Lessons for Rufus: Emulating and composing for string orchestra

August 31, 2006

Rufus Wainwright singing "Waiting for a Dream" by Ian Elmslie

My dear Rufus,

I read with interest that you are including a string quartet in your recent recording sessions. I also have read that you will be producing your next album as well. I hope that soon you will stop relying on others to orchestrate your music as well. The best way to learn how to orchestrate, is to do it yourself. No amount of reading or hiring someone else will EVER teach you as much. Find out what works, what doesn’t work first hand.

The article I read implied a frustration in the recording session with the string quartet. If you were draping the piano with a heavy cloth, it sounds like there was a balance problem. I’d like to just remind you of a few quick principles that may come in handy while you discover your orchestral voice.

The string section sounds great playing as a section. Yes, the firsts are the “alpha” instruments of the orchestra, and as such need to sound strong and able to pump a melody regardless of difficulty. The firsts are a section, not a solo. It is WE, not ME.

The concert master should have little solos that are inherently soloist, personal, and sometimes virtuosic, but keep them to a minimum as this is not chamber music. I learned that it takes ten more violins to double the volume of a single violin, not two. The section, and this applies to all of the string sections, SOUNDS like a section because everyone has their own interpretation of pitch: granted, it is a very narrow band, but the sound itself has ten different versions of the pitch, the attack of the bow on the string, the volume, the vibrato, the overall shape, and so on. In the strings, every utterance is like a snowflake. There are no two alike, except on a computer emulation of a stringed instrument.

Never fall in love with computer playback of your music. The intonation is deceptively perfect. Strive for writing idiomatically for the instruments. It should rarely be awkward. Your music should be fun to play, and that means music for the second trombone as well as the second violins. Put your soul into every line. Even when sustaining as single note, one of my teachers, Wm. Thos. McKinley, encouraged me to put a word next to it, explaining ‘how’ to interpret it: “crying,” “sighing” “with force” –– all give much more information than just a plain whole note.

Always be open to suggestions from instrumentalists on how to achieve something in a more idiomatic fashion. They’ve been playing their instruments their whole lives, trust me, they are the best teachers, sometime brutal, but essential.

Don’t ever treat the string section like an organ by sustaining endless chords, it’s stupid orchestration and insulting. Orchestras who play for television and film know who to go into a zen trance with sustained notes and know the clock is running, so they could care less about sustaining notes. Classical musicians expect something musical to DO. Study how string orchestras manifest chord changes. Every composer does it differently. That harmonic orchestrational habit becomes part of YOUR orchestral sound. That’s why I say WHY give it to someone else? You can do it yourself, and you should.

Don’t be misled my the terrifying power of the “low bass” sounds in movies: they are ALWAYS enhanced electronically to give it the acoustic power. You can mike the hell out of an instrument to make it sound louder, but in an acoustic space, YOUR orchestrational chops have to be able to stand up, be heard, be projected and heard in a live space. Don’t ever imagine that a string quartet could emulate that kind of sound. The cello only goes down to C below the bass clef. (The contrabass with a C extension goes down an octave below that. Synthesizers can take that sampled sounds and have it rattle an octave below that!).

There are two examples of string quartet writing in the 60s that I’ve alway thought worked well: George Martin’s work on Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby” and Jack Nietzche’s work on Neil Young’s first album “Whiskyboot Hill.” Review those as examples of good writing that don’t draw too much attention to themself, and stylistically work next to rock n roll.

Then go purchase the Dover Edition of the complete string quartets of Ludwig von Beethoven and study them for the rest of your life. Then buy the complete score to Sibelius symphonies and every opera Puccini ever wrote and bathe yourself in the orchestration. Turn your input valve on full.

You play guitar, watch HOW the strings are playing their lines and intervals and chords. Stretch your inner ear to actually hear all five sections of the string orchestra: the firsts, seconds, the violas, the cellos, and the basses. And remember that throbbing behind each instrument is a human being who has devoted their lives to that instrument, and ready to give you their all. Throbbing behind each musical line is an arm that plays a downbow, then an upbow; downbow followed by an upbow. And they do this millions of times in their lives. My point is this: the upbow is a great “inhalation” emulator. The downbow emulates an exhalation. Players can put anywhere from one to many notes under each bow, so that the overall effect of that constant upbow-downbow action, is like constant breathing. Don’t forget that element in effective string writing.

Don’t write a melody, and then just GIVE it to the violins, when you compose for the violins, the melody should have been composed HEARING the violins play it, brought into being AS a violin melody.

Stravinsky supposedly hated the organ: “the monster never breathes.” Let this monster breathe –– and speak and cry and sing!

I trust that your summer has been a good one,

Prof. Berlioz

[Photo credit: this picture was sent to me and, I assume, taken by Ian Elmslie, the chap I just sold my Rufus/Judy T-shirt to. Contact me for his email if you wish to use this photograph.]

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