What Orchestrators Do
by Paul Andrew MacLean
The role of the orchestrator remains an ambiguous one to many film music
fans, largely because the dimension of their creative input varies from
composer to composer.
In the case of classically trained composers, orchestrators do not generally
contribute anything creative. However, with the kind of schedules composers
face in Hollywood, it is often necessary to employ assistance. A composer
like Jerry Goldsmith for instance, although he "sketches" his
cues, every creative detail is provided in these sketches--instrumental
groupings, dynamics, and indications for all the notes. It is just written
in a kind of compressed "shorthand," perhaps with some occasional
Such sketches however are not really useable as a conductor's score.
Also, since film scores are often written in a hurry, a composer's handwriting
may not be as neat as it could be. Therefore, an assistant is usually needed
to take the composer's sketches and transfer it to a full score. In a sense
you could think of it as "paint by number," with the composer
writing "blue" or "red" on the canvas, and the orchestrator
coloring it in (of course it is a bit more detailed than that but you get
Sometimes an orchestrator may make a suggestion which the composer has
not thought of and the composer will use it. Some composers also may grant
the orchestrator leave to add his own touches to the score. The orchestrator
is also useful assistant to the composer. In transferring the composer's
intentions to full score, the orchestrator might catch mistakes (which
a composer might make in the rush to meet a deadline). The orchestrator
is also the only person other than the composer who knows exactly how the
score is supposed to sound, and it can help to have him in the recording
booth (if the composer is on the podium) to monitor the recording.
Predictably there have been a number of cases where composer and orchestrator
have diverging recollections of who thought up what, but generally composer/orchestrator
relationships are loyal and longstanding. Jerry Goldsmith and Arthur Morton
have worked together now for over thirty years and are the best of friends,
while John Williams had a long collaboration with Herbert Spencer.
Using an orchestrator is not an indication of any lacking ability on
the composer's part--"concert" composers like Sergei Prokofiev,
Aaron Copland and John Corigliano all used orchestrators for their film
music. In the late '50s, the Universal music department was thoroughly
exasperated by the young Jerry Goldsmith, because he did not understand
how to sketch--he kept giving the orchestrators complete scores!
There are of course composers whose expertise does not extend to orchestration.
Some self-taught composers do not write fully detailed sketches, thus requiring
the orchestrator to use more initiative. However, I should point out that
there are a number of self-taught composers (for instance Shirley Walker
and Michael Kamen), who are fully capable of orchestrating their own works
and provide complete sketches to the orchestrators, and even write in full
score when there is time. (Kamen orchestrated his scores for Brazil
and Highlander, for instance.)
An entertaining and informed insight into Hollywood orchestrating can
be found in Andre Previn's book No Minor Chords: My Days in Hollywood.
On orchestrating for Hugo Friedhofer, Andre Previn says "I felt like
I was stealing" when he orchestrated for Friedhofer, since Friedhofer's
sketch contained every last detail, and there was nothing creative for
Previn to do. He also provides amusing anecdotes on composers who could
not orchestrate, like Herbert Stothart (who one day leaned over to Previn
from the podium and said "Young man, did I write this?")
The following information is based on comments from composers and orchestrators,
examinations of their music and watching them work, and is, to the best
of my knowledge, accurate.
There are a number of composers who, as a rule, write (or wrote) in
full score, without working with an orchestrator. They include Bernard
Herrmann, John Scott, Ennio Morricone, Georges Delerue Rachel Portman and
John Barry in his early work.
Composers who do work with orchestrators, but provide complete detail
in their sketches would include Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, Christopher
Young, Bruce Broughton, Basil Poledouris and John Barry in his later work.
(All of these composers, I should point out, have also composed scores
which they completely orchestrated themselves.)
There are composers who are fully capable of orchestrating, but will
encourage their orchestrators to be creative and add their own ideas to
the fabric of the orchestration. Trevor Jones and Philippe Sarde are two
who work this way (the string writing in their early scores had a beautiful
"sheen" to it, courtesy of orchestrator Peter Knight). Jerry
Goldsmith, in a rare instance, allowed Arthur Morton to flesh-out the choral
writing in The Omen, since Morton had experience in choral writing
which Goldsmith did not at the time.
Danny Elfman is a composer in a unique catagory. He knows exactly how
he wants his music to sound, and provides complete sketches. However, as
a self-taught composer, his sketches are not as neatly laid-out from a
technical standpoint (and often written only in treble clef). Consequently,
the orchestrator's task is to copy Elfman's "misspelled" sketches
to a full score. (Elfman likens himself to an illiterate person who taught
himself the alphbet and is writing a novel.)
There are some composers who can write music, but are not well-versed
in large-orchestral scoring. They might provide a piano sketch, with a
melody line and a fair degree of counterpoint. The linear form and shape
of their cues are complete, and timed to the film. There are also probably
instrumental instructions for portions of the score, but the overall "fine-tuning"
of the sound and blend of the instrumentation, falls more the orchestrator.
We won't mention anyone specifically here because they'll be babies and
give Lukas a hard time.
Sometimes a composer may not have time to score the entire film, and
the remainder of the score must be completed by another composer or orchestrator
(most orchestrators are also composers themselves). The score for Superman
IV was based on John Williams original Superman themes, plus
some additional thematic material Williams composed especially for the
film. The score was then written by Alexander Courage based on Williams's
themes. Ken Thorne and John Barry shared co-composer credit on Murphy's
War, Barry writing the themes and a portion of the cues, and Thorne writing
the rest of the cues (working from Barry's themes). Barry and Dana Kaproff
similarly worked together on The Golden Seal. More recently Jerry
Goldsmth enlisted the aid of son Joel Goldsmith on Star Trek: First
Contact, and Joel McNeely on Air Force One. Jerry wrote the
thematic material and most of the score; the Joels scored the respective
remaining 20 minutes.
Occasionally a composer might be called upon to write music in a style
of which he has no experience. James Horner is an acomplished scholar of
classical music, but when he had to provide some big-band style music for
Cocoon, he called upon Billy May for assistance (since May is one
of the finest big band arrangers of all time).
Finally there are composers who are usually electronically oriented,
who write/play their music into a keyboard and provide a sketch printed
from a computer linked to their MIDI system, as well as a tape. In this
case the orchestrator provides more of the orchestral detail (usually blending
it with the composer's synth lines), although the composers who work this
way have stated that their complete music is there in the computer. Hans
Zimmer, Marc Shaiman, Tony Banks, Brad Fiedel, Stewart Copeland, Kitaro
and many other current composers--including Elliot Goldenthal, who has
an extensive classical training--fall into this category.
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