Alex Rhodes

Composer | Arranger | Editor

The Chinese Dynamo Project: Week 6

Methodology & The Set-Up

6 weeks into the project, we have completely finished studying and exploring everything we sought out for, including Chinese instrumentation, harmonies, forms, and the implementation of styles in modern video game scores. Of course, we’ve only really scratched the surface of a musical style represented over centuries of innovation and tradition. This week will be a shorter update because, at this point in the process, I’m focused on writing an original piece incorporating all of these previously discussed elements.

To begin the piece, some evident steps integrating what we’ve already learned were employed. Of course, I’m writing the piece for four instruments: the Xiao, the Erhu, the Pipa, and the Guzheng. I did toy around with the idea of writing a more westernized version, akin to what we heard in week 5 of Jack Wall’s work, incorporating a full orchestra as support behind the Chinese instrumentation. However, I want the piece to really focus on how it can genuinely sound and feel like the many pieces listened to previously by Chinese composers: very free-flowing, effortless, and generally calming and optimistic. I feel like if I brought in elements like a string section, it would get minor and dark too fast. So, I began the project. As you can notice in the screenshot below, the Guzheng is separated into another instrument entitled “Guzheng tremolo”. This is an interesting aspect of using VST’s in Logic: although the articulations for many instruments are accessible, articulations need to be separated into different inputs due to my lack of a Midi keyboard with modulation wheels.

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The Key

            Because this is the first piece I’ve ever written in this style, even deciding on the beginning factors was a challenge. After a half hour of debate, no joke, I finally decided on writing the piece in the Gong scale in F Major (that’s the 1st scale degree in the F Major pentatonic scale). Basically, I liked the way it sounded. Normally, when I begin a non-commissioned piece, I begin by discovering an interesting motif or idea and then develop the form and key around that. For this piece, I was able to hear a couple motifs in my head as soon as I decided on the Gong pentatonic scale in F Major, of which I wrote down in the project. I haven’t really gotten very far in developing the piece as a whole, but I do have a noteworthy start with the themes and subjects. Pictured below is one of these motifs that I like as the introduction to the piece: it’s currently played by the Erhu, which, based on my style of writing and how good the Erhu VST sounds, will probably become the focus of the piece.

Introductory motif played by the Erhu.

Introductory motif played by the Erhu.

Polyphonic Cacophony

At this point, I have some great motifs and progressions written out in my piece. However, as with any piece of music, I’ve already run into an issue with the writing process. As a (self-proclaimed) modern neoclassical composer, I usually deal with a large ensemble consisting of both orchestral and electronic instrumentation, which already has instilled within a sense of background, foreground, melodic, and harmonic instrumentation. However, here I am dealing with four very unique instruments that are all commonly used in solo pieces. It feels wrong for me to force one or two of the instruments to become simply harmonic support, or not have its own section as a solo instrument. A lot of classical Chinese music is very polyphonic, but I don’t want to necessarily completely go down that route. Of course, as the piece progresses, so will my take on the matter, but for right now, I plan to keep a balance of polyphony and utilizing each solo instrument as they were meant to be. Maybe I’ll use different sections of the piece to establish a solo from each joining instrument.

The last matter regarding the commencement of the piece I wanted to talk about was one of the motifs I rather enjoy as a main melody throughout. There’s a really cool focus on the 1st scale degree (of course), but also the 6th, which already creates some really fascinating harmonic ideas within just one instrument playing it. Right now, the motif (pictured below) is played by the Xiao in a lower register, but I might go on to treat it as a counter-melody for the Erhu. Or I might leave the Erhu out of this section entirely. Also, as you might notice, there are some interesting and maybe not so straightforward things happening with the rhythm. I am attempting to create a balance between order and adherence to an orchestral arrangement, and the free flowing and fluid sensation that often accompanies solo Chinese pieces.


A melodic motif that is played by the Xiao. I might treat this like a theme, or possibly a counter melody to an Erhu part. 

A melodic motif that is played by the Xiao. I might treat this like a theme, or possibly a counter melody to an Erhu part.