Composing : Composing For All Types Of Performers by Joel Irwin

Joel Irwin

Composing For All Types Of Performers

I would suspect a large majority of composers for film/tv compose with DAWs (or at least know or have done so in the past). When we use electronic/software tools to create our music and then use 'samplers' to play our music, we are in complete control. By that I mean, no human being is involved in the process of generating our music. Every play through the sampler normally produces the same result (though some of our software will give us the variability that happens when a human performer plays it). By eliminating the human performer, we as composers also 'avoid' many of the issues that come with live performance. Some could be general and some could be very specific. For example, one of the guitar players I write for is older and has difficult seeing - if I don't generate a part for him that uses a very larger font, I know he will complain. When we compose for live performers, one of the first things we need to worry about is whether what we wrote is 'playable'. The first step/question is whether or not it is playable by any human performer at all. Certain sequences we play can be just too complicated for any human player. I once arranged a big band jazz piece of the famous top 40 hit "Topsie" (which you can watch here at https://www.stage32.com/media/644309202969309144). I took the organ solo from the record and created it for an alto sax. Perhaps it would have been playable by John Coltraine or Charlie Parker but what was already a complex organ/piano solo was way too difficult for the sax player and so he merely improvised something simpler he could play. What that taught/reminded me is that when scoring for live performance, the composers HAS TO consider the talent and abilities of his players. The target of / the customer of the sheet music is NOT the listeners - it is the performers. Now, in many cases, when we score for live or a combination of sequenced/live (i.e., an electronic version with the INTENT of someday using the score as is for live performance), we want the music to sound professional and so we score it to be played with the talent / abilities of a professional symphony orchestra. But as I mentioned that is not always the case OR we write music we want to be played by orchestral performers but as you know (at least outside of LA) unless you are a well connected (or academic) classical composer, the odds are low you will get a professional commercial symphony to play any of your pieces. So this suggests once again if you want to get your music heard by live performers, you will have to write for the performing abilities of your target musicians. Now if your music is played by a rock or country band or performer or you are writing lead sheets for a jazz group, you leave it up to the musicians with minimal guidance to perform your piece. But as I learned this past Thu night at a Jazz class, even lead sheets can be too complex if the chord progressions don't lead to simple improvisations or have too many changes in too few bars. So why do I write/blog about this here? Because there is a GROWTH opportunity for you as composers if you attempt to intentionally write for those with lesser abilities to play your music. It makes you think and consider more of the physical and actual playing issues involved in the performance of your music - the stuff you normally just ASSUME that is the responsibility of the performer. I went through this process recently. A friend/colleague of mine in Jazz class is the music teacher in the Katy, Texas school system and teaches in a middle school and asked me to adopt part of my recent "Mosaic Suite" (http://www.icompositions.com/music/song.php?sid=207453) for her middle school string orchestra. These are typically 10 or 11 year old students who play violin, viola, cello or bass at levels from simple beginner to perhaps intermediate. If you have a school age child, for the most part the performing is not a career move but one for education growth like any other extra-curricular activity (like Soccer). If you write / score the parts at the college or professional level it won't get played. Many considerations that you/I would normally not be concerned about become significant factors/issues. For example, string players have various 'positions' that they put their hands in, in order to play the notes. The beginning players have significant difficulty in playing notes while moving between 'positions'. So when I scored the piece, I had to write most of the parts assuming the players remained in 'first position' - this significantly limited what notes could be played. Other obvious issues involved the key - we needed to use C and limit the number of sharps and flats that were used. But this could sometimes cause issues - for example, violas and cellos use C as their bottom note but violins start at G. So sometimes, the note movement had to be changed by putting the notes an octave higher. Also beginning players have difficulties with large jumps in notes (i.e., large intervals) which again forced both melody and supporting notes to be changed to accommodate them. So as you can see, from a composing point of view - creating music for those who are not highly talented commercial symphonic performers introduces challenges and issues. And as composers, this becomes for us in my opinion a growth opportunity to actually better understand our performers who are our customers - all our performers, not just the younger introductory ones. The 'simplified' and shortened version of Mosaic is currently being rehearsed and will be performed at the end of the school year at a concert (along with other pieces) on May 8th. If you want to see what the students have received (the PDF score) or an approximation of what they will sound like, check out my personal web site at www.joelirwin.us/music.html P.S. - the piece was created as a cross between an actual film score and an academic exercise so each section gets an opportunity to play alone, there is one violin 'solo'ist, and various 'articulations' are intentionally used to help the students learn various ways to play (such as Pizzicato).

Mark Saltman

yeah Joel- absolutely right in thinking that you can't write with the expectation of a virtuoso in mind to play your parts.

Christopher Weatherwax

Yes thanks Joel great read, I didn't think about that much. I usually just make my songs simple enough to play them myself on piano with, at most, a few strings backing up so I don't have to rely on anyone too much :) Can always count on yourself yes? -Chris

Matt Milne

While it is true that there are big differences between writing music for digital performance, and writing it for human performance, I do not accept that it is right or justifiable to compromise a piece, just so a less capable musician can play it. I think expectations and standards should be raised, I think that schools should be provided with the resources and training they need to produce those musicians. And I think that recruiting should be weighted, for those who show natural talent and potential, so that those who have a higher chance of achieving, can. I will not lower the quality or standard of my work; schools, colleges and conservatoires need to up their game.

Mike Milton

I've actually developed a piece for a non-musician to perform on and Eigenharp Alpha on screen. It is a complex instrument and the performance needed to look authentic and engaging. I only had a few hours to coach the player. So I developed an instrument setup that was essentially self-playing as long as the performer improvised in a set of triangular patterns on the keyboard. It worked great, he had a good time, others were enjoying it as well. My point is that this was not a matter of interest or convenience, it was a necessity.

Mark Saltman

Matt Milne- Im sorry but that is just silly. Or was this said in jest? You believe conservatories need to do a better job of training people so your music isn't compromised?

Matt Milne

I was half joking, but I do really think that standards are too low, and that those with the responsibility of raising them, could do a lot better.

Mark Saltman

Could you give me an example of what you mean by this? Where do you think they are falling short?

Matt Milne

sure: I've met professors who were reluctant to edit manuscript and teach, Berkeley grads who struggle with the concept of melody and leitmotif. I've met organ scholars who can't play more than the most basic of Bach, and are afraid to use the entirety of their instrument, TV and game composers who can't handle crunch, it goes on.

Joel Irwin

Guys - we are drifting a bit here. There were two main points to my original discussion: 1. Learning to write music for all types of playing abilities makes a composer more agile and adoptable to anything. 2. Unless you are a top level composer with a person or company to bankroll your performers, you have to make due with the performers you have available. Don't write string quartets if all you have available are horns and a rhythm section. I don't know about anywhere else, but around these parts, if you are not in a college or teaching in a high school, you will not likely get anyone there to play your music. That is why I started writing big band music and for jazz ensembles. It is not like I have not written full orchestra pieces for live performance but in 10 years, I have had an orchestra play my music once. If a fellow classmate tells me she'll get my music played in a middle school - I will write for middle school. The point is - if you want to get heard - write for what is available.

Matt Milne

You are generally right Joel. However, I don't accept that you have to work with what's around you. Tolkien resisted adaptations of Lord of the Rings, it's not invalid to withhold performance if you think it will be done badly. For some pieces, I don't care if they go unplayed during my lifetime, or ever.

Patrick Freeman

To me it seems like a case by case basis. Learning to write music for all types of playing abilities will certainly make you more marketable. Writing for simplicity as the occasion calls for it is all well and good. But there is some music that just has to be written as it is inspired in our hearts, even if it will never be performed to the level at which it was intended. I have a couple scripts that might never be produced, due to their complexity - certainly not at any indie level. But I had to write them because the stories wouldn't quit playing in my head.

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