Composers Thoughts on Craft Series- On Instrumentation

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Welcome to the fifth in the Composers Thoughts on Craft Series – On Instrumentation. We began the series with On Melody then we looked at On Harmony, On Rhythm and On Form. Please follow the links below to read those articles and for those in my exclusive email subscriber list, follow the links to the You-tube private videos embedded within the email.


After a period of frustrating inactivity, we get back to working on and writing the album. I was unwell for a while with a hospital sojourn due to a bad infection and life also brought me a man whom has also been consuming my time, as well as doing some training and work etc. I apologise for not having committed to my timescale of a blog every two weeks. It has been months since I wrote music, but we only have two tracks to go with the music.

I sit to listen to the album tracks in order with a fresh ear, to hear what nears completion and what needs more work. Most tracks have reached relative completion with only a few remaining, yet to be written. So far we have

The Call of Oma (complete accept voice)

Universal Ocean (complete accept voice)

Journeys through the timeline (pending re recording of voice)

Mitochondrial d.n.a (nearly complete and re do voice)

Come Back (pending voice recording)

The Age Before includes Look to the Heavens song ( re recording of voice and hand drum)

Only Stories Remained ( to write)

I Am (Song of the Earth) (complete)

Foundation and Summons (yet to begin and unify the whole, bringing it back to where it began thematically and aesthetically with motifs and instrumentation and the summons.

I am reinvigorated after listening to what will be a feature singleCome Back’– well it’s not a single in the typical 4 minute sense but a feature track of equal beauty to ‘I am (Song of the Earth). You can hear little sneak peaks of the songs in progress on my Instagram so pop over there and follow me. I usually share them to my facebook wall as well, for those in my circle but sometimes forget. Come Back will also have a lovely oceanic film clip, I see it in part but know not the final form yet, it embodies a deep melancholic call  from the World Soul, to essential knowing. I would love to work with my dear friend Maria again, but may have to get help as she is temporarily unavailable. I want to find some rugged coastline and I want to film in winter. But winter is now and I am not ready due to losing a couple of months. Oma will sing this time to camera. That is all I will say for now.


The instrumentation for the album is from a pre- arranged palette, the first time I have ever done this and used one track as a template for each song, namely I Am Song of the Earth. There are points of difference and specific featured instruments/ timbres, but mostly for the album they are set for continuity of sound, levels and so forth. Much is to be done yet when the composing is finished, the voice needs re recording and I can finesse the mixes and production or studio craft elements that I love to play with like panning, automation & effects and add other unique little spontaneous bits.

As I listen now, I talk specifically about the album and not academically. I will also talk philosophically and share my thoughts on the topic at a deeper level.

The Age before– is a track from the middle of the album, a track that features monologue about forgotten histories and features the following instrumentation.

String section 1 and string section copy, Thor (Reason synthesizer) a bass section, bass timpani drum, lead piano, pizzicato strings and other strings, antennae and astral sound effect timbres, voice, double bass and strings, and it may have more to augment it. That is 13 distinct instruments and timbres, some related that cover similar parts of the frequency spectrum. I am feeling more additional instrumentation will feature on this track. I will also be recording live drums for the Look to the Heavens prophecy song which is within this tracks monologue. There are no brass elements or wind so one could say it is more string symphony in nature. Most of the tracks feature similar palettes but also samples of soundscape elements to add to sense of place, something I love to create and emulate. Sound is very good at creating space and studies suggest people can mentally perceive and recreate in sketch form just from sound recordings, the place where a recording was done, detailing  the atmospheric components and the environmental contours of place.

The aesthetic idea of the album as a whole is electro orchestral. What does this mean? It means that instrument choices and production methods hope to emulate orchestral sounds and effect in some way. Obviously, I am limited to using samples but I still believe it can be done to a satisfactory level. Of course, one can never replace an orchestra, but us wee folk can at least dream of one at our command and arrange our music to portray this dream.  I wish I had the luxury of a Kontakt player and the high-end Project Sam samples that I have researched. I do have a Reason Project Sam plug in, but for some reason I have experienced troubles with it, the levels always distort on it and I have not been able to figure out why. It features sparingly, though that may change, I am pushing cpu with huge racks in the project.

Some instruments and voices/ timbres feature more strongly on some tracks. With such choices it is a case of what will give prominence to the part, which part of the frequency spectrum, and what the improvisation that becomes that the track reveals. At some times in is specific piano, or strong parts or other timbres that lead the way.  Some instruments are like riding cumulonimbus clouds, others oceanic swells and tidal eddies, others are like the mighty hammer of Thor contending with ancient forgotten gods, over the fate of the human realm.

The album is meant to capture the pure elemental energy of the earth in some small way, a task no mortal is up to for sure, yet this same essence compels me to try to speak for the larger theme of the work; which is ‘life on earth and its fragility, the state of impermanence and sanctity in the face of the sixth great extinction’, I present the idea of a previous era of human civilisation  and subsequent mass loss of life and human memory, through a type of musical mythology tour guide role. Ambitious I know, blame the muses.

Each instrument has an essential character and role in the composition. I would love it to be purely orchestral, like a symphony orchestra, (that has been a fantasy since 1997 when the idea was first planted in my head), but I was oblivious to what it truly meant to write music of this level. I wrote songs on guitar back then and had just gotten a synthesizer. I still have it, my Roland D 10. Though I was able to formalise and learn music theory as a mature age student it does not come easy and I can only read rudimentary stuff. I certainly cannot pick up a piece of music and just play it. None the less the idea of arranging and the whole team approach of a large ensemble like an orchestra is a wonderous idea. It is not only the west that has had orchestras. The ancient Chinese also used to have very large ensembles.

I would love to be able to study more and broaden my understanding of orchestras. I wish that composition software was able to be integrated with third party production software like Reason or Ableton so one could easily transfer the real time played midi data over and arrange it. I know one can export the midi files but I have still not done that. I learnt some Sibelius but do not have a working copy. I would have to recreate the parts played on analogue instruments such as guitar and bass. There is always so much to do, time is a luxury and composition a passion that I seem to be having to steal time for lately, or else avoid distracting myself with many other things. But all roads come back to Rome, the ideas flow in like an armada into the harbour of my mind and creative spirit, for it then to do its alchemy.

Back to instrumentation. I like to think of its use on multiple levels. I like to create cascading and weaving effects much like water flowing over rocks in a waterfall that conditions the sounds of its presence. I think if any of the great historical composers of the past were alive today they would employ the full gamut of classical, traditional and electronic instruments and choices and use all production methods in expressing their ideas. We have everything available to us now at the touch of a button, regardless of the debate of analogue versus electronic and whether the electronic removes the soul of music or our humanity. It is all in the hands of the creator and their level of consciousness, is my prime assertion. One can explore instrumentation in relation to psychoacoustics, music affect and many other areas such as aesthetic choice and frequency content. We can explore ‘the what’ that can be expressed by instrumentation and ‘the how’ that it is voiced. We can explore the capacity to express dynamics through different aspects of touch. We can explore the spatial dynamics instruments occupy and create in space.

We have to go beyond formal rules of what can be used as instrumentation and incorporate the electronic and synthesis domains within our conceptualisation of what constitutes instrumentation and voice. Great pioneers have done just that since the early twentieth century. The Oxford Music dictionary lists instrumentation as “writing of music for particular instruments, especially referring to a composer’s knowledge of what is practicable on various instruments. Also what is used in sense of orchestration” (Kennedy 1996, p. 359). And sound generating thing can be sampled and used as an instrumental timbre base that all electronic musicians know well. Than tec magic can build it up into us dreamt of alien sounds. The Oxford dictionary states “ the present tendency is to use computers in association with synthesizers  as a memory bank capable  or producing any required sounds, memorizing a composers  sequence of events  and playing the finished work whenever required” (Kennedy 1996, p. 155). So succinct, true and scientific.

With production we can express the idea of spatial arrangement of instruments in much the same way that an orchestra of players might sit. I learned a lot about spatial placement and ideas from David Gibson’s book The Art of Mixing (Gibson 2008) and explored a lot relating to psychoacoustics and music affect in my honours year at Uni. Well my obsession with sound began in the 1990’s but has its resonant roots in my early childhood listening, conditioning and experiencing of the world.

Philosophically speaking, instrumentation is like one of the earths eco systems, full of diverse life forms each with their own voice and place, each related to the other in the one ‘symphony of life’. I have found a great affinity with Daoist poets and philosophers who share a very similar view and describe relation in much the same terms as myself. Daoist affinities were part of the foundation for the play ‘By The Mandate of Heaven’ that gave birth to ‘I Am Song of the Earth’. This was created as part of the support for Australia’s first Rights of Nature conference in Brisbane Australia in October 2016. You can read more about that in my blog archives of 2016 and 2017.

So for fans, supporters and fellow musicians I hope this has 1) given you an insight into my thinking and process and 2) made you think about instrumentation in a slightly different way. Maybe I can assist you to open up an area of inquiry that will benefit your work. I am always available for public speaking or consultation should anyone wish to explore that option!  For those on my mailing list look out for the next video with the next blog which will be On Timbre. Then into the future we have  On Space (I will go slightly retrospective  with this one into back catalogue, space is a great love), On History, On Inspiration, On Improvisation and more. I know many of these areas have been crossing over, I just hope there is sufficient focus in my contemplative writing to satisfy the ‘On…..’ topic aspect of the blog.

Much love – in resonance – I am a struck gong- Catherine

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Gibson, D 2008, The Art of Mixing- A Visual Guide To Recording Engineering and Production, 2nd edn, Course Technology, Boston, MA.

Kennedy, M 1996, Oxford Concise Dictionary of Music, 4th edn, Oxford University Press, New York.


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