Sounding an audiobook: interview to the composer Alessandro Ponti

Music teacher, composer, multifaceted musician … Alessandro Ponti is responsible for the music department for the soundtrack of the Soeliok audiobook. The breath of the earth. A unique project in Italy, a real universe where the paper book, the eBook, the audio book and soon many other novelties coexist.
What does it mean to create music for an audio book? Where does one start from and how does the narrator’s voice integrate into the musical plot? We talked about it with Alessandro, also investigating his important cultural background.

Happy reading!

What studies did you do to become who you are today?

A diploma in piano, one in harpsichord (my passion was the study of performance practices and original instruments); a lot of self-taught study of various training subjects for a composer (especially counterpoint and orchestration), a Master of Arts in composition, taken after his instrument studies, and a degree in literature in parallel with the years of conservatory. And a rather fundamental masterclass of “music for the image”.
alessandro ponti plays the piano to compose the soundtracks of Soeliok

You compose, teach and play… which of these activities do you feel most yours?

They are worlds that interpenetrate, but the essential one is the composition.

How long have you been doing this job?

I started writing for images in 2006 (my first job was a documentary) and in 2009 I also started working in the video game industry. The business has diversified a lot in recent years (films, other documentaries, classical music, arrangements), but it has also evolved towards my greater stylistic awareness.

In addition to “classical” composition, therefore, do you also deal with music for video games?

The world of video games basically offers the composer the possibility of ‘losing’ the linearity of the form (from A = the beginning of the piece to B = its conclusion) and arriving at an ‘open’ and non-linear formal structure. For each formal segment it is necessary to define and define the ‘rules’ that connect it to other segments from time to time. This kind of technique is called adaptive composition and falls within the concept of the randomness of music.

How important is it to be a musician before being a composer?

Musicality is the common trait of every composer, it cannot be done without, on pain of the sterility of the product or work.

Could you do without technology?

I had traditional training in music and learned to imagine it with my inner ear (relative, not absolute!) And to write it on paper. Being first of all a musician, in the hypothesis of a thermo-nuclear-global catastrophe I could continue to make and write music even starting from almost ‘prehistoric’ instruments. However, I make extensive use of every technology that I can use, customizing it, to create or recreate my sound world (DAW, software, samples, MIDI controllers, and so on).

Interesting, I take note.

What tools do you use to write music?

Handwriting (on yellow paper and with HB pencil) is fundamental for me, even when I write music for images (and by this I also mean for a project like Soéliok, where the images are not provided by a video, as generally happens, but they are created by the author’s narration and made even more ‘real’ by the voice of Carlo Valli).

The goal is to represent as faithfully as possible that inner music that accompanies the image and emotion created in me by the story (always in the stylistic-musical context that we have defined for Soéliok). The hand allows you to let the idea flow with more clarity and fluidity and seeing this idea taking shape on paper allows you to control its shape, its development in space or time.

When I write ‘classical’ music, i.e. intended for a concert performance, I sometimes prepare the writing work with schemes, small texts and even simple drawings precisely to outline the overall form of the composition, its (more or less complex) formal path .

To then achieve professional quality in the score, I use software. I have very recently started using Steinberg’s Dorico, with which I finally found a lot of that fluidity that I have always lost in the transition to the computer. And many other things this software can do!

Who are the artists who have influenced you?

Mainly Debussy, Stravinsky, Mozart, the Weather Report and Joe Zawinul.

What music do you listen to when you are not in work mode?

Symphonic music (in this moment especially of the romantic period and of the twentieth century), twentieth century string quartets, rock (classic, I love the Marshall sound of AC / DC), jazz (Blue Note 50s / 60s, Frank Sinatra of same years – few (re) know how much swing that man had), southern blues / rock.

Who wins between the organ and the piano?

The Hammond organ. There is no challenge, its sound has something spiritual for me.

You teach computer music: what does this subject consist of?

It is expressed as the applied ‘theory’ (in Logic) that serves as the basis for orchestral simulations with samples.
alessandro ponti in a sound experimentation with the piano strings

Is Soeliok the first project in which you collaborate with ZoneCreative?

No, in the past ZoneCreative and I had worked together on a commercial-industrial video, for which we produced a song written ad hoc.

How did you react to the proposal to sound an audiobook?

I was both deeply attracted and intimidated by it. Attracted by the requested genre (fantasy orchestral) and even more ‘galvanized’ by the working environment itself. Appalled by the amount of work and almost skeptical that he has never done or seen anything like this.

How did you find working with ZoneCreative?

I found myself very well. During the previous weeks, I had had the pleasure of helping Daniele and Davide to define the sounds, software and some specific controllers necessary for the production of music columns, orchestral soundtracks, helping them to create the real ZoneCreative music department. Already after the first few minutes of work and thanks also to their friendship and availability, I began to perceive in that place an incredibly positive and inspiring atmosphere for creating music. From a professional point of view, then, I recognized in them my same attention to detail and the same taste for beauty, rediscovering that powerful affinity I had tasted with the first musical project (Aeris).

It all starts with writing

Daniele has also chosen you for your degree in literature. Do you think it helped?

I believe that it is always very useful, indeed fundamental, in music in general and in applied music in particular, as in this work. The fundamental trait is that it is about narration, for music as well as for text, and that the final result depends on the way of communicating objectives, emotions and situations with the textual medium, with the graphic / artistic one and with the musical one.

The audiobook has many situations and characters, have you established any rules?

We set up clearly defined, albeit flexible, grids to describe the characters, moods or situations, which could then guide the composition like a real formal ‘map’ already drawn.

Did you plan from the beginning to soundtrack the whole novel?

No, it was thought to sound only some ‘master’ chapters and then derive less important musical backgrounds for the other chapters. During construction, however, Daniele and Davide were so satisfied with the result that they decided to soundtrack the entire audiobook. The work was decidedly more demanding, but for me it was a greater satisfaction
alessandro and daniele working on a Soeliok soundtrack

Daniele is very attentive to musical narration. How did you approach the job?

First of all, each character has a motif that distinguishes him, an original motif that then takes different forms or declinations depending on what happens in the text. The use of the so-called leitmotifs is a very useful and traditional technique (see Wagner or John Williams) precisely to create musical material and give it an intelligible form by the listener.

Were you inspired by any particular soundtrack?

We initially drew more from music (or soundtracks) for film and TV such as How To Train Your Dragon, The Lord of the Rings, Vikings and a few other soundtracks. Daniele did a real initial music editing job to experiment with some of his ideas already in the preliminary phase (before even letting me start the actual work). Jacopo Mazza had already composed the theme of Fiòrderik, the one you will often hear along with my other themes. I expanded the range of references and ratings after the first drafts, to follow some characterizations that I intended to use. In general we drew from musical impressionism, Debussy, certain harmonies and orchestrations of the 90s (a la Alan Silvestri), a bit of Harry Potter (essential for the fantasy genre now).

How did you interface with Daniele? Did you have a specific working method?

We had some difficulties at first, because he doesn’t have all those connections that the Borg have (this quote comes from the Star Trek universe. Basically, the Borg are super-connected beings, Ed.). Then, with Davide’s help, we discovered that it also worked with bluetooth and from there everything went smoothly. We still have a few problems getting him to read the music …

To the fighting posts!

What kind of equipment did you use?

We used Logic and Cubase. In Cubase, being my main working sequencer , I created the sequences and orchestrations; Logic acted as a work timeline, as a work desk where to bring all the musical and sound contributions and edit them with the voice of Carlo Valli, which had been recorded in the ZoneCreative studios in Logic. At the end of August 2019, at the beginning of the work, I adapted my personal orchestral template to the new libraries purchased by ZoneCreative (some new elements of Spitfire Audio, then Cinematic Studio Brass and Strings), creating what would have been the working template . In addition, through Vienna Ensemble Pro on my laptop, I used some physical modeling instruments such as the SWAM Woodwinds and the SWAM Cello from Audio Modeling. I also used a ZoneCreative Doepfer keyboard controller, sometimes a Seaboard Roli and Palette Gear MIDI automation controllers.

Did you read the book before starting work?

Of course! I read the entire trilogy in one weekend, in preparation for the work. But it was a reading in one breath, exciting!
daniele draws the scheme for the soundtracking of the audiobook chapters

Before being a story, Soeliok is a universe, can it be perceived in history?

Yes, at least for me, much of the pleasure in reading this text came from feeling myself dropped into this universe.

Do you have a favorite character?

Without a doubt Nodfri!

What is the musical theme you are most satisfied with?

The map and some developments of the motif of Mira and Ebak.

Have you also planned another diffusion for the music?

Yes, first of all we plan to pick up all the music again (I think after having completed the work on all three books) to produce an ‘album’ version, containing some suites that can tell the story of Soeliok with the music alone. In this phase we also intend to re-record some passages, hopefully also with an orchestra, and to redo an ad hoc mix. At the same time, I proposed to Daniele to create a collection of easy pieces (for piano or for piano and violin and so on) containing the main motifs of Soeliok for use in music schools or for simple enthusiasts.

In an audio book the narrator's voice is always present: is the composition influenced by it?

The composition is absolutely influenced. First of all, as the cinematographic tradition teaches, we try to avoid the area of ​​the sound spectrum in which the narrator’s voice acts, usually the middle area of ​​the sound field. The activity present in the composition, the frequency of the notes, the internal movement and the “density” of the composition are also affected. And orchestration: simple things work, and the more rarefied they are, the better they work than continuous, very active and full of notes tracks. On the other hand, we always look for the opening (for example between one phrase and another) in which to ‘place’ a chord or sound with more dynamics, so that the mix is ​​already very dynamic and active in the composition itself.

First of all ... let's tune!

Daniele is also a musician: did he interfere with your creativity?

It was very helpful and inspiring. In these types of work I really love collaboration or simply being able to take some musical suggestions and bring them where you had not initially thought.

Are you satisfied with the work done so far?

I am very satisfied, also because the strategies (compositional and more properly technical) adopted to cover a greater amount of audiobook have proved to be really effective.

How will you organize to soundtrack the second and third books of the trilogy?

We already have some motifs from the second book and obviously those created for the first book that you can hear in full in the web book . The way of working has proved effective, but we can improve it still further. From my point of view, I hope to be able to further simplify the line of work without compromising the quality and depth of the tracks produced. We hope to be able to support the production of book 2 and 3 with a crowdfunding campaign that will allow us to record even more material live. Some motif or theme with an orchestra would not be bad, even in anticipation of the album! ZoneCreative would also lend itself very well to acting as a musical center (where local and non-local classical musicians meet, play together and record, where to create an ensemble that can be involved in every musical production of the agency).

After the work on Soeliok, do you and ZoneCreative have other collaborations in mind?

We have many ideas of collaborations together. We’re talking about recording more, making music videos and video game music. But I don’t want to reveal more.

Last question: what can we do to make Daniele play in other keys other than E flat?

I do not have an answer, the academic world has been investigating the question for years, but we will soon see if Davide, in the piano lessons of the “Despicable Me” Maestro Ponti, will be able to move with ease even in D major.
Thanks to Alessandro for telling us a little more about the world of music and composition for a particular publishing project such as the audio book. Want to find out more about Soeliok’s fantasy adventure?

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