This is one of those rare moments in a musical-writing career where I feel elated with a great pride of accomplishment, as if I just wrestled a bear.
I just finished orchestrating my musical, The Christmas Bride, which happens to be the longest score I’ve ever written. And now musicians have their parts and can rehearse until the opening of the production in Portland, Maine on December 15. In time! Quite often, during the many months of work on this, I doubted I’d be able to finish. My progress was impeded by the death of a computer, a family illness, and not being able to get home during Hurricane Irene. The deadline weighed so heavily on me, I’d get angry if I had to run out for coffee beans, because tearing myself away from this project seemed perilous. (Of course, going without coffee seemed perilous, too. The task requires caffeinated concentration.)
And the kick of it is, I didn’t previously know much about orchestration. Ever the autodidact, I taught myself as I was going along. Since I started at the overture and ended at the finale, it’s possible that later in the show, my choice of instruments improved.
Choosing instruments is what it’s about. When most people talk about orchestrations, and enjoying orchestrations, they’re really talking about arrangement, which is something different. The orchestrator decides which instruments should play which notes in a score. In the case of The Christmas Bride, I wrote (many years ago), a full piano score. Since the beginning of September, I’ve been dividing up the note-playing assignments between piano, cello, English horn, clarinet, oboe, flute, recorder and piccolo. The choice of instruments is connected to the different emotional colors I want the music to have, in any given measure.
In a way, it’s a little like acting. You’re given a speech and must decide which words to emphasize, how your voice will modulate, or rise and fall. It’s easy to picture an actor trying to read a line eight different ways.
What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
What is a cynic? A man…who knows!…the price of everything…and the value of nothing.
What is a cynic, a man who knows the price…of everything and the value…of NOTHING!
When I choose a clarinet rather than an oboe, it could be because I want to convey a sense of playfulness, a facility with humor, or hysteria. Of course, the ranges of the various instruments matter as well. The clarinet has a much wider range than the oboe, and would be essential if I’ve a line that jumps around a lot.
But do I? I also get to determine which lines of melody, harmony and counterpoint are brought out by having them heard on a particular instrument. And this leads me to step back and look at a score I wrote many years ago with fresh ears. As a young man writing for piano and voice, I now see, the melody line the singer would get was of paramount importance. The Christmas Bride is full of rich, romantic, hummable and singable melodies. This year’s consideration has to do with how best to accompany, to support the singers, and the story. Certain instruments are so distinctive, there’s a risk that they’ll compete with the singers for the audience’s attention, and we can’t have that.
But we can have a kind of counterpoint I’ve never previously explored. My music has often contained overlapping but distinct melodies that somewhat magically work together. In the orchestration, now, I’ve the opportunity to use instrumental sounds that sometimes contrast with the singers. And this brings out lines the listener might not notice in a piano-vocal rendition. I can use these sonic contrasts to underline a subext, or to comment upon what’s being said in the lyrics.
An area that’s always important to me is appropriateness to time and place. The Christmas Bride is set in 19th Century England, and depicts stark difference between rural St. Albans and crime-filled London. What you hear is part of a storytelling process that portrays a certain era and locale without any jarring notes that take you out of the moment.
Or at least I hope. The proof is in the pudding, and that flaming pudding will play Portland December 15-21, a particularly Christmas-y place. What I’d love most of all is for people to attend and tell me that yes, I’ve succeeded in picking instrumentation that’s true to time and place and underlines the dramatic undertones in all that the characters say.