As a bona fide artiste, which is to say, one who communes daily with dark, nebulous forces well beyond the ken of the average mortal, there are two questions that, above all others, most oft come my way:

1. What kind of money do you make a.) composing and/or b.) orchestrating and,

2. How do you get the orchestral accompaniments of your- a.) concertos and/or b.) orchestrations for singers of virtually every stripe, to support and balance with your soloist(s) so effing well?

Question 1. (in all its guises) has been getting asked for years (decades, really.) The interesting thing these days is that who’s doing the asking has changed. Originally the sole province of earnest, concerned (and in many cases now deceased) relatives, this question’s cause has of late been taken up- with a probing urgency that even my late grandmother might have found just a tad forward- by theatrical producers, band managers & concert presenters.

In any remotely reasonable case the only sensible answer to 1a. is (as anyone reading this already knows perfectly well) another question: “How much you got?” The answer(s) to 1b., on the other hand, are extremely concrete and can be found here. In order to get the clearest possible picture of how these figures relate to me personally, please remember to multiply all your results by the number “2″.

I owe a continuing and genuine debt of gratitude to the American Music Center and NewMusicBox for keeping the answer(s) to 2a. available for all and sundry to feast their muses thereupon. Even the audio samples still work! I think I’ll reinstate my membership after all.

As regards 2b., my work combining singers and bands with a full orchestral compliment has been aided immeasurably by regular, intensive (and intensely enjoyable) close listening to the widest possible range of “Period Music”. When setting sail on the vast, churning ocean of said music, I am often struck by how infrequently the Siren Song of the vocal line will be doubled by whatever large and colorful instrumental force is being employed on its behalf. Careful study has led me to conclude that this is an essential difference between pop (read: recording studio) and operatic (read: live/narrative/theatrical) orchestral accompaniments. Ceaseless contemplation of this very issue caused the following passage from Robert Russell Bennett’s feast of geekiness, Instrumentally Speaking to leap off the page at me:

“An example of a change that refuses to take a long lease is the elimination of the melody in the orchestra as it accompanies the voice. In all other branches of theater- films, television, recordings, radio- it is impossible to synchronize two or more human beings, always many yards apart, on the same tune. In the musical theater it is another story. First of all, you are dealing with the very first hearing of a tune. Everybody in the whole theater wants to hear it, especially the writers who conceived and developed it. Secondly, you are not competing dynamically with the voice on the stage but are truly accompanying, so that the girl or boy on the stage is a part- the most important part- of the ensemble and the ensemble nearly always profits by the art of doubling melodic lines with color.”

Since a lot of artists in the venues that I work travel with charts originating in (or transcribed from) recording sessions, the situation strikes me as a fascinating case of an archaic recording studio custom making its way into the concert hall (which is itself more like a theater or opera house in the idioms that I work in) as a sort of “standard practice” when new material is needed. So, with R.R.B.’s  observations in mind, I also spend a great deal of time (quality & quantity) with scores & CDs of operas, where wildly inventive, colorful and lyric-driven doublings of vocal lines abound. For me the operas of Puccini, Britten and Strauss are equal parts instructive and enjoyable in this regard.

5 Responses to “Idiot’s Guide”
  1. Stephen O. Jones says:

    Ah, “Instrumentally Speaking,” a distillation of Russell Bennett’s liftetime of “providing whatever the composer left out,” as he once put it. I can understand why some readers were disappointed with its brevity when it came out in the 1970s, but it can be read on many levels; the more you know about the kinds of thinking and decision-making arrangers have to do, the more you realize he’s saying, however concisely. Still, there’s nothing like looking at his own scores, whether his original works or arrangements. Even the “stock” arr’s he was doing in the 1910s and 1920s were models of their kind, repaying careful study.

    What did he say was the most valuable study he’d done in preparation for his commercial arranging? _Counterpoint_.

    Oh, yes, and there’s the matter of him doing all that under pressing deadlines, in ink, while not going to a piano (much less a computer-scoring program) at all. Long live Russell!

  2. Stephen O. Jones says:

    p.s. And, oh yes, the vast majority of his commercial arranging (as well as his original works, of course) was designed for entirely “acoustic” balances, not something dependent upon body- or headset- mics and a sound engineer in the back of the hall………

  3. Tom Myron says:

    Thanks for your great comments Stephen. I think your right: the more you know about how the whole process works the more you’ll get out of what R.R.B. is saying. And I just can’t say enough good things about this:

    http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Music/MusicHistoryWestern/TwentiethCentury/?view=usa&ci=9780195309478

    For the TRULY hard core!

  4. T. Robbins says:

    I am looking forward to reading this book. I am a bit intrigued by the comments left by “Stephen O. Jones” sincie Stephen O. Jones was a Broadway orchestrator that worked in the 1920s and 1930s. Is this Stephen O. Jones any relation to the original Stephen O. Jones?

  5. Tom Myron says:

    Yeah, thanks T.R.- I caught that in a Google search right after I responded to his/her post!

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