Cult Hive [2022/013]

Lucky thirteen! This track roughly represents the one third point to my goal on this journey. And it is QUITE the departure from the stuff I’ve been making so far. I am generally interested in the broad “electronic music dance” genre in the original sense of the term, as opposed to the modern marketing initialism “EDM”, which implies a certain mainstage festival sound. It’s all house music anyway.

However, this is a huge departure from that. First of all, it’s in 7/8, not 4/4, but that’s not so weird. Secondly, it’s purely orchestral, made with only samples from actual instruments. Thirdly, it is musically a little off the wall for anything else I’ve done so far.

Warning: Deep music nerdery incoming!

A few weeks ago, the Almighty Algorithm sent me down a deep rabbit hole in music theory YouTube. I started learning about something called “modes of limited transposition”. Most of the standard modes we hear in everyday 12-tone music have a unique transposition given each root note in the 12 tone chromatic scale. However, limited transposition modes are modes that where more than one root note scale in that mode contain the same notes (even if they would serve different melodic and harmonic functions).

In my previous life as a semi-decent guitarist, I was familiar with the whole-tone and diminished scales, which have limited transposition modes, though I don’t think I ever super-consciously thought about that since I never composed music with them, and only learned about them from some jazz improv exercises I studied way back in the day.

But there are more modes of limited transposition! The one I learned most about was was is called Messiaen Mode 3, which is a nonatonic (9 note scale). The modes are named after Olivier Messiaen, one of the more influential composers of the 20th century, who had students as varied as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Quincy Jones. He didn’t invent any of the modes named after him, but he is undoubtedly responsible for creating a rigorous framework for limited transposition modes and popularizing them in modern orchestral and electronic compositions.

Here is Messiaen Mode 3 in C:

So it’s a whole step, half, half, half, whole, half, half, half, whole, half, half, and then the half to return to the tonic again. And it goes a little something like this:

So, what happens is if you look at this pattern, it repeats perfectly mapped to the 12-tone western chromatic scale. Which means that Messiaen mode 3 in E has the exact same notes, but it just starts in a different place.

Because it’s a nine-note scale, when harmonizing you have a very wide variety of chords to choose from while in the scale. Only three 12-tone notes cannot be found in a Messiaen Mode scale. The I major, I minor and I augmented chords are first class members of the mode, for example:

Because the pattern repeats on such a short pattern, there’s no super strong sense of a single note to resolve to like in the more popular scales and modes, so to emphasize a tonal center, other methods are required. Accents on the main notes, holding the main notes in melodic phrases, repeating the main notes. The interesting thing about this is you can make a melody feel very unstable and uncentered, but still feel like a cohesive whole, just my changing what notes you center on.

My piece here is mostly centered on F#, and I consider F# Messiaen Mode 3 to be its main key, but I frequently use the D as a tonal center (notice that D Messiaen 3 and F# Messiaen 3 have the same notes), and I tend to emphasize minor harmonies over major ones and tritone motion over more consonant motion , which is why it has a very unsettling feel. I think it would be straightforward to make a more upbeat and less sinister sounding Messiaen mode 3 tune given the right melodies. There are a lot of tritone intervals in this mode so I would probably have to make a conscious effort to avoid too many of them.

Thus ends music nerdery!

So, in the preceding explanation, I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of nuances, and I’d bet any professional level student of 20th century harmony has a ton of corrections for what I’ve written, but I’m still quite new at a lot of this. The objective is to learn. But I think I enjoy the piece’s feel and tone as a dark soundtracky vibe. A friend of mine said it sounded like a point in a movie where the hero enters a dark “cult cave hive” and I adapted that phrase a little to title the song because that’s exactly the mood I was trying to evoke. Brooding and ominous strings oppressing the hopeful yet fearful oboes and English horns, while the tympani call the dark procession forth! Thanks for the title idea, Meznak!

I hope you enjoy this piece. It was a lot of fun to make and I learned a lot from it from a compositional perspective.

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