I’m a confirmed optimist. It probably has something to do with my very early years. A true university brat, I actually lived out ages 0-4 on the UCLA campus. Back in the early 1960’s, there was a quiet enclave on the west side of campus called “Married Students Housing,” where my family lived while my father pursued his degree in Language Studies. My first experience of adult life and culture was that everyone was on a road to somewhere, and they all were getting there through sheer force of intellectual will. And they were doing it in one of the sunniest, most upbeat places in the country.
Even though Married Students Housing has long been plowed over (they built Pauley Pavilion in its place), that optimism and sense of intellectual drive has stayed with me to this day. While it’s a strength upon which I draw, it also gets me into heaps of trouble. But in some ways, it’s trouble that I have to get into – I’ve no other choice if I want to survive, but to imagine that I can take on far more work than is reasonable. In some ways, insert winking emoticon here, the only reason you’re reading this blog post is because I have the not-always-rational notion that I can run a website, YouTube channel, and Facebook group concurrent to a career as a working orchestrator.
I think in general, though, that’s a reality of this business. You accept a commission or launch a creative endeavor without truly knowing the scope of the work; you find that it’s more than you expected; but then you overcome the challenge and it makes you stronger. These past 14 months, though, that ongoing pattern of work nearly did me in. I took on something far more complex, rewarding, intense, and time-consuming than anything previous in any of my vocational fields: a grand synthesis of everything I do as composer, orchestrator, writer, presenter, and multi-media-oriented educator.
That project, at long last, will be finally launched next week: the macProVideo Orchestration Master Class 101: Strings. It’s 3.5 hours of carefully focused information on the string section, with clips of player demonstrations, live orchestral samples, diagrams, charts, explanations, and interconnections. If I’ve done my work correctly, then a viewer should go through the series and understand everything I’m presenting while barely realizing the complexity of it all. In fact, I want students to think, “Well, that was all pretty straightforward and simple! Why do people say this is such a difficult subject?” And at the same time, I want to pull them irresistibly into the world of orchestral architecture, so that they’re thinking about the realities of every note, every phrase that they put to paper. If I’ve done my job, then even old hands at orchestration will find something new here: perhaps a different outlook, or an alternate way of organizing the information they already hold, or even just a more efficient way of visualizing the technical range of the string section.
But the course started out with much humbler ambitions back in early 2013. At that time, I was enjoying myself by launching the Orchestration Online Facebook group, making weekly video tips while popping out one intriguing tidbit after another every day. I’d produced four Sibelius courses in a row the year before, and was expecting to finish them up that year. However, the sheer bungling of Sibelius’s parent company Avid had put the whole series of courses in doubt, with the simple practical reality that far fewer users were upgrading to the latest version than before. The result: my courses really weren’t performing as expected, though I’d thankfully gotten entirely positive reviews and feedback from those who did take them.
So both I and the management of macProVideo were ready for a change in direction from Lead Trainer Thomas Goss. I received the green light for the course that we’d originally conceived: a five-part series on the different orchestral sections. I started in on the first installment as the Southern Hemisphere summer vacation was drawing to a close, scripting 25,000 words in about ten days by the end of January. As the script evolved under my feverish typing, so did the vision of what the course could be: not just basic information for developing composers, but the crux of a new way of teaching the basics that put one right into the middle of a working orchestrator’s mindset. I wanted the student to walk away with the desire to orchestrate something, and a confident foundational approach.
At 25K words, I also had a confident approach – I was certain that I’d be able to knock this course off in a couple of months, and then move on to the wind section by May, and then the brass by September. It was going to be a hell of a lot of work, but I was ready for it. I got busy with hiring live players for the demos, compiling excerpts for them, and finding hall space. I ended up with a startling array of talented players – the associate principals of the NZSO string section to a man, though it wasn’t originally intended that way. But they absolutely proved their worth with good-humored virtuosity.
As for orchestral samples, I had a plan. Licensing audio clips from commercial releases would be problematic, and possibly run into a huge expense of money and time. Instead, why not make use of the enormous library of live recordings of the world-class orchestra right in my own city of Wellington, as recorded brilliantly by Radio New Zealand Concert-FM? Luckily for me, this plan was accepted by the managers of both institutions, and I got busy making selections of works conducted by their current artistic director Pietari Inkinen. They’d have to be without soloist, to avoid further requests of permission, and large enough in scope to contain many different examples of technique and approach. And they’d have to be public domain. Fortunately, Inkinen and the NZSO had conducted Mahler, Holst, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, Brahms, and even Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It was actually a dizzying prospect to pick through thousands of bars of material to find that one exceptionally illustrative example of a given technique, like portamento or fingered tremolo. And then isolating that moment in a hour of raw audio file could be even more daunting, especially in sprawling works like the Mahler Symphonies.
This all sounds a little too pat, as if I collected my educational resources together in a few weeks. If only that were so. Really, the whole process took months and months – recording this or that player, going through this or that score, editing footage and audio, and putting them slowly into one course as different bits became available. Rather than assembling a whole course out of a collection of assorted pieces, like building a LEGO set, I was weaving a huge web out of interconnected strands. Each strand had the potential to reveal even more visual information, and develop the course to an even greater degree. I could not, in good conscience, deny my viewers the ability to see new connections that could be made. So the script became ever more incisive yet far-reaching as I worked.
On top of that was feeding my penchant for graphic design. As my YouTube viewers know, I love presenting charts and diagrams, and editing images in visually striking ways, all to make a lasting impression of both simple and complex information. Sometimes, designing such a chart for my ongoing course might take a whole day. The result was that one video might take as much as a week to assemble.
As weeks stretched to months, and the Southern Hemisphere winter of June through August came and went, the course was still unfinished. The reality of the situation started to set in – here I was, putting half a year into a course that wasn’t earning any royalties yet. I’d pretty much spent all my advance and more on production costs, and was getting through the year on savings and a bit of teaching. It was a situation that couldn’t continue for much longer. So with many regrets, I stopped work on the course by late September. I tried not to feel defeated, but the fact was that I’d really spent an enormous chunk of my life on something that had led nowhere. I also worried that I’d let my mates at macProVideo down, not to mention many viewers and subscribers who’d been so supportive of the course.
But a composer has to survive. So it was with huge relief that I took on my next commission, orchestrating a rock opera for the Russian composer Dmitriy Rybnikov and his Nashville-based collaborator, superstar songwriter Pamela Phillips Oland. Once again the irony of it all settled in: it took weeks, even months to explain how the process of orchestration worked, but only hours to actually accomplish it. A lot of optimism came rushing back as I worked my way through Dmitriy and Pam’s intelligently written songs, magnifying the intent of their works to their full dramatic scope.
By the time the rock opera commission was tailing off, I was already knee-deep in my script for the Radio New Zealand Concert-FM series “Composers on Camera,” a five-hour series covering the best and the worst of cinematic efforts to dramatize the actual life that I was myself leading – the composer’s journey. It was a huge rush of effort that took most of November, realized in a final stretch of recording in early December.
After that, an odd waiting period settled in. I’d been commissioned to orchestrate the Mission Estate Concert, but the management weren’t ready to assign me any scores. All through that month, I waited for the nod, time during which I could easily have scored half the work I eventually completed. And slowly, my attention started to turn back to the abandoned course. Was it salvageable? Would we ever launch it? How much time would it take to finish?
Finally, right at the start of the New Year, I recommitted to the project, foreseeing a couple of months in which the course could be completed amongst the work I’d projected for the year. After undertaking the Mission Estate Concert scores for Billy Ocean, Melanie C, and the rest, I finally had my window.
Of course, into that window jumped other things, as they always do. On top of finalizing contracts, recording pickups, and hammering down loose ends, I decided it was time to finally launch my Orchestration Online website. I also had a couple of Radio NZ scripts to finish and present, a series of education programs to propose, a concert to perform, a singer to accompany, and so on. Right into the middle of this, Dmitriy came back with a new commission – how would I like to orchestrate a feature-length Russian animé for a massive orchestra? How could I turn that down?
But even with all of that to think about, the course is still finished. As of this writing, I’m merely putting some finishing touches on the PDF Score-Reading Guide, and waiting for an announced release date so I can pass it along to everyone else. And even though it felt like living with a terminal illness at times last year, I still look forward to completing the entire series of video courses, this time with a much more tempered sense of optimism. I have several hours of audio already collected for future use, plus a more informed way of working with my subjects and assembling my courses. Next time, I’m going to shoot all of my video in a studio with top-drawer microphones, controlled lighting, and a pro videographer. In fact, I can’t wait to do that. Imagine the possibilities – what it’s going to look like to see the keys click on the bores of the whole range of the clarinet family, from the E-flat all the way down to the B-flat contrabass. Or to hear my flutist soar and twitter through all the different samples of technique. Or undertake the quandary of getting hold of a baritone oboe and oboe d’amore. I can’t wait for that complex set of challenges, coming up in a few months as the year grows older and colder. But for now, let’s see how my first bird flies. I’ll let you know the minute she leaves her perch and takes to the sky.