Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Lone Arranger Finally Gets a Break

I don't believe it! Did I actually finish that monstrous pile of work that I brought upon myself? I think it's time to celebrate...and I think Sibelius should start sending me birthday cards.

I guess I'd better explain what it is I'm rambling about.

It all started right at the end of winter vacation just before classes began in early January. Mr. Ogawa was sitting at his desk in the music department office reading what appeared to be a new musical score. On closer examination, it turned out to be the score for the orchestral suite for the DragonQuest IV video game. (I kid you not!) The thing looked monstrous; it included a total of eleven movements, one of which was actually two different ones tied by title only. All in all, it was somewhere around an hour of music.

Then Herr Maestro Ogawa gave me The Look (reedy diminished 7th chord) and said, "I'm really hoping the Kashima Philharmonic can play this, but I'm not sure we have enough money to rent the sheet music. It's really kind of too bad. This looks interesting."

I took the hint, went over to the G5 (still the only Mac in my life), started up Sibelius, and said, "Alright, give me that book."

"You really don't have to do this, you know," retorted Mr. Ogawa (in a "not" tone of voice), but he handed over the score just the same. I actually didn't mind. I've always rather enjoyed making music, and Sibelius is a good program to do it with.

It took me about five weeks of knuckle-banging, eye-straining work to finish all twelve movements of DragonQuest IV even with the G5's large, friendly monitor and ergonomically-designed keyboard. As it turned out, though, that was only the beginning. During the second week of February Mrs. Minstrel came at me with a strange request. Her school wanted me to record "muzak" versions of the three songs their 9th grade classes had sung at their choral contest. They wanted to use them as background music for their graduation ceremony. Once again using Sibelius (but on my Sony laptop this time), I arranged the three songs, all of which were full of weird rhythms and changes of tempo and meter, and scored them for "music box" performance. (Eventually I'll pipe them through my Roland synth to get an even better sound, but for now they sound kind of cool in MIDI format.) While I was working on that project, I was also asked to do something for my own school's junior high graduation, in this case converting the orchestra music for Händel's "Hallelujah Chorus" from the key of D (original) to C (the music textbook version being learned by our students). As it turned out, however, the grade chief decided to replace the orchestra with a piano, so that job got T-1000'd in the middle.

All that was just a warm-up for the real project, which I started as soon as I'd finished the last "muzak box" tune. In the end, I was called on to do some real arranging involving some real creativity on my part.

Actually, the idea had come up before winter vacation. During our "music appreciation event" last fall, the two guest opera singers finished their program by singing an Italian tune called "Time to Say Goodbye" accompanied by our orchestra. It was a beautiful piece which immediately became a sought-after hit. In my case, though, I couldn't help noticing that the chorus of the song had a rhythmic accompaniment in a Bolero style. I wondered to myself (because I often do these things for some strange reason), "Hmm...Bolero, eh? What would it be like to superimpose the melody of that song over the accompaniment of Ravel's Bolero?" Well, just for fun, I fired up Sibelius and tried an experiment. It was just a ten-measure bit of passing entertainment, but Mr. Ogawa thought it was a cool idea.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

"Run with it!" he cried. "Oh, my GOD!!! RUN WITH IT!!! RUN WITH IT!!!!! AAAAAHHHH!!!!!! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Well, okay, I exaggerated a little, but he did tell me he'd really like me to try arranging something along those lines for our school orchestra to play as an encore at the regular concert in March. I figured I might as well try. Once DragonQuest IV and the "muzak box" tunes were safely out of the way (and Händel in the circular file), I launched into the project like a rabid beast. I started out arranging a rather straightforward version of "Time to Say Goodbye" that suddenly changed into "Time to Say Goodbolero". All in all, it was good clean fun, but it was a ton of work.

I realized that Monday (Feb. 20th...yesterday) was the last orchestra rehearsal before dead week (a two-week period of no extracurricular activity before and during exams), so I did everything I could to make that deadline. I canceled everything except my regular classes, rescheduled (or missed) appointments, skipped meetings, avoided students and coworkers, and pissed off a lot of people. Unfortunately, it was all in vain. The problem was that I stayed very close to Ravel's original Bolero template, and as it gets closer to the end it just keeps getting busier. Pretty soon the page was an almost solid mass of triplet sixteenth notes with all the string parts except the double basses split into groups and strumming chords. I was at the point where it was taking me two hours to finish a single measure for all parts. I had six measures left to go when that orchestra rehearsal started. I had five left when the subsequent Kashima Philharmonic Rehearsal (which I skipped) began. I had three left when I finally gave up and went home.

I finished it this morning. The damned thing clocked in at 9 minutes 43 seconds at the scored tempo, obviously way too long for an encore. Mr. Ogawa was amazed when he listened to it, but it was clearly unusable in its current form, at least for this year's concert. He asked me to make a cut version and also provided some musical suggestions of his own. I went back to my computer and spent this afternoon nipping, tucking, choppingm and editing. After only a couple of hours, I had the encore version ready. Even with all the cuts and a few extra "piu mosso"s (i.e. "move it a bit more") stuck in to pick up the pace, it was still more than 6 minutes long. I didn't see how I could make it shorter without wrecking it.

Mr. Ogawa suggested that I leave it as is, saying that he would figure out what to do with it in rehearsal. That is only fair, since he is the director. Even so, the maestro seems quite taken with the thing, and I actually got a lot of compliments for it (always a rare treat). As for me, I'm quite happy with the result. Even proud of it. I haven't heard it played by a real orchestra yet, and I'm looking forward to it. It sounds awesome on MIDI.

No more tunes to score or arrange for the first time this year. Whatever will I do with myself? Compose some more? Do some (prose) writing for a change? *gasp* Think more about my job? I don't know. I do know that my eyes are fried and my fingers are feeling pretty stiff. So why the &%$# am I typing up this blog???!?


  • Because you will be composer and director of a major motion picture some day and this is how you get noticed.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:14 AM  

  • soon, we will be your tune as we tune-in your blog..


    By Blogger Robin, at 12:57 PM  

  • I read this post yesterday and decided to come back later to comment. With the news of your mother in law, any I would have said seems lame and pointless now.

    I hope she is OK and that you can get through this time with a minimum of stress. I know how hard it is.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 10:38 AM  

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