|Bob Thompson Music|
Although a generation apart, I think there are similarities between Van Dyke Parks and Bob Thompson, who were friends. By all accounts of they are/were under-appreciated and under-compensated--to their own consternation and that of fans, family, friends, and (in Van Dyke Park's case) the many musicians inspired by his work.
Both are both serious students of all forms of American music and that is reflected in the musical refinement and inventiveness of their writing (although the results are never dour). As people they share a humility and way of expressing themselves that is sly, self-consciously florid, and full of delightful "overtones." Good musicians make me laugh.
Van Dyke Parks and Bob Thompson distinguished themselves as composers and arrangers, as you can hear in Van Dyke's self-released Arrangements Vol 1. I was curious about Van Dyke's thoughts about arranging and how it is actually done.
What is the art of arranging for other people?
Not to be noticed. Yet, to seem necessary, once present.
What makes an arrangement interesting?
It's horseshit to think that arranging, as an art-form, needs new "creative" ideas. Arranging requires a fundamentally reactive bent. To qualify for the task, you need superior powers of observation. Your ears (unless yer Beethoven) are your best instrument.
"Not to be noticed. Yet, to seem
If you're a string fanatic, divide your strings thusly, to get a transparency, physical complexity, a mass of a Mendelsohn: Use 3 violin lines, 2 viola lines, 1 cello, 1 dedicated bowed upright and 1 dedicated pizz bass (the latter, to address the casual observers, and bring them in). This preferred voicing requires 7 players, minimum. N.B.: The phenom of strings: "Less is More: More is Less "True!
Film composer Alfred Newman once told me that the quietest sound that can be heard is a Philharmonic Orchestra. That may entail 96 players. On retrospect, I agree. Witness any string quartet. All is up-close and personal. Viz "Eleanor Rigby" or "Yesterday" by the Beatles, or the indispensable quartets of Smetena, Dvorák, Ravel, Debussy, or Gershwin: Every line speaks, whether confidential or projected---all is audible. As string numbers increase, the quality of opacity leads to an incomparable transparency of sound.
In arranging, often an ideal is reached in such quality for an irreducible number of string players achieves a real orchestral clarity.
Time and experience have revealed that minimum to be (vlns): 4/3/3; (vlas): 2/2. Cello and bass may survive and balance perfectly these upper-register vlns/vlas.
Using a minimum of 3 vlns per line reduces intonational problems. Two violins in unison invites dangers that three violins reduce. The violas (enjoying less prominence by nature of their principally alto range) don't suffer such scrutiny.
All ideas, whether rhythmic or melodic, may be thrown into the strings, with any blown or struck instruments simply enunciating aspects of what has been bowed and plucked.
To complete construction of such a chamber ensemble with truly orchestral temperament, eith frugality foremost, I may add 5 wood winds (2 flutes that double, a dedicated oboe, 1 clarinet, 1 bass-clari). I also try to afford one brass--and of that field, choose French horn.
Why French horn? One of my brothers played it ably, and went to Andover in full scholarship, just because he played horn masterfully. Horn has such sentimental attachment for me. Yet, without digression, I must note that French horn has the widest compass in the brass section. It may make full-out flatulent bass-leaden explosions, or ascent to soloistic treble heights. It offers the easiest subtly cohesive quality as well---while one trumpet can easily wipe out a modest string ensemble, one horn can offer surreptitious support with langorous whole notes. If you have bucks for one brass--consider making it a horn. ---
Additives to these principal ingredients? One Harp--- (worth the cartage fees, if necessary). Note that harp is capable of more than wet-dream arpeggios and glissandos. Harp may "secco"--all dry-bones, and butch enough to be a physical force, in flight-formation with violas' rhythmic hypnotica, or as a vital ally in punctuating the resolves of string ascents.
Mallets and other Percussion
"Tuneful Percussion"-is the balliwick of jazz andnpop idioms (as well as noted in Britten's "Young Peoples' Guide To Orchestra" or Saint Saens' "Carnival of the Animals"...)
If you get a chance (and know your section players have the goods from head-to-hand), try cannibalizing occasional rhythms and/or long lines etc. from your active strings.
Marimbas may offer subtle support, or strike abrasively. Vibes may offer sustained harmonic centrality with an economy of notation.
Tympani--like piano and most accoustic percussion options, just can't be duplicated synthetically. Yet, cartage costs come into play, only when deep pockets are there to be dug. (Like for computer game soundtracks and deodorant commercials, nationally televised).
Spenser Thompson shares anecdotes, music, and videos from Bob Thompson's music career plus thoughts on artists from Duke to Devo.
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