Listening to Blackstar on this January Day

David Bowie—the artist who transcended style and media and form and perhaps his own self—died yesterday, 2 days after his 69th birthday and the release of what is now his final album, Blackstar.

The tributes and remembrances that I’ve seen today have been moving and wide-ranging, reflecting Bowie’s unique influence on listeners of all kinds. Composer/violinist/Arcade Fire member Owen Pallett has a touching story about having dinner with Bowie back in 2005. Author Elizabeth Gilbert is overwhelmed by Bowie’s making art in the face of death. And actor Simon Pegg put it beautifully and succinctly:

“If you’re sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”

Like Gilbert, I am deeply moved by Bowie’s ability not just to create while confronting his mortality head on, but to continue to stretch himself in new directions. I’ve not only admired Bowie’s ability to reinvent himself (rock’s version of a Stravinsky or Miles Davis), but also his collaborative approach—how he embraces the knowledge and insight of others to expand his art’s expressive range.

Blackstar (and his previous single “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” released in October 2014), find Bowie once again challenging himself to expand his art through collaboration, this time with New York jazz musicians (many of whom I’ve written about here and at Jazz Speaks). Sitting at home on this cold and sunny afternoon, all I can think of to do is delve into this valedictory work and bid farewell to this inimitable human being.

Track 1: Blackstar

This is a sprawling odyssey, but the direction of motion is uncertain. Mark Guiliana’s drumming is energetic and intense, but also brutally syncopated, as if gracefully tap dancing in lead shoes. The other band members seem to be moving at different speeds and in different directions. Guitarist Ben Monder’s fingerpicking is relaxed, peacefully drifting through keyboardist Jason Lindner’s vintage synth patches, while saxophonist Donny McCaslin swoops in and out with melodic fragments that move at yet a different rate. The atmosphere is simultaneously tranquil and deeply unsettling.

Bowie’s vocals are striking and declamatory, almost a sacred chorale. He harmonizes himself, an ethereal falsetto floating an octave and a fifth above his main note. That interval is part of the harmonic series, meaning that the two pitches, though far apart, are proportionally related and fuse in the mind. It’s as if I’m hearing both Bowie’s earthly and heavenly voices simultaneously. Both Bowie’s voice and McCaslin’s saxophone are mixed in a way to make it seem that the performers are moving in space in relation to me as the listener. Sometimes, they seem far away, other times close up. Sometimes they move from my right to my left side. It’s disorienting and positively spine-tingling.

At about four minutes in, the rhythms break down, the song reaching a place of restless repose. A new major-key chord progression enters, surrounded by the opening section’s fizzy haze. Bowie intones:

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

Poignancy aside, I’m really curious about the meaning of the word “blackstar,” particularly in how he contrasts it with not being a “gangstar,” “film star,” “pop star,” “marvel star,” “white star,””porn star,” or “wandering star.” Maybe it’s just the fact that the lyrics move to the second person, with Bowie addressing some unknown you, but I get a sort of Walt Whitman-esque feeling here. Perhaps “blackstar” is a way of saying that “I contain multitudes,” that this bridge is a sort of bizarro Song of Myself. After hearing the obtuse lyrics of the opening section that can disorient or alienate, Bowie is inviting the listener to ponder them, explore the blackness and the mystery. The things that the listener may not understand in a Bowie song are just as much an authentic part of him as the things that the listener can understand. This simultaneous disorientation and embrace is something that I experience in a lot of great music. I think jazz pianist Brad Mehldau puts it pretty well when he describes the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It’s like they’re saying: Continue reading

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Hi Pope Francis. Meet Mr. Golijov.

Hi Pope Francis. Meet Mr. Golijov.

Of all the headlines Pope Francis has made during his visit to the United States this week, this is one of the most recent:

Ok, ok that was an understatement—it’s also the most surreal one. The track—which has been streamed over 231,000 times so far today—does a respectable job of using a vernacular musical style to open up a space for communication and connection. After a slow-building opening that merges prog-rock organ with more post-rock guitar atmospherics, brass instruments enter on a square and declamatory melody that feels like a traditional hymn tune. This use of sacred music signifiers helps transform the rock milieu of the introduction, creating a dramatic juxtaposition that motivates the entrance Pope Francis’s sermon.

But in the end, the song isn’t all that memorable and doesn’t have all that much to offer in terms of musical richness or production values (it sounds like it was recorded in a home studio, with a lot of MIDI instruments, and a clunky, computerized drummer). It’s hard to imagine a song that sounds like this getting more than a handful of streams on the day of its release without the Pope’s imprimatur. Compared to the other ways Pope Francis has carried out his ministry—the strongly worded speeches, sermons, and encyclicals, his public interaction with the avoided and vulnerable, his predilections for Fiats and Ford Focuses—this one probably won’t be something he’s remembered for. However, I was struck by this quote from Don Giulio Neroni, the producer and artistic director not only of this work, but of albums with Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

As in the past, for this album too, I tried to be strongly faithful to the pastoral and personality of Pope Francis: the Pope of dialogue, open doors, hospitality. For this reason, the voice of Pope Francis in Wake Up! dialogues music. And contemporary music (rock, pop, Latin etc.) dialogues with the Christian tradition of sacred hymns.

As someone who likes to create poly-stylistic dialogues in my own music, I certainly appreciate what “Wake Up!” is going for. But it also made me think about other music that engages in this dialogue of the sacred and secular more effectively, something that actually transforms both musical medium and ecclesiastical message.

Over the past two centuries or so, there have been a lot of works that use Christian sacred texts, but were meant to be performed in more-or-less secular spaces. There have been many rich and affecting concert requiems by Berlioz, Brahms, Verdi, Faure, and Benjamin Britten (whose War Requiem juxtaposes the Latin requiem text with poetry by Wilfred Owen). The work of Olivier Messiaen has much dazzling Christian imagery, many times articulated as a kind of ecstatic bird song (something the animal love Pope Francis could get behind. He’d also like Messiaen’s dramatic work about the original St. Francis). Leonard Bernstein and Steve Reich both composed vibrant and joyful settings of Hebrew psalms. And current New York-based composer Missy Mazzoli recently composed a haunting, postmodern “Vespers For a New Dark Age,” a piece that deftly explores a changing relationship to the otherworldly in a world an increasingly technological world.

(A somewhat exhaustive playlist of the music discussed in this post)

Pope Francis and Don Giulio Neroni should definitely check all these works out if they haven’t done so, but if they only have time to listen to a ponder a single work that effectively interfaces the sacred and secular in this era, then I would suggest they spend some time with Osvaldo Golijov’s bracing Pasión según San Marcos from the year 2000.

Osvaldo Golijov’s life and music are suffused with contrasts. He grew up in Catholic Argentina, son of an Orthodox Jewish mother and an atheist father. He remembers a lot of different music floating around the house while growing up; traditional European classical; klezmer and Jewish liturgical music; the tangos of Astor Piazzola. While much of his music blends these various influences, none are so brazenly genre-crossing as his passion setting. Golijov was commissioned by conductor and Bach expert Helmuth Rilling to write a passion based on St. Mark’s gospel in honor of the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s death. Golijov was unfamiliar with Mark’s specific account of Jesus’s death, but he was very familiar with the public depictions of Jesus he grew up with in Argentina. Using both his life experience and varied musical influences as a guide, Golijov gives Mark’s passion a distinctively Latin American flavor, complete with propulsive, percussive music based on flamenco, rhumba, samba, and other Latin dance styles.

Golijov’s composition is as much a passion play as concert piece. There are dance breaks inspired by the Afro-Brazilian martial art Capoeira and the choristers have choreography as well, including an intense flamenco foot-stomping sequence as Jesus stands silently before Pilate. It also has a strong ritualistic element because of there aren’t any texts from outside the passion that act as commentary. The visual spectacle of Pasión según San Marcos links it to Latin American street festivals, like Posadas, but curiously, it lacks is a clear segregation of characters. There is no single evangelist part—like Johann Sebastian Bach’s passions—or a Jesus soloist. Instead, the words are spread among the choir and a variety of soloists who play no specific role.

The alternation of choral and solo settings of Jesus’s words has particularly striking implications. Jesus is not just a first century Galilean Jew, but a transcendent being whose story plays out in the daily lives of the poor and politically oppressed of Latin America, as symbolized by the choir members dressed in humble robes. The combination of multiple storytellers, settings of vernacular translations of Mark’s gospel, and the mixing of popular Latin music styles make Golijov’s passion a musical analog of liberation theologian Ignacio Ellacuría’s concept of the “crucified peoples,” where Jesus is encountered through the experience of those on the world’s margins. Golijov is not setting the passion story as much as a particular experience of the passion, one that transcends its typical setting in Christian ritual.

Golijov’s work has a complicated relationship with the secular concert hall. With its shear volume, theatrical presentation, and percussive intensity, the passion attacks the listeners’ senses and forces them to deal with Golijov’s politicized message. If listeners disagree with or cannot relate to the message, the passion becomes obnoxious pastiche of popular Latin forms because these musical gestures lose their symbolic meaning of communicating the experience of a common Latin American person. In addition, Golijov’s particular fusion of text and musical styles can come off as disrespectful and drain much of the passion’s Christian meaning. In a review of the passion in the Christian journal First Things, music theorist and composer Michael Linton criticized many of Golijov’s musical gestures that he felt were ineffective at articulating the true meaning of Mark’s passion. He was particularly critical of the settings of Jesus’s dialogue for a female soloist that utilized singer Luciana Souza’s range extremities and Middle Eastern melismas, making Jesus look and sound like a “disembodied transsexual lunatic.” Linton was also disappointed at Golijov’s emphasis on political symbolism over character development, particularly during the foot-stomping section before Pilate. For Linton, Golijov’s passion is unsuccessful because the music undermines the story by advancing the composer’s own agenda, misappropriating the passion narrative for his own ends, rather than treating the passion as an end in and of itself.

However, La Pasión según San Marcos is admirable for its creative audacity. Despite not being a Christian himself, Osvaldo Golijov sees that the passion narrative is inextricably linked to Christian ritual. Thus in order to create an effective concert passion in a secular space, a composer must embrace the passion as a form of prayer, and not just a simple story that can be treated humanistically. By setting the words of Jesus—plainly-translated from Mark’s gospel—for singers of all kinds, Golijov articulates the transformational power of Christian ritual rooted in the passion narrative; a power that can transform the concert hall into a genuine place of worship. However, as the composition itself sees no boundaries between pop and classical, music and theater, religious ritual and secular life, it transforms the communicative power and reception of the Christian message, stripping away sticky doctrine to reach the heart of Mark’s gospel. The music’s sincerity and exuberance breaks down boundaries between the text, performer, and listener alike, inviting all to join in celebratory and communal music-making.

In this way, Osvaldo Golijov’s Pasión según San Marcos beautifully encapsulates Pope Francis’s ministry of encounter. In the making of the work itself, a Jewish Argentinian encountered Mark’s passion and discovered that it resonated with his experience in contemporary culture. The text of Mark’s gospel encounters the Spanish language, as well as Jewish traditions, as Golijov ends the work with a haunting setting of the Kaddish in Hebrew. Contemporary art music encounters vernacular styles from across Latin America, creating a rich and emotionally potent hybrid. And today’s staid concert culture, with its assigned seats and separation of performer and audience, encounters the theater of religious ritual. What would it be like to experience this musical encounter in St. Peter’s Basilica on a Good Friday?

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For Gunther Schuller

Composer, performer, conductor, scholar, teacher, administrator, auto-didact, genre-coiner, nifty hairdo-wearer, and fiend for fat ties Gunther Schuller died today at the age of 89.

Throughout all of his life roles, Schuller’s principle project was bringing together music from the western classical tradition and the African-American jazz tradition. He played French Horn on Miles Davis’s seminal record Birth of the Cool. He wrote a pair of groundbreaking (though flawed–transcribing is hard!) books on early jazz and swing music that attempted to look at this music through the lens of classical music theory. He wrote music for mixed ensembles of jazz and classical players, juxtaposing serial techniques with swing and improvisation—a style he named “Third Stream.” And he founded not one but two departments devoted to jazz and improvisation at New England Conservatory, some of the first of their kind in the United States. As my friend/fellow composer Joe Sferra wrote on Facebook, “Any one of his projects would be a life’s work of great historical import to music, and he had SEVERAL of them.”

I was lucky enough to hear Gunther Schuller speak before a concert at NEC a couple of years ago. He was clear-eyed, passionate, and sincere about the music he wrote and enjoyed, and had a number of colorful stories about the many great musicians he worked with over the course of his long career.

But tellingly, Schuller wasn’t absorbed in the past, and instead was visibly excited about the new music that was to be performed that night—music that used many forms of improvisation to draw from diverse musical traditions. Even though he was decorated in all of his musical pursuits (Pulitzer, MacArthur, you name it) you could tell that he was most proud of opening doors for others through his teaching and administration.

Thank you, Mr. Schuller, for opening doors for people like me. I’m still trying to figure out this whole jazz-classical hybrid thing too, but I know I have a really good path to follow.

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A conversation with myself (about David Bowie & Maria Schneider)

“Hey! What’s doing?”

“Hey back! A lot of things doing actually.”

“I’m not surprised. You haven’t written anything new on the blog in 2 months.”

“Yeah. Sorry about that. But there’s still a lot of good stuff going up at JazzSpeaks! Keep your eyes peeled for a discursive interview with the amazing composer/drummer Tyshawn Sorey on Tuesday.”

“Cool. I know you’ve mentioned him before as someone doing really interesting/out-there/exciting stuff. But anyway, the thing that’s surprising me right now is that jazz seems to be having some kind of cultural moment.”

“What do you mean. We all know jazz is dead, right?”

“Haha. Very funny. What I mean is that jazz is popping up in some unexpected places, and without the influence of a neoclassicist like Wynton Marsalis. This new movie Whiplash about an aspiring jazz drummer and the relationship with this tyrannical teacher has gotten huge raves. And apparently another highly anticipated movie, Birdman, with Michael Keaton as a washed up action star trying to revitalize his career with a Broadway show, has a score that’s just some jazz drummer playing beats.”

“Yeah. That drummer is Antonio Sanchez, who’s best-known for playing with guitarist Pat Metheny for the past decade. Check out this solo!”

“Yikes. Those are some chops, man!”

“Oh yeah. Beats for days.”

“Jazz is also topping the charts right now for the first time in I don’t know when with that Tony Bennett-Lady Gaga record.”

“Yeah! I checked it out and though it’s very old-school traditional, it’s well done. Gaga knows this material, and though there are sometimes she goes too big and milks phrases unnecessarily, she doesn’t feel out of place. And the arrangements are all solid and the band is on point. I won’t complain if a lot of people want to buy it! I’d be interested in a Gaga solo effort though where she writes old-school-sounding material and tours with a big band.”

“That would be interesting to say the least. And beyond that record, there’s the new Flying Lotus record that everyone’s raving about. He’s related to Coltrane somehow, right?

“His aunt is Alice Coltrane, the great pianist & composer (and John’s wife), which also means his cousin is the great contemporary saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. But he really has his own distinct personality and the musicianship to back it up. I’ve been loving this track from the new album featuring Kendrick Lamar and a blistering solo by the bassist Thundercat.”

“Wow. This is pretty insane. And now I hear that David Bowie is releasing a new single with a jazz big band?”

“Yeah! It’s this tune called ‘Sue (or in a season of crime).’ He recorded it this past summer with the Maria Schneider Orchestra, one of my favorite groups, and one whose influence on my own writing is hard to discount.”

“So is he just trying to capitalize on this Gaga-Bennett craze for pop stars singing jazz standards?”

“I wouldn’t say so. While half of Schneider’s brass section did play on that Gaga-Bennett record, she’s not a traditionalist at all. Actually, she hasn’t written anything that swings in a traditional sense in like 15-20 years. And I don’t think Schneider would do something like this just for the money. She’s actually been quite successful as jazz artists go.”

“Oh wait. I just heard the song got released today on this BBC radio show, and now it’s posted on YouTube.”

“Sweet. Let’s check it out.” Continue reading

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Concerto from the far side

This comic is like a Steve Mackey concerto.

Tonight, my girlfriend Julia and I get to see our badass cello-playing-fiend-friend Francesca McNeeley play with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. As an added bonus, the orchestra will be playing a piece by one of my old teachers, Steve Mackey—his 2008 violin concerto Beautiful Passing. I’ve never heard the piece before and want to have a fresh experience with it, but have been listening to one of my favorite pieces of his to get pumped up—his electric guitar concerto Tuck and Roll.

Steve is really, really good at writing concertos. What makes these work really exciting for me is how he writes truly virtuosic solo parts without falling into tropes of the grand, Romantic concerto tradition. He reconfigures the relationship between soloist and orchestra in an almost theatrical way, sometimes pitting the two as adversaries, sometimes making them equal partners in shaping the musical form. Mackey’s concertos are full of surprises, wrong turns, and humorous non-sequitirs. In that way, Mackey’s Tuck and Roll is to a classic piece like the Tchaikovsky violin concerto as…



How about Steve Mackey’s Tuck and Roll is to the Tchaikovsky violin concerto as the comic The Far Side is to Tintin. I mean, I’m listening to Tuck and Roll now and am imagining a windmilling Pete Townshend in a tuxedo in front of the NYPhil and you really can’t get any more cartoonish than that.

So let’s first think of this analogy in terms of the general sound world and color palette of each work. Far Side and Tuck and Roll have much wider and brighter color palettes than their predecessors. I hear Mackey’s industrial timbres—from the huge assortment of percussion instruments to the blazing guitar itself—as Gary Larson’s eye-popping Crayola shades in his Sunday panels. The rich, vintage-velvet sounds of the Tchaikovsky are then a proper analogue to the muted colors of Tintin panels, aged by the decaying newsprint.

The analogy holds for the form of each piece as well. Tintin is an adventure novel in graphic form, with single characters sustained through an extended plot line. The Far Side comics are generally single-paneled, pithy non-sequitir observations, with occasional characters and themes popping up here and there. Like Tintin, the Tchaikovsky concerto is structured like an adventure story. The virtuosic hero-soloist is pitted against the grand orchestra. Single themes are stated, transformed, and returned, creating a linear sense of drama. Tuck and Roll on the other hand is made up different, more loosely connected episodes. The musical kernels are generally shorter—like the 7-beat rhythmic ostinato vs. the famous Tchaikovsky tune—and transformed timbrally rather than tonally. While the episodes in Tuck and Roll are certainly related by their sound world and rhythmic definition, they don’t sustain a single dramatic story like the violin line in the Tchaikovsky. There’s just enough disjunction between the sections to know that Mackey is more concerned with single panel images rather than a traditional musical narrative.

Thirdly, the analogy illuminates the relationship between the communicative styles of the pairs of artworks. Both the Tchaikovsky violin concerto and The Adventures of Tintin engage listeners in a very direct way. They seek to bring the audience safely from point A to point B, while creating the illusion of danger. They speak in common languages that are familiar to the audience. They are exciting to experience, but the adventures are contained within the works themselves. They don’t jump out of the medium to challenge the very reality of the audience. The Far Side and Tuck and Roll are much more subversive in that respect. Gary Larson’s surrealist take on the world, with his peculiar images (like God looking at a piano falling on a man on His computer screen) and obsession with anthropomorphism, isn’t that far removed with Mackey’s surrealist take on musical styles. Tuck and Roll isn’t quite darkly comic like many Far Side panels, but it certainly entertains some wild musical possibilities, like using car parts as percussion instruments and combining electric and acoustic sound sources. The sense of playful surrealism in both works cannot be contained by the works themselves, as the works make it clear to their audiences that the world they know may not always be what it seems. In this regard, The Far Side and Tuck and Roll are gleefully mind-bending.


So thinking about concertos in this analogous way certainly creates some tenuous connections between the artworks, but also leads to a more lively set of possible interpretations. In a way, this gets to the heart of writing about music—trying to communicate non-semantic sound in an analogous semantic way. Listening to a piece as an analogy helps with the translation of the music into words, but has the possibility of distorting the meaning: Mackey may not think of Tuck and Roll as humorously surreal, and Tchaikovsky may not think of his violin concerto as an archetypal adventure story.

However, at a concert of music that is all under 35 years old, this kind of curious, analogous thinking is what can make unfamiliar music come alive. When music is more abstract, it suggests fewer direct musical comparisons and more complicated musical emotions. However, it also allows for a wider range of comparisons and experiences, including imagining the pieces as comic strips. Perhaps then at a concert of contemporary music the audience should be encouraged to think creatively and playfully, rather than being told what to think by detailed program notes and on-stage explanations.


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Sonnet 73: Chorale & Explication

Especially when compared to the author’s great tragedies, William Shakespeare’s sonnets always appeared to me to be the runts of the Bard’s poetic litter. I’d read the line “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and my mind would draw up images of butterflies and roses and tacky Hallmark cards, not deep thoughts on the struggles of human experience. It turned out I was not alone in that thought either: In the two centuries after Shakespeare’s death, the sonnets had little lasting impact on English poetry, as great poets like Samuel Johnson and Alexander Pope looked to Milton as the pinnacle of English sonneteering.

Yet when I first read these poems closely, and really got to know their ins and outs, they turned from sweet, fourteen-line morsels to something much darker and more mysterious. For instance, most of the sonnets center on the relationship between the poems’ speaker and a male “fair youth.” Is their relationship romantic and sensual? Just platonic? Not quite either? Does it matter? Once I followed the sonnets down the rabbit hole, I discovered that they lead to endless questions rather than simple answers.

In a course on Shakespeare that I took in college, my professor encouraged us to dig into the sonnets by trying to write an analysis of a favorite one using only the words in that sonnet. I chose Sonnet 73, a meditation on lost youth.¹ By playing with and rearranging the words from this poem, I got a new insight into how it worked. No longer was I just struck with the asymmetrical beauty of lines like, “When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.” Instead, I noticed just how obsessed the speaker is with explaining his or her station in metaphor. As opposed to a person aging gracefully and imparting wisdom on a young friend, the speaker appears extremely frightened of the future, using every bit of poetic skill to express what he or she is feeling. Even the final couplet directed toward the fair youth feels more like a passive-aggressive command than a statement of fact.

In this piece, I am hoping to convey both the ambiguities of the sonnet itself and the sense of discovery one gets when digging deeply into such a rich piece of literature. The poem itself is set as a chorale. Like a love sonnet, a chorale has a very strong archetypal emotional connotation—we immediately associate it with church services and solemn events. But just as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 subverts our concept of what a sonnet is meant to do, my hope is that the mysterious oddities of this chorale push against your own sense of what a chorale is supposed to evoke. After the chorale, the singers pull the sonnet apart, creating a new texture based on single words from the poem. At the same time, a reader puts the sonnet back together in a new way, using that old assignment from college to attempt to explain the poem in Shakespeare’s language. Just as it takes more than one reading to really understand a poem, it takes more than one musical setting to tease out the sonic possibilities of a poem’s words.


That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.


This piece was premiered by the San Francisco Choral Artists on June 8, 2014, in Palo Alto, California. It was subsequently performed on June 14 in San Francisco, and June 15 in Oakland. It won second prize in the San Francisco Choral Artists’ annual “New Voices Project” call for scores.


1. This may have been a symptom of the classic senior year “what’s next” ennui.


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The hidden secret that makes a musical great

Orchestration is fun!

In light of recent posts, I know you’re probably asking, “What’s with all these theater posts, Kevin? Have you stopped doing all things musical?” Well, it is true that writing about music has gotten short shrift on this blog recently (I’m still writing for The Jazz Gallery, so check out their blog), but I’ve in no way hung up my music cleats this spring.

In addition to my regular composing, drumming, and teaching duties, I got to embark on a fun new project in March: teaching studio orchestration to undergrads of the Princeton Triangle Club.

Studio whah?

Oh. You don’t know what studio orchestration is. I see.


Well, I might be exaggerating on that point. But I will say that it is quite an underappreciated aspect of any film or musical. There are advantages to that of course. Nobody blamed the orchestrator for the flops of Spiderman: Turn off the Dark or The Lone Ranger. However, the orchestrations for a musical or movie score can have a vital subconscious impact on how you take in the whole work.

Oh. So I still haven’t told you what orchestrations are? Let’s rectify that.

The music you hear during a film or musical doesn’t magically stem from the mind of a single person. For various reasons, a team of musicians creates the score for a film or musical. In the case of film scoring, the reasons have mostly to do with time—composers usually have an extremely limited timeframe in which to complete the score. This means that the main composer will write what’s called a short score, where the all the melodies and harmonies of each scene are worked out, but not assigned to particular instruments of the orchestra. It is the job of the orchestrator (yes, that’s me and my students) to make those assignments. It’s as if the composer drew black and white outlines of figures and the orchestrator colors them in. This isn’t to say that film composers can’t orchestrate. Many composers like Howard Shore do like to orchestrate their own work when possible, and many others, including this year’s Oscar-winner Steven Price, begin their careers as orchestrators. Continue reading

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