Composing : Live, Part 1 by Joel Irwin

Joel Irwin

Live, Part 1

I'm going to make some comments on writing for live performance from my own experience. Keep in mind, that I have scored many different types of live performances but not yet for film - though many of the lessons I have learned apply. Firstly, one may argue that doing electronic scoring avoids many of the issues, problems, and challenges associated with live scoring even if you work alone (it gets even more complex in a 'studio environment' when you are heading up a team which can includ but not be limited to, one or more additional composers, orchestrators, a conductor, copyists, and the audio studio staff recording the performance). You see, imho, when you score electronically, you are the 'black box'. Your input typically comes from the video editor and you work product goes to the sound editor. And everything else in the middle you have pretty much have total control (as long as your 'stakeholders' like/accept your product.) If you want to add an instrument, you do it. If you want to change the velocity of one instrument relative to the others, you do it. You compose, you arrange, you engineer and everything gets played the way you made it sound - exactly. Without musicians, there is no variability - it will sound exactly the same each time. A majority of film composers will never score live - they don't have to. The filmmakers they work with either like the 'sound' created electronically or don't have the budget or time (i.e., TV) to hire musicians and pay for recording studios. But if a film composer aspires to higher budget independent films or studio films, at some point they need to learn and gain experience with live scoring. (Though keep in mind that just because there is a larger budget, does not necessarily mean that the stakeholders will want live music). So there is a decision to score live (or score a mixture of electronic and live), then first a decision needs to be made on what type of musicians/instruments you will scoring for. In an electronic score of say 200 or 300 bars, it may make sense to add a guitar or a timpani for say 5 or 6 bars. But if you do the same thing in a live score, you are hiring musicians for one or more sessions and they will spend most of their time doing nothing - a possible waste of money. The next consideration is choosing the 'quality' or 'talent' level of the musician. If you are working under a studio budget, especially in LA, NY, or Nashville where there is a large group of high quality talented musicians looking for work, you will get professionals who play at the same level as say a symphony orchestra, a professional jazz combo or a Billboard quality rock/pop/country act. However, if you are outside of LA where the quality and quantity of the talent pool is less, you may get musicians who you can't assume will necessarily be able to play complex parts. In addition, your musicians may not even co-reside in the same location as you and you may need to email a score, get someone else to conduct/run the session, and you get back a WAV file. This has happened here in Houston on occasion. Musicians, like actors/actresses, have a union - the American Federation Of Musicians (AFM) - and you may not have the budget to afford what AFM musicians need to get. So local composers here, look for non-union solutions including professional musicians in Eastern Europe, local college music majors, etc. The guidance I have constantly received from my mentor is that one scores to the type and talent of your players. Or as he says, if you have 3 trumpets and a trombone, you don't write a score for a string quartet. Additionally, you don't write complex passages for a 'virtuoso' if what you have is an intermediate level musician. In the film world, though this can be 'argued'. By that I mean, you can go back to the stakeholders and say that you can't live score the way you want with the budget you have since any 'overages' will probably come out of the money they pay you for composing. In that case, you may have to combine an electronic and live scoring approach to get the musicians you want OR you can reinvent the score to accommodate the collection and talent level you have to work with. Now how do you actually write for them? Some things that you did for electronic scoring work equally as well for live scoring. But then there are things that don't have 'equivalences'. For example, in the notation of the score, do you use a key signature or do you leave it out and put in accidentals everywhere they are needed? When you write parts/passages for wind or horn instruments, when do you give them a chance to breath and for how many bars. Last night after a rehearsal, a trumpet player came to me and told me that the 1 1/2 bars of silence I gave him after his 8 bar solo was not enough - he needed 4 full bars off. Composers, especially those starting off, like to use whole notes - but when a live musician plays bar after bar of whole notes, they get physically tired and need a chance to rest. More to come in the next post/part.

Jesse Miller

Some good tips in here!

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