I may be skipping out of order here, I can’t be bothered to check up all the dates. But a post on the Etiquette Orchestra definitely seems called for.
Initially, this was just another freelance playing job. Originals in a roughly orchestral soul style (with definite film noir overtones), a gig in Brighton and adequate money to justify the journey. My usual initial pitch to anything non-classical, however, plugs violin and viola playing and also mentions being able to get involved in transcriptions / part editing / arranging – partly because I actually enjoy that aspect, and might benefit from more experience and CV in it, and partly in the general effort to make myself look as good a catch as possible!
So, on this occasion I got a large bundle of (very polished, and so cool they were almost painful to touch, like frozen steel) demo recordings, MIDI files and audio tracks of individual instrumental parts, and set about pushing the string MIDI files through software conversion to score, and then doing the tidying up involved in making playable parts. Other people were taking care of the piano and wind parts apparently.
This job of tidying up transcripts is at the same time oddly similar to some aspects of my desk job (it adds nothing, creatively, and possesses no real scope for imposing personality or even musical knowledge on the material) and yet vitally necessary. What comes out of the transcription plugin may well be in an inappropriate clef for the instrument in question. It will certainly not be transposed, including octave shifts, where necessary. There will be no key signature, and a more or less arbitrary choice of accidentals where needed. Phrasing there will be none, but if the MIDI file has been worked at to sound good then the note lengths will be messy, full of short ties, rests crudely indicating staccato, and so on. Dynamics and performance markings are also entirely absent.
Anyway, I did my editing job and produced a bundle of files. I went down to Brighton early for the first rehearsal (of two!), stopping off on the way to play Haydn’s Creation with Kent Sinfonia in Hove, so that I could go through the parts with Steve aka Scutty Lee, the apparent musical mastermind of the project (and, as it turned out, Altea, the lead vocalist and general public face). By this point, I had realised that the outsourcing, so to speak, of the transcriptions was not just down to too much work for two people but rather to neither Steve nor Altea (and the musical collaboration turned out to be both closer and more equal than general stereotype would assume) reading music. Going through my parts in detail showed up a few special effects (glissandi, tremolo etc.) that I hadn’t spotted and which hadn’t transcribed, and a couple of errors in the recordings which Steve wanted removed. We also reworked a couple of endings for live performance where the demos had fades. All necessary parts converted to PDF and sent off to the friend who was going to bulk print for the next day’s rehearsal, I crashed on a camp bed.
I try not to dwell on the following day too much. It was a study in frustration.
Late the previous night, the bloke doing the wind transcriptions had texted Steve to ask for the transpositions of the various instruments – which I had duly dictated. This sounded ominous but I wasn’t yet expecting the worst.
A (big) rehearsal room was booked for 6 hours. For the first few of those it remained largely empty, while the pianist showed up, bass and drums (travelling together) kept postponing their arrival time, and I sat around. (In general the plan was for the rhythm section and vocals to rehearse first, then add the strings and brass later.) A couple of hours were killed trying to walk the pianist through her parts, which had stayed in ‘raw’ form, not just making them nearly unreadable but also meaning that they had unpredictable numbers of silent bars on the front and timing the first entry was virtually impossible – more so as she clearly hadn’t listened particularly closely to the demo recordings.
Besides bass and drums, the other notable late arrival was the print-outs of orchestral parts (Steve had got to about two days previous, apparently, before realising he didn’t possess a printer; but the friend in question was ‘just round the corner’ from the rehearsal rooms). When the sax player / wind transcriber showed up this turned out to be less of a handicap than it might have been, as he still needed to transpose the parts. And didn’t own a laptop. Cue downloading and installing software (a package I’ve never used and now never intend to!) to my laptop over rehearsal room WiFi, much intermittent conferring over transpositions, and uploading to Dropbox.
The string parts hadn’t required any heavy rearranging. There were basically violin, viola, cello and double bass parts to each track; the only slight challenge had been covering some of the double bass parts further up the orchestration, as they would only be played when the bassist wasn’t busy with ‘rhythm’ bass lines.
I realised as this hasty finishing-off of wind parts was going on that they were a totally different matter. The available forces (still not quite finalised at this rehearsal) were tenor sax, two trumpets and two trombones. However, various of the MIDI files involved up to three French horns, euphonium, baritone sax, flugelhorn, piccolo trumpet and a mysterious instrument, of whose real-life nature I am uncertain, called a cimbasso.
When my fellow ‘orchestral’ musicians started to trickle in (there were a couple who couldn’t make this date, but most were there), we had string parts (a first printing batch having eventually arrived), but no bassist or drummer, and the last of the brass parts were still being transposed and exported. It took a little longer to get a bundle of almost ‘raw’ wind parts, only very vaguely corresponding to any of the available instruments and with some highly suspect-looking pitches and key signatures. At around the same point, the drummer decided (3 hours after he had been due) that he wasn’t going to be able to come; which did at least finally free up the bassist to set off.
We managed to get through 5 out of the 6 numbers at least once. There was a vague sense of the right structure, mostly held together by Altea and Steve (on guitar), but it was little short of a washout. I was massively frustrated, felt unjustly treated by the whole situation (I had done my job, as far as my ego saw it; but here I was in the muck through various failings around me [stands in saddle of high horse]) and had to rapidly back-pedal from losing my temper in proper teenage style at one moment. (Trust me, I was a startlingly volatile teenager.)
Crisis management kicked in afterwards, of course. Chiefly, for me, in the train journey from Brighton to London which Altea and I both had to take, in which tough but necessary decisions were made and a certain amount of overruling done.
Over the following couple of weeks, I redid all the wind parts. Not just transcribing and editing but doing some fairly hefty rearranging to make sure as many of the notes as possible were covered by the available players; and, as far as my knowledge of the area would go, that the parts were playable and would actually function on real instruments. I sent the whole lot out to their players for review and found I had mostly got away with it, bar a couple of missed accidentals and getting very sick of apologising for the software I was using being incapable of producing short-notation multiple bars’ rest. Steve tactfully replaced the pianist, and had a private chat with the drummer. I produced full scores of the orchestral parts, and obsessively marked in instruments to cue in my own parts.
I had a prior commitment clashing with the second rehearsal, also the last rehearsal bar an extended get-in / soundcheck on the day. I sent off everything for printing, to two different people in most cases, including the full scores for reference, and tried not to fret about what might be happening in Brighton.
When I got rehearsal tapes, they were a very pleasant surprise. There had been no unexpected no-shows this time (though still a couple of bodies short, including me). The performances weren’t perfect, and there were still points where counting was clearly a difficulty (67 bars’ rest, anyone?), but the spirit seemed to be there and the sound seemed to be broadly right. I was vastly encouraged.
The gig itself was a closing performance at what I can best call the hair equivalent of a fashion show, though it wasn’t quite that either. There was, unsurprisingly, a LOT of waiting around at various points, and some last-minute panics (the event organisers seemed to be characterised more by urgency and enthusiasm than thoroughness or good communication – I am trying not to stereotype the Spanish nationality here!). Some things proved more difficult on stage – monitor mixes were unsurprisingly a challenge, and the strings and brass were on opposite sides of the stage, too far apart for me to cue any wind entries in practice.
But come the eventual moment, I would say we triumphed. Alti sounded and looked like a million dollars, sassy, cool and in control. Steve, roaming around on a long guitar lead, was clearly loving every moment. I was only aware of one noticeable musical slip. And the whole thing became cool, consummately understated and measuredly relaxed as it should have been. I had said all along (with some real doggedness, in a spirit that if I said it often enough I might believe it, and it might even become true) that the material was superb, that what it needed was simply to be able to shine through without mistakes getting in the way. I don’t think it fully seemed a realised truth until performing though.
It would be unfair of me not to mention, and applaud, both the appreciation of many of the players and friends / family / general entourage for my work and Steve and Altea’s touching gratefulness for ‘making it happen’. I think the episode constitutes an epitome of what I call the craft (as opposed to art) of music. I did put the hours and the effort in, I certainly won’t deny that! But there is no ‘Ash orchestral sound’; I haven’t learned much about arranging (except what the bottom note of a trombone is, and how low you can really write for trumpet!); my really creative input was confined to sixteen bars of string trio linking one song to another. But to produce the kind of result that it did required someone, or ones, with that technical set of knowledge around sheet music, multipart scoring, transposing instruments – and also the ability to work with musicians who may be geniuses in their sphere but that sphere is guitar chords, MIDI files, multitracking and demo recordings, not stave lines and ink. It’s the foot in either camp, however much it may feel like doing uncomfortable splits sometimes, that enables a breaking through the conventional (because to some extent real) boundaries.