Diary of an Orchestrator – Coming Back to Yourself

I’m starting the morning like I usually do: propped up against some pillows, typing away with my laptop rested on a carved chest from Singapore, my cat happily purring his fool head off on my lap. Through the lounge windows, the lights surrounding Wellington harbour gleam as they surround its inky darkness. The planet Venus heralds the faroff but imminent dawn, along with the tiniest hint of a glow over the eastern hills.

It’s a rare moment of calm between storms. For the past half a year, I’ve felt like everything has overlapped, new projects starting long before others are complete, coming by surprise in the middle of things, or piling on top of one another. Such are the realities for a working orchestrator. If I were part of a Hollywood team, I might be working on several projects at once – say, prepping a score for a session, finessing the orchestration on another, and making requested corrections on a third. And in essence, a film score is like a bunch of tiny interrelated projects in a similar orchestrational style, so this sense of creative multitasking can become compartmentalized even further.

One of the things an orchestrator can expect to encounter is a projects extended with additional work. Projects are almost always low-balled with conservative estimates – after which the commissioning organization might find more and more space in the budget. A case in point is my last job, orchestrating a handful of cues for a feature-length Russian animé, “The Secret of Sukharev Tower.” This is a theatrical version of an animated children’s TV series, with an apprentice wizard, his girl Friday, and a walking tin can named Cuby. It’s all very charming and slyly intelligent, with a compelling animation style and mind-bending graphic sequences. I sincerely hope that it’s released in the West, though more than likely the best we’ll get might be a showing at a film festival.

An episode from the original TV version of The Secret of Sukharev Tower, which neither I nor composer Dmitriy Rybnikov were involved with.

Anyway, I was initially hired to orchestrate 10-11 cues, or around 22 minutes of music. Though I don’t know the precise details, I suspect that the momentum of the project may have swept things along, with the end result that I completed 19 cues totaling 33 minutes of music. This was mostly densely scored, full-blooded Russian orchestration (with some influence of modern film scoring): huge trombone breaks, ominously dark and direct colors, light-hearted yet poignant moments of comedy, and a flowing sense of tempered lyricism. The mind behind this music was my client Dmitriy Rybnikov, with whom I collaborated last year on a rock opera. He has some great ideas, and really breathed a lot of life into the images and characters.

As I was expecting, the work started to increase, with a 12th cue and then a 13th. “What about opening credits and ending titles?” I innocently asked, and then was given those to score, along with a final sequence. In the final week, four additional cues were added: little bits of transitional music based on other cues, and one bit of very funny then transcendent scoring. At that point, I stopped all drafting and finalized the first eleven scores, extracting the parts after receiving the green light from the conductor. This kept things from piling up at the end. Even at that, I was extracting parts and finalizing scores into the night on Friday, getting things ready before Dmitriy’s final meeting with the orchestra contractor.

And yet in those last hours, I didn’t feel under pressure at all. I felt confident about it. This project was now going to finish, and finish well. It was a good commission, and I felt I’d done good work on it. For the weekend, I’d slotted in one more piece of essential business: two solid days to do my taxes. Imagine my surprise the next day when the entire procedure for both personal and business taxes took a mere 90 minutes of online filing!

The result was that I simply didn’t know what to do with myself for the rest of Saturday. I pottered around the internet a little, listened to an audiobook, and tried to organize my overflowing e-mail inbox without much success. Essentially, I was a workaholic with a surprise holiday thrust upon him. Nevertheless, I felt a great sense of completion, and took some time to savor the moment.

Which brings me back to my couch, my cat, and the view outside. The dawn has started to lighten everything up. I can see the fog hanging over the Hutt Valley, and the clouds bunching over the peaks of the Tararuas. But other than a few stray patches, it looks like the weather will be clear and warm today, which is pretty good considering July is the dead of winter down here in New Zealand. I can hear the house starting to wake up, with sounds of footsteps and coffee preparation in the next room. I feel something in my chest, like the physical manifestation of a beautifully resolved cadence, and if I have a listen with my inner ear I can hear it as well.

Of course, I well know that this moment will soon be over. I have some serious catching up to do with my online community, which has expanded greatly over the past few weeks at precisely the time that this project pulled me drastically away. But that was the nature of the work. Some projects are like little kettles bubbling away, requiring a bit of focused stirring at times, but nothing too intense. Others (like this last one) are enormously distracting, taking every bit of creative energy I’ve got. I’m really looking forward to re-engaging with my fellow orchestrators. And on top of this, my duties as Orchestra Wellington’s Education Composer-in-Residence are coming once again to the fore, with a show to arrange and script in two weeks, another to prep, and a third to pitch. I’ve also got new courses to work on, and also some of the juiciest news to share with you about something once the contracts are signed.

The main thing I’m thinking about, though, is a truth of the creative life that I’ll be expanding on more thoroughly in the last video of my Intro to Orchestration YouTube series. What essentially makes one an artist? Of course, many people engage in artistic activities without being definitive artists, and that is the way a healthy culture should behave. But what is that step up to gaining the title? It’s more than simply the title of being professional, as no one would deny the identity of Charles Ives and other amateurs like him of being artists of the highest level. And it’s more than a sense of developed craft, as much as I hate to admit it.

My firm conviction about what defines an artist is that their work changes them. A hobbyist will engage in art as an expression of their lifestyle and its interests. But an artist will create something, and find in the process that the work has re-created them. The first time it happens, the effect is unmistakeable, and usually compelling enough to entice the artist into further artistic works. After a series of such acts, the process slowly molds the artist towards an ever-more-engaged and artistically focused person. Sometimes, of course, this can lead to disaster, which in our culture chiefly serves to make juicy, scandalous biographies. But a more fortuitous outcome is usually inherent: the artist comes into their own, and through their work strengthens the field. The work becomes them, and they become their work.

But have no illusions about it. It’s anything but romantic. In the above paragraph, note that the most commonly repeated word is “work.” That is what it takes. Sometimes it isn’t fun, and it’s honestly anti-glamourous. I haven’t attended most of my premieres over the last year or two, and some music I’ve scored I’ll never hear performed or recorded. More than likely, those who did hear it or will hear it will little note my name in relation to the work. And frankly I could care less. Nowadays, I barely mention what I do for a living when I’m out and about. I don’t want people to shut down, thinking that I’m too lofty a person to be their friend (or that I’m a stuck-up git). No, in the end, it’s not important to be admired, but to be valued. If you’re valued, then you get respect, and the work keeps coming in. And if you are fortunate, then that work will inspire you to find out more about yourself, and grow in your craft and art.

Even in a small project, you can grow and contribute something unique. Prokofiev agreed to compose “Petya Fooled the Wolf” (which we call “Peter and the Wolf”) almost as an afterthought for a child entertainment program. But somehow in the process, he rose to his greatest level of achievement, and composed his most well-loved work. Not that every small project can be so fortuitous, but even so, an artist with a high level of craft and commitment may be able to create something compelling and unforgettable within a very small scope. Never hold back, because even something small can help one develop and grow.

The sun has now risen, and is as far north as it usually gets this time of year. The result is that I’m now leaning forward to avoid it as I finish typing this. A new day has broken, so I’d better go enjoy it. But please look for more thoughts ahead about creativity, and engagement with my community. It’s great to be back!

Thomas Goss is a professional composer and orchestrator with an international roster of clients. He has worked with such talents as Billy Ocean, Melanie C, Sharon Corr, and Nikki Yanofsky. His compositions, orchestrations, and crossover arrangements have been performed by such ensembles as Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony Chamber Ensemble.

Thomas lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand, with his wife Erica and son Charlie, and one very unappreciative cat.

2 thoughts on “Diary of an Orchestrator – Coming Back to Yourself

  1. You also have a way with words Mr. Goss, felt like I was reading a short story or a sort of Japanese I-Novel. That’s perhaps the most unique undertaking on the concept of an artist, and after reading it I must agree. This could leave room for the ‘hobbyist’ subcategory of amateurs to still be an artist – perhaps working a day job doing whatever (I suspect many would be school teachers), but when they do get to finally work on something, their soul is in it.

    Not to spam things up, but If anyone hasn’t done so, I highly suggest reading the works of Robert Greene, an American author focusing on mostly self-improvement. But he doesn’t write in a ‘self help guru’ style, he instead reads thousands of books on particular historic figures (both ancient and most recent) and synthesizes the lessons to be learned from our ancestors. Of his many books I would most relevantly recommend ‘Mastery,’ as well as the nearly 800 page free ebook from Amazon ‘Interviews with Masters.’ His writing has given me a keen sense of what it means to be human, above anything.

    And it’s that pouring your soul into it that I believe is the biggest factor in an artist. You have to do things you may not be fond of at times in order to develop your craft (maybe ghostwriting), but if you think of it as serving your larger purpose of being a great orchestrator, anything becomes almost directly relevant to what you want to achieve.

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