good, but not enough. I need to be recognized as a skillful individual as well. That brings in exposure with the music communities. Beside, I need to hang out with people and do projects with other people as well since working in isolation is not healthy in the long run.

The bad:

I realize the self-destructing tendency to doubt myself along the way. When we are doing something with an unclear path. There will be times when we question ourselves at a profound level, is it worth it at all, is this all a joke. I will need strategy to deal with those times. We think and feel differently under those times, which can lead to outragous decisions, so it’s best to plan ahead.

I need to plan ahead which tasks to do at which time of the day. Between the areas of music that I need to learn (composition, ear training, playing piano, singing), music business, reading, writing, general self-improvement, I cannot let instant gratification decides which one to focus on at the moment. Building a routine habit is the best way to make sure I tackle everything with enough time intended.

The mixed-bags: How to prioritize my time

There was some good highlight from the week where I spent much needed time on organizing things, administrative tasks of maintaining my blog, my YouTube channel, and the MCG. These tasks can be mildly uncomfortable and seems like wasting time at times, but this is important to pave the way for creative times.

I took the time to try out some nice new activities, give me different perspective on what else is going around outside of my esoteric world (voice audition, jazz jam, Tai Chi Chuan, Brazilian jujitsu), choose what to continue (I’m sticking with jazz jam and Tai Chi Chuan for now), what to discontinue (beginner band, “polite yes”). These should be planned ahead more and stick to the plan.

The up-lifting:

Still not beaten (Telltale’s The Walking Dead reference anyone?). I’m currently back to my 9-5, but this trial has been informative. And I plan to continue pursuing this career path, which may include some more extended trial periods.

Dawn with A Crescent Moon | The Nguyen Composes

This is a short piece inspired by this beautiful morning sight at 6:30am.

Since I didn’t write this piece in a notation software (I used GarageBand instead), the following sheet is just an outline of melody and harmony for analysis purpose.

If you like this piece, you will also enjoy The Starry Night, aother meditative piece inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night painting.


My composition process for this piece:

I intended for the bass going back and forth with string pizzicato to bring a rhythmic, routine, somewhat hustling feel to the night time. The melody dabbles briefly to Dorian but back to Minor at the end of each phrase so maybe that’s where the folkiness comes from. I want it to represent the beautiful scenery that is always there, longing to be appreciated, but neglected nonetheless by the busy and hustling lifestyle of the night. Maybe the pensive sadness is also inspired by the downward crescent moon like an eye looking down with eyelid almost closing.

But then all of that is washed away by the sun (soon to be) rising at the end, inspired by that bit of pink sky above the trees. I want the sun rising to cast some overwhelming brightness to the piece, thus the Picardy third shifting modes from Dorian/Minor to Major, and the crescendo sustained strings. Hm, maybe I should even increase the volume there a little.

Something Romantic, Something Ruined | The Nguyen Composes

Two people long for, yearn for the magical spark from the beginning. Where did it go?

If you like this piece, you will also enjoy my other melancholic piece Every Journey Ends.


My composing process:

I wrote the slow waltz part at the beginning first and feel that it exudes strong yearning. So I decide to explore that emotion more. The middle part is intended to be the part where the music explores what is being yearned for. It serves as the happier cousin of the beginning, where the harmony stays the same for the most part, repeated, with a cloud on its feet, and spiccato string to provides the dancy feel. The middle part progressively gets happier until it suddenly all come crashing down again at the chromatic whole tone scale climb and fall back down.

I could wrap the piece up here by restating the opening, but I want to add a bow on top of this story. I modulate this piece to its relative major, playing a similar melody to the beginning in the same tempo. Although a major scale usually sounds bright, in this context, it highten the difference with its surrounding, always make me shake my head in sorrow because it’s just too beautiful. After the brief moment of crying out in major, the piece goes back to the original melody and harmony in minor key to conclude the yearning journey, disappointedly that through all that longing, all that imiginary happiness, and crying out for something, anything out there for help, nothing changes. Perhaps, it’s too late.


Note on the romanticism of the piece:

I chose the picture of a couple for this piece since I think it is the concept most often associated with the yearning feeling. But this piece doesn’t necessarily need to apply to romance between two persons. The core feeling of the piece can be applied to romance with an idea, with a concept. The original thing I thought of for this piece is dreaming of a wealthy life, or dreaming of being happy, just to realize that it wasn’t real.

Music connects directly with our feelings while words have to go describe can never describe the precise feeling. Just like I can never use words to explain to you the exact experience of getting punched in the face (not that I did experience it, just close), I can never use words to explain to you the exact experience of listening to a piece of music. It evokes something different for each and everyone, either due to nature, or nurture. So experience music, specifically, and art, generally, for what it is. It doesn’t matter if our interpretations of art differs from the majority’s.