Diary of an Orchestrator – Mission Estate Concert project, days 16-24

Tuesday, February 11

8:30 a.m. A huge amount of time has passed since my last journal entry. This delay is pretty typical of the ending stretch in a project: the work starts to pile up as everyone involved realizes that they’re much too close to the kill date for comfort. In my case, I was fully expecting to get assigned more songs than just the ten that I’d been initially offered. Ultimately, I got 14 songs, which out of 30 total songs represents about half the show. So in a way, my arrangements will help set the tone for performance, especially with Mel C and Sharon Corr, for whom I arranged nearly their entire sets.

Another consequence? Catching up with the rest of my life, just in time for the start of a new year down here in Australasia, where the school year kicks in at the start of February. There’s a lot of record-keeping, busywork, and longterm plans that have been on hold while I threw myself into the Mission Estate Concert, and for the past two days I’ve been gradually working through it all. Once that’s all been sorted, I hope to make some positive announcements to my community of composers-in-training for the coming year that could really help them in their own goals. Watch this space.

On top of all that, I have a big weekend of my own coming up, one that prevents me from assisting in or attending the Mission Estate Concert. I’m finally presenting my own education concerts with Orchestra Wellington, after years of them hiring other presenters. Not that I’d been turned down previously or anything – just that the stars are in the right place for this year. If it goes well, I’ll ask to do it again, and I have lots of different themes planned for our young audiences over the coming years. But in the here and now, I’ve got a lot to do to prepare: rehearsing and memorizing a 17-page script, getting my rusty vocal chops in order (it’s been a decade and a half since my San Francisco cabaret days), and doing things like work out choreography and visit the venues.

So it’s with some relief that I can (cautiously) close the book on the Mission Estate Concert project with this entry. Yes, some future emergencies may arise between now and the final soundcheck, but they’re not likely to be anything more serious than a misplaced chord symbol or a need to drop the strings an octave – all of which can be dealt with by the music director Chong Lim and the conductor Marc Taddei. Yesterday was probably the last bit of serious work. Chong discovered some missing bars from the second chorus of one of the songs, which was easy to fix, but did require a new score and parts: about two hour’s work.

One thing that every freelance professional must do when they work on a project-based contract is to keep a careful log of their hours, including what type of work was done for what amount of time, and in what order. This enables us to refine the way we work, and maximize how much we can do in the space of a very limited amount of time. For this project, I kept very careful records. The final tally of hours was about 200 hours all told, for scoring fourteen works, plus parts and charts. In my experience, for the level of intricate and often sweeping orchestrations that I provided, that was incredibly fast – about as fast as I’ve ever gone.

But by crunching the data, certain things emerged. I’m not putting in as many 9-10-hour days as I used to. In this project, that length of day only happened during the final week, when I worked about 55 hours. The average day was 8.5 hours (200 hours over 24 days). Also, the timing of scoring was fairly rapid: 14 songs in 19 days, plus another 5 days for parts and charts. So I was scoring a song at an average of 1 every 12 hours, though a couple took much longer, and others were done in far less time. It seemed to me that I was finishing most of them in a day, with enough time to set up the score for the next morning’s work – then about every 3rd or 4th song would take two days.

What really helped was nailing it on the first draft – I literally had no rewrites to do at all. Without that, the project could have taken far longer, and limited my ability to take on as many songs as I did. What’s more, the reality of contract work is: the longer the hours, the less you make per hour. That’s why it is so important to develop dependable resources: mental, physical, and technological – not to mention a reliable work strategy and a conducive environment. I cannot stress this enough: develop your ear, learn the procedures and how your own strengths can best be brought to bear, and develop solid working habits.

There is a lot that I personally don’t have: tons and tons of gear with thousands of dollars of sound sets; residence in a major industrial-media city like Los Angeles, Sydney, or London; and a display-cabinet resumé of degrees, awards, grants, and fellowships. But what I hope to have is a feel for what I’m scoring, some experience with the craft of crossover arranging, and the ability to make a quick decision that’s usually the right one. The quality of the arranging, permanence of the work, and effectiveness of approach I will leave for others to decide. And like any freelancer, I really have no idea if the work will keep coming. All I can say is that so far, it has.

Below is a chart that rounds up all the data for the Mission Estate Concert project: title, artist, key sig, size orchestra, pages, total bars, pages of parts, and completed minutes of score. Not bad for a month’s work, if I do say so myself. There are a few things you can do with data like this, but the main one is: how much did I end up making per hour? In my case, this is confidential, but I will say that it was worth it.

Crunching the data on the Mission Estate Concert project.
Crunching the data on the Mission Estate Concert project.

I made a list of key signatures, which is pretty revealing of the way that vocal ranges and melodic styling work in pop music, at least for these artists. Note the prevalence of the letter “G.” More than that, look how the range of half of the song’s tonics is between G and B. The originals of many of these songs were placed higher, but some artist’s voices have settled by a full tone or more. That’s why, as mentioned before, it’s always best to work from the latest live version. Interestingly, a handful of tonics range from D to E-flat – and in every case, the vocalist is pushing for a brighter tone when they hit that tonic – whereas in the other songs, they’re often pushing the dominant.

As for the orchestra size, score pages, total bars, and pages of parts, I tend to look on that as a tool for judging density. Many scores had reduced orchestra size – in fact, I only scored four numbers with the maximum of 2222 4330 2, and in two of those four I left out the harp. And yet much of the scoring was pretty full, and I reduced and doubled staff systems where I could, to cut down on page turns and focus the conductor in on the essentials wherever practical. That’s how a piece with only 6 score pages can end up being 78 bars with 27 pages of parts, while a piece that’s 6 times as long in the score might only have 3.5 times as many pages of parts. I kept the density of information per page as thick as I push it.

I’m really using up this morning in writing this entry (as I’m sure you’ve spent a good time reading it if you’ve made it this far), but I’d like to take the opportunity to preserve a few moments from each of the remaining songs. In the last installment of this journal, I’d just finished Billy Ocean’s “There’ll Be Sad Songs.” The next song scored was Sharon Corr’s version of the Irish folk ballad “Mná Na h’Éirann,” and I was actually surprised at how much time it took to get through, as I thought that the short, chamber-music-like song would just race through my fingers. But it ended up taking two long days, with a break in between. My favorite moment was the opening: I transformed the simplistic synth-patch chords of the original into a floating, shimmering landscape behind Sharon Corr’s rubato violin introduction. But I also built in some insurance – if she finds that too distracting, then the conductor can cut things back to the french horns playing straight harmonies along with the music director on synth.

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The floating, shimmering background to Sharon Corr’s violin intro. Note the horns – if need be, all this frosting can be cut out, leaving that discreet harmony.

By the time I was working on this, the additional songs started coming in. I’d made time for this eventuality – especially considering back in December, I’d offered to score the whole show (things hadn’t quite been worked out yet by that point). Luckily the MD was playing to my strengths and preferences here by assigning me more songs by Melanie C and Sharon Corr, the first of which was the anthematic “Northern Star.” I kept the scoring here very straightforward, almost like a musical or rock opera, supporting the emotion and meaning of the words with harmonized melodic lines and punchy support from the horns.

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The very straightforward, rock-opera scoring for Mel C’s anthem “Northern Star.”

Just in time to do score setups at the end of one-day’s work on “Northern Star” I was assigned “Radio” by The Corrs, which would be performed by Sharon Corr – not surprisingly, as she herself penned this early hit. It was interesting to compare the very Irish-pop single version by her old band with her low-key live versions. I must say I like her live approach better, notwithstanding the lack of expertise with which most concert clips of her have been recorded. For this song, I turned the orchestra into a bit of a rock band on the choruses, with lower strings pumping out the quavers, brass playing background chorus riffs, and upper strings and wind enhancing and doubling the melody. Two bits stuck out for me: the downbeat setup on the choruses with a timpani strike and lower strings; and the alternating voices of cellos soli and solo horn in the prechorus.

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Alternating voices of cellos soli (doubled by bassoons a2) with solo horn. Keep an eye on this strategy, it may pop up again. Note the balance issues – all it takes is one potent horn to match the whole cello section plus bassoons in a call-and-response passage.

The very last song was Melanie C once more: her big dance single “I Turn To You.” Here I got to explore just how fun it is to get an orchestra going along to a bit of dub or electronica. The trick is to find the pulse and figure out where the orchestra fits in. The opening was particularly fun – my MD told me it ended up sounding like a James Bond theme! It also showed a lot of minimalist influence of repetitive interlocking patterns – thank goodness that scores by Reich and Glass have prepared most working orchestras for this type of approach.

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An orchestral simulation of electronica in Mel C’s “I Turn To You,” resulting quite naturally in a minimalist, Steve-Reich-like approach.

In a moment of deja vu, I found myself borrowing a couple of tricks from “Radio:” the same downbeat setup in the chorus, and the same alternating patterns in the bridge. It was spooky, not derivative – both songs shared a very similar approach coming from completely opposite directions stylistically, and yet the score had to interpret them in similar way (though I changed them enough not to feel too much the same, okay?).

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Deja vu strikes! Alternating arced riffs in Mel C’s “I Turn To You,” reminiscent of Sharon Corr’s “Radio.” Note how the treatment is somewhat different: the cellos+bassoons are answered by violas+clarinets.

So with that, I end this journal for now. It’s been great including you all on this journey, and I hope that if you’re a student of orchestration I’ve given you a few ideas for your own scores, and some insights into the process. If time allows, I’ll return to this journal for the next big orchestration job, and try to give you even more detailed perspectives. All that’s left is to wait to see how things go up at the Mission Estate this weekend, and hope that all five artists, their house band, and their orchestra all merge for a truly remarkable evening.

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.

One thought on “Diary of an Orchestrator – Mission Estate Concert project, days 16-24

  1. Thomas, thank you for taking time to share with us your process of composing and arranging. Very educational! Nice website!!

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