Here are few selections (of 33 total tracks) from Musical Shoelaces, originally released in April of 1997, when I was in 10th grade:
In the summer of 1995, as I was preparing to start high school, I was introduced to MIDI technology. MIDI software allows the user to enter musical notation similar to the way one enters text in a word processor, except in addition to entering, formatting, and editing, the software can also actually play the music. In some ways, it's like having an orchestra at ones' disposal to test and perform whatever the composer wishes. (note: today's software works the same way but has generally improved quality and flexibility of the resulting performance. Click here for my overview of the latest software including free open-source options)
I had a few musical ideas developed through my guitar studies, and I entered them in the computer software and experimented with different sounds and forms. I became extremely engaged in composing, working hours a day on new ideas and experiments. After a number of months, I had dozens compositions ranging from very short little excerpts to longer complex pieces.
I drew somewhat on my rudimentary understanding of music theory from choir and guitar lessons, but mostly I learned through trial and error. Instead of studying the details of popular music I listened to, I would hear a little piece of something that inspired a compositional thought and I would immediately stop listening and go right to trying to flesh out my inspired idea. In most cases, my compositions had little in common with any direct influence.
I had essentially no understanding of any traditional orchestration. I didn't know the make-up of a drum set, I didn't even realize that rock bands usually had bass guitars. I didn't know the ranges of instruments. When I presented my compositions (either in notation or recorded on cassette) at my guitar lessons, I had so much to share it took up much of the time and I received few suggestions or feedback.
I was essentially self-taught as a composer. The main outside feedback was through asking all my friends and family to sit through each of my compositions and tell me their thoughts. Over time, I developed more compositional sophistication.
By early 1997, I had over 60 compositions, and my teacher, Steve Osburn, suggested I publish them on CD. He knew a local audio engineer who could burn CDs for me. At that time, most people were not aware that CD burning was possible. Only music studios and manufacturing plants made CDs and burners were slow and expensive. I was skeptical about publishing a CD, but went along with the idea.
After having family and friends carefully rate all of my compositions, I selected 33 pieces (about half of all my compositions) for the final production. The majority were between one and two minutes in length, with some less than a minute and a few lengthier selections. All of them were recorded as just the direct output of the MIDI software controlling my Yamaha PSR-510 consumer keyboard. Today I recognize how limited and mediocre the sound quality was, but I had a limited budget and was more focused on the compositional ideas.
The resulting mix is quite varying, from attempts at hard rock music to wind ensembles, pseudo-classical to pop to experimental. One track was an arrangement of a guitar piece to which I added contrapuntal parts and interruptions. Another was written as a soundtrack for a friend's amateur movie. Mostly the compositions were just the result of my experiments as I tried to understand music and explore all the ranges of notation options, patterns, and sounds. I simply kept working until I had an enjoyable final product.
All of the music on the album was entered and edited either note-by-note on the computer or by playing the keyboard. No pre-existing drum beats or arrangements or loops were used. I could go into in-depth discussion about the compositional process for each piece in this widely varying collection if I had time. I still find the music intriguing today and have maintained a dream of reworking some of the ideas using the much more sophisticated musical understanding I have now.
About 80 copies of Musical Shoelaces were initially made and were sold to friends, family, and other acquaintances. I got a lot of positive feedback, but often was told that it sounded like video game music. Given that video game music is actually often excellent, I should not have minded that idea, but I didn't appreciate the association. I now realize how much expressive nuance is a large part of music, and these compositions — played rigidly by computer — are largely (but not entirely) lacking in such nuance. Still, I appreciate the project for what it was, given the tools at my disposal and my capabilities at the time.
After Musical Shoelaces, I continued to progress and dedicate even more time to composing. In 18 months I had a follow-up album False Ground.
© Aaron Wolf