With insights into experimental classical and extended performance techniques, composer, orchestrator, and conductor Drew Morgan takes us behind the scenes of the orchestration and recording of a performative orchestral sample library.

How did you prepare with the SLATE + ASH team before the LANDFORMS Real World Studio sessions?
To start with, we had sessions where we'd discuss key conceptual terms for articulations like Tides or Orbits, followed by recording rough demos on my Cello. These sessions had a dynamic that reminded me of a composer challenging both the performer and the instrument's limits.

The S+A team urged me to create sounds inspired by synth patches, nature, or unconventional bowing techniques, like slow bows with zither hammers touching the strings.

Not being experts on the orchestral instruments led to inventive experimentation and sound design as they knew the desired sound but not the direct path to playing it. This led to inventive experimentation and sound design.

Post-session, I orchestrated each articulation for the specific instrument groups we intended to record. Knowing that the musicians are going to be reading from a precisely notated sheet forced us to be specific when defining the articulations.
Does your background as a cellist inform your orchestrations?
Understanding the physical experience of playing each instrument is crucial. While I may not play them myself, I can understand their concepts without the muscle memory. For instance, a flute can't smoothly trill from a low C to a low D-flat due to fingering constraints, or how different embouchures can create variations in tone.

I try to get my head into the instrument's idiosyncrasies to craft parts that are both playable and enjoyable for the musicians. I believe striking a balance between challenge and idiomatic playability helps make the musicians’ performances emotional.
During your sessions with the S+A team, how did you lean into more exploratory and sound design-oriented directions?
The bow is such an inspiring tool, especially on the cello with its ideal register for abstract articulations. You get so many harmonics from the instrument and the bow provides some amazing extended sounds.

Interestingly, our dominant hand doesn't produce notes or stop strings on the fingerboard if you're right handed; its role is bow control. Despite our focus on notes and fingerboard movement, much of the more interesting sound and texture from the cello comes from the right hand and bow. Throughout the sessions, we stumbled upon unexpected harmonics and explored unconventional bow placements.
How did these sessions inform the naming of articulations?
Articulation concepts gain atmosphere and emotion when named from a musical perspective, rather being named after the technique used — like a Bartók Pizz.

Poetic names are practical due to complexity in notation. Describing intricate actions like "a gentle crescendo to decrescendo, while moving from ponticello to ordinario" is not a catchy patch name! Titles like Orbits or Plains gives a better idea of what the patch does.
Did you get any time to prepare with the musicians before the Real World Studio sessions?
Recording sessions are typically intense due to the limited three-hour slots per instrument group.

I chose to notate the articulations rather than describing them in the session because the classical musician would instantly understand exactly what we want after reading just a couple of symbols. From there, follow-up queries can be answered, like "Which side of the bow?" or "Which kind of mutes?" since a lot of the music isn’t standard.

Notation serves as a practical tool, accelerating the process to get music played in the room and increasing recording efficiency — which is what you want when you're paying musicians and a studio!
What qualities define an ideal musician for recording this abstract sample library material?
It's a challenge to find these musicians. We seek active players who are technically in good shape, but capable of handling constant performance adjustments and unusual techniques. Stamina is crucial, given the consistency needed across the instruments range.

They need to be someone who’s musical interest goes beyond classical; who has a curiosity for different genres and their instrument's capabilities.

For instance, Eliza Marshall (solo flute), a close friend, is a phenomenal classical, Irish folk and avant-garde musician. She's one of these flautists who turns up at a session with a bag of flutes, tubes, and bansuris that she can blow across! Miriam Wakeling (cello) is a frequent presence in film and scoring sessions, chosen for her personality and curiosity. The ideal musicians are up for the intense, exploratory journey!
Does muscle memory pose a challenge when recording more abstract sounds?
We seek unconventional sounds, avoiding the usual approaches to playing instruments. These sessions require them to break from their automatic techniques. Part of my role is to remind players to sustain unorthodox techniques during performances of articulations at multiple ranges.

An articulation often entails precise bow placement, initially without vibrato, until a few seconds into the phrase. All the while we ask for perfect tuning and no breathing or performance noise!
How does the microphone placement inform how you conduct the players?
Classical players, like stage actors, are trained to project to the back of the theatre. However, in these sessions the mic placement was really close. It was my job to make sure the players understood our desired dynamic.
Do you use any interesting compositional techniques?
During my studies, I experimented with orchestral movement in repeating cells. For instance, violins would perform a phrase freely while another part adhered to the grid.

In one of my other pieces, a string quartet blasts through the notation with no bar lines. For me this is connected to the idea of free Jazz and improvisation but leaning on what classical players do best — read!

The next step of that process has become making my own Kontakt instruments, recording in various spaces and then refining them through digital editing. I’m enjoying beginning organically and enhancing digitally.
How do you flesh out ideas, that are initially sketches, in a short period of time?
When the brief is harmonically led, I’ll start with a piano sketch and then orchestrate outward from there. For a sonic or textural approach, I select the right sound or patch and create movement from within it.
What composers inspire you and what interests you as a listener?
I'm drawn to the textures and sound worlds that emerged post World War II and artists who pushed instruments in new directions – Penderecki through unconventional use and Lutoslawski with innovative notations like repeating cells. Helmut Lachenmann continues to push instruments even further.

Free jazz and improvisation was also happening at the same time. I find the crossover between experimental classical and free jazz interesting while having completely different technical approaches and histories to get to that point!
What instruments are integral to your process?
I always have the Korg MS20 and Prophet Rev2 on my desk — they're old friends. The SOMA Lyra 8 plays a significant role in processing as well as tone generation.

Seeing microphones as instruments can transform seemingly uncool instruments into interesting sounds. By using techniques like brushing on a cajon or quiet plucked ostinatos on a ukulele with specific microphone placement, these instruments become surprisingly versatile.
Interview by Joe Dean
August 2023