A Lament for The Culture

Iain Banks
Iain Banks (from Wikipedia)
I’m currently coming towards the end of the month’s challenge to create short musical pieces and accompanying photographs based on prompts from FMSPhotoADay. The results so far can be found on my previous post on the subject, but I thought today’s prompt was worthy of a little more in-depth commentary.

The Culture

The given prompt was simply ‘culture’. At any other time I might have responded differently to the word, but the last time I did the Photo-A-Day, one of my favourite authors, Iain (M) Banks passed away from cancer and I dedicated the photo from that day to him. Since he has written a series of Science Fiction novels set around a Utopian society called ‘The Culture’, I could think of nothing I would rather write some music for. One of the popular characteristics of this space-faring society is that their huge ships have a wide range of peculiar and often esoteric names: ‘So Much For Subtlety’ or ‘Poke It With A Stick’, for example. Across nine different books, well over 100 different ships have been named. Wikipedia has a list of all of them, grouped by book. This would form the basis of my piece.

The Challenge

Planning the piece
I’ve been using this series of challenges to make myself try out new things musically. This time I decided to let ‘The Culture’ speak for itself. I copied all the names into a spreadsheet and used various functions to strip out the first letter of every word in the ship names. Since these covered most of the alphabet, I started by making the letter A match the note A and so on, until every letter was represented by a musical note. This left me with a long list of notes on a page, but not much else. To add some variety, I decided that every different class of ship should be represented by a different sound/instrument. Doing so meant that several lines of music would be running at once. The next stage was to arrange the notes in such a way that not everything was playing at once. To do this, I created the plan shown to the right here, with each column being an instrument / ship class. I juggled around the notes so that ships appearing in the same book generally appeared in the piece roughly together, whilst keeping the overall order of appearance the same as shown on the Wiki page.

The Music

The next stage was to convert the notes into actual music. I had planned to use a text-to-MIDI conversion for this, but I had a problem with the source data and ended up having to input the notes by hand instead. One benefit to this was that I had better control over the final music, being able to adjust levels as I went along. I had also made the decision that every ship would be allowed one bar for its full name. Thus there are some bars with a single note, but many with two, three and four notes, depending on the length of the name. Take a look at the list and you’ll also see a few names that are as long as ten words long – these proved more awkward to squeeze into a single bar and I’m not sure how well an automated system would have coped with the task, so I’m glad I took the route I did. Then came the ship known as the ‘Mistake Not…‘ – despite my better judgement, I stuck to the full official name, which is ‘Mistake Not My Current State Of Joshing Gentle Peevishness For The Awesome And Terrible Majesty Of The Towering Seas Of Ire That Are Themselves The Milquetoast Shallows Fringing My Vast Oceans Of Wrath‘ – yes, a whopping 33 words to fit into a single bar. Most music software is not too familiar with 33rd notes, so this was a bit of a delicate task.
To choose the instrumentation, I picked a string section sound for the GCU class, as this is the largest class, and worked out from there, applying woodwind sounds to those sections that fit slower notes or plucked sounds to those faster parts (i.e. the ships with the long names). You can see the whole arrangement mapped out below (click on it for a full-size view):
It took quite a while to select suitable instruments for each class in such a way that they all fitted together, but eventually with some level adjustments, I was satisfied with the result. Adding a sprinkle of reverb and spreading the instruments across the stereo spectrum was the icing on the cake. The finished piece is thus my interpretation of a piece created, at least in part, by Iain Banks’ naming of his spaceships; I guess you could call it modern classical in style, with a mix of tonal and atonal sections, so it won’t be to everybody’s taste, but it will always make me think of those massive ships with their sarcastic Minds.

Here is the final result – it’s part of the new album ‘Oddities‘, but you can listen to just the track right here: