A conversation with the orchestrator Jonas Zellweger
From mock-up to live music
Jonas Zellweger, in the early 20th century, the hit composers in New York’s Tin Pan Alley used to whistle tunes to their orchestrators because they themselves couldn’t notate them … was it a similar process with film music?
That’s a cliché that still sticks. But I think that composers in the film industry had mastered their craft from the very start. They still needed people to orchestrate for them, but primarily because of a lack of time. Today, you don’t even need to notate music any more if you create an orchestral sound on your computer.
So are orchestrators actually superfluous?
It depends on the kind of music. If composers lack a “classical” training, they might still need orchestrators today. Small, well-trained ensembles don’t generally need an orchestrator. But if you want to complement or replace a keyboard with a string quartet, then someone has to write out a score for the instrumentalists to play. And the symphony orchestra has retained its role in expressing big emotions in film, even though today it’s almost always mixed with other sounds.
How do today’s working methods differ from those of the past?
Today, you no longer work with just a vague idea of what it will all sound like at the end. Your starting point is the desired end result, because you can realise it in advance as an electronic mock-up. You then use this as a template for the actual music that you’re going to record with live musicians. You get used to working with such templates, and it’s regarded as something positive because they sound more precise than a live recording. Matters like timing and intonation are vulnerable when you play music live, and that’s not the case when you put together a series of perfect samples.
What role do technological developments play?
With sample techniques and the right computer programs, you can create sound templates by trial and error. You don’t even need to study music for this – which in itself can be either an advantage or a disadvantage. It can be an advantage because it means you’re not constricted by conventional ideas. But it can be a disadvantage if you think there’ll be no problem using your mock-up as the basis for a live recording, and that the live version will automatically sound better. You can’t replace digitally created sounds with live music on a one-to-one basis. You have to keep in mind what musicians and their instruments can actually play.
So why not just stick with digitally created sounds?
In some cases, that can actually be more expedient. This “virtual” option can be useful because it means you can keep on making changes and adjustments right up to the end. Instead of orchestrating for live instruments, you then need to have a MIDI orchestration (with controlling signals for virtual instruments via a standardised MIDI interface). Even with virtual instruments, there are ways of using them more or less skilfully. Percussion and piano can sound better as samples. The individual notes of a sample are taken from a real instrument, and music recorded live only sounds better because everything is played in a bigger context. Sometimes, it’s precisely this context that’s important. In order to create it, you need someone to “translate” the music, and that’s the job of the orchestrator.
What’s the division of work today between the composer and the orchestrator?
In my experience, it’s good when composers only sketch out their film music, leaving me to elaborate it more precisely. The composer might only make a rough sketch of a melody or a musical idea, or just sing it, without having actually “composed” it in full. That in itself can provide you with what’s actually important, and the subsequent effort involved isn’t greater than if you are given a mock-up that’s been fully developed. For example, that’s how I’ve worked with Marcel Vaid. Marcel would say to me: “I still need some shimmering stuff at the top and something organic underneath”. Those recordings were again used as our raw material. The orchestra is thus just one sound colour among several that all melt together.
One good example of this is Marcel Vaid’s music for Chris the Swiss (Anja Kofmel, 2018), where it’s almost impossible to separate the composition, the orchestration and the sound design. In some passages – such as the sounds of insects – the orchestra is used to provide “noise”. In other passages, however, you can clearly hear the sound of the instruments. You can’t play this kind of film music in a live concert like you can with John Williams or Bernard Herrmann, who’ve only ever composed for orchestra. I find that even the sound world of Hans Zimmer has moved away from a purely orchestral sound.
Are we experiencing a generational shift among film composers today?
Composers who didn’t grow up with digital electronics – like Niki Reiser – have had to be satisfied with acoustic instruments, and they often do their own orchestrations. They think differently from the younger generation. Back then, composers weren’t able to compose to the images. They wrote music that functioned as music; this music was then coordinated with the moving images in a secondary step of the working process. Today, we compose more precisely, but the aspect of playability is sometimes neglected.
The development of digital technology means that a generational shift has indeed occurred. The siblings Diego, Nora and Lionel Baldenweg, for example, grew up with digital technology and work very differently from composers of the older generation, even when they record their music with a live orchestra, as they did with the music for the film Die kleine Hexe (The little witch, Michael Schaerer, 2018).
Is an orchestrator more of a copyist, or a creative partner for the composer?
The latter, to be sure. It’s impossible just to “transcribe” a mock-up, because the music isn’t played live like that. When a composer gives you a mock-up that can’t actually be realised live, you have to figure out the idea that lies behind it, and then work with that. That’s why sketches are often better than any meticulously prepared mock-up. Often, you record soloists and then expand this to create an orchestral sound. The result can be hybrid sounds, as in the film music by Adrian Frutiger for Wolkenbruchs wunderliche Reise in die Arme einer Schickse (Wunderlich’s fantastical journey into the arms of a floozy, Michael Steiner, 2018).
Orchestrators of film music are often criticised for their supposed eclecticism – that they use clichés instead of finding their way to their own style.
That depends on the composition. If it’s constructed using a modular concept, then the orchestration simply fleshes it out. Music is here just one element of the whole. It doesn’t have to stand on its own, but mustn’t subordinate itself either. The same applies to the camera work and the editing. In the pop world, orchestration is a different matter. As a rule, solo instruments are then in the foreground, not a large ensemble, and the instrumentation shouldn’t sound too classical. Achieving stylistic clarity is more important. Of course, a romantic comedy or a mainstream feature film will tend to be scored more conventionally than an experimental film. How you score a piece of music also has an impact on the kind of music it becomes. Depending on how conventional the orchestral ensemble is, it can enable or prevent new discoveries. Combining music and sound design can lead to unconventional results if you want them. Here, the orchestrator is just one of several different partners. And however much you try to adapt to the template or mock-up the composer gives you, your own stylistic characteristics are still going to shine through.
(Interviewer: Mathias Spohr. Translation: Chris Walton. First published as part of the joint swissmusic.ch project of FONDATION SUISA and Pro Helvetia in 2020, editor: Céline Gex.)