Friday, January 14, 2011

The Art of the Orchestrator

Update: This post is sort of an example of why one shouldn't post in too much of a hurry -- the post is likely to contain some assumptions that haven't really been thought through. Noel Katz explains in comments why the post below is probably based on incorrect assumptions.


Speaking of musicals, again: orchestration has always been one of the aspects of musical theatre that I've been most interested in. I always used to look at the cast album to see who the orchestrator was, and formed a very vague idea of what different orchestrators' "sounds" were. I later found out that the idea was even more vague than I knew, since nearly all orchestrators had to use uncredited help, sometimes just for incidental music, but sometimes for major numbers. Steven Suskin's recent book "The Sound of Broadway Music" was the first to give a comprehensive idea of who orchestrated what on each show, which finally made it possible to discuss individual styles with any accuracy.

What the book doesn't fully explain -- it spends some time on that, but maybe not as much as I hoped -- is how much actual composing an orchestrator does. If you listen to a song on a demo recording, before the orchestration is done, and then listen to the final version, there's often a lot of musical material that the composer didn't put into the melody or the accompaniment. Bits of orchestral commentary between the stanzas, countermelodies, even quotations from other composers (the orchestrator of A Little Night Music, Jonathan Tunick, threw in a quote from Rosenkavalier as an in-joke near the end of the first act). Some of the additional musical ideas in these arrangements probably come from others -- the dance arranger, or the composer's assistant, and maybe sometimes even the composer himself. (Sometimes it's the conductor: on Li'l Abner the conductor, Lehman Engel, got a credit for "musical continuity" for writing everything except the actual tunes.) But at least part of an orchestrator's job seems to be adding to the song, rather than just arranging it as it appears in the rough piano version.

Here's a random example, just because a piano demo happens to exist. This song from Stephen Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle is supposed to be sung by an uptight nurse pretending, unconvincingly, to be a French seductress and trying to seduce a mental patient who's pretending to be a doctor. It was that kind of show. I don't think much of the song except for one line: "I like your, 'ow you say, imperturbable perspicacity." Though that one line is so good it makes the whole song worthwhile.

CPWM 2 - kewego
Mots-clés : cpwm one

And here's the song in the orchestrated version by Don Walker. Walker is probably my favorite Broadway orchestrator, even though many songs he's credited with were actually ghosted by others. (He took on so many shows in the '50s that he adopted a "factory" system, hiring multiple assistants and farming multiple numbers out to them. By the '60s, his assistants were off doing their own shows, and he reduced his workload.) He started with a reputation as a jazzy orchestrator, and mostly did musical comedies in the '40s and '50s, but what he loved best was lush, romantic shows that allowed him to conjure up a unique sound-world: among his favorite jobs were Carousel, Most Happy Fella and She Loves Me.

Anyone Can Whistle was Walker's only show for Sondheim, and he apparently thought that the score was needlessly complicated. The former Walker assistants who orchestrated Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum felt the same way: Irwin Kostal is quoted in The Sound of Broadway Music that Sondheim nearly ruined "Love, I Hear" by giving him a sketch with pointlessly complex accompaniment and insisting that all his accompaniment ideas be used in the orchestration. (Luckily, Leonard Bernstein heard the arrangement during previews and bawled Sondheim out for it, shaming him into changing it: "Who do you think you are? Me?") By the time Sondheim emerged as a successful composer with Company he had improved a lot as a composer, or at least figured out how to make his clever ideas feel organic to the song. His later success as a composer naturally reflects back on his early work, but I don't think Anyone Can Whistle is as good a score as many that were being written in the early '60s.

In the case of the Whistle number, anyway, Walker and the dance arranger (who I'm assuming is responsible for some of the ideas in the dance breaks at least) don't change much about the music. It's more a question of trying to liven it up and support two performers who aren't really singers (Lee Remick and Harry Guardino), finding different "fills" and decorations for each stanza, to give each repetition the feeling of being somehow different in color and tone from the one that came before it. The overall effect is to make Sondheim's music sound more conventionally Broadway, but that's what this number needs to make it work.

The other thing about Walker's work here is how he pulls off a very strange choice of instrumentation. Forum was one of a few shows without violins, but Walker here went his trainees one better and also cut out violas -- the string section consists of five cellos, plus a bass. He handles this so well that you hardly notice the absence of higher string instruments, but it gives a subconscious dark, creepy feel to the whole show.

CPWM 1 - kewego
Mots-clés : cpwm one


noelkatz said...

How much actual composing an orchestrator does is none. A composer does composing. Sometimes arrangement is farmed out to an arranger, and many orchestrators serve as arrangers. It's also true that some composers aren't able to produce a score that can be orchestrated without arrangement. Some write lead sheets, which are just the vocal line with chord symbols. Bob Merrill wrote less than that, and needed an amanuensis to notate. The lines get blurry because orchestrators work closely with composers: one can picture Tunick adding the Rosenkavalier because he knew Sondheim would enjoy the in-joke, as with the piece of Mahler's a few years earlier.

But Sondheim, and any composer who cares enough to take responsibility for his work, commits to paper a full score which contains every note the orchestra should play. Orchestrators, in assigning instruments, may omit a redundant note, or choose a different octave, but they do not add. It is, of course, a collaboration, as the composer hears the result and is pleased or sends it back to the drawing board.

Your Come Play Wiz Me example is misleading. What you hear on Sondheim's piano demo is NOT the score he handed Walker. It's a reduction (or, more likely, an earlier draft) tailored to Sondheim's modest piano ability. A good piano accompaniment, obviously, uses a maximum of ten fingers, while an orchestra can cover many more pitches. (Strings can play more than one pitch at once and today's bands usually have more than one keyboard.) What you'd really need to compare, if you're interested, is the score Sondheim handed to Walker with the full orchestral score. I doubt you'd find additional notes.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Noel: Thanks. I mean it. I was afraid this post would turn out to be based on a misconception, because, again, the literature on this stuff is very sketchy and I honestly don't know who does what. (Apart from something like The Producers where the arranger-slash-composer gets his own credit, separately from the orchestrator.)

I would note that there are examples, albeit isolated ones, of orchestrators adding in their own orchestral commentary, accompaniment figures, and fills. One example, sticking with Walker, is that he was (or claimed to be, which is a different thing) responsible for the famous idea, in "If I Loved You," of picking a phrase from the refrain to use as orchestral commentary between stanzas (the descending figure that is first sung to "time and again I would try to say...").

I also was told, perhaps wrongly, that the even more famous figure in "People Will Say We're In Love" (I wish I could write it here but it's the the bit the orchestra plays right after "Don't throw bouquets at me") is a Russell Bennett addition, not something in the score he was given by Rodgers.

Of course that might just be Rodgers, rather than any other composer. Without knowing more about what Sondheim was putting in his scores at the time it was wrong of me to generalize about him (though the Forum experience suggests that he might at least have backed off, temporarily, on making the orchestrator put in all his accompaniment ideas).

Anonymous said...

Surely the line between composing and orchestrating is not as clear as that, which is why composers of art music have always done their own and never farmed it out to others (although the list of great orchestrators is not necessarily the same as that of great composers).

rex "steveo" mojo said...

some composers need additional
composing and arranging frm the orchestrator..I know a few film composers from the past who wrote a "piano part"..they weren't thinking orchestrally....I won't mention their names bt they turned out some pretty good scores...of course, I don't think this is the norm..