I have written a new piece of music called Q Equals, and I felt like it’s the kind of music that needs to be understood in order to be appreciated, so I wanted to write an essay explaining it. You can decide now if you’d rather hear it first and then have it explained, or if you’d rather understand it before you hear it.
The idea for this piece came to me while I was sitting in class, bored. The idea was this: with every single beat, the speed changes. My natural next thought was: The first beat should be 1 beat per minute, the second beat should be 2 BPMs, and so on. This means the first beat will last an entire minute, the second beat will be 30 seconds long, etc.
I thought this would be relatively easy to do. I thought I could just go onto Sibelius, write out a part with however many beats I wanted (I chose 200), and designate each beat as whatever BPM it required. I had visions of using unique Sibelius/MIDI sounds to create a symphonic-electronic soundscape based on this 200-beat skeleton. Unfortunately, Sibelius wouldn’t correctly play back anything at a speed less than 5 BPM. (The title “Q Equals” comes from the command for “quarter note equals” I typed into Sibelius 200 times.)
Now, I’m sure there are easier ways to solve this problem, but what i chose to do was mathematically figure out the placement in time (mm:ss) of each beat. Once I had a nice-looking spreadsheet, I recorded a single fingersnap, and, equipped with Audacity and my spreadsheet, I copied, pasted, dragged, and dropped my fingersnap exactly where it needed to go, accurate down to the thousandth of a second, 200 times. At this point, I decided to use GarageBand as my method of composing, and I dragged my click track file into GarageBand. Now, I was ready to start making music.
Here is the fingersnap-track I made, in case you want to use it as the basis for your own composition, or if you just enjoy the sound of increasingly rapid snapping.
The original instruments I chose were piano, synthesizer (later removed), Gospel organ (later became bass guitar), celesta (later became vibraphone), and electric guitar. I made the choice to divide the piece into four parts: Part I consists of only the first five beats, but it is the longest part; Part II is the following 26 beats; Part III is 70 beats; and Part IV, the shortest part, is 100 beats long. You’ll notice this adds up to 201 beats; that is because I decided pretty early on that I wanted the very last beat of the song to come after a sudden, unexpected quarter rest, as a surprise to anyone who had been attentively listening.
The actual process of composing was a lot of fun because I used pretty much every method of composing I’ve ever used in the past – some parts were carefully thought out using music theory; other parts were completely made up as I went along; the vibraphone music in Part II was the result of composing at an actual vibraphone; some parts were the result of improvisations I had done over the bass line. I toyed with the idea of having the different Parts each be a different compositional form (e. g. Part III would be a fugue, Part IV would be in sonata form), but the only idea that actually survived is that Part III is technically a passacaglia. I’m proud that I was able to fit so many compositional ideas into a 200-beat piece.
All the instrument parts were actually “performed” “live” in GarageBand and then painstakingly adjusted to make sure that every single note aligned perfectly with the corresponding beat. And then painstakingly transcribed into Sibelius because the whole point of this project was to have an interesting-looking physical score. Here is an excerpt from the score.
And because I’m such a generous guy, and because I don’t care about anyone performing this without my permission, you can see the complete score here: Q Equals – Full Score
Overall, I am very pleased with how this turned out. Maybe it’s Stockholm syndrome (I spent just about every free moment of the past two weeks working on this), but I like the way it sounds. I fully expect that in a few years, I’ll re-listen to this composition and embarrassedly, hurriedly remove it from the Internet. But, for right now, I like it.
Looking to the future, I would like to someday organize a group to perform this live, which would be tricky, but I think it could be done. While I was creating the fingersnap track, it occurred to me that this track could be re-used for multiple compositions with different concepts and instrumentations, or it could be reversed to create a piece that starts at 200 BPMs and ends with a note held for a minute. I think at some point, I’ll return to this concept, but for now, I’m very, very tired.