Composition, Arrangement and Orchestration

Day 264 Week 39 Q3  Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Bass Fingers Pirates
Composition Process
A short 23 second noodle

There is perhaps a musical continuum flowing like a river all of the way from fooling around up to writing a composition to be performed by an orchestra. And I am confidently paddling down this river, having already been musically in an ocean and in a small pond. The small pond, in some ways, resembles an ocean for some as well. Let me circle back and explain a bit about these things. 

A singer-songwriter is probably where it all begins. A person has an idea, and it can be musical or narrative, meaning it either being with notes or words, and it does not matter which. But through either fooling around on a page or with an instrument, something happens. A turn of phrase can be literary or sonic, but it sticks with you, and you feel the need to explore further. And you can just go for a walk in the county, which ends up turning into a hike or even a trek, Or you can noodle some chords together on a polyphonic instrument that encapsulates a myriad of possible melodic possibilities. Or you can simply come up with a melody or even a tiny part of a melody that hooks you and might hook others. There is no one way to create. There is no single creative process. And the more experience you have trekking, paddling or navigating, the more options you have. And in fact, you can have so many options that you can get lost in them, which many creative outliers do. But ultimately, it is not nearly as satisfying to be only a starter as it is to be a starter and a finisher.

So, where are we going with this? Well, as is true most of the time, context is everything. Are you writing an orchestral piece, are you arranging for a big band, or yo getting ready to go to an open mic and try out a song on an audience for the first time? Well, are you feeling like orchestrating, arranging or composing? These are related by a continuum yet are distinctly different and here is the essential difference.

Composers start with nothing, but arrangers and orchestrators start with something, and the thing they start with is a composition, and that composition could be as minimal as a singer-songwriter lead sheet or as maximal as an extended piano performance or string quartet. In terms of what arrangers versus orchestrators add? The essential difference is while both arrangers and orchestrators add new material, they are different types of material. The orchestrator usually is not adding new thematic material. Not in the form of counterpoint, harmonic material, key changes or time signature changes, nor new sections like bridges. 

Arrangers can and do add all of these, making them more akin to composers. As I said, there is a continuum. But where do they both begin? They both begin with a piece of music which could be a song that is meant to be sung or a tune that does not necessarily have lyrics or vocals, but in all cases, they do begin with a composition, and it is time to define this. 

A composition manually has a single monophonic melody and harmonic underpinning, which can be expressed on a single staff in a single clef with a single set of chord symbols above it. Now is a composition a performance? Ah, a new word to add. Well, it is quite possible to define every note and every duration and a sense of a style or a rhythm in a score, but for me, that is not a composition because it is way too subdimensional. This is not true for everyone. Many people in most of the current classical world can take their machining orders from the combination of the score and pedagogy reinforced or even manifest by recordings or live performances. Are these musicians creative? Sure by their terms and no, not by mine. For me, the act of creating is beginning something into being that was not there before. And can one do this extemporaneously? Of course, they can, but does that make it a composition? No, that makes it a performance.  Is the bad or good or indifferent? Well, I guess it depends on your perspective. Are you a follower or a leader? Are you a renderer or a manifestor? 

Wow, these are heavy topics and seem to have drifted far afield, but I do not have to answer any of these questions for anyone except myself and here is the answer for me. Begin with the minimal unambiguous manifestation, and let’s call this a composition. Is a set of chord changes a composition? Well, not quite. It can be the underpinning for a performance that is extemporaneously delivered, but that does not make it a composition. On the other hand, if one has declared a set of chord changes and captured the in a recording, can that be called composition? Well, perhaps, but for me, it does need to be put under the microscope and perfected some and then scored for only playing it does not ever result in the same piece of music for me as mentioned, embedded within that set of chord changes are an infinite set of pieces of music, and for me, the challenge is which one is or which ones are, the compositions.

I may have a different creative process or different internal understanding, but I guess I am tired of talking and ready to be composing, so it is time to stop here and now.