ChucKed Elephant Letters Overture

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Background (Weeks 1-2)

The Elephant Letters (2015-16) is an in-progress children's opera that I was commissioned to write by author and librettist G.A. Bradshaw. The opera is based on a children's book, The Elephant Letters, by Bradshaw. The story tells of two elephant cousins living in Africa, Billy and Kani, who are separated through poaching when they are young. Billy is transported to a zoo, and the story focuses on the exchange of letters between the two elephants. Already translated from English into Swahili, Korean, and Chinese, the story teaches its audiences about the elephant poaching crisis, conservation, and the animals of Africa.


The piece that this project is based on will serve as the overture to the children's opera. The point of the opera is it's playability- it is supposed to be easy enough for beginner children's orchestras to play, while fun enough for more advanced orchestras to play. To make it easy enough to perform, I minimized the orchestration as much as possible, to get the bare bones of each family instrument- one flute, one clarinet, one horn, one violin, one cello, marimba, vibraphone, djembe and a host of percussion toys (shaker, claves, maracas, triangle, castanets). I heavily used percussion since a) I play percussion and know it well, and b) percussion plays an extremely vital role in African music. The toys and djembe serve as the accompaniment, while the woodwinds, brass, strings, and mallet instruments make the melody.

Overture Form and Analysis

The piece begins slowly and quietly, in C minor, with just the cello and marimba playing. After a short introduction, the piece transitions into the main musical material, with the percussion toys and djembe gradually adding on to each other. After a djembe solo, the marimba enters with the main musical verse, followed by the cello, violin, and vibraphone. In the chorus, the vibraphone and marimba have rapidly moving sixteenth note lines, the violin and cello reprise material from the verse, and the djembe has various rhythms to give the piece a percussive feel. The second verse starts with the marimba and vibraphone, before adding the flute, clarinet, and french horn. The second chorus has all the instruments playing, before transitioning to the outro. As in the beginning, the cello and the marimba are the melody, but this time they are accompanied by the percussion. After a short ending, the piece concludes.

Score and Music

Elephant Letters Overture Score

Elephant Letters Overture Audio File

Performance Structure (Week 3)

The Final project will consist of the melodic lines (marimba, vibraphone, flute, clarinet, french horn, violin, and cello) being played through an iTunes aiff file through ChucK; me playing the djembe and a suspended cymbal live; and me also "playing" my laptop, where I will both program and play different shaker sounds, and program my computer keyboard to make randomly generated shaker sounds.

Chuck Scripts (Week 4)

Below are scripts of the five shaker loops; the read audio file of the melodic instruments; my shaker-keyboard instrument; the read audio file of the introductory part; and the score/initialization of what I have so far.

Elephant Letters Overture Chuck Code

Performance Roadmap (Week 5)

Run the "Read Elephant Letters" script, and play suspended cymbal over it. The cymbal playing should generally be played quietly with lots of rolls, and should only get loud corresponding to when the audio file gets loud. Towards the end of the script, when the melody turns transitions to a major mode from a minor mode, the player should start playing djembe. After three measures of playing djembe, the player should turn on the score/"initialize" script, while at the same time playing one more measure on the djembe. The player should then start the shaker keyboard and let the shaker, claves, tambourine, triangle, and castanets parts settle in, before soloing on the shaker keyboard for 8 measures, and then soloing on the djembe for 8 measures. The djembe player should then play 4 bars of transition, before starting the "Read Elephant" script. For the remainder of the piece, the player should alternate between playing the djembe and the shaker keyboard, and should focus only on the djembe when the chorus's begin/the audio file gets more involved. At the end of the piece, once the "Read Elephant" file ends, the player should gradually take out the shaker loops from the score/"initialize," beginning with the castanets, then the triangle 2 bars later, then the tambourine 2 bars later, then the claves 2 bars later, and finally the shakers 2 bars later.

Next Steps (Week 6)

I will play the piece twice more before the final presentation- the Thursday of Week 7 (May 12th) and the Thursday of Week 9 (May 26th). I will continue to play around with the levels of the overall sound and of each individual instrument, and will incorporate a cadenza-like, drum solo section.

Performance Two (Week 7)

On Thursday of Week 7, I performed the second iteration of my piece. I played with the overall gain levels, to make everything sound smoother, and incorporated a drum solo to the piece to add some performative virtuosity. The main critiques were that the cymbal hits at the beginning were too loud (which would require more practice/gentler playing/softer sticks), that the shaker instrument was too loud (which I have already lowered the gain), and that there could be experimentation with using different channels.

Next Steps (Week 8)

For my next performance (Week 9), I will play around with different channel setups, as well as practice the piece generally as a whole, in order to get the timing and the flow down as well as possible.

Week 9 Performance (Week 9)

Third iteration coming later this week! I decided to do away with the keyboard shaker instrument (so I could focus solely on playing the live djembe and cymbols), and mic the djembe a small amount (utilize two speakers). This will allow the djembe sound to mix better with the chuck audio files and scripts. I also made all the sounds play on all speakers, except the claves and triangle (the "left" speakers) and the maracas and castanets (the "right" speakers). This gave the sound a nice fullness, and also incorporated some spatialization with the chuck scripts. Finally, I diminished the volume of the introductory audio file a bit, so the live cymbal hits would be more hearable.

Future/Final Presentation

I will practice once more on stage at before the presentation, and will present the final in class on Monday, June 6th!


Now that I have performed and completed the project, I can reflect on the quarter. As part of my project, I wanted to implement a piece of music that I have been working on, along with live performance, in order to satisfy my desire for live performance/traditional composition. Moreover, this quarter I have used ChucK as the primary programming language for my primary classes, so I wanted to implement ChucK scripts as well. I am happy with the way the ChucK scripts (the read-audio files, shaker loops) turned out, and I think the scripts, audio files, and live performance meshed together nicely. As a result, I think that the project and performance were a great success! I've greatly enjoyed working on the project this quarter, and will continue to play around with the combination of live music and ChucK to make music in the future!