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The technique, part 4 (advanced inversion & composition)

A full description of the composition technique, with examples.
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Chris Gibbs
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The technique, part 4 (advanced inversion & composition)

Postby Chris Gibbs » Tue Dec 14, 2010 11:53 am

Spotting potential source material for inversion
Advanced structure of compositions and albums using inversion
My composition process

In this final part of the guide to the technique, I go into more advanced topics, such as how to look for potential source material for inversion, and my composition process. This forum post will be continually updated over time with new ideas and extensions of the technique as they are discovered (you are welcome to share your own ideas in the Ideas and enhancements section of the forum).

Spotting potential source material for inversion

As a general rule, I've found that the stronger and/or more interesting the source melody, the more likely the inversion will turn out to be fruitful. This is an area in which I'm still learning, but so far I've found that a memorable melody that also implies an unusual and unique chord sequence is usually a prime candidate for inversion, such as "Yesterday" by The Beatles, which forms the basis for my piece "Reflection #1 (Tomorrow)".

I recommend being on the lookout for potential sources for inversion in your daily life, as I inverted quite a few of the pieces in my first album Piano Sketches as a result of them being used on TV, radio, films, even from chants sung in football matches!

Some genres of music which should have plenty of great material for inversion, most of which I've barely looked at so far, include:

- Traditional/folk songs (such as Scarborough Fair, which forms a signifcant part of my piece Cambric Clouds)
- Themes from TV/Cinema/Radio/Musicals
- Jazz Standards (a good source of these is The Real Book)
- National anthems (including unofficial national anthems, such as Jersualem and Land of Hope and Glory in the case of England)

You might want to base a piece or group of pieces entirely on the work of one band or artist: my second "Reflections" album contains inversions of material solely by The Beatles (plus my own work). Even for just a particular band in this case, I've found there is more than enough source material to cover several albums' worth of inversions, and for the Beatles songs I have used so far in each of my pieces, I've had to throw away a lot of promising inversions from other sections of the songs because they didn't fit the rest of the piece.

Advanced structure of compositions and albums using inversion

It's possible to create an album or group of compositions which use the inversion and/or retrograde transformations applied to the group as a whole, in order to create pieces which are more closely linked together. I'll use my second album Reflections as an example, which has a novel structure that is closely tied to the inversion concept.

Each of the first three pieces begins and ends with a short section of my own work (i.e. that isn't based on inversions), and the main part of the piece is based on a number of Beatles songs related by a theme. For example, the first piece "Reflection #1 (Tomorrow)" contains inversions of the nine (and only nine) Beatles songs related to the concept of days: Yesterday, A Day in the Life, Birthday, Day Tripper, Tomorrow Never Knows, A Hard Day's Night, Eight Days a Week, Things We Said Today and Good Day Sunshine. (For the full list of Beatles songs used in each Reflection piece and where the inverted melodies appear in the pieces, please see the Inner Version section of this forum)

However, where things really start to get interesting for this album is the final three pieces. As described at the end of part 3 of this guide, the introduction to Reflection #4 is based on retrograde inverted ending of Reflection #3, and likewise the ending of Reflection #4 is based on retrograde inverted introduction to Reflection #3. Continuing this idea for the final two pieces, Reflection #5 is similarly based on the start and end of Reflection #2, and Reflection #6 is related to Reflection #1.

The actual name of the album is another clue which reveals that an imaginary "mirror" has been placed at the half way point of the album. Each theme for the group of sources pieces is also inverted across this boundary as well: "Reflection #3 (Blue Rose)" uses inversions of Beatles songs related to women (including Lady Madonna, She's Leaving Home, She Loves You, Girl, I Saw Her Standing There amongst others), whereas "Reflection #4 (Pink Rose)" uses songs related to men as source material (e.g. Nowhere Man, Taxman, Mean Mr Mustard, This Boy). Reflections #2 and #5 are similarly related as are #1 and #6. Perhaps this inverting the theme is a little over the top, but it has produced some surprisingly good results so far :)

It might be worth inverting or retrograde inverting some of your own work to see if this approach could lead to a similar concept album for yourself.

My composition process

For those of you interested in my particular process of composing, in this section I'll describe my usual method of building a complete piece from scratch, including some tips I've learnt since I began composing full-time in early 2009.

1) Inversion / Improvisation stage

During this initial stage, if I haven't decided already on group of tunes to invert (e.g. a group of Beatles songs for a Reflections piece), I'll go round trying lots of inversions of various songs and spotting any potential ones which could work well together. Any time I come up with an idea which sounds good, I hit the record key on my virtual piano software, and come back to it at at later stage of the composition process. For those interested in piano software: all of my pieces were composed and recorded using Pianoteqas I find the sound very playable and because of the perfect tuning and eveness across the key range, I think it helps to write pieces which should sound great on a wide variety of different pianos.

I also spend quite a while improvising an introduction and ending to the piece, which may not always be based on an inversion: it may just be another idea I had previously, or an extended part of an improvisation based around one of the inversions. Sometimes I'll try various combinations of inversion and retrograde inversion separately on the melody and underlying chord sequence, but more recently with my Reflections album, I've just been inverting the melody and improvising a brand new chord sequence or arpeggios to accompany the melody.

Realistically I expect to throw away well over half of all of the improvisations recorded during this stage, so I make sure there is plenty to choose from. However, at some point it will get to the stage where I've decided that I've got enough potential material to form a complete piece.

2) Break

I then usually take a substantial break of at least 4 to 5 days before beginning the main composition process, to allow the mind to reset and not get too attached to any of the improvisations. During the first stage I often find certain melodies in particular will go round and round in my head repeatedly, so this break helps to forget those, and is especially handy if the stuck melodies aren't ones which actually make it into the final piece.

3) First composing stage

The first stage of the proper composition begins with listening back to all of the improvised bits I recorded previously. Some of these sections should immediately stand out as particularly strong melodically or harmonically, and those are usually amongst the first portions that I commit to sheet music. However, the very first parts I properly write out are nearly always the introduction and ending to the piece. Once the start and end are finalised in the mind, I think the subconscious mind can then set to work in the background on "filling in the gap".

I use a music notation program as I go along to get visual feedback, as I find it very helpful to compose using as many senses as possible, especially sight. Although generating most of the potential content for the piece is done mostly by ear and improvisation), I think that studying the sheet music of your favourite compositions in general helps a great deal: I've found that I've begun to develop a sense of what classic pieces look like, and this sense is especially useful for editing things like note durations, inner melodies and voices, phrases and chord voicings. Regarding music notation software, I recommend Notation Composer as I find it easy and quick to use (and it's inexpensive!), although anything like Sibelius, Finale, etc should be fine - whatever you feel most comfortable with is best.

For the sense of touch, learning what classic pieces "feel" like and the relative movements your hands make throughout the piece is possibly another handy way to train yourself to write interesting material (this may come automatically without too much deliberate thought).

4) Break

The break after the first stage is usually a bit shorter, maybe 2-3 days, but again allows the mind to reset and not get too adjusted to certains parts of the piece, which when returning to the piece a few days later may clearly sound out of place.

5) Second composing stage

During this stage, the changes are quite often fairly minor, mainly editing the odd note here and there in order to make the piece more coherent as a whole. However, I often take an opportunity here to cut sections from the piece if I find any that don't fit exactly with what is around them. This is quite often as the result of a particularly attractive section of a piece added in the first composition stage, but which I'm not sure fits with the piece as a whole, so I leave it in for the time being and delay a decision about whether to cut it until this finalising stage. When I'm happy with the piece after this stage, I usually declare the piece finished and "move on" in my mind, and prepare for a performance and recording of the piece.

This is just the particular technique that works well for me anyway, but hopefully this may have provided some useful ideas to try in your composing process as well.

That's the core guide to technique now finished. All four parts will be updated over time with new information and ideas (particularly this section, part 4), and feel free to ask me questions in this post or submit new ideas in the Ideas and enhancements section of the forum. There is also a whole section of the forum devoted to describing the source tunes used in the Inner Version project so far, along with download links to the full range of sheet music for my pieces.

This forum and the information within has a sort of "honesty box" policy on donations: it's free to read about the technique, but if you have found it useful and/or are using it in your own work, please pay what you think it is worth by downloading the Reflections album. This also benefits you, as the full piano sheet music for some of my "Reflections" pieces is required in order to go through the examples in this technique guide in full.

Also note that any album downloads are also covered by VGI, which is another groundbreaking concept I developed in 2009, and basically means that your donation effectively becomes a form of investment (with potential money back in future). There is a page on the main Inner Version website with an overview on VGI along with a separate page on the mathematics behind it; you are welcome to post any questions or comments about VGI in the Inner Version section of the forum.

Other than that, happy inversion synthesising! Also, I'd be very interested to hear your results using this technique, please post them in the Your compositions section of the forum.
Chris Gibbs (Inner Version)
Musician/Programmer at Inner Version Ltd

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