So Many Violins

August 23rd, 2013

Three and a half months since my last post during which I’ve completed a fourth section of just over 20 minutes bringing the total duration completed to 72 minutes of around 120 in 31 weeks suggesting it would take over a year to complete the whole of the third movement. However I’ve also decided to stop for the moment. Whilst I’ve been very excited that I now have the hardware and software to create the quality of virtual performance I want it’s become clear I don’t yet have the mastery of my tools to do it justice. What I have done is a quantum leap better than the first complete performance but I know it could be better and that with a greater understanding of the Vienna Symphonic Library and how to get the best out of it I could control so much better the quality of the sound and the ability to balance the music as I really want. My thoughts about interpretation have also changed since I’ve started.

At the moment I just can’t balance the various instrumental sections, melodic lines, solo moments as I want. There should be moments where the choir say or brass completely dominate the orchestra but I can’t do that to my satisfaction and I’m sure that is because of failings on my part in the way I have set up the software. I’m also sure I can get a better sound, particularly from the strings. So I feel I need to stop what I’m doing and go back to the drawing board with another project to try and learn better the tools of this trade. I’ve thought about finishing the third movement before doing that but that would still take a long time.

So, as this is not going to be my final performance/interpretation I shall let you have the totality of what I have done so far with the third movement. The most recent addition takes us to a pretty big climax. There are three major climaxes in this movement, the first at around 21 minutes the second at 72 minutes and the closing climax each of which gets progressively more massive. I’ve suggested before that the ending of this movement should probably be one of the most massive moments in all orchestral music right up there with Mahler 2 and The Gothic, but for the moment that’s for another day.

The most notable part of the new section is the extended passage where the violins divide into eight parts each i.e. 16 separate violin parts. That starts at 67 minutes in. With the score calling for 48 violins that’s three per part but VSL only gives me 12 player samples, 6 player samples and solo samples so as I’ve used the 12 player samples when the parts are divided into two parts (the majority of the work) and 6-player samples when divided into four parts (a substantial amount of time) I’ve gone for solo violins for the 16-part divisi which works for me. There were some difficulties in getting Sibelius & VSL to play 16 solo violin parts correctly at the same time (neither software was built for such a scenario!) but a work around was found. I had to be careful with the placement and balance to make the transition between two 12 player parts and 16 solo parts sound seamless and natural which I think I largely have done. I may well do another post quite shortly with a detailed musical description of how the 16 violin parts work – just cos I fancy doing that and I would like to get better at describing the music.

But for now here is the first 72 minutes of the third movement in flac and as mp3 – enjoy.

BTW the next project I will do, to improve my skills, is Sorabji’s Chaleur recently completed by Frazer Jarvis who has kindly let me have the Sibelius score.

The New Complexity? Phaw. Old Hat!

May 5th, 2013

The third chunk of the 3rd movement is now complete. About 19 minutes. having returned to work which included a move of office across London and the kids returning to school it’s taken me seven weeks. I’m now up to 52 minutes so nearly at the half way mark.

I’m not sure when the term “New Complexity” was first applied to the works of Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Finnisy, James Dillon and Richard Barrett, but the Jami Symphony preceded them all and there are few pieces of even these composers which match the complexity of the Jami Symphony, except perhaps  Ferneyhough’s La terre est un homme – which only lasts 13 minutes!

A moment in this third part illustrates this complexity and I thought I would break it down between the various sections of the orchestra to demonstrate not only the complexity but the difficulty I am having in trying to make it as clear as possible. I work up each section one at a time woodwind, brass, chorus, strings, keyboards and percussion. Within each section I have to make choices about which part should be prominent and then which section should be prominent. Inevitably much is lost to the background wash, which is disappointing but choices have to be made. This section reaches a brief climax at roughly the overall mezzoforte to forte level and will be a long way from the massive climax at the end.

I had attempted to describe the complexity but decided it was easier to show a snippet from the score and then a sound clip of each orchestral section and the whole orchestra. So here is a page from this extract. And here are the Sound files for the woodwind, brass, chorus, strings, keyboards and percussion and finally the whole shebang.

As you will hear an awful lot of the detail is lost and in this section I have concentrated on the chorus at the start but allowed the brass to come through at the climax. I’ve made sure the tam-tam is heard because it is so rarely used but the woodwind detail is completely subsumed as is the piano (which hardly gets a look in in this work!). The strings are omnipresent! Whether these are the right choices who’s to say?

I still think the overall sound wash is exciting and there are plenty of places where lots of filligree detail can be heard.

Let the singer be heard

March 26th, 2013

The second chunk of the third movement has been finished in record time as I’ve had some time off work and have been hard at it for several days. This section lasts just under 14 minutes and brings us to 35 minutes so over a quarter done. I’ve got three extracts for you.

 The first is the first entry of the organ in the third movement which as usual comes amid a fairly full orchestral and choral tutti.

 The second is the quotation from Chausson’s Symphony of 1890 played by the trumpets.

 The third is one of those very special moments of repose when over a quite sustained chord of B major (momentarily with added spice from the lower strings) four solo sopranos distantly sing a variation of the main theme before moving off into more Sorabjian tapestry.

 I continue to learn both the technology and the music. I’ve made some software setting changes which means I shall have to go back and do the first chunk again but I shall leave that to the end. I’ve found a way of balancing the sections better particularly the choir which needs to be more prominent and in the first part sounded almost like they were off stage. During this part I have also realised that the most important part of the music is the melody. There is always melody somewhere and often several. The textural stuff, whilst fascinating, must stand back and the melody must shine. The trumpet has several important melodic moments in this section. Even in the multi divisi string parts someone will have a melodic line whilst all around them go bananas and the emphasis should be on the melodic part.

 This whole symphony is one huge songfest.

Shaping up very nicely

March 4th, 2013

After seven weeks I have finished the first major chunk. The first 21 minutes. That’s quicker than I was expecting. The music is wonderful and I’ve two extracts to post. The first is a passage where the strings divide into 4, 4, 3, 3, 3. This features the VSL chamber strings with six violins, four violas, three cellos and two double basses per part. These passages tend be the strings providing a mosaic background to lyrical lines elsewhere. There’s a long melody in the tenor section over this. Listen for the lush 2nd violin four part glissando and the glorious top violin line later. The second extract is an ecstatic full voiced moment for the choir divided into 32 parts largely supported by contrapuntal 10-part strings one of those joyous noise moments.

I’m still learning and improving as I go along and I shall want to go back and redo some earlier parts but intend for now to plow on. In particular I want to find a way to bring the choir forward in the mix, more in your face. At the moment they almost sound like their off stage and it’s very hard to make them loud enough in the big climaxes. And talking of big climaxes the end of this first 21 minute chunk is a real doosey. The problem is trying to rein in the excitement because the very end of the third movement is likely to be one of the biggest noises in any orchestral music right up there with the biggest moments in Mahler and even the Gothic. Way to go yet though.

Frustration, technical and musical.

February 11th, 2013

I feel like I’m into my stride. In two weeks I’ve managed another 5 minutes of music so now up to 6.5 minutes where there’s a brief pause in the flow of this mighty river. I’m discovering/rediscovering how beautiful this music is but also becoming frustrated. My current modus operandi is to take a chunk of about a minute or so, work up the strings first, then the choir, then harp, keyboards and percussion, then brass and then woodwind. It’s wondrous to hear each part building up, hearing what the two double bass parts sound like and then adding cellos etc until all string parts are sounding and adjusting balance and bringing out interesting parts and lines within. The frustration is as I add each section of the orchestra those exquisite details realised in other sections, and apparent in each new section, become lost to the Sorabjian complexity and there’s a constant battle to prevent the texture becoming too loud as you try to compensate for losing parts heard clearly before. I suppose that’s the nature of this complex and intricate Persian rug and of course certainly lends itself to repeated listening as you can constantly pick out things that you’d missed before, and of course to repeated performances where different shades and emphasis can be brought out. The result is a glorious wash of ecstatic sound.

I’ve just reached the first section where the strings divide into 3-4 parts each and am using the VSL chamber strings for the first time. This threw up a technical problem not of my making (for once) but of the VSL/Sibelius interface. What I am doing is extreme for Sibelius and VSL. Most Sibelius orchestral scores wouldn’t get beyond 20-30 parts/staves and most VSL templates would not get beyond 20 or so virtual instruments but I have over 200 staves and 120 virtual instruments. The difficulty is trying to get Sibelius to communicate the correct stave with the corresponding VSL virtual instrument. Sibelius doesn’t like having multiple instruments with the same name so having the violins divide into 8 parts (and later 16) which for Sibelius purposes are all called chamber violins caused it, and by consequence me, all sorts of angst. The good thing is that after many hours of jiggery pokery and creative thinking I have found a workaround which works. It’s thrilling to hear eight violin parts (of six players each) weaving the Sorabjian web and indeed the four violas (4 players), cellos (3 players) and basses (2 players). I shall post an extract shortly.

Full steam ahead (fingers crossed)

January 29th, 2013

It seems all major technical difficulties have been overcome and I can go full steam ahead with the performance of the third movement. Now it’s just a question of time and patience and if I can complete the third movement I can complete the 1st and 4th (and no doubt revisit the second). It’s taken about 12 hours (over two weeks) to do the first 80 seconds but it should be less time consuming from here. Even so we are still talking years. But that’s Sorabji for you.

Here is the opening 80 seconds in a fairly raw rendition but boy! does it sound good. Hang on in there!

3rd Movement performance can now progress.

January 21st, 2013

I decided to get one more hardware obstacle out of the way before really getting stuck into the 3rd movement. It is a real pain only having one monitor and having to tab backwards and forwards between Sibelius and the VSL software. And the score really wants the monitor in portrait to get the most out of it but the VSL software looks best in landscape.

So since Christmas I’ve been investigating a second monitor and needles to say it’s proved anything but straight forward. I started off by looking at a brand new 24 inch Samsung. After much web searching the best price I could find was £119. But then suddenly up popped a site selling it for £86. Purchase was thru paypal so I went straight ahead. Money cleared quickly but within a couple of days the website disappeared off the web. Thank goodness for paypal. Opened up a dispute with them and money refunded after a couple of weeks.

Second attempt was thru eBay. Decided to go for a 26 inch Samsung very similar to my current one. Saw a few auctions go by with prices reaching £180 so was discouraged until a “Buy Now” monitor came up for £110 so snapped it up. Couple of days, after taking my money, later the seller reneges on the deal with the excuse he only just noticed the HDMI connection was faulty. I pointed out to him I don’t use HDMI but he said he’d already refunded the money. I’m convinced he’d spotted the auction prices were far higher than I’d bought it for and I’ve no doubt it will reappear for auction fairly soon.

After two fiascos and several lost weeks I decided to go the easier and quicker (but more expensive) route and shell out for a brand new monitor from a reputable dealer. Which rather surprisingly turned out to be Argos who sold me a 27 inch monitor (cos Samsung don’t make 26 inch any more) for £218.

The next issue was space. Me and my PC are banished to a corner of the front room where I have a small computer desk wedged between the radiator and an immovable shelving unit. My lovely big 26 inch monitor fits perfectly so how on earth could I fit a second monitor in.  One saving grace is having one of them in portrait mode and the other in landscape. With a small amount of wood sawing and removing part of my CD collection to the shed and angling both screens inwards with one flush up against the window and the other flush up against the immovable shelving unit they just fit.

The other worry, as ever, was how difficult it would be to get them both to work together as I wanted but surprise and joy I just plugged the new monitor in and it worked first time just as I’d hoped and here is a picture (not very hollywood I know but pleasing to me) of my expanded workstation with the score on the right and the VSL software on the left.

Now I’m ready (I think) to get stuck in proper to the third movement.

Beginning work on the 3rd Movement

October 25th, 2012

One of the technical issues which will significantly boost the performance of my PC is using Solid State Drives (SSDs) instead of Hard Disc Drives (HDDs). The sound samples that make up the VSL virtual orchestra take up about 750GBs of data and are stored over two HDDs. The software that needs access to that data, (the Vienna Ensemble Pro – VEPro), has to read the data off the HDDs. No HDD (or indeed SSD) will provide instant access to the data creating a latency between a note being played and a note being heard. To remedy that problem a small part of the start of every sample is preloaded into RAM the memory modules where all programmes (including VEPro) are loaded each time you start your computer or start a new programme. VEPro will then instantly read the start of the sample loaded into the RAM which allows sufficient time to capture the rest of the sample off the HDD. We are however talking milliseconds here.

What causes the bottleneck is if the HDD is slow then more of the sample has to be preloaded into RAM. And bearing in mind how huge the data is this can quickly fill up the RAM available. My recent performance of the 2nd Movement had over 20GBs of my available 24GBs of RAM filled in this way and my system was on the verge of becoming unstable. The 2nd Movement is but a mere minnow compared to the other movements.

The benefit of SSDs is that their “read speed” is potentially much quicker and therefore the amount of each sample you have to have preloaded into RAM is less which means you can run bigger performances. The downside of SSDs has been their expense and their capacity. Recently the price of two 450GB SSDs has come down to my level of affordability (although at £ per GB they are still 5 to 10x as expensive as HDDs). So I have taken the plunge. Turns out, inevitably, that it’s not as straightforward as that as I also have to have a special PCIe card which plugs into my motherboard and into which you plug a special housing cage into which you plug the SSDs. And then it further turns out I cannot take full advantage of the new technology of the SSD because my motherboard is getting terribly old (about 3-4 years old) and doesn’t support the latest protocols (it supports SATA II and not SATA III if you know what that’s about). It does appear however that I should still be able to get read speeds several times quicker than my current HDDs.

I got the new SSDs easily enough but have had huge amounts of trouble with the PCIe card and have now sent back the second one awaiting a third replacement. I am however getting closer to attempting a new performance of one of the bigger movements and have decided to go the whole hog and tackle the biggest movement of all the 3rd. I wanted to leave the first movement to last which is easily my favourite movement and the one I want to do best.

And of course it’s not just that the 3rd movement is 5 times as long as the second it’s the size of the orchestra and corresponding data I need. The 2nd movement had 72 virtual instruments (VIs), the 3rd looks like it will need 126. This is largely because of the strings. In Mvt 2 they are only ever divided into two parts each and so 10 VIs. In the 3rd Mvt all sections are divided into 2, 3 & 4 parts as well as unison and both violins are, for one extended passage, divided into 8 parts. VSL has 4 different string packages. The Appassionata Strings (20 Violins, 14 Violas, 12 cellos and 10 basses) which I’ll use for the unison passages; Orchestral Strings (14, 10, 8, 6) which I’ll use when the sections are divided into two parts; Chamber Strings (6, 4, 3, 2) which I’ll use when they’re divided into three and four parts and I’ll use solo violins when they are divided into 8. This means I have to have 51 Vis just for the strings and the data for the different string packages is huge.

So with 126 virtual instruments my virtual stage is getting very crowded. As is the Sibelius score. For each virtual instrument I have 3 staves. One has the unaltered part for reference. The second has the same part but with the many alterations I need to make a musically convincing performance and the third which is littered with midi instructions. So 378 staves. That’s a mighty big score. Thank goodness no one needs to have a physical copy. I remember seeing the score to Brian Ferneyhough’s La Terre et un Homme which has up to 70 staves and is four feet tall!

I’ve learnt the hard way that in tackling a project of this size you have to be meticulously organised in advance so whilst I’m waiting for replacement computer bits and before I can actually start creating the performance I am documenting the set up logistics of the virtual instruments and have created a rather attractive looking template which shows each of the virtual instruments I will need, what Sibelius Soundset each section needs, and what VSL sample set is needed which you can see here.

I’m also making sure the parts are all correctly separated out and on their correct stave and making sure the Sibelius score is correctly set up so it communicates the correct midi information to the respective virtual VSL instrument.

I suspect that even with the new SSD drives I will still not be able to run the entire orchestra at the same time but I am fairly sure I will be able to do each section one at a time and I shall start with the strings which is easily the biggest. Once I have perfected the string section performance I can “freeze” the data needed for them and move on to another section. I suspect by the time I have completed the performance of each section (which could take many, many months, if not years) I will have upgraded my PC again so that I will then be able to run the whole shebang and perfect the whole performance. Assuming of course I haven’t gone stark raving mad before then.

Watch this space.

New Complete Performance of 2nd Movement (June 2012)

June 17th, 2012

This new performance of the second movement uses exclusively samples from the wonderful Vienna Symphonic Library and their full DVD collections.

The Sibelius score communicates directly with the VSL samples through the VSL software Vienna Ensemble Pro 5 (VEP5). Each instrument (stave) in the score is ‘played’ through a “Vienna Instrument Pro 2” (VIP2) hosted within VEP5. The ambience/reverb is provided by the extraordinary Vienna MIR Pro (VMP). I have used the Vienna Konzerthaus Stage with the microphone position in the 15th row.

One of the main differences in the process this time is I have incorporated a clever software plugin to Sibelius called “Sound Sets” (created by the VSL team) which means the music directly triggers the correct sample patch. So that a legato line triggers legato samples, a sfz marking triggers notes played sforzato, tremolo lines trigger tremolo samples, trill lines trigger trill samples etc etc. This means I don’t have to have additional staves attached to each instrument littered with midi commands. It is not completely comprehensive but covers almost all articulation possibilities and any not incorporated I can still use via appropriate midi commands.

I still have to make enormous amounts of changes to the notation to ensure a more realistic and musical performance. For instance brass players faced with a string of quavers will by default play them detached or even staccato whereas Sibelius will play them for their exact duration. And of course Sorabji includes very few playing instructions or expression marks so I have had to import my own interpretation and playing techniques to ensure the correct sample patch gets played.

Whilst a live performance would require approximately 150 instrumentalists and a large double chorus (say 300 at least). The number of virtual instruments needed was 71. With the necessary samples loaded into each virtual instrument the amount of RAM used for this performance was just short of 20 GBs (of my available 24GBs). Much more would have meant my PC becoming unstable. With the performance at its maximum volume and complexity my i7 Extreme quad core processor, which has been overclocked to 4ghz, was pushing temperatures at about 80 degrees so again at just about its limit. (I’ve recently installed a high end water cooler as experiments with the previous stock fan cooler had temperatures getting up to 100 degrees).

So it has just been possible to do the “small” 2nd movement with my current set up but I would still not be able to undertake the larger movements which would require nearer 100 virtual instruments and an upgrade to 48GBs of RAM and ideally a dual processor server type PC. Having several Solid State Drives to handle the massive sample database would also be ideal but those two upgrades would cost several thousand pounds at current prices.

This performance has much more “interpretation” than the previous one. It comes in at over a minute longer at 21 minutes. I have varied the tempi throughout the movement and added rubato here and there. I have widely used my discretion in respect of dynamics, phrasing and articulations. There are still some limitations with VSL. They do not have muted French horns so largely indications to mute have been ignored but I have used some stopped horn sounds where I thought this worked musically. Another annoying VSL omission is string glissandos. Fortunately there was only three brief instances in this movement (other movements make extensive use them) and I have had to make compromises. Some of Sorabji’s extreme instrumental ranges go outside the VSL recorded range so some compromises where used. You’d have to have a keen ear and eye on the score to spot them though.

I think this music is very exciting and excellently composed.

First try at a complete performance

January 31st, 2011

I’ve jumped in at the deep end and started a complete performance of the second movement, the smallest movement in every respect. The VSL template has 58 virtual instruments (the string section has ten staves for 92 players). Without any samples loaded the template uses over 10 GBs of RAM. I have used the full VSL presets for each instrument and after loading all but percussion the template has reached 20GBs. At that point I have started to notice some strange behaviour suggesting the RAM is about maxed out. However VSL has a clever sample purge function so that once you have perfected each parts performance you can get rid of all the samples not used which frees up a lot of RAM enabling me to run the whole orchestra.

The Sibelius performance score has three staves per part. One to show the unaltered part which does not play back (for reference), the second for the altered part which does play back (altered to create something more than just a mechanical playback of the notes) and the third for the performance midi data (Which covers changes of articulation, crescendo/diminuendo etc). This means there are 188 staves. Setting up the template and performance score, which you only have to do once, probably took around ten hours. I have created a performance of the first 50 seconds which took around an additional 15 hours.

Here is the MP3

Here is part of the performance score showing the three staves for each instrument.

And here is a link to the earlier performance for comparison.

So it seems I could probably create a performance of the whole of the 2nd movement. Although if 15 seconds took 15 hours, 20 mintues would take … a long time! And because of the inclusion of the multi divisi choir and multi divisi strings in the other movements they would probably take nearer 100 VSL virtual instruments and nearer 300 staves and consequently a lot longer to create per minute of music. So a full performance of the other movements is daunting and would need more RAM and a more powerful PC. Both of which are achievable in the not too distant future. But as for time and sanity?…