Welcome to my next little tutorial. Due to the many questions I received concering my short orchestral action piece “The Last Survivor”, I decided to share a little insight into this little track.
This track has the only purpose to fill up my showreel with a few action styles but had the limitation of not being much longer than 90 seconds. So I decided to go for a somewhat “Suite”-like appraoch, trying to fit in as many styles in there as possible. The result is a pretty “active” piece with lots of small parts which of course is not ideal for such a piece but it was a deliberate decision I made to make the most effective use of the time I had.
You can have a listen to the whole piece here:
The scoresheet as pdf is available here.
Generally the piece can be subdivided into seven parts.
These 4 opening bars are based on the third mode of the melodic minor scale of F (also called lydian-augmented), giving me the chord tones of an Ab+(maj7) chord. I chose this mode/chord because it has that outerspace kind of feel with the augmented 5 and give the composition an interesting yet not too unfamiliar opening.
To make the mode clear right from the beginning (and to not confuse it with any other possible mode of melodic minor) I enter with a clear Ab+(maj7) chord in the horns. The augmented fifth makes this harmonic situation very unstable so it is very much needed to make it as clear as possible by composition and orchestration. Bar 5 continues in G melodic minor so the opening is a minor second above the target key giving it the impression of a kind of tritone substituted dominant fucntion for it making the entrance into the “actual” piece even more musically logical.
Rhythmically this opening relies on very active woodwind writing and subjectively accelerating brass chords (see trumpets in bar 1-2) starting off with 3 regular quarter notes, giving an accelerated feel with the following 3 triplet-quarters so it evokes the feeling of gaining speed for the “actual piece” which starts in bar 5. Low downgoing arpeggios of the Ab+(maj7) chord start in bar 3, which kind of stepwise establish the till then unnused low register, resulting in a full range chord in bar 4, preparing for bar 5.
I deliberately leave out any sustained bass instrument in the opening until close to the next part, to even make that feeling of incompletenes, “breathing in” for the actual start, bigger and to make that entrance as logical and “needed” as possible in bar 5. By assigning very active figures to the woodwinds (in the scale of Ab+(maj7)), I create a very dense texture, with lots of colours that pop up every now and then. The woodwind runs are 7-tuplets in order to fill one octave with all scale tones in one run. They start on chord tones to not lose the tonal and modal gravity point.
The sustained brass chords as well as the sustained excitedly tremoloing high strings still give the necessary tonal fundament to make this lots of movement in the woodwinds comprehendable. In bar 2 I added a percussive short “bass” hit in the low strings (playing the very percussive snap pizzicato) and short trombone accents to prepare for the downgoing and intensifying bass intruments entrance in bar 3 and 4. These arpeggios are scored with growing intensinty towards their final chord in bar 4. First entering high trombones and celli, “arpeggiating” downwards and being taken over by low brass, basses, timpani and gran cassa, always doubled in low woodwinds for more “fatness”. This results in a very intense movement leading nicely to its goal.
Bar 5 – 11
The first actual part of this piece switches to 5/4-time, subdivided into 2+3 quarter notes (see cellos and basses – writing a plausible subdivision of irregular meters into the score sheet is quite important especially for conducting and reading purposes, you should also adjust the beaming of groups accrodingly, more on this in the next tutorial). However the main rhythm relies on heavily accenting count 1 of each bar. To not let this principle get too static, I decided to switch to 5/4 for these few bars, as well as to not make it feel too expectable. The rhythmic fundament is built out of these accents as well as a triplet-eighth-note grid which is established by the string section.
Harmonically it sets a Gm(maj7) chord, again relying on the scale of melodic minor on G. This accompanying fundament remains pretty static, giving the pulse as well as the harmonic frame for this section. Bar 7 enters a trumpet theme, relying mainly on the triplet rhythm as well as emphasizing characteristic notes (E and Gb) of the G melodic minor scale. Bar 10 and 11 prepare for the new part starting at 12, switching to a D pedal point (dominant to G) with brass chords establishing a harmonic rhythm of quarter notes. The resulting chords starting at count 2 of bar 10 are Gm/D – Bb/D – Ab/D – D7(b5) – Cb/D before it reaches the tonic of Gminor in Bar 12 again. As you can see, during this progression the level of dissonance gradually raises. While Gm sounds pretty relaxed over D, a Cb chord over D sounds heavily dissonant (D being “the minor third” of the chord while the chord contains the Eb, so there’s a minor ninth below the very sensitive chord tone of the third which results in a heavy dissonance longing for its release in bar 12). To continue this rise of dissonance while the low brass chord sustains in bar 11, the trumpets jump in with an active triplet figure establishing the triads Db and later Ebm additionally on top of the sustained Cb/D-chord. So there are actually moments where a harmonic situation with the tones of Db, D and Eb at the same time exists. The principle of creating a strong dominant situation to the new tonic which raises in the grade of dissonances that finally want to resolve into a new tonic is brought to its full extend here making the new part in 12 very much needed and logically following.
To keep all these dissonances clear to the ear, I rely on pretty easily comprehendable structures in the separate sections. The D-pedal in the bass registers is very easily comprehendable as well as the Cb triad in the low brass and woodwinds as well as the triads in the trumpets. Creating dissonances by relying on easy structures has many advantages compared to creating them in a structurally less simple way: you won’t have intonation problems – for examples the trumpets move in triads, making it very easy for every player to find their tone orientating on his neighbouring players. You also have the advantage of the listener understanding the dissonance much easier. This buildup doesn’t sound much like modern, complex music which utilizes comparable grades of dissonance but just adds enough spice to stay true to the style and prepare for the new part.
While the string section establishes the rhythmic grid, I assign the low brass and woodwind instruments to play the accents on count 1 of each bar as well as the gran cassa. They all play only the G in several octaves so it gets quite a punch there. To make the base rhythm clear, I add horn rips in a diatonic cluster with top note sounding middle g to the counts 2 in bar 5 and 6. I chose rips to get a more aggressive, furious feeling there. Timpanis and Basses play on count 3. So the combined rhythm of the different colours add up to heavily accenting count 1, softer accents on 2 and 3, leaving out 4 and preparing the new 1 already in count 5 (see basses). The trumpet entrance in 7 is played by all 3 trumpets together as this pretty low register of the trumpet create a quite evil sound, however aren’t very loud, so this decision was made mainly for volume reasons. The dominant buildup in 11-12 is orchestrated in a very chordal way relying on low brass and woodwinds. To extend the range upwards as well as spreading out the harmonics range the very brassy and intense sounding trumpets enter only in bar 11 building up to bar 12. In bar 11 the strings start to move from their static chord upwards again in comprehendable structures. Woodwind runs starting on count 5 of bar 11 aiming for the new 1 finish this buildup and lead to the new 1 in bar 12.
Bar 12 – 19
The first actual theme is presented in a contrapuntal way. I switched back to 4/4 as the ear is more used to 4/4, understanding structures easier in this time signature and I wanted to lay focus on the melody here and not on the rhythm. As I have established the melodic minor scale quite heavily in the parts before, I rely on this scale as well in this theme. The central motivic element of this theme is the rising major seventh which is also characteristic for this scale. The theme is presented by the horns and trumpets, each playing unison. They play distinctive melodies but overlap from time to time. I didn’t want to create a to complex texture there so I made sure to resolve any strongly dissonant intervals very quickly. However the upward major seventh which appears from time to time adds quite a lot of spice into these melody lines.
Harmonically I chose a very typical modal interchange chord progression, which can be heard very often in film music. The central element is switching from scale degree I minor to scale degree II major, so in this case Gm(maj7) | Gm(maj7)/Bb | A | A/C# || As you can see, the 2nd and 4th bar of this progression is an inversion of the 1st and 3rd bar, resulting in a kind of not so standardized chord progression. Speaking of modal interchange, the scale switches from melodic minor in bar 12&13 to lydian in bar 14&15. This is harmonically a quite big leap into the #-direction (Gm(maj7) having 1 flat and 1 sharp while A has 3 sharps) which results in a rapid subjective “brightening up” of the harmonic situation in 14&15, creating this kind of epic feel this chord progression evokes. This progression repeats once so it is a quite closed 8-bar structure which stands on its own.
Apart from the melodies being presented by the horns and trumpets and in bar 16-19 also in the strings there are 2 more elements in this passage: 1 being descending sxiteenth-triplet figures in the high woodwinds and strings and the other being long sustained chords in the low brass and woodwinds, which get a quarter pulse by adding timpanis and contrabasses playing repeated quarter notes as well as gran cassa, accenting the 4s and 1s in the bars. To get that epic feel of “fat” chords, I chose the low brass to play chords in open harmony, taking care that the full chord is played in every bar and not missing any chord tones sometimes, which would make the sound less broad. This is a quite common orchestration technique in film music and always creates a very broad soundscape. Another factor which makes the sound broad is entering all strings from 1st Violins to Cellos in octaves in bar 13-18, which creates a very sweeping, filmic feel. The downgoing figures in the woodwinds and strings are either scale runs or mostly arpeggios of chords. They start on the chord tones so in most situatiuons every count has a fully displayed chord in these runs as well. Spreading them out in octaves would lower the broadness as well as losing the possibility of emphasizing on the harmonic movement. In bar 16 I add the piccolo 1 octave above, creating the feeling of getting more intense as well as compensating for the strings which take over another function there. However to not get it too piercing, I wrote the piccolo one dynamic grade softer than the rest of the woodwinds there. The low woodwinds double on the low brass.
To read the second part of this tutorial, head over to Making of “The Last Survivor” – Part II.