2015 retrospective

It's been a funny year, 2015. One with some incredible highlights, but also some of the saddest times I've experienced.  I'm just gonna talk about musical things here, but it's amazing how our personal journey can (and should) profoundly impact our work and output.

In June, I released my first soundtrack EP, And then, the mountains moved. This represented a big leap for me and an encouraging change of direction. Previously I'd been taking on a wide variety of music jobs without a huge amount of focus or agenda. At the start of 2015, I decided to intentionally focus on writing music for film, and knew that I needed to vastly improve my production technique and knowledge if I was to do so. ATTMM was the genesis of that process. I needed a project that would allow me to express the musical language I felt came most naturally to me, whilst also giving me a platform to develop my skills in music - specifically soundtrack - production. So from March to May I worked hard on investing any free time I had into writing and practising, until I had six tracks, but more importantly, the foundations of a new knowledge that I have continued to build.

Since June and the release of ATTMM, I've produced other singles which (I hope) demonstrate my continued growth as a composer and producer. I feel more efficient and more secure in my process, and every track I write feels more stable and more exciting in its context in my creative journey. Releasing roughly a new track every month, culminating the year with my Christmas release, Come and Behold (below).

As I look forward to 2016, I can hardly begin to imagine what's in store. At the start of this year, I would never have imagined half the things that ended up happening. Hopefully next year will be as exciting and rewarding as this, and I hope the same for any of you reading this too.

Thank you all for your support and encouragement, you have no idea how much it all means.

 

- JJO

Inspirations 2: Arvo Pärt

'Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication', said Leonardo Da Vinci. It's a sentiment that can perfectly be applied to the music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, one of the great post-minimalist composers of our time. 

With some of the articles in this Inspirations series, I'll look at artists where there are multiple facets of their work that inspire me, and with others I shall feature them in this series because there is a specific feature our quality in their work that I admire. With Pärt, the main thing that inspires me so about his music is the straightforward, essential sound that he is able to produce, and the gravitas and, indeed, sophistication, that come with that. 

In general, there is something I find very impressive about creatives and makers who are able to produce work that has integrity and elegance whilst having only the most elemental musical components to make it work. Pärt's work falls into this category. He writes music that is refreshingly unfussy, with no superfluities to hide behind. Live performance differs slightly from production in this way; I'm learning that in production, the devil really is in the detail, and so I try to make interesting background textures and non-linear or -looping elements. Equally, it's so important to remember that it's easy to over-write. Much of the detail in my work often needs to remain below the surface, where interest is added subtly. Pärt is a master of writing only what is completely necessary, and that is a confirmation that I must apply to my own work. With every element, every layer, every texture, I have to make myself decide whether I need it. 

Spiegel im Spiegel is one of Pärt's most famous works, and for good reason. The astonishingly simple piano line forms a framework upon which the violin melody can float. Much of Pärt's music fits within a similar aesthetic and somehow managed to occupy the delectable middle ground of being respected by music scholars whilst holding widespread appeal. I love how, in this piece, he creates such atmosphere and emotion from a few crotches and dotted minims, a piano and a violin. No pretence, no fluff. Just sound, and nothing unnecessary.

Next in this Inspirations series, I'm excited to be talking about a British band whose second album was the first album I ever owned, and their third album shaped a huge part of the way I thought and felt about music for a long time.

In the meantime, let's keep writing, keep practising, and keep inspired. Thanks for reading (if you've made it this far), please share this with friends if you've enjoyed what you've read, and hopefully I'll see you next time.

- JJO

Inspirations 1: Bethel Music

For me, the biggest drive to write music comes from the desire to make something that touches people's hearts, and is profoundly transformative to their lives and work. As a result, I write music that stirs something in me with the hope that it will do the same for others. What I'm going to begin here is a blog series discussing my inspirations, both musical and extramusical, partially to help me formalise my thoughts on this, but also because I think it might be interesting! 

I'd like to begin with Bethel Music. Lyrically, their music speaks to me on many levels, but it's more than their chosen subject matter that resonates with me; musically, their songs have drive, dramatic shape, and a strong emotional impetus, which combine together to produce a style that is deeply affecting.

I think part of what I love about Bethel is the amount of care that they pour into their output. It's clearly not just about creating fantastic music, but also about doing it well - with polish, in a way that people can immediately and easily enjoy and immerse themselves in. The scope and scale of their most recent videos display their desire to impress as well as output quality songs.

The production and engineering in their work is consistently excellent, too - this is an area where Christian music sadly often lags behind the mainstream - but Bethel are thankfully ahead of that curve.

I'm all too aware that my current musical output isn't particularly adventurous - my desire is no longer to be groundbreaking or avant garde - but this in itself presents a greater need for a focus on my own production in order that my music can achieve greatest impact and do itself justice. Bethel do this very well. They don't do anything particularly new musically but their finesse in production and focus on the detail allows their music to really hit home. It's a skill that I'm still learning and improving, but the more I write and practise my production, the more impact my music will have.

The way that they compress and mix their snare drums, frequently using two kits (often combining a snare hit with a tambourine hit) is one such example. The compression gives the snare a slightly punchier attack whilst having the effect of lengthening the duration of the snare hit itself. The addition of a tambourine in the mix also adds to this sensation of a reverberant snare. Although at times, they do add reverb to their snares to increase the epic sensation of a tune, their general tendency to inhabit such a sound-world gives any given album or collection a distinctive feel.

While attention to small detail is important, Bethel are also masters of larger compositional details like structure and pace. They aren't afraid to repeat a section in order to give the music more time to gradually build, and they know how to pace a specific track so that their songs peak at exactly the right time. These points are equally as important in a film music context as a worship music one; music must build gradually to hit the emotional peaks at exactly the right pace. Building sections mustn't rush or drag; finding the middle ground is crucial.

If you listen to my own track, And then, the mountains moved, you may notice a few of these points being applied. Most importantly for me in this track was getting the pacing right. It's rare that I'll start a track at such a dramatic level, but here it felt right to open with that epic string sound, with the deep, reverberating drums. I wanted to plunge the listener straight into a world where they could imagine a mountain shifting. Then, suddenly, this epic sound dissipates and we're left with a delicate piano. After the unrest and energy of the opening it comes as a pleasant tonic, and slowly begins to grow until, finally, everything slows down as the piece concludes.

Next in this Inspirations series, I'll be looking at an Estonian composer whose music has such elegant simplicity whilst retaining an emotional gravitas that demonstrates his skill and class.

In the meantime, let's keep writing, keep practising, and keep inspired. Thanks for reading (if you've made it this far), and hopefully I'll see you next time. 

- JJO

And then, the mountains moved EP

It's been a thrilling few months preparing for the launch of my debut EP, And then, the mountains moved, which is out in June. I don't think I've ever felt so excited about a project, and it's been great to have been able to give myself complete creative freedom: a luxury that is often scarce when it comes to freelance contracts.

I've tried to make the EP coherent as a whole piece of work, while giving each track a distinct sound and flavour. My aim with the whole project was to make a set of tracks that would have dramatic potential, with the primary focus on people using them for their short films, dance performances, or in live theatre. With this in mind I'm releasing the whole EP for free, under Creative Commons, for non-commercial, non-derivative use. I'm really excited to let the internet go wild with this and see what happens.

I've taken inspiration from so many different sources, from other contemporary soundtrack composers like Tony Anderson and Dexter Britain, to music from other styles like Bethel Music and Coldplay. I'd like to think that the music that I write bridges different styles (I don't think there are many artists that like being put in a box) and defies categorisation, but in reality there seems to me to be a clear thread running through all this music that comes out of me: it all has a dramatic or emotional impetus. My music longs for something else; it needs film or theatre or dance to help it make sense of itself.

I love writing music for a particular purpose; when I've had the chance to write scores for films or plays it's been an invigorating experience. This time that rush will arrive when you use it in your piece.