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J. Wilson - Let's write a string quartet!  Update no. 1
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Let’s write a string quartet!


Update number one


If you’re just joining the conversation, last time I set out to write a string quartet on a two-week deadline. This is an audio update, so grab some headphones and mash the play button.

Let’s write a string quartet

Today’s challenge comes from Charlie in Minnapolis, who writes:

I challenge you to write a string quartet inspired by autumn. You have until September 1st to send me your composition

Now since September 1 is only a couple weeks away as of this posting, I’m fairly sure that Charlie intends to say that he wants some piece of music for four string players. Nevertheless, on this blog you either do the funky chicken or you go home, as I say, and that means that I’m going to foolishly take this challenge literally and attempt to write an actual complete string quartet from scratch in the two weeks provided.

For those of you who might not know exactly what that means, let’s take a brief look at the form and perhaps you’ll see why this is probably a stupid thing for me to attempt. You see, the string quartet is essentially a sonata for a quartet of strings. The sonata is a long-form piece of music. The sonata is big; even small sonatas are a little bit intimidating. The symphony is another variety of sonata. The form typically includes four movements, each with their own conventional outline. The string quartet requires a lot of writing, and two weeks is probably not enough to get the job done.

For this challenge, I’d like to break from my typical format of one video, one writeup and one audio recording, and instead give you short ongoing updates to try to keep myself accountable. If I’m going to meet this deadline, then I’m going to have to write a substantial amount every day and hopefully the added pressure of having people watching the process will help keep me on track. Stay tuned, and we’ll find out together how this goes.

This is a video that I filmed and scored for Flow Taipei, an upcoming venture aimed at presenting parkour and fitness classes and workshops in Taipei and around Taiwan.

The music came from a 16-measure sketch that I found in my files, left over from the speed writing episode. I had a lot more left over from that project than I showed because I had several false starts. Quite a lot of that was filed away for a later date. I keep my sketches both in notation and in audio format whenever possible, even when I only have partial recordings or MIDI mockups available. The audio record makes it easy for me to review my sketchbook quickly and of course the notation greatly simplifies the task of replicating and developing a sketch in an appropriate style.

In terms of form, when I found this in my files it was just a single phrase, only what you hear within the first minute concluding with not even a half cadence but a mere suggestion of a half cadence. I went on to write out the modulating middle section in more or less the same texture and then a crude retransition. The original phrase is once again referred to, making this a tidy little bar form, and the repetition in the final minute is meant to reinforce the tonic.

I’ve included below the piano part by itself, which I think sounds much more satisfying than what you hear in the video. For the purposes of the picture though, this had to provide a contemporary sound so I added the synthesizer and booming samples just to emphasize the formal structures that were already there in the piano writing. Of course a backbeat is requisite. I felt that the drum kit by itself was dreadfully dull so the auxiliary percussion is there to try to suggest a double-time feel. The first time I sequenced that auxiliary percussion I used a slightly more subtle synthesized drum kit patch, but I couldn’t for the life of me get it to balance correctly in the mix so the tablas were the eventual outcome of a search for a reasonable sounding alternative to that instrumentation.

Here then is the piano recording and the score:

This is Perspective, a short film from Man and Camera Productions for which I did the soundtrack and audio editing last fall. Now that it’s been released, I’m looking back at my production notes to give you guys a closer look at the music and audio that I put into this short, so stay tuned for that.

I’d like to recognize director of photography Scott Almendinger for bringing me in on this project. We worked together previously on another short called Coming to Terms, which you may remember. It seems like more and more of my projects are coming to me through my personal and professional contacts, which, to be honest, beats the socks off of trolling through forums and bulletin boards and working with strangers. You guys, working with friends, working with people I know and trust is not only a more enjoyable experience, but also seems more efficient and more rewarding from a creative perspective.

I’d also like to recognize the lovely and talented Magali Brun-Okroglic, who sang the song that’s featured over the end credits. You may remember her from last year’s concert aria. She’s fantastic.

I was fortunate to catch Kathy Diamond and Maximilian Skiba of The KDMS on their way through Taipei on their recent tour of Asia and quiz them on their songwriting process. You can get more of them at:

DJ and producer Meche Rebelle was kind enough to share his insights on his creative process and the role of the DJ. You can find more of his work at

Reddit user /u/SephyKid writes:

Can anyone help turn this 70 year old sheet music into audio?

Some context:

My grandfather composed numerous songs during and after World War II for my grandmother. He met her in England during his stay and eventually married her. We have a number of records with the music he composed, but this one was found recently without any audio recording with it.

Can anyone perform this piece, or at least synthesize the sounds in the correct tempo and pitch? I can sing, but can’t really read sheet music too well. It would be a nice gift for my aging grandmother. My grandfather passed away almost 20 years ago.

This is the page of sheet music that he included:

In this thrilling episode, Charlie from composerquest.com brings to light the ongoing piano shortage currently sweeping across the Twin Cities piano community. Due to unforeseen economic circumstances that I may have just made up, there are more practicing pianists than there are available pianos*. Reports on the ground suggest that some have resorted to sharing their keyboards in an effort to alleviate the disparity. With no end in sight to the crisis, Charlie has bravely organized an event to help raise awareness of the situation, for which he’s sent out a plea for new works for four hands at one piano.

Never fear, Minnesota. Mr. Wilson is here to help.

This little piece is written around this cantus firmus which lives in the middle voices:

Let me highlight the two predominant accompanimental textures that I used to illustrate what I said in the video about trying to achieve dramatic contrast under the constraint of the range limitation. In the first, we have a little bit of motion pushing us through the downbeat and a staggered attack in the uppermost voice.

In the second, the harmonies are stacked up vertically and we see an ornamental gesture in the far left hand which, in such a low register, provides more textural information than it contributes harmonically.

This last excerpt from my notes is a figure that I ultimately excluded from the piece. It’s a bit more virtuosic than the writing that ultimately made the cut, which is fine in other contexts but here I felt didn’t match the tone of the larger work. This line would also have required me to maintain this more meticulous pianistic style for quite a number of measures, which I wasn’t confident that I could pull off convincingly.

Here’s a mockup and a complete score for your perusal.




*not actually true

I caught up with DJ Sona after a set at Triangle and got his comments on producing for the dance floor.

This is Digital D. He’s a DJ in Taipei and you can get more of him at:

I’ve been spending some time at a club called Triangle where the booking agent has been working hard recently to build a scene for underground house music. I got wind of the place and infiltrated the club with a camera, hoping to satisfy my curiosity with regard to creativity among purveyors of contemporary dance music. If all goes as planned, this will hopefully be the first of a series of talks with club DJs on the business, practice, motivations and various complexities involved in live mixing. Stay tuned and with a little luck we may all learn a thing or two.