The Operating System and Liminal Lab


For this special feature in our ongoing Field Notes series (where creators from all disciplines shine light behind the curtain at their daily practice — revealing the often messy, sometimes frustrating, surprisingly beautiful life along the way) the OS is excited to have composers Todd Lerew, Kristina Warren and Michael Laurello, finalists in the 2014 American Composers Forum National Composition Contest. Lerew, Warren, and Laurello have been sharing their process notes with us as they develop new work through July, when the pieces will premiere at the Sō Percussion Summer Institute at Princeton University.
Get better introduced – and listen to samples from these innovative new composers — at our series introduction, HERE. We’ve had one round of entries from each composer so far — you can find links to each at the bottom of this article. For more from Michael Laurello, check out his earlier entry, The Aura of the Juno 60: Authenticity vs. Practicality.
GET INSPIRED. Take notes!


Most new pieces start for me as a fuzzy idea, and by trying different approaches the music slowly comes into focus. When I compose I move back and forth fluidly between pencil-and-paper sketching, multitrack recording, watching Netflix, improvising, etc., until I figure out the best way to say what I’m trying to say. I shift gears quickly between different musical ideas, sometimes discarding an idea right after I finish writing it. When I walk away from something, it may disappear forever, but occasionally it will resurface a few days or weeks later and I’ll realize that it actually belongs in the piece after all. Either way, when I’m finished writing a piece, I’m surrounded by a sea of cast-off fragments and snippets of music that don’t have a home.
An interesting part of the creative process is looking back at this stuff—the demo recordings, scribbles on manuscript paper, notes to myself—that didn’t make it into the piece. Usually these ideas have been jettisoned for a good reason (either they just don’t fit, or they kind of suck). Sometimes, though, by rooting around after the fact, I find that an idea I had initially dismissed could have potential for a different piece. Even if I don’t find anything that’s worth salvaging, it’s still helpful for me to retrace the path I took through the writing process. It gives me some perspective on my working methods, and it can help me come to a more complete understanding of the finished composition.
For the new piece I just completed for Sō Percussion, I spent a lot of time experimenting with how to integrate analog synthesizer sounds into a percussion ensemble texture. This involved recording different musical ideas and then listening back and evaluating. I ended up writing and recording about thirty minutes of these musical sketches that didn’t make it into the final piece. So, for this blog post, I thought it might be interesting to curate a handful of demo recordings from this heap of rejected material. These recordings are quick and dirty; they exist only to give me an approximation of how something will sound so that I can make more informed writing decisions. In the end, the resulting piece (which I’m not going to reveal here) took lots of inspiration from these and other sketches, but it sounds much different.
So here are a few discarded sketches in chronological order based on when I wrote each clip.
[box][h5]March 4, 2014[/h5]

This obviously isn’t a recording, but it’s the first sketch for the piece. It’s a collection of pitches and motivic ideas for an unspecified instrumentation. I think there’s some interesting stuff in here, but after a week of working on it I still couldn’t figure out what to do with it, so I moved on.
Sketch pic
[box] [h5]March 18, 2014[/h5]
This is the first idea to which I was committed enough to orchestrate and record. Direct and aggressive, this bit of music helped me to narrow down my instrumentation.

[box][h5]May 6, 2014[/h5]
More experimentation. I’m still trying to figure out how a synth can function within a percussion ensemble, and trying to zero in on the sound concept for the piece.

[box][h5]May 13, 2014[/h5]
This is a synth plus a marimba played with superball mallets. I liked the mellow timbre and the subtle major/minor harmonic conflict, so I put it aside to flesh out later.

[box][h5]May 17, 2014[/h5]
For two players bowing a vibraphone against a Moog patch where the pitch is constantly rising. Interesting, but it didn’t quite fit.

[box][h5]May 22, 2014[/h5]
This music uses a rhythmic concept that I repurposed from a piano trio I composed in 2011. There are two main layers of rhythmic activity: one layer counts up in various patterns of sixteenth notes while the other counts down. I liked this, but I couldn’t figure out how to move the material forward in a satisfying way.

[box][h5]June 7, 2014[/h5]

[box][h5]June 7, 2014 (2)[/h5]
Here I discovered that bowed Styrofoam through an irregular delay is a REALLY good sound. Definitely saving this one for a rainy day.

[textwrap_image align=”right”][/textwrap_image]MICHAEL LAURELLO (b. 1981) is an American composer and pianist. He has written for ensembles and soloists such as the Yale Baroque Ensemble, Sound Icon, the 15.19 Ensemble, NotaRiotous (the Boston Microtonal Society), guitarist Flavio Virzì, soprano Sarah Pelletier, pianist/composer John McDonald, and clarinetist and linguist/music theorist Ray Jackendoff. Laurello is an Artist Diploma candidate in Composition at the Yale School of Music, studying with David Lang and Christopher Theofanidis. He earned an M.A. in Composition from Tufts University under John McDonald, and a B.M. in Music Synthesis (Electronic Production and Design) from Berklee College of Music where he studied jazz piano performance with Laszlo Gardony and Steve Hunt. He has attended composition festivals at highSCORE (Pavia, Italy) and Etchings (Auvillar, France), and was recently recognized with an Emerging Artist Award from the St. Botolph Club Foundation (Boston, MA). In addition to his work as a composer and performer, Laurello is a recording and mixing engineer.
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