Visiting the Musica nova contemporary music festival this year was a lovely opportunity to meet colleagues, to have interesting conversations and to enjoy many wonderful concerts. This got me thinking about the widely differing contexts of social life that you have when you are a composer.
On the one hand, you spend a lot of time by yourself, inside your thoughts, imagining things and trying to write a set of instructions for people who will then try to make those things happen. On the other hand, you are drawn into an orchestra rehearsal or a recording where possibly dozens or hundreds of people demand your attention directly or indirectly. Not just the orchestra members and the conductor, but also the orchestra manager and other staff, recording engineers, producers, journalists, photographers, record label representatives, radio show hosts, and so on.
It’s a crazy swirl to say the least, at least for me. After the concert is over, as quickly as it started, I am back home inside my head, feeling quite puzzled. When nothing external is going on anymore, I wonder what on earth just happened. I just remember that I loved every bit of it and can recall if some musician gave me the evil eye for writing something awkward, something not to do in the future – which luckily happens very rarely these days.
This is what I realised was so different at Musica nova: it was full of wonderful performances, colleagues and chances to meet new people in a relaxed setting. It was how it would be on a lunch break with co-workers in a traditional office job. I guess what I am saying is that we composers (or at least I) don’t get too many of those lunch breaks, which is why the festival was so very refreshing. In a context like this, you can regulate the social interaction and ease into and out of it, something that is not possible when those orchestra rehearsals hit. There, you need to be ready immediately.
There are other agreeable social settings too, like the lectures and workshops that I give here and there. They are nice breaks in the flow, as I get to meet enthusiastic composition students or people who are just generally interested in what I am doing. This relates to my core work but is still outside of it. I gain new ideas and new energy to move forward.
I have been writing music continuously for orchestras for over 20 years now. I feel quite privileged to be able to do so. My love for everything orchestral has led me to write in various styles from popular to contemporary. The largest part of my professional life so far has been writing game music arrangements, which have been performed by symphony orchestras around the world. These have varied from arrangements closely following the original music to freer and larger works, from tone poems to a violin concerto up to a three-movement symphony. In each of these arrangements I have applied various approaches, whatever I am asked for or whatever I feel the arrangement needs. I just love the variety of colours and textures you can get out of an orchestra and how flexible the instrument is. Especially with game music arrangements, I have wanted to share my love with audiences, many of whom have never been in a concert hall before.
The concept of game music concerts has grown into a worldwide phenomenon, and quite often there is some heavy marketing involved. In this context, I need to be able to switch to social mode fast and give coherent answers to various kinds of media – before and during rehearsals. This is sometimes hard, as I might still be in deep thought about the music and my unconscious is constantly popping out potentially better solutions, even when the material has already been sent. Sometimes I need to force myself out of this state with mental and/or physical exercises. My partner said that the people producing the reality show Farmer Wants a Wife should replace the farmer with a composer: anybody who can stand the dead stare of a composer for a couple of weeks wins. Luckily this only happens in the last week(s) before a deadline, and now that I know how to regulate the flow somewhat, I am better able to handle my personal life and social interactions.
Another thing that often smooths the abrupt social transition – as obvious as it may sound – is being as well prepared as possible. I study everything, so that I know each note, rest and dynamic by heart. For passages that might raise questions, I try to find solutions in advance so as not to waste precious time in rehearsals or recordings. I am ready to give an opinion and discuss anything, even those obscure places, so that the conductor and the musicians perceive my point of view if questions arise – especially where extended playing techniques and those wilder contemporary textures are involved. And I don’t mean philosophical discussions, but pragmatic approaches.
I once read that the time it takes the recording engineer to reach for the record button has already cost (somebody) five dollars, so there is that too: pressure from the producer(s). If I’m unsure, I usually over-orchestrate, as cutting is way easier than adding. On some occasions I have had an alternative set of parts for the musicians with me, although one needs to be sure that they are comfortable sight-reading before putting something new in front of them. Musicians usually do sight-read in the recording studio, so this might not be much of a problem. Cutting is always the best option in my opinion. For example, in a live orchestra setting, there might be a need to fill the space or just add more octaves and/or doublings to make things heard. If I am unsure, I’ll just write those in and cut if needed.
Cuts might be called for especially if the orchestra sound is being recorded. In the recording process, the sound is usually compressed from 3D (concert hall) to 2D (stereo speakers). Sometimes the sound just clogs up in recording, even if in an acoustic space it would be perfect. I find this to be the case especially if I use multiple textural layers or write busy contrapuntal material. I sometimes orchestrate very differently if I know that it is for a live performance instead of a recording. Of course, the best option would be to have everything in balance from the get-go, which I feel I have been able to do in recent years.
All of the above makes me more comfortable and gives me clarity in various situations. When I am well prepared, I don’t need to stress about the technical aspects as much. I know that I got this. This frees my mind to accommodate all things social, and I am able to cope with those unexpected situations that can be very hectic or intimidating or both. As obvious as this may be, it is something that I needed to realise for myself and to find ways to react to it and to handle it. Things like exercising, deep breathing, SLLS, preparing and relaxed social interactions have worked very well for me; and all of these improve other aspects of life too.
Featured photo: Jonne Valtonen. Photo by Philippe Ramakers