What orchestration can do for your composition.

Orchestration is the fingerprint of the composer. All composers have a favorite mix of sound-colors, by the orchestration alone you can often already recognize a composer.

Here is a famous example of a composition for piano, that is orchestrated by another composer: Pictures at an Exhibition, composed by Mussorgski, orchestrated by Ravel.

Mussorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition – original for piano
Mussorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition – orchestrated by M. Ravel

Or listen to them, working backwards…Ravel ‘orchestrating’ the composition Nuages for piano.

Nocturne 1. Nuages by Claude Debussy, orchestrated by the composer
Nocturnes 1. Nuages, rewritten for piano by Ravel

Orchestration with sound samples

Some time ago, I asked Mitchel from PalmMute, to rewrite a song I had commissioned in any way he liked. The only thing I asked for was a specific list of sounds: ‘teddy-bear-hotel-sounds’. I wanted to hear samples of a bath-tub duck, the bell on a hotel-desk, the kitchen, the day-spa bubbels. That kind of sounds.

First Mitchel changed the original song into a majeur version, because he didn’t like the minor vibe for a ‘teddy-bear-hotel-song’:

Sterrenstof (‘Stardust’), as rewritten by ‘PalmMute Mitchel‘ in majeur, only piano

Then, he added all kinds of sound-samples to make up the music. What we hear is music without any instruments at all. It’s all digital sound samples redesigned for this purpose.

Sterrenstof (‘Stardust’), rewritten majeur version orchestrated with electronic sounds.

As you can hear in the examples, a composition stays that composition with a different orchestration. But it’s so much richer in expression, that we all probably liked the orchestrated versions better?

How orchestration relates to the unity of a composition.

In the previous examples we compared compositions for piano with orchestrated versions to explore what orchestration adds to a musical idea. But of course, there are also changes in orchestration within a composition. For example, within a piano concerto, you have changes between piano and orchestra:

Rachmaninoff, piano concerto no.2 op.18

Changes in orchestration can give abrupt feelings of change in a composition. A lot of sudden changes in orchestration can cause a composition to sound chaotic. On the other hand, if you have a rather dull, repetitive composition, you might be able to spice it up with some great orchestration. ( You learn more about this topic reading ‘The necklace’.)

A composition is like a necklace: even though the pearls are all beautiful, the necklace might be ugly.

In June I tried a different way of working: I didn’t use any pre-designed structure, I just sat down and started to write from one specific emotion. And I sat in that emotion for 2 weeks. Some composers get great music, when they work that way (for example: Eric Withacre, Thomas Trachsel). Unfortunately I wasn’t one of those …. the music became redundant because of the lack of form and structure, it sounded thick and dense because I sat too long working on a short piece and over-orchestrated. I learned I’d better use ‘State of the Art‘-structures and energy-curves in the future. But there is more to learn from this composition:

It has been said, that great orchestration won’t make up for a boring composition, but I think it’s nice to give it a shot and research the effect of orchestration on this repetitive boring composition.

When you take a look at the picture with the necklaces, I will be working with the second example here: The original dense orchestration is a necklace with just identical pearls, the improved orchestration is represented by the second necklace in the picture: The pearls all have the same size (the same musical idea), but a different (sound-)color.

Let’s hear the full dense orchestration first:

The Fury, full dense orchestration, composed by A. Wolters

The composition is redundant with 2 themes, one of the themes is from Dvorak, because I wanted to research if a better, famous ‘phrase’ would make a composition easier to write. The answer is no, it’s not the phrase that makes the difference. I wanted to know if that famous phrase would improve form because it might lead to better improvisations, but it did not. And I researched how the phrase of Dvorak works in my music compared with a phrase of myself, mixing the phrases into one composition. That did not work, because you have two compositions (different DNA) in one work. And I experimented with orchestration from Stephen Melillo, to hear if I could sound like him by just using his orchestration. The answer is yes, you can get his sound, but never his music. Because you hear the composer, and we all have different souls.

In the end, the composition sounded weird, because there is music from three composers in one piece: Dvorak, Melillo and me.

In the end, this flawed composition turned out to be the most valuable composition I ever made, because I learned the most from it.

My teachers all say, you can’t save a composition by orchestration alone, but I want to find that out for myself. Maybe I can save this composition with great orchestration? Let’s hear the improved orchestration:

The Fury, improved orchestration, composed by A. Wolters

Comparing the two results, I must say that the composition improved very much by changing the orchestration. The necklace is less boring because of all the different (sound)colors. A thinner orchestration gives a better result when writing repetitive music: There are more possible sound-colors to distract the audience from the rather boring repetitive musical structure. But in the end, it did not improve the composition itself.

It’s interesting that a bad musical idea, forces you to use a particular orchestration to make the composition work for your audience. You cannot consciously choose the orchestration you want, you are forced into a particular orchestration because you have to fix things everywhere.

I also found that with this improved orchestration, the emotion I used to write the music, the emotion I sat in for two weeks, vanished. But still… the composition improved. Working from an emotion to produce that emotion doesn’t work, it’s the music that makes the emotion.

And again….I demonstrated this is true ……

The bright side of this is, that you can actually learn from your previous compositions: Which music produced which emotion? What orchestration? What tempo? What rhythms? These are the things you can repeat and improve.

Because it is the music that makes the emotion, you can actually learn how to improve the emotional impact of your compositions.

So, next time, I am using prepared structures: Rhythm, DNA, a sound-color-map, form over time by numbered bars, energy curves. And will try to figure out, what it is, that makes the emotion I was looking for.

Without burdening myself ever again with sitting for two weeks in a particular mood in my ‘girl-cave’.

By Anneloes Wolters