classical music

Orchestration and the Modern Composer

What role, if any, does classical orchestration play in the modern digital composer's life?

Isn't it a bit elitist to assume everyone needs formal studies just to be a good composer? And isn't the study of traditional orchestration a bit outdated in a lot of contemporary film scoring?

The answer to both these questions is a resounding YES!

But there are some caveats...

When you study formal or classical orchestration, you are essentially learning the what, how, and why of the orchestra. I compare the study of orchestration to the formal study of a particular instrument. Do you need weekly lessons to become a competent pianist? No. I know plenty of pianists who are pretty amazing who have never taken a formal lesson in their life. But there will always be a limit to what you know unless there is a transfer of information, either from you and your own studying, or from someone else more knowledgable who has already gone through the learning process. It is entirely possible to learn on your own, but it's often a quicker process to learn from someone else rather than through self-discovery. 

Orchestration is more or less about "what works", and we know what works by looking back at examples. Does this mean we have to stick to established patterns? Of course not. No classically trained musician learns about music then simply copies what they learned. The past is always looked at with the goal of moving forward. We look at the past to learn how to proceed. If not, we find ourselves doing something "new" only to find out it's been done for the last several centuries.

Regarding the application of samples and orchestration, there are two common paths we can take as they apply to orchestration.

First, we can see samples as a means of "mocking up" an orchestra note for note. Composers, in my experience, who work like this are often more "trained" (though not always) when it comes to orchestration, composition, and theory. More often than not, their compositional style utilizes the traditional orchestra as well as traditional compositional techniques and structures. With this in mind, samples are a cost- and time-cutting tool to achieve an orchestral sound through realistic samples rather than live instruments. Therefore, intimate knowledge of the orchestra is necessary for this to work well. The more realistically the samples are programmed to match the sound of the orchestra the better. Below is a fantastic example of this concept:

Secondly, we can see samples are merely individual synths that happen to sound like instruments of the orchestra. More often than not, I find these composers are less focused on following traditional orchestration. They usually explore the samples for unique sounds and combinations that "sound good", often without regard for "realism". The sum total of the outcome is more important than replicating traditional orchestration in their music. When more orchestral settings are used (rather than as assortment of various samples) they often take inspiration from music they have heard in the past and build their orchestral timbres off of the popular orchestral idioms. Below is an excellent example of this concept (note: Bill "follows" certain orchestral ideals, but the execution of such leads to a very different "contemporary" sound):

Both of these paths are equally valid in my eyes. I have heard fantastic music come from both camps. Ultimately, it's up to the skill of the programmer. The only reservation I have with the first path is that as samples become better and better, your strict orchestrational mock ups will become outdated and have the potential to sound empty and, more importantly, emotionless down the road. My reservation with the second path is that your music will often be restricted to the world of samples and you may find yourself in trouble when dealing with live musicians down the road (which can lead to the same emotionless problem).

As you can imagine, I would propose to you all that there is a balanced middle ground we should all strive for. Strict traditionalist need to be willing to present their music to their audience in a way that is clear and impactful when dealing with samples (after all, isn't that what orchestration is all about: clear and concise delivery of a musical idea?). Strict synthesists need to be willing to learn and adhere to more traditional musical posturing in their music or they risk sounding dated and stale in the coming years (after all, classical music has proven itself to be a long-standing musical tradition, tried and true); furthermore samples are not the end all be all and if you want your music to come out of the sample world, formal study is tremendously helpful for this.

Again, formal study and self-study are equal in my eyes. One happens to be a bit quicker (for most people, at least), but as long as you learn the relevant information along the way, you'll be in a much better place to mature and grow as a musician.

"All this wonderful knowledge and experience I have gained through studying what I love has really stunted my maturation and growth" said nobody ever.

Interstellar (and 5 other times the organ kicked ass)

It comes as no surprise to many of us that Zimmer would seek to push the limits musically in Nolan's latest boundary-breaking space odyssey Interstellar. There is a reason the dynamic Nolan-Zimmer duo is making such great waves in the world of cinema. Like them or hate them, they are a force to be reckoned with.

I've always been fond of Nolan's movies, though I'm hesitant to put them on the same list as some other of the "greats". Interstellar, like the Batman trilogy, Inception, and the Prestige, is another sort of story-telling vehicle than most other movies, which in many ways, placing it in a realm of its own.

As for Zimmer's role in the creation of this galactic epic, he was spot-on in his choice of the organ as a driving musical force. This isn't the first time we've heard the organ in cinema (even in Zimmer's own music), but Zimmer used the organ in some cool ways many aren't accustomed to hearing. In fact, many aren't accustomed to hearing the organ at all.

The organ was the perfect choice because the instrument is so colorful. It's such a visual instrument, bombastic and flamboyant, but capable of the most tender and intimate sounds. Organs aren't just awesome sounding, but they are crafted to look great too. They take up such a large space wherever they are built. They become the space. The room itself is the instrument. Hearing the organ from the sound system and seeing freaking space, galaxies, and wormholes on screen was itself transcendent. You felt present in the score and the film as well.

So, before we go giving Zimmer too much credit, let's step back a bit and check out some other examples of the organ being used awesomely. Not to overshadow what Zimmer has created in the Interstellar soundtrack, but the organ's been around a looooong time and Zimmer barely scratched the surface of the instrument's capabilities.

In no particular order (click title for links):

1. Pårt's Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Secundum Joannem

It's hard to beat Pårt, let's be honest. His musical influence over pretty much all contemporary music, especially film music, is astounding. And when he busts out the organ (which is pretty frequently) you best get ready for some action. The YouTube clip I attached begins in the final moments of the piece. Of course, I recommend the whole thing, but it's an hour long.

2. Saint-Saëns' Organ Symphony

This piece (3rd movement linked here) is just plain fun. Listen.

3. Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb

I love this quirky piece. A lot. The solo sections are beautiful, but the organ writing (as with all of Britten's keyboard writing) is outstanding. I've linked to the second half or so of the piece when the organ just booms over the choir. When I performed this piece live in college, the organ was so loud I couldn't hear anything else. My ears were ringing and my body was shaking. Just like when I saw interstellar. I couldn't help but draw that comparison when watching the movie in theaters.

4. Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra

Speaking of comparison, it's hard to avoid drawing parallels between Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey... Including, also, I think, the use of the organ. But who knows for sure.

5. Duruflé's Requiem

This is just lovely. Lovely. In so many ways. The organ does so much to add to the general texture.