Posts Tagged: Orchestra

Recording Notes

For a breezier take on this topic, I posted a vlog on the very same subject.

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In certain musical circles, you hear a lot about composers/film productions/record companies heading to the Czech Republic and Ukraine to make orchestral recordings on the cheap. In need of a new round of orchestral recordings of my own compositions, I decided to get in on the action.

It took but a single google search to point me towards czechrecordings.com. This a business run by an Englishman named Mikel Toms who manages recording projects for three orchestras in the CR: the Czech Philharmonic, the Brno Philharmonic, and the Janacek Philharmonic in Ostrava.

I first approached Mikel about booking a recording session in May, and he recommended the least expensive option to me, the Janacek Philharmonic Ostrava. This band may come cheap, but don’t be fooled – it’s a real live professional orchestra with a fine pedigree and an excellent history. They’ve even recorded the complete works of Leoš Janaček, and trust me, that ain’t easy. His music is weird and hard and they play it well:

(excerpt from The Fiddler’s Child performed by the Janacek Philharmonic Ostrava)

Five months elapsed between the time I first asked for a quote and the session itself. I’m told it’s relatively easy to book a single session with only a few months’ notice, but for more extensive projects these orchestras book about 18 months out. During the early days of planning, it sometimes took a little prodding to get a response out of Mikel, but as the date approached he was very attentive; he put me in touch with the recording engineer, arranged for the orchestra’s driver to take me to the hall, and called to check in on me at my hotel.

Now to brass tacks: how much did it cost and was it worth the price?

I employed an 86 person orchestra in Ostrava – so, like, a real, big symphony orchestra. The single three-hour session cost roughly $6,000, including all personnel, library, and recording costs, and it was a complete buyout, i.e. the orchestra gets no back end on the deal, and I am totally free to use the recordings as I like.

I got a surprisingly good deal on my round trip from the U.S. to Europe ($700). I travelled from Prague to Ostrava by train ($15 round trip) and stayed at the best hotel in town for two nights (about $150 total.) So the complete project came in just under $7K (not including editing, mixing, and mastering, which I did in the US with my collaborator Jon Brennan.)

Before I signed the contract to work with the JPO, I investigated the possibility of recording in the US, but professional orchestras here aren’t really “for hire” in the way that these Czech orchestras are (they certainly don’t have web sites advertising their availability.) There are, of course, studio orchestras around, and outside the big ones in LA, the studio orchestras in Nashville and Seattle are most prominent. Both quoted me $21,000 for the same project.

One third the price seems like a pretty good deal to me. But was it worth it, or did I really get a two-thirds inferior product?

Conveniently, Nashville Music Scoring’s web site offers a (very slanted) chart comparing their services to those in other cities:

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They also have dedicated comparison pages where they talk a big game and belittle the services offered by their competitors: “We understand how to play all styles of music. Do you really want to record Bluegrass in Prague, Big Band in Bratislava or Jazz in Sofia?”

Well, perhaps not, maybe I don’t really want to record classical music in Nashville either? My understanding is that these studios are set up for film style recording anyway, i.e. they record strings and winds/brass/percussion separately. In Ostrava I was able to work with the whole orchestra in one place – you know, like an orchestra.

[A side note: Nashville claims that Eastern Europeans’ ability to record Country/Western music is ‘non-existent’. One of the things I learned during my several months’ immersion into Czech culture is that country and bluegrass are hugely popular there to the point where you even see people driving around with Confederate flags on their cars.]

NMS also mentions that they are able to record much more music in a shorter amount of time. I budgeted rather conservatively in this regard, and I just about nailed it: I recorded about 18 minutes of music in one three hour session. From what I’ve heard, that beats the L.A. industry standard of 15 minutes/session.

It’s true though that the orchestra was a little spotty as far as English was concerned. I anticipated this and I took private Czech lessons for two months prior to my trip ($25/hr). This gave me enough Czech to introduce myself, address the players by the names of their instruments, announce rehearsal letters and measure numbers, and give a few other simple instructions. I would say I spoke about 1/3 Czech, 1/3 Italian, and 1/3 English. Of course, one tries to speak as little as possible in these situations anyway. (Leonard Slatkin once told me that if you really want to learn how to conduct, go to a country where you don’t speak the language at all and see what you can accomplish.)

Enough people spoke English that I was also able to get across more detailed instructions with the help of their translations. Here I must single out the efforts of the producer, Jan Košulič. Not only did he translate, but he was also just an excellent all-around producer/engineer. His equipment was top notch and he even kept detailed notes on the scores about what we got on which takes.

Final review: if you want to record classical music with a full symphony orchestra, I can not imagine a better deal than working in the Czech Republic, and with the Janacek Philharmonic in particular. I feel as though I got the best possible value available for a project like this and I would recommend the experience unequivocally to my fellow composers.

And what did the recordings sound like? Stay tuned…

Nightfall for strings

7 minutes

Nightfall explores the moods of the string body from dusky noir to incandescent ecstasy. The work relies heavily on harmonics, ricochet, barriolage (rapid back-and-forth between strings) as well as more extended string techniques. There are significant solos for the first violin and cello, but each of the parts contains moments of virtuosity.

The piece opens with the violas pizzicato, playing an increasingly complex rhythmic cell. One by one, the other instruments join in and achieve a diabolical climax that introduces the first theme, a rising figure that slithers among the four violin parts. The central section begins timidly but opens into a full-blown romantic melody. The piece concludes with a recapitulation of the opening music and a bracing coda.

Nightfall may be performed an ensemble of as few as 10 players or by a well-balanced string orchestra.

The Itsy Bitsy Spider and His Great Singalong Adventure

2.2.2.2 – 4.2.3.1 – 1pc – hp – str

Here’s a piece for your next children’s concert: the story of the Itsy Bitsy Spider, the Three Blind Mice, and Mary & her Little Lamb, punctuated with singalong moments for the whole audience.

Like my other works aimed at young audiences, this one also has humorous moments for the whole family.  The recording was an absolute pleasure to put together, for which I must thank my trusty collaborator, Jon Brennan, here in Cincinnati, OH.

The recording is also available for purchase here.

A list of practical advice for the orchestral composer

Here’s Number Zero right off the bat: the orchestra is it’s own medium with its own traditions and aptitudes; what it is not is a plus-sized New Music Ensemble. Here’s what I mean:

1. Tradition & Expertise. The day-to-day work of an orchestra principally involves playing music composed during the hundred years between 1850 and 1950.  In order to get a job playing in an orchestra, a musician must audition on excerpts by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and Shostakovich. It behooves a composer to write music that stems from this tradition. The musical possibilities that build on the existing orchestral literature have not come close to being exhausted, I promise.

Corollary: this means that your musical style or voice might be different when you write for the orchestra v. a chamber ensemble. It meant that for Beethoven and he did alright.

2. The schedule. A professional orchestra rehearses a new program every week. Let’s say you’ve written a 10-15 minute concert opener (a commonly commissioned item). In addition to your piece, the orchestra will also be play a 45-minute symphony and a 35-minute concerto on the same program.

Each concert program receives four rehearsals.

  • Rehearsal 1: symphony & new piece
  • Rehearsal 2: symphony & new piece
  • Rehearsal 3: concerto
  • Rehearsal 4: dress (run-thru of whole program)

The two rehearsals available for your piece total roughly 5 hours of actual rehearsal time; the conductor’s main focus will largely be on the symphony. If you’re lucky, your piece will get about 60-75 minutes of rehearsal plus a final run.

That’s very different from having a New Music Ensemble work on your piece for a whole semester, or even, say 6 rehearsals over the course of 2-3 weeks.  And you might think that sounds like an awfully impersonal proposition with not a lot of chance for reward.

And you might be right! And that’s totally OK! I’m here to say that composing for orchestra isn’t for everyone and it doesn’t have to be. “Pierrot Lunaire”, “Density 21.5”, and “Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedűvel” are all certified masterworks that don’t need eighty people to make their musical statements.

3. The strings. The strings are the essence of the orchestra. I don’t in any way mean to undermine the contributions of the winds and percussion, but without strings, what you’ve got is a band. If your piece could work (or almost work) as a standalone work for string orchestra, you’re on to something. (see: Ravel)

The members of the string sections are used to playing as a unit. The agglomeration of several string players playing the same part is what gives the orchestra its distinctive color. Divisi can be glorious, but don’t go crazy; Debussy, Stravinsky and Lutosławski are great models.  Schnittke and Ligeti took string divisi to their logical conclusion, but they did so using very controlled canonic procedures, and it’s also worth noting that they both abandoned single player divisi after a period of experimentation.

You should expect that about half the string players will be sightreading your piece at the first rehearsal.

4. The woodwinds. The woodwinds (and, in many respects, the principal strings) are the star artistes of the orchestra and you should give them compelling solos to flatter their instruments and abilities.

Keep in mind though that technically challenging passagework needs to pay off. It’s a well known fact that a composer can scribble down in 5 minutes what might take a capable musician 5 years to master on his or her instrument. Give them something impressive to play that the audience can actually hear.

5. The brass. Despite their reputation, I have found that most orchestral brass players really do want to contribute their tone color to the orchestra in a sensitive and thrilling manner. However, just be aware that modern brass players are fully capable of blowing the roof off the place, and they’ll do it if you beckon them. Plan your balances carefully, and also consider the fact that the literature for their instruments goes back at least as far as Gabrieli.

A trumpet solo is a great thing, but a trumpet is not a violin. Write for it accordingly.

6. The percussion. These guys are the salt of the earth, and total badasses, and they’re so happy to have interesting parts, but they’ll really respect you if you restrain yourself from using every last toy in their cabinet.

7. The audience. Orchestral audiences cough. A lot. Like it’s their job. Especially if you offer them something soft and dreary and vaguely atonal (especially if it’s the first number on a concert.) Best to begin with a healthy mf AT LEAST and a definitive harmonic concept (be it tonal or atonal) in order to get their attention; save your delicatissimi for when you’ve reeled them in. Feel free to ignore this advice if you want your recording to sound like a Bronchitis Convention (which, incidentally, would be a great title for an orchestral composition.)

8. Final thoughts. I’m not saying you should dumb down your musical concepts when writing for the orchestra – musicians like a challenge. But certain musical ideas just lend themselves more readily to the sonority and capabilities of the orchestra. Others just don’t. So if you have a plethora of ideas (and I hope you do), keep track of them, jot them down, and maybe save some for a percussion quartet and others for a saxophone solo. Just because you come up with an idea while you’re working on a piece doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for the piece you’re working on.

I sincerely hope this little diatribe inspires composers to greater creativity and greater music-making, and I can’t wait to hear what you come up with!

How to Become a Composer

3.3.3.3 – 4.3.3.1 – tmp+2 – pno – hp – str

Like my earlier “Cinderella Goes to Music School” this is a narrated story about a young musician in which the music itself plays a crucial role in the tale, and is interwoven into the narration.  This story concerns a young boy, Jacob, who wishes to become a composer.  We follow him from his childhood, full of musical imagination, up to college, where he finds out that ‘the biz’ isn’t quite what he thought it would be.  In the end, he gets to meet one of his musical idols who teaches him that the true reward of being an artist is neither fame nor fortune, but the ability to connect with other people through one’s art.

Like “Cinderella”, this is a concert-length piece for a kids’ program (clocking in at just under 33′) and I’m offering it for a $150 rental/royalty fee with a $50 royalty per additional performance.

The recording was engineered by the great Jon Brennan and is available for purchase here!