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”.

Every Journey Ends – The Nguyen Composes

And this is where we part…

1. Shall we enjoy this moment a while longer? May as well.

If you like this melancholic piece, you will also like my other pieces: The Starry Night: inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night painting, and What Remains: expressing the knowingly acceptance towards an ever changing world.

Welcome to The Sunrise Village | The Nguyen Composes

…After eleven days on horseback, a beautiful village by the sea appears. It’s usually well-hidden behind the East mountains. Somehow, this place is guarded from all the politics and power plays of the mainland. Children laughter can be heard from afar. Here, everyone knows each other. People rise up with the rhythm of the sun to go fishing or tend to their farms, wearing pleasant smiles. By night, they gather around the fire to play music and listen to elders’ stories…

If you like this piece, you may also like this one, cherishing the beauty of life.

Music and Storytelling – The Nguyen Composes

While listening to this short piece, picture a scene. Describe what’s happening in that scene using a sentence or two, then condense that into some emotions. Essentially looking inward to see how the music makes you feel.

I will elaborate below what was going through my head when I write this. But I don’t want to accidentally force my interpretation on you.

For me, this is the emotions of a mother. Her son had marched to the front line of a warfare for their country some springs ago. The war is now finally ending with their country securing triumphant victory. Her son, however, never comes back. How should the mother feel? Pride? Grief? Resentment? So what that her country has won a war? What shall become of her?

Of course, there can be many interpretations. When I show this piece to my friend, he says it would be perfect for the end of Infinity War, when Thanos has just snapped his finger and half the Avengers disappear. Hmm, I can see that. What was your interpretation?

In this particular piece, you may notice some changes in rhythm. But in contrary to just seeing what I can do this rhythm change experiment, I changed the rhythm here so it would sound exactly how I want it. Due to the strong emotion aspect integrated of it, it requires a lot of dramatic pauses, which is hard to notate on a evenly spacing rhythm system. Much of the emotion is conveyed through the pauses in between the notes. I would write it down on the sheet music then play it back, but something would sound off. I would shorten the duration of the note here, adding a silent there.

With that in mind, the sheet music and the “original” audio of this piece should be taken with a grain of salt. The performance should varies as the performer see fit to best express the emotion in communication.


Music is such a powerful tool in the communication toolkit. It conveys, it incites rich emotions that can only be described by paragraphs of words at times. The question is, how can we make the best use of this tool?

Expectation – The Nguyen Composes

The world can be demanding. Different people expect different things from us. It’s easy to get sucked in the black hole of trying to please everyone.

Remind ourselves often: We owe nobody but ourselves a fulfilling life. Only our own expectations are the ones worth pursuing.

Piano version

Easier said than done. Sometimes it’s hard.

Persist anyway! Everything is fine. Everything will be fine.

Choral Style

One Self-Employed Week – A Curious Reflection

I’m currently working at a 9-5. I don’t hate it, as it provides me with the money to pay for the roof on my head, food in my stomach, and pay for all my studying as well as hobbies. But I don’t love it either. It’s takes a lot of time out of doing what I love: learning music, telling meaningful stories, learning, reading, and writing. In essence, it reduces my time dedicated to creating things that matter to me, things that I want to see more of in this world. Here’s a Paul Graham essay explaining more on how working in a big company is not ideal to create wealth.

7/4 took place last week in the U.S., so I had Thursday and Friday off. I took the first 3 days of the week off as well. Thus, I have a whole week for myself. The goal: To see whether I will be motivated enough while being self-employed; when there is no concrete consequence for slacking off, when there is always dread of self-doubt constantly looming.

I have been motivated enough to keep myself occupy with learning music, reading, and writing during the 2-day weekends, the logical next step is to test this for a week. If this works well, I will set out a time to experiment this for a month, then gradually expand this time. If this doesn’t work out, I would reflect long and hard to figure out why and try to compensate for those problems.

Enough background, let’s dig in! So hold on to your seat/beer/popcorn/mama’s skirt, ‘cause this is a brutally honest excerpt from the journey of a guy pusing for the life he wants.

***

Monday 7/1: Captivated

I woke up exactly on the time that I set for myself, 5am. I mediated in the dawn of morning when there is no distraction, wrote for my blog. I commute to my company since there is several music rooms with pianos there. They also have food throughout the day so I wouldn’t have to worry about that and put all of my mental energy into creative tasks.

I put in 4 hours of studying music theory and composing music, 1 hour of writing, 2 hours dedicated to gathering books and reading. Off to a great start! That’s almost an 8 hour day of work. On top of that I went to an improv acting class at the end of the day. It’s like the creative juice is flowing inside my for the whole day. I felt great! I’m hopeful about the career path that I set out for myself

Tuesday 7/2: Pride

4 hours of composing music with the piano, 2 hours of composing music digitally, 1.75 hours doing music theory assignments, 1.5 hours of writing, 1.25 hours of learning to play a new song on the piano. It was surreal to account for all these hours at the end of the day. A 10.5-hour work day.

I woke up at 5am again, mediated to clear my head for another exciting day. I wrote for my blog, squeezed in some reading during my commute. On this day, I composed Staccato Blues, which I’m proud of. It can’t get much better than that! And spoiler: it doesn’t get better than that throughout the week.

Wednesday 7/3: Overconfident

I had to take care of some paperwork for my apartment that morning. The leasing office won’t open until 9am. Ok! I could do some work from 5am to 9am, then commute to the music room afterward. Or… Since I cannot achieve my peak performance while at home anyway, why not sleep in until 9am? I had 2 productive days before, I deserve this, right? I did the later. Hindsight 10/10: Not good. I felt a bit off throughout the day.

After I arrived at the music room, I mess around with the digital version of Staccato Blues. I added some other instruments and expanded the song. That was something. But it certainly wasn’t the most productive task I could had taken on. It was more on the side of I’m comfortable with what I had created, and procrastinated on creating newer stuff. Later that day, I visited my friend’s place for a dinner gathering. We hung out until 1am. My usual bed time is 10pm at the latest. I slept at my friend’s place

Thursday 7/4: Paranoia

I forced myself to wake up at 8am. Didn’t feel that great. Tried open my laptop. It’s dead. Plug the power cord in. It decided to stay dead. Something is wrong with the start-up sequence. I wrote a blog post on my phone instead to keep up with the pace of the day I set for myself. That’s the best thing I could accomplish without my laptop, though. I cannot compose music while around people. I cannot focus. And it’s odd to do something on my own while others are doing something together. So I watched an Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown episode with friends and fell asleep afterward. Then, we had a July 4th BBQ until 4pm. It was fun, but guilty fun for me at the cost of my week plan.

While I treasure my relationship with this friend group, I could have done a better job myself to keep and communicate my boundaries. In the context of last week, the night of Wednesday 7/3 was probably enough, but the day of Thursday 7/4 didn’t align with what I intended to do. I wanted to do something, but didn’t because of social pressure. This is certainly not my friends’s fault as they couldn’t have known.

I did some reading from 4pm-6pm and went to the SF Symphony Concert at Amphitheater. That was salvation of my productivity. I enjoyed listening to the symphony, indulged myself in music, and once in a while, pick up some technique on composing good music.

10pm, after the concert, since the music room of my company is nearby the theater, and since I felt bad about my productivity during the day, I decided to sleep in the music room. “This way, I could get right to music 5am in the morning”, I thought. Biggest mistake of my week.

Friday 7/5: Defeated

I woke up one time at 3am due to the cold. I moved to a different room and slept in another uncomfortable position near a warm part of the room. I started to doubt my decision of staying there instead of going home. At this point, I just wish I could sleep away the uncomfort.

My phone alarm rings at 5. I tried to move to the piano. I can’t. I kept sleeping until 7. The fear of embarrassing myself when someone walks in in the morning forces myself up. I alternated between composing and sleeping on the piano. It went on until 12pm. It was a miracle that I composed What Remains during that time.

I knew I need some fresh air to press the restart button. Grabbed some Chipotle and meditated outside in the sun for about 30 minutes. I went home afterward. I felt exhausted and disappointed with my result of the week.

In hindsight, I shouldn’t be. I composed many tunes and two complete ones digitally during a 5-day week. That’s more than what I ever accomplished before in such time. I was beating myself up simply because I didn’t live up to the even higher standard I set for myself.

Back to the story. Because I felt exhausted and disappointed, I sought out mindless comics, videos, and porns to ease my mind. That “short break” turns into an all-nighter.

Saturday 7/6: Embrace

I went to bed at 5am and woke up at 1pm. Just then, I found out that my laptop has been hacked in. Remember I couldn’t access my laptop on Thursday? I spent 2 hours calling my bank to reverse some transactions, change account passwords, and reset my laptop.

I reflected on my week a bit and realized I have been too harsh on myself. Many of the time-wasting activities, or activities that lead to time-wasting are the result of me beating myself up and feeling bad about myself. I reminded myself that I need to treat myself kindly and wrote a blog on that topic.

A restart button is due. I watched some videos on music making on Youtube for the rest of the day (hey, hey, this break is justified!). I got some inspiration from a quality video on music composing. Then, I went to bed on time.

Sunday 7/7: Hope

Back to waking up at 5. It’s not magic, just requires us to sleep at the right time the night before. Which is easier said than done, as already seen from my week. I did some minimalism clean-up of my physical belongings since it doesn’t interfere with thinking and reflecting. Plus, cleaning our environment has the effect of clearing our minds as well. At the very least, everything is back in its place, causing no confusion for the next use. I needed that, as a way to signal my unconcious brain that it is a real reset this time.

I took some time to go to the gym and listen to Tim Ferriss’s podcast latest episode with Seth Godin, which is incidentally on the same topic of how to set our priorities in life straight. Right on!

I went out to eat at a comfort Mexican food place, to sit and watch the nature and people for a long time. I reminded myself: everything is fine, and everything will be fine, no matter what. Do our best and don’t beat ourselves up if we can’t reach some set goal. Measure ourselves to our selves yesterday instead. I sat down at the apartment complex’s piano in the main building and went through all the tunes I created, both on paper and online and realized there are quite a number of them. I’m amazed how lopsided my thinking were in the second half of the week.

I ended the day by watching the first half of 2001: A Space Odyssey. So far, I’m seeing the wonderful use of music with visual. At the scene of the weird object, eerie music is played, at the spaceships: as I interpreted as the tools that human created, the waltz song is played, signaling how they work seamlessly, conveying our pride toward the achievements. If we subvert the music choice of the two scene, it weird object wouldn’t be perceived as scary but a fun mystery instead, and the empty space is now suddenly become a place of danger, where an enemy or disaster could happen at any second. The music choice, of course, could varies beyond those two themes. The repeat of the opening theme signaling discovery of the tool (bone).

I am inspired to create again.

***

What a roller coaster of emotion throughout that week. What did I learn, then?

Don’t be too harsh on myself, since it usually leads to paranoia and questionable decisions, rather than a sound solution. The detrimental inner self critiques should be heard and respond to with a calm attitude, not with extreme emotion. Notice how I don’t plan to shut that voice down for good, since it is still coming from a reasonable ground: trying to keep me on track. It is the volume of that voice that should be tuned accordingly.

Constant work doesn’t necessarily means productive work, especially in a creative setting. I need to take a change of scenery more, take a walk, take a bike ride, go to the gym and let my mind rests. It really freshens my mind. Watching other artists’ works is a great way to take a break and gear-up mentally.

Priorities in life need to be ranked clearly. I should communicate personal desire/preference/goal to friends better. If I need to depart after a certain time because of other plans, I should say so instead of letting the social pressure consumes me. This is important since I will have to clock in extra time during the first few years of starting a music career.

The road to a self-employed music career will take more trials and errors, but is possible for me. I’m able to create and motivate myself to create.

And a minor note that applies to me, personally, more:

When food is not readily available from the company cafeteria, my frugality and laziness kicks in. I didn’t want to leave the piano and spend money on food. I’m even too lazy to walk downstairs to grab some water. Or we can go with this version of the story: I’m too in love with making music that I don’t even want to go anywhere else *pat pat in the back*. Nonetheless, the lack of food and water doesn’t have immediate effect, but drops my energy level drastically over several hours. I was wrongly attributing this lack of energy purely to lack of sleep and dropped down sleeping, which didn’t help.

More!

I’m ready for more!