Ah, the big questions. Do human beings have free will? What is consciousness? And what would happen if Destiny’s Child did a Radiohead cover?
For week 4 of Music Composition, I tried to answer the third question. Spoiler: I don’t think I quite answered it (because R&B is not my usual genre, and also Beyonce isn’t replying to my emails). But I came up with something that sounds a bit different to my usual thing.
To create this, I took elements from “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child – scatty R&B-style drums and arpeggiated strings, and I also wanted to make some kind of homage to the “Oooh-oooh-oooh” bit. I used the same chord progression (Em C B Em), and tempo (about 160 BPM).
I arpeggiated the “Survivor” chords with Ableton’s sampled cello section. It sounds similar but it’s not quite the same arpeggiation as the original. I added an R&B style drum beat. I didn’t try to copy the beat from “Survivor”, because… it’s too hard. The drums are quite complicated and seem to continually change. But I found a drum kit that sounded in the right style, and I made some repeating kicks and a fast hihat pattern with some gaps, and added claps on the third beat of each bar. Sounds close enough to R&B I think?
I searched online for a MIDI file of “Creep”, and copied in the verse and chorus. All of the notes used are in the scale of Em, but of course it doesn’t follow the same chords as “Survivor”, so I moved the notes around so they fitted the chords better.
Then I remembered that I wasn’t actually trying to create a mash-up here – these were just supposed to be my starting points! I discarded the “Creep” verse and edited the chorus. I kept the first and second lines (“I’m a creep”, “I’m a weirdo”), discarded the third (“What the hell am I doing here”) and repeated the fourth twice (“I don’t belong here”). I changed the timings of the notes as I wanted them to fit tightly with this track.
I tried different presets for the “Creep” melody for ages. It felt like it was moving too far away from R&B as I tried a load of synth presets. Eventually I hit upon Ableton’s sampled clarinet, which was much more fitting.
As my homage to the “Oooh-oooh-oooh” bit of “Survivor”, I wanted to add some things in different instruments which repeated parts of the main melody. I added a horn sound, which does a kind of response to what the clarinet is doing – there’s a descending three-note pattern from the “Creep” chorus which it repeats about about a bar after the clarinet does it. I added a bit of new melody just for the horn, and made sure the notes it’s playing fitted with the underlying chords. Then I did a similar thing with another instrument I found in Ableton’s core library, which is supposed to be some kind of lute.
At this point I started to struggle a bit. I was using the “Creep” chorus as a verse, so needed a chorus for this song. I tried to write one, and also added a bass line and a pad sound. I started arranging my Ableton scenes into some kind of structure. But I felt like I was losing the plot. Not for the first time when trying to do these exercises. There’s always a moment where I wonder what the hell I’m doing. I felt like I was trying to assemble some Ikea furniture without instructions. I just had a pile of parts and no idea what to turn them into.
After taking a break, I came back and improvised with various combinations of things. I found that taking the melody out and just using my “response” parts gave a nice mysterious-sounding introduction, so I could build up from that to introducing the “Creep” melody.
I then went through each of my parts. Surprise surprise, I was making the mistake I always make, where I wasn’t being careful about using notes from the underlying chord. I’d improvised an extra backing melody, which was subtly clashing with things because it was just noodling around the key of Em without much care for what else was going on at the same time. I’d made a few other mistakes when trying to fit the “Creep” melody to the chords too. I found out that the B chord in the progression contains notes that are not in the key of Em, so it felt like I needed to be extra careful around that bar. (Edit: Actually, this is because the scale used is the harmonic minor scale, and I had my Push set to the natural minor)
With a bit of tweaking, I eventually found that I could get all of my parts to play nicely together, even if I played all of them at the same time. That suddenly made it much easier to create the structure that was missing.
I jammed a new chorus which contrasted nicely with the “Creep” melody as a verse. It gives us a nice break from the clarinet. Bringing parts in and out gives a structure that seems to work nicely.
I’m semi-pleased with this… it didn’t turn out sounding much like R&B though. I think it sounds like it could be the ending credits to some kind of spy drama. Whatever it is, it sounds different to the kind of thing I’d usually make.
Maybe I’ll come back to it one day and rework the whole thing. I was thinking I’d probably take out the drums that are trying to be R&B, but listening back to it today, I think I quite like them – they just need a bit more variation. Actually all the parts could use a bit more variation. Oh, and I’d change the melody so it wasn’t “Creep” any more. I expect Radiohead’s record label would probably have something to say about that.