Driving a Corrupt Convertible in Cali (top down)

So I was yacking it up with a fellow composer yesterday about the musical vagueness present in the music business these days, specifically how it relates to those who write music for broadcast or sync for a living (which I don’t and he does, most successfully). He encouraged me to pursue my study group (http://ellingtonstudygroup.com) because as he sees it, and I totally agree, most composers can’t or don’t take the time to really get into the intricacies of “old-school” jazz horn arranging, and end up writing only what they can play with one hand on a keyboard controller–or worse: tracking horns part by part by ear.

Then he said something that really resonated with me, and I paraphrase: “It’s not composers’ fault necessarily, but we’ve been forced into bad composing and arranging by a culture and music business that has misrepresented and hijacked music itself.”

It’s not only jazz that has been hijacked, where the sound of one’s horn section sample dictates the texture of the arrangement, where there is no regard for voice doubling, section weight, inter-sectional cross doubling, mute mixing and articulation. Modern contemporary rock/pop-based and even orchestral styles are also misrepresented as weak and watered down. It seems that most of music for production starts from the loudest and most repetitive element, the “beat” or the “loop” or the “groove,” or the “pad” or “the machine gun string ostinato”… followed by a sequencing/tracking/layering process and involving a decision chain based on the accumulation of sound and repetitive aural acceptance that has nothing to do with writing.

So many compromises are made before you even begin your track. Consider that every sequencer defaults to 4/4 time, 120 bpm (great for a Sousa march)–a minor annoyance, but if you’re auditioning loops synced to tempo, your all-important first-notes-into-the-ear impression might be polluted.

You’re not even safe onstage or in a session, where in the soundcheck twenty minutes is spent on the kick and snare sound, the “root” of the band. Gotta get that kick perfect FIRST or we can’t play a note, right? It really sets the mood….(well maybe not as much in LA sessions)

We’ve adapted our writing style to the limitations of DAW/computer composing: find a cool groove; throw a two bar bass riff onto it; start layering some shit on top of it; add a guitar; …then some strings, then “melody instruments,”  and start tweaking the mix, listening the whole time through a mastering chain, until it sounds good enough, then move on to the next cue. The only orchestrational choice that’s available after this aural accumulation is subtractive, semi-creative post-production (ie. “why don’t you thin that out.”)

I call that last technique “writing from the bottom up,” and while it’s perfectly legitimate and worked great for Led Zeppelin and Herbie Hancock,  it’s an insidious crutch if it’s all you can do, and compared to the way music used to be written in the good old days when men wrote like men (on paper) and performed live in the studio with real people, it’s orchestration-ally backwards, but more importantly, composition-ally corrupt. Our evolved culture tells us that music has to sound this way, and the geeks who design the software give us the tools of our musical demise.

Jazz composition and arranging is even trickier and harder to pull off digitally, maybe even a lost cause. But really, does it matter? They tell us that all jazz sounds either like “In The Mood,” “Playboy After Dark,”or that Miles tune, you know, the one with the muted trumpet?

So now we have to all lie in the sonic bed we just “scored”….or do we? More later about “top down writing…”


About Scott Healy

LA composer and performer.
This entry was posted in Jazz Arranging, Jazz Composition and Analysis, Jazz history, Jazz piano, Theory and Harmony and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Driving a Corrupt Convertible in Cali (top down)

  1. Bevan Manson says:

    A few years ago, I was one of the musicians recording a pop theme song for a popular TV sit-com. Your article brought back fun and exasperating memories of the session. The staggering amount of time spent on tweaking the kick and snare sounds and the committee approach to figuring that out ( of what seemed to be a mob of producers, TV execs, the composer (or songwriter), the conductor, and the engineers…but not the musicians on the floor) was wasteful to say the least. And I say that as when looking at the visual, it was clear that any number of musical approaches would have been fine. Even one without (gasp) a kick and snare…even one without a kit at all. But that would have meant that someone with the ability to write ensemble music would have done so. It would have requirede some creative decisiveness. The inability of the “composer” to figure out what worked orchestrationally did not help. She had just written a few lines of melody and the rest was put together take after take, layer after rejected layer, by the above-mentioned committee. It was chaotic. While there was some energy in the final product it was sonic layers, underwater, opaque, bland. It had no character. The strings and woodwinds were eventually mostly obscured if not buried by the avalanche of drum kit and perc overdubs. No character… Surely they would not have wanted the live actors in the show to bland and opaque, so why dumb down the music?

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