deBreved, the Tim Davies Orchestration Blog
I have been thinking about writing a book about orchestration and notation for quite a while. The problem with this idea is time; it would be a long time before I got everything I wanted to say organized. Books are also an old medium, and do not allow multimedia and interaction. It then came to me that a blog format might be a better way to go, so here it is. The hardest part was coming up with a name.
I have a unique job: I orchestrate music and conduct orchestras in Hollywood. Neither piece alone is that uncommon but there are not that many people that do both of them as their day job. This has given me the rare opportunity to learn and experiment with live professional ensembles. I can wonder what something might sound like and within a short period a suitable project will pop up that allows me to try it out. Most of my education in the art of orchestration has come from the experience of doing it. When I was an undergrad, I skipped the university orchestration courses and instead put together my own ensembles. I wrote pieces, convinced people to play them and conducted the ensemble myself. Through pure fluke I have ended up in LA doing similar things for a living. In preparation for writing this blog I have spent some time reading the common texts. Some of these I had glanced at in the past, perhaps to check a range, while others I had never opened. I was curious to see what information was there and what was not. I was surprised that a few things I consider fundamental are not covered at all or are scattered amongst many different sources, with none covering the topic completely. There is certainly a lot to be learned by studying as many of these texts as you can, but there’s a world of additional information to be covered here. So I am not going to start from the beginning; think of this blog as a summary and addendum to all the books already out there. I am going to clarify some concepts and even challenge others. I feel that too often things are done a certain way because the orchestrator saw it somewhere or was told that it was the right way, without ever really thinking about it.
Orchestration is a broad art form. It can mean anything from taking a piano piece and writing it for a string quartet to expanding a sparse sketch (or in Hollywood, a MIDI file) into a triple wind orchestra, filling in voices and lines along the way. The orchestrator’s job is to make appropriate choices about colors and textures, decide who will play which parts, and then assign dynamics and articulations in order to realize the overall vision. Many people approach this task drawing on examples they’ve learned from the common literature; if you have studied orchestration at university, you have probably done some of these tasks as assignments. Historical examples are a great foundation, but to create your own orchestrations I believe you need to be intimately familiar with the instruments themselves. This applies whether you are orchestrating your own composition or working for a composer on a film project, and it’s worth noting that I will often use the term ‘orchestrator’ interchangeably with ‘composer’ throughout this blog. Once you know how every instrument works and sounds, you should be able to then hear them in your head in any combination.
Most of my experience with the orchestra is in the recording studio and not the concert hall. Nevertheless, the two situations have a lot in common. Be it a film score or a new concert work, we are putting music in front of the orchestra that has never been heard before. My goal when I notate is to make the musicians sound like they have played the music before even though they are sight reading. “But don’t studio musicians know your shorthands and tricks?” you might ask. Yes and no. There are some notation practices I know the studio players in LA or London will understand but that other orchestras might not right away, however I think some of the things we have come up with in Hollywood should be used in other places. I am lucky enough to record with the top studio players in the world but I have also done many sessions in other places with people less experienced in studio work and they seem to get it pretty quickly as well.
One really exciting part of this blog will be interviews with the people I work with. I am very lucky in that I get to work with the people that you hear at the movies and on the radio. The interviews will not only include stories from the trenches, but will also be a chance for the players to share things about their instruments, bust some myths, and demonstrate things that are not to be found anywhere else. I will also talk to some of the people behind the scenes in the scoring world, the engineers, studio techs, Pro Tools recordists, copyists and librarians. It takes a lot of people to pull off a score.
I am very passionate about notation and find the relationship between notation and orchestration fascinating, but neglected in most discussion. When books use examples from the common repertoire they focus on range and color and how so-and-so voiced a chord, but they usually leave out mention of performance practice considerations. This is a critical error as any given excerpt will be performed much differently if presented to the orchestra to read in isolation, with no information about composer or time period. In short, performance practice governs interpretation of notation. Understanding this, and thus understanding the difference between necessary details in the score and wasted ink will help you notate pieces for a quick and accurate performance in the absence of any historical performance practice.
That brings me to a concept I like to call the Orchestral Default. Strip away all the articulations and hairpins and what sound does a note make? A bit of extra information will not do any harm but I have always had the goal of reducing the information on the page down to the minimum needed. I want to challenge people to really think about how they notate things. There are a few conventions out there that could do with some updating. There will always be more than one way to do something, and the orchestra is brilliant at working things out, but who wants to do more work than they have to?
I am also a Grammy-nominated big band composer, arranger and drummer, so I plan to have some articles related to jazz composition and arranging. I have aspired to mold myself after the great Hollywood arrangers and orchestrators of the past; people like Nelson Riddle, Oliver Nelson and Johnny Mandel. While known primarily now for their jazz arrangements, each of them also worked on film and TV scores.
I hope this turns into a resource for many, and a place where we can discuss this little niche in the music world.