Truth In Advertising For Composers

Recently we looked at the topic of bridging the essentially unbridgeable: music you can hear versus music you can see. One topic we didn’t tackle was the brewing identity crisis spawned by technology which blurs the descriptions of the jobs we do, particularly when it comes to that other, unwritten part of the paycheck: screen credit. This component is important. Ever wonder why some closing credits roll on for 5 minutes or more after a major film these days? Many of those names, when negotiating and given a choice between screen credit and higher pay, go for the latter.

In the “good” old days, job descriptions were cut-and-dried. Cameramen didn’t adjust lights, actors didn’t write scripts, and music copyists didn’t orchestrate. An orchestrator was defined by our union as the musician who took a complete composer’s sketch and, by assigning the musical shorthand to the available orchestral colors and effects, generated the complete score for the copyist. Just as the orchestrator was not paid to add significant melodic or harmonic embellishment to the sketch (that would be arranging,) the copyist was not paid to add detail which did not appear in the score. His job was not to make any decisions about content; it was merely to correctly transfer it from one unambiguous form to another.

However, with the advent of midi sequencers and computer-produced notation (and a generation of composers who never experienced anything else,) “it ain’t necessarily so” anymore. We same composers, who know to the fraction of a percentage point on our cue sheets what is ours and what isn’t, may be developing myopia regarding screen credit for our collaborators.

I have heard many times of composers whose personal logic has led them into the “I sequence; therefore I orchestrate” (and therefore my assistant must only “copy”) mindset. If this were a debate, the presumption that the first two statements lead inevitably and only to the third would be the problem. A midi file, and the audio that it represents, merely hints at the true notation. Without the services of a skilled and tech-savvy “adjunct orchestrator,” (be he called a “midi-transcription person” or “composer’s assistant,”) the finest notation package, on its own, won’t get us a performance in the same zip code as the audio it’s supposed to emulate.

Here is a by-no-means-complete list of things that are vital to the players, but which aren’t in the midi spec or whatever non-notation file we supply: dynamics symbols, articulations, differential note durations (is it an eighth note with a circumflex or a sixteenth note? They won’t be played the same….) harp pedalings, string harmonic notations, instrumental effects labels (“horns up,”) style indicators (“shuffle,”) conductor directions (“In 1,”) left-/right-hand piano splits, phrasing, lyrics, custom bar numbering schemes, clefs, double-bars, you name it. Midi and audio, even in tandem, are supremely inefficient communicators of notational intent as they’re slow, prone to misinterpretation, or both. If we had to retype a scene from a play, from which would we work better and faster, visual pages or “books on tape?”

And what does it say about our own orchestrational contribution if we are content that the subjectivity of midi and audio will be good enough at conveying our detail? Don’t we owe it to our “people” to publicly acknowledge that they are indeed doing part of someone’s job if that is all we give them from which to objectively prepare the parts? After all, beyond the necessity for previewing our cues for higher powers-that-be, most of us have grown so comfortable composing in a sequencer that we may have forgotten (or perhaps never really knew) just how much of the job is still to be done after the flash of creativity has been captured on disk?

Given the traditional and justifiable requirement by a copyist for a complete score from which to work, and being paid wage scales which have evolved from that industry understanding, merely choosing which samples will play which notes, and coaxing audible expression out of them, while producing no actual, definitive notation, is not fulfilling the whole orchestration job when live bodies will eventually be involved.

For purposes of fairly assigning credit, obviously the answer lies not in an “either-or” contest, but in some compromise between the two. How about sharing it, somewhere along the lines of “Music by me. Orchestration by me and him?” Isn’t that what’s really happening?

Assuming that we all want to do right by those that make our “music by” credit possible (as another definition of the golden rule is “What goes around, comes around,”) clarifying our definitions of just what is orchestration and what is copying, and crediting accordingly, is a good place to start.

Post Script: “Have you checked out The Orchestration Forum? yet? This great resource on all topics orchestrational is waiting to help you See you there!”

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