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At Sea: Composing Music While Sailing to Tokyo

Updated: Nov 4, 2023

When I signed on to sail from Seattle to Tokyo, via Alaska, I did so because there were nine scheduled sea days. My goal was to use the time at sea as an opportunity to focus on composing music using Spitfire Audio modules. With few to no opportunities for composers to have their creations performed by live musicians, many composers are using impeccably crafted audio modules.

Spitfire Audio provides professional level audio modules for film score composers as well as more modestly priced modules for the amateur. Spitfire wants to make music composition in the reach of all. For example, pros who want to get a really big string sound can purchase the Hans Zimmer 300 strings module for about $800. People like me can get more modestly constructed modules for from $0 to $129. After hearing some amazing compositions on YouTube made with these modules, I decided to purchase a few and learn to use them.

I already own Notion, a musical scoring app, and have installed in it sounds recorded by the London Symphony as well as unusual percussion instruments. That’s what I’ve used in the past. But Spitfire modules work from within Logic Pro, a digital audio workstation. While I have some familiarly with Logic, I’ve not used it for composing. So another goal of the trip was to learn how to craft a composition using Logic.

I’m more skilled at entering notes on a page than I am at entering notes using a piano keyboard. I can rarely play what I want to write. When I do, the timing is off. For everything I composed on this trip, I first sketched out the basic themes in Notion, exported them as MIDI data, and imported the MIDI data into Logic Pro. By the end of the trip I had mastered this workflow. I also brought along a two-and-a-half octave MIDI keyboard to noodle around on before settling on the basic themes of a piece.

Interestingly, I never thought to purchase a good drum module from Spitfire. So for The Wild Sea, I used only Notion. The advantage of using Notion is that I now have a complete music score, whereas exporting a usable music score for the other five pieces will take some work on my part. The disadvantage of Notion is that it is easy to keep adding instruments. Now I have this huge score and ambitions to fill it out even more when I get home where I can use a screen larger than my laptop.

I hope you enjoy listening to these compositions as much as I enjoyed creating them.

Homage to The Loop

The Loop was a sci-fi serial available on Amazon. Besides an interesting storyline, it had arresting visuals and a hypnotic score by Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan. I’ve always enjoyed Glass’s style of minimalism and it turned out to be perfect for The Loop. With tunes from The Loop running around in my head, I decided to compose my first piece at sea as an homage to the show.

Scored for Celeste, flute, piccolo, xylophone, tubular bells, bassoon violin, viola, cello, bass, harp, Glacier Marimbium (Cinematic Pads).

The Chase

One way to get inspiration for a composition is to use a visual prompt. I purchased the animated sci-fi film Fantastic Planet with the hope of scoring some of the scenes. What I hadn’t realized until I sat down to compose to the film is that Logic Pro shows only a black box if a film is copyright protected. Without being able to synchronize music with the film in real time, it becomes impossible to compose a plausible score. Instead, I let the opening chase scene provide inspiration and made no attempt at all to mimic the action.

Scored for SATB chorus, violin, viola, cello, bass, celeste, and a variety of synthesized sounds from Tape Synth and Cinematic Pads modules.

Restful Sea

While travelling along the coast of British Columbia, and Alaska, we had calm seas. Only after I finished the composition did it occur to me that its tonality has an Asian flavor. With Japan as my target destination, I thought it worked well.

Scored for Dulcimer, violin. marimba, Moonhopping (Cinematic Pads), Popcorn Tape Synth, one other synth sound.

Journey North

I’ve always wanted to learn to play the Uilleann pipes. I have a set, but without a teacher, I haven’t been able to make much progress learning them. Pipe teachers are rare in California. As an alternative, I downloaded the free Spitfire Audio Lab plugin that features Uilleann pipes and dulcimer. This composition reminds me of Outlander.

Scored for SATB chorus, Uilleann pipes, piccolo, dulcimer, xylophone, flute, bass, cello, harp, violin.

Crossing the Dateline

We crossed the International Dateline and October 12 disappeared. It seemed fitting to mark the occasion of a lost day with a short composition.

Scored for Glockenspiel, bass, Glacial Marimbium (Cinematic Pads) and Roadside Crosstalk (Cinematic Pads).

The Wild Sea

When we left Seward, Alaska, we were supposed to head west past the Aleutian chain and then turn south, reaching Hakodate in Northern Japan on October 16. That didn’t happen. During the next several days, five storms brewed in the North Pacific. One had winds the force of a Category 3 hurricane. Another was Super Typhoon Bolaven. This caused the Captain to first sail south to avoid the storms. He plotted a course to slip between two of the storms. Then when the typhoon pushed north on a collision course with us, he had to go south again. We ended up spending more time at sea than expected and arrived to Tokyo from the south, thus missing our stops at Hakodate and Sendai in Northern Japan.

All this rerouting spared us from dangerous seas, but it didn’t spare us from some wild water. There were days when we couldn’t go on the promenade deck due to waves and high winds. The ship slapped against the sea so hard at times that I was convinced heavy equipment in the below decks had come loose and was knocking around.

Our cabin was on deck 9, forward, in the bow and two decks directly below the bridge. This meant that when the ship slapped the water, the pounding was quite loud in our cabin. I could feel the ship shudder before every slap onto the sea. I tried to communicate this experience in The Wild Sea. The middle section of the piece depicts the bit of relative calm we had now and again.

Scored for SATB chorus, violin, viola, cello bass, piccolo, flute, clarinet, tenor sax, concert toms, xylophone, glockenspiel, bass drum crash cymbal, suspended cymbal, bodhran, wind machine, piano, harp.

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