Quick update

Just a few quick notes as we head into the All Saints’ Day weekend.

1. I am currently in Barcelona for the XIXe Salón del Manga. After all of my experiences working at conventions, it feels weird being on the attendee side of one. Today featured a two-hour wait to get into the convention — and that was in the evening, after the convention had already been open for several hours! I’m looking forward to making an earlier start and enjoying more of the convention programming tomorrow. I will return to Valencia on Sunday evening.

2. I am participating in the Movember campaign this year to raise awareness for men’s health issues. I’ve shaved off what has become my signature goatee and have pledged to make the commitment to grow naught but a moustache for the month (interestingly, I look more like my professional headshot now than I have since July of 2012). In any case, I need your help, faithful readers. Donate what you can or join the cause so together we can change the face of men’s health. Fight the good fight.

Donations are being accepted through my MoSpace at http://mobro.co/federmusik

3. Here is my latest recording, composed for our Dramatic Orchestration course:

4. Looking ahead, I have been informed that I will be scheduled for five recordings over the next seven weeks for both my courses in Advanced Scoring and Dramatic Orchestration (on top of my work for three others). I will attempt to blog when I can, but as usual, I can make no promises of regular updates.

¡Hasta luego!

Two months down

The view from the podium.

It’s been two months since I left Toronto for sunny rainy sunny Spain (and nearly a month since my last blog post). Free time is a luxury around here, and I spend most of it in the single-digit hours of the day/night sleeping. That’s not to say that I’m not managing the occasional night out with my friends and classmates, as well as allowing myself to participate in a couple of extracurricular activities now that I’ve got my general schedule and routine down, but spending 12 to 16 hours on campus has become the norm. I never thought I’d find myself looking forward to the opportunity to spend even more time on campus, often returning to work on my projects in the tech labs on weekends. Like weekends, the public holidays have largely been spent catching up on sleep, chores, and homework; save for the fireworks the night before, I missed out on most of the festivities on Valencian Community Day in favour of doing coursework and preparing for my October film cue recording session.

We all look out for each other here, though — and the staff and faculty are doing so for us as well — because we all know what we’re going through. There’s a tremendous sense of camaraderie and fellowship.

To catch you up with what I’ve been working on:

This is the piece I composed in September for Lucio’s class (for which I posted the behind-the-scenes session video in my last entry), inspired by a plot outline for a scene in which a woman wakes up one day in her regular, ordinary neighbourhood to find a rather distressing note.

Two-and-a-half weeks later, I was on the podium again, conducting the next cue — this time, with film!

Writing this cue was an interesting experience. This cue was a rescore of a scene from Los girasoles ciegos (“The Blind Sunflowers”), which was originally scored by Lucio. I’ve done these kinds of assignments many times before, but never before with the actual composer in the room (not to mention serving as my supervisor and producer)! This exercise was a simulation to partially recreate his experience writing this scene, with Lucio giving us the same direction and music in/out reference timecodes as he had received from his director.

I found this scene to be very tense and intense, often catching myself clenching my teeth even while listening to the playback of my demo version. You can only imagine, then, that having my impression of how the cue would actually sound being validated by the live, professional musicians performing it under my baton made the scene feel that much more real — more visceral.

…and it felt good.

So good, in fact, that the feeling of accomplishment yielded to an underlying melancholy afterwards as I allowed myself to be affected by the emotional content of the scene while watching the subsequent recordings in the morning session.

Here is the final result, mixed, edited, and synchronized to picture:

…and here’s the recording by itself:

In the afternoon following that recording, with barely a break for lunch, I was off to the town of Burriana to serve as a roadie for an ensemble of performers from Berklee Valencia. That’s showbiz!

The following week, we were honoured to meet the illustrious Robert Kraft, formerly the president of Fox Music. In addition to hearing him share his experiences about the Hollywood music industry, he took the time to sit in on our classes during the week and review some of our Girasoles cues.

Course round-up:

Advanced Scoring I: Narrative Analysis continues to exercise our creative muscles. Two recordings down, two to go (one per month). Classes have included reviewing each other’s work (both demos/mock-ups and final mixes), along with watching and listening to examples from both Lucio’s own repertoire and other masters of the craft. Being able to hear actual samples of Lucio’s work is very useful and enjoyable (and makes me hope that I’ll be able to track down English-subtitled versions of his filmography).

Computer/Synth Apps for Film (technically a Berklee undergrad course, but part of our program) has so far granted us some degree of proficiency with Digital Performer and Vienna Ensemble. Given that all of us in the Master’s program come from different compositional backgrounds and degrees of technological experience, my impression of this course is that it is intended to bring the cohort up to roughly equal footing on at least one of the standard workstation programs used in the industry. That said, practically no one in our cohort has come here using Digital Performer as a primary DAW, but the benefits of proficiency across many platforms speak for themselves. For me, since I’m no stranger to DAWs (having started on Cakewalk — I think v3.0 — at the tender age of 11), I understand essentially all of the concepts that are being discussed (sequencing, signal flow, use of virtual instruments, etc.), and I’m picking up a few new tricks along the way. The benefit of the class is being guided through the application of those familiar concepts to what is merely a new tool for me; I’ve likened it to getting into someone else’s car and figuring out where — not what — the windshield wipers are.

Video Game Scoring Techniques has taken a historical approach to video game composition, with seminars about the origins of MIDI, historical precedents for such musical concepts as cellular/modular and looping compositions, along with giving us opportunities to write our way through history, experience the limitations of our predecessors, and enjoy the technological transitions to more contemporary practices. So far, we’ve been rescoring game-states (menu screen, overworld map/exploratory, battle sequence, etc.), first writing MIDI to have it played on a mystery chiptune sequencer, then doing a MOD simulation with a limited selection of samples of our choice. We are currently exploring concepts of looping music and transitioning between game states. From the perspective of historically-contextualized writing, this would be the video game equivalent of recreating motets, sonatas, and fugues in Renaissance and Baroque counterpoint classes.

…and the class has given me opportunities to shamelessly plug my article on the history and practice of video game music. 😉

Conducting continues to see me refining my technique under the watchful eye of our Film Symphony Orchestra maestro and meeting the challenge of finding the musicality in even our exercise worksheets. The next few weeks will see us include real pieces from orchestral and film repertoire in our conducting practice.

Advanced Dramatic Orchestration continues to have us compose our way through the orchestra, writing short tone poems for the instrument-of-the-week inspired by an idea chosen by Alfons. It’s kind of like Iron Chef, which was memorable for its dramatic revelations of the ingredient-of-the-week with a lusty cry of「今日のテーマはこれです!」 (“This is today’s theme!”); I may or may not envision our instructor similarly donning a cape and making a dramatic flourish when he announces our themes (albeit by e-mail). Our themes thus far have ranged from “Days of Awe in the Desert” for flute to “The Celestial Whisper of Wrath” for trombone. Even though many of us Iron Composers already know how to compose for each instrument, these weekly writing assignments give us the opportunity to practice and explore the limitations of the instrument. Our reward is a concert of some of the freshest music on the planet (which often tests the limits of the performer).

We capped off our woodwind unit with writing a tone poem for the woodwind section, which was recorded by the four musicians who had been invited previously to give the weekly seminars and perform our weekly marathon of tone poems. In a similar vein, this composition was based on an idea provided by Alfons. Commensurate with the expectations of the assignment, the idea expressed was decidedly more of a narrative. I am currently in the process of editing and mixing the recording.

Coming up at the end of next week is a trip to Barcelona for the annual Salon del Manga.

Hopefully, the next update will come before the end of November (not that I’m promising much at this point!). As always, my Twitter feed (over on the right-hand side of this blog) is the more immediate way to follow my exploits.

¡Hasta luego!

Living the dream

So, that was a busy couple of weeks.

On the day after my last post, Lucio gave us our first dramatic composition assignment: write a 90-second cue that follows the narrative and emotional contour of a scene, using specific instrumentation, based solely on a plot outline (not syncing to film yet). We were slated to record our cues with four musicians from the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía and the Palau de la Música — some of the best in the business — on the following Monday and Friday. I was not prepared to volunteer to be among the first to record, as I had two additional (short) pieces yet to compose that week (which prompted Lucio to tease me about how I had claimed I could write quickly; it’s true that I can, but I just couldn’t see past the two other projects I had ahead of me at the time). So, I was looking forward to having over a week to compose my cue and have it approved by Lucio with ample time for revisions, if need be.

Two days later, I was informed that everyone in my section would be recording on Monday.

As the shock of my deadline being bumped up by a full four days abated, and after dinner following our 4½-hour orchestration class — the latter half a concert featuring our tone poems written for the instrument(s)-of-the-week played by the phenomenal Alvaro Octavio of the Palau opera orchestra — I went home and very matter-of-factly wrote a minute of music to play for my supervisor the next day, because, in the words of Dr. Horrible, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”

After Lucio approved my draft of the first minute (see? Told you I could write quickly), I set to work completing the cue, preparing the Pro Tools session for the recording, and notating the score and parts over the weekend. After not enough sleep on Sunday night (that’s showbiz), I was up the next morning not preparing my parts, but dealing with a plumbing issue in my kitchen. I decided that I would bank that incident as getting the session’s bad luck out of the way, and looked forward to a smooth recording ahead. At the end of the morning recording session, around 1 p.m., I was on the podium, conducting for the first time on the Ann Kreis Scoring Stage, and you can see the session video here:

Being up on that podium to conduct my own music felt like a dream. While I was filled with trepidation coming here, with my biggest concerns being how my skills would rate relative to my classmates and fearing that I (and Berklee) had severely overestimated my actual abilities, that sense began to abate after our second orchestration class — the day on which I was informed of the much shorter deadline — in which we got to hear everyone else’s work for the first time. I am surrounded by brilliant musicians and incredibly talented individuals, and we inspire each other to always bring our best effort. I remain humbled to be among their number. It feels very much like the Olympics of music, and what a stadium we have here:

The Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía.

It wasn’t until I was basking in the afterglow of my successful recording session that I truly felt that I was exactly where I was meant to be, doing what I was meant to do. While I’m no stranger to the intense schedule and workflow required for these kinds of projects, it was getting to do it in this context, here at Berklee Valencia, that affirmed that this is what I love. I enjoyed the process from start to finish, crazy as it was, and I can’t wait for the next one.

In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I jumped at the opportunity to conduct another session — this time the work of another classmate — on the Friday afternoon, following my appointment at the police station for the next stage of my Spanish student residency process.

The rest of the week featured writing two additional compositions (another 8-bit tune for Video Game Scoring techniques and a tone poem for English horn for my orchestration class), and mixing the cue. The environment here is so inspiring that I’m finding myself writing (or at least sketching) new compositions in between my assignments. Last Wednesday, for example, quite literally in the time it took me to run up the stairs from the cantina at the Palau, my brain decided that we were going to sketch out a 2¼-minute orchestral theme instead of spending the time working on the tone poem for English horn that was due the next day. Can’t argue with that.

…and since my professors had done a very good job of ensuring that I had forgotten how to be lazy to such an extent that I couldn’t remember the last time I had a day off, I took one yesterday, opting to spend the afternoon eating paella and enjoying the beach with my schoolmates.

I’ll be working on a travelogue to better represent the chronological narrative of the past month, with pictures and everything. Look forward to it.

¡Hasta luego!

…and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed.

It seems as though I can only manage an update every week and a half, or thereabouts. I will have to get better at this blogging thing (and at that whole photo-uploading thing… and at that whole making time to reflect and decompress thing…).

I find it auspicious that the Jewish High Holidays this year coincide with the start of my school year, and with it my grad school career and my new life in Spain. With this transition comes many changes as I attempt to attune myself with the rhythm of my new life while remaining true to my own values — and determining which of the myriad of values that I possess are truly mine. The passage into this new chapter of my life has marked not a culmination of a period of questioning my identity, but rather an elision between “before” and “after,” or “old” and “new,” and determining what parts of my life belong in which category. To be candid, considering that I am not strictly religious (in truth, my lifestyle is mostly secular), I sincerely wrestled with the question of the extent to which I should include aspects or elements of my heritage in this new life of mine, and indeed, I found myself having unpleasant flashbacks to being obliged to sacrifice days of school early on in the academic year for the High Holidays, even when it was inconvenient to do so — especially when it was inconvenient to do so. All the same, my Jewish identity remains important, and I felt that I would be remiss if I did not end up observing Yom Kippur (what can I say? My sense of Jewish guilt is preternaturally strong).

In the end, I was directed to services run by La Javura in the Ciutat Vella (Old City) district of Valencia. The service was conducted almost entirely in Spanish (I honestly never believed I’d find myself davening en español), with a little bit of Hebrew as the program required, although other attendees (and the officiant) spoke English as well. The service was also conducted with simple sincerity, much like a Passover seder, with those gathered sitting around a long table, taking turns reading passages from the Spanish-translated machzor — in fact, a translation of the same one that I spent many a yontef carrying — so in spite of only having been studying Spanish for two or three months at this point, I could more than adequately follow along. The service was presented without bombast, without lengthy sermons, and certainly without the annual Kol Nidre night bond appeal. It was well conducted, and — dare I say — a little bit haymish (and therefore quite well suited for someone looking for a little piece of home).

In addition to Yom Kippur serving for me as an annual spiritual reboot, I particularly look forward to the concluding service — and not just because the sunset portends the end of the fast — because in the midst of all of the affliction and mea culpas, we ask to be remembered for good and sealed in the Book of Happy Life. That’s not to say that I end the night by just sitting back, expectantly waiting for good things to happen. Rather, the annual routine grants me a measure of clarity and focus to be able to pursue my annual goals and ambitions — and trust me, folks, I can use all the help I can get.

Having survived my first week of grad school (look down, look down, you’ve 36 to go), I am still in the process of adjusting to my new lifestyle which, as I mentioned before, is a bizarre mash-up of the Spanish late schedule with the busyness that school is heir to, along with other responsibilities. As an overview to the courses that I’m taking this semester, I’m studying Narrative Analysis, Part I in the Advanced Scoring series, with Program Director Lucio Godoy, with whom I will also be studying privately, which promises a good amount of writing and a few recording opportunities this semester with musicians from the orchestra of the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía. I’m also taking a course on Computer/Synth Applications for Film with Tech Manager Vanessa Garde. I am studying Video Game Scoring Techniques under Ben Houge, which also promises a fair amount of composition, but will also teach me more about the technical aspects of video game music, as well as about the industry itself. I am taking lessons in conducting from Maestro Constantino Martinez, which will be geared to help me prepare to record my own cues this semester, and rounding out my week with Advanced Dramatic Orchestration, taught by Alfons Conde, which will require a weekly output of short pieces for practically every instrument in the orchestra, to have them played by musicians of the Palau orchestra. I consider myself very fortunate to be here.

My coursework, as you may well understand, will keep me rather busy over the coming semester, but I will continue to do my best to adjust to my new life as a grad student and update this blog as best as I can. The changes to my life and routine have been quite significant thus far, but I think that — to paraphrase Marty McFly in Back to the Future — “Watch [out] for the changes and try to keep up” is a good mantra to carry with me (aptly, I’m working on a paper analyzing a cue from the score that movie with a few of my classmates).

¡Hasta luego!

New Year’s Reflections

My apologies for the silence over the past ten days. The rush of relocating and moving (while attempting to soak up the opportunity to be a tourist in my new home) has not granted me too many opportunities to write meaningful, thoughtful blog posts, although those of you who follow my Twitter feed have been seeing what I have been up to. Photos of my exploits will come sooner or later (potentially in a future edition of this blog post).

Today marks Erev Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish New Year, and this is the first time that I am spending it away from my family. The High Holidays are traditionally a time of reflection, and I have much to reflect on from the past year, to be sure, but especially from the past three months, since receiving my Berklee acceptance. In the days leading up to the big move across the Atlantic, my excitement for the fantastic opportunity that lies ahead of me was tempered by the stress of packing and the anxiety of facing the unknown. My life has changed quite rapidly, and if what the staff and faculty at Berklee have already told me holds true, then I can expect that trend to continue to the point where the person I become a year hence will be apparently unrecognizable from who I am now. While I hope that any changes that I experience are ultimately for the better, the notion of being unrecognizable compared to who I am today is difficult to swallow. Trying to put this in perspective, would the person I was a year ago recognize the person I am now? What about the person I was two years ago? Five years? Ten? I am perfectly expecting to undergo tremendous growth and development in the next year, but having it put to me in that way, such that my own identity is in question, is discomforting. So, today in particular, I find myself reflecting both on my past and on the journey yet to come. I have traversed great distances this past year, both emotionally and physically, but I realize that still have a long way to go.

Now boarding!

If you’re interested in more of a travelogue, my flights to Valencia, via Düsseldorf, were nice and boring, just the way I like them. Upon arriving in Valencia, I wasted no time connecting with my future schoolmates; as luck would have it, two of them just so happened to be returning to Valencia from a trip to Lisbon at the same time, and we arranged to meet in Baggage Claim. They accompanied me from the into the city as I made my way to my hotel — a restored (and modernized) former palatial estate in Ciutat Vella (the old city, in Valenciano), near Plaza de la Reina. My first meal in Spain, of course, was squid ink paella and a glass of sangria. If I’m planning to do the Spanish gastronomic tour, I wanted to get started right!

My first two days in Valencia, however, were marred with poor weather; I was told that the rain that the city was encountering was the first such weather in four months, and that they were experiencing a rare “cold drop.” Suffice it to say, after seeing the beautiful clear skies in all of the promotional materials, I was disappointed. Yet, I took it as two important life lessons: to get the inevitable disillusionment out of the way, and that it can’t be sunny all the time. All the same, you should have seen me grinning like a fool the moment I laid my eyes on the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, home to Berklee Valencia; even in the rain, she’s still beautiful.

First glimpse of the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía. I may even have done a happy dance.

A couple nights after my arrival in Spain, I dashed down to the Andalusian region to visit family (Swedish expats with their adopted Korean children). Nerja and Frigiliana, near Málaga, are beautiful towns. In addition to enjoying the beautiful views of the Mediterranean and the Costa del Sol (and less rainy weather) and catching up with my relatives, I met another lovely Swedish family who are themselves in the midst of a relocation to Spain. I look forward to paying another visit to Málaga.

View of the Mediterranean from my relative’s house in the hills between Frigiliana and Nerja.

Since arriving in Spain, I have enjoyed many evenings of good food, live music, great company, and (essential to any adventure) plentiful alcohol. As it turns out, certain elements of the Spanish lifestyle, namely the penchant for a late dinner (by North American standards) and enjoying oneself well into the wee hours, are not particularly conducive to getting over jet lag. Adjusting to the grad school schedule, necessitating early mornings, however, seems to be doing the trick. Reconciling those two schedules, however, will be my next challenge. As with everything, I’ll do my best.

The past few days have been filled with Berklee Valencia orientation activities, officially meeting my future schoolmates (aside from the unofficial gatherings in town that I had enjoyed over the past week). Valencia is a beautiful city, and the Palau is a breathtaking building. One of our first activities during orientation was touring the Palau facilities, which included visiting the three auditoriums, each one bigger than the last; the Sala Principal, the main stage of the Palau, is home to the largest orchestra pit in the world.

Our orientation sessions have been a mix of celebrating our acceptance to Berklee and confronting such sobering realities as homesickness and culture shock. While at times I still question whether my skills at my craft are adequate and whether I can hold my own alongside my fellow musicians and composers, it is incredibly reassuring to hear from my film scoring professors, however, that they have confidence in us — that we are in the class of Master’s students because we are already at the Master’s level. I know that my companions share my feelings, and I am again humbled to be a part of this cohort.

In the next few days, the fall orientation period will conclude and my career as a grad student will commence in earnest. I find it auspicious that Rosh Hashanah coincides with the start of this year of grad school, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the next year holds for me.

Why Spain?

When I tell people that I’m going to pursue my Master’s degree at Berklee in Valencia, I’m often asked the question, “Why Spain?”

…because that’s where the program is. That was easy.

To be perfectly candid, before I found out about Berklee in Valencia, for as much as I enjoy world travel and expanding my cultural horizons, Spain had never ranked particularly high on my list of places to visit. For some of my future schoolmates, the opportunity to go to Spain, especially in the context of one of their new Master of Music programs, fulfils a lifelong dream. For me, however, the dream is to advance my career as a screen composer and complete the transition from hobbyist to professional, and one of the best schools in the world for studying this craft is Berklee College of Music.

I found out about the program quite by accident. A year ago, as I was researching things to do while visiting my Boston-based best friend, I came across Berklee as being a notable fixture of the city. Well, of course it is. I thought, just for fun, that I’d perhaps pay them a visit and try to arrange a tour of the facilities, being a musician and composer and having been a music student in university myself. I noticed a link urging me to click for more information about their new Master’s program in Scoring for Film, Television and Video Games on their Valencia campus.

Two thoughts ran through my head in that instant: “Master’s in Everything You Want To Do As A Career, David,” and “Valencia is a nice-sounding name for a campus.”

I just about fell out of my chair.

Clicking through, I fell in love with the program. Everything resonated so strongly with me: the description, the values that were espoused by the school and the program, and the curriculum – for a one-year Master’s, I felt that I couldn’t have designed it better myself. Eagerly searching for more information, I saw that the application fee was in euros.


Oh, that Valencia.

I just about fell out of my chair. Again.

While I was considering that I may have to venture farther afield than Toronto in order to get the education or training I need for career advancement, an overseas sojourn like this had honestly not been on my radar. New York or L.A.? Sure, but Spain?

To be sure, this would promise to be an incredible, life-changing opportunity, to say nothing of taking me about as far out of my comfort zone as it gets. Even though it felt like such a long shot (a Master’s in film scoring from one of the best schools in the world? Seriously?!), I resolved to do whatever it took to make the best application possible and give myself the best possible chance of passing the audition. It has already been such an incredible boon for both personal and professional growth in the past year as I have made my preparations to take this next step. I look forward to what lies ahead as I embark on this grand adventure.

Still, at the time, dumbfounded as I was, I asked, “Why Spain?”

…because that’s where the program is. That was easy. 🙂


Welcome to the podium!

I intend for this blog to feature a mix of accounts of my travels, personal reflections, and, as circumstances allow, the latest samples of my music.

In a year that has already been filled with significant change, things are about to make an even more dramatic transition. Tomorrow, I am moving to Spain to begin my career as a Master’s student studying scoring for film, TV, and video games at Berklee College of Music in Valencia, Spain. I look forward to learning an immense amount under the guidance and tutelage of my instructors there while being challenged to grow as an artist – all while navigating the challenges of living abroad.

I look forward to having you join me on my adventures in Spain, and beyond!