Bah, orchestration, cooking, what’s the difference?
When I was a little kid, in the late 90s, I was fascinated with cooking. Call me weird, but I used to like watching cooking shows. For me, it was magical, how little bits of this and that can be combined with larger bits of this and that to form an integral product that was purposefully pleasing to the palate. [Do I get an awesome award for an astoundingly amazing aptitude in alliteration?]
Fast-forward to 2005. Thanks to an amazing friend, I became obsessed with orchestras, and subsequently became fascinated with orchestration. Call me weird, but I really really enjoy studying scores. For me, it’s magical how little bits of this instrument and that can be combined with larger bits of this ensemble and that to form an integral product that was exceedingly enjoyable to the ears. [OK, so alliteration didn’t work out too well, this time]
Realizing these two facts (did anyone else notice the parallelism between the two paragraphs above?), I noticed just how similar orchestration and cooking really were.
Think about it! It makes perfect sense!
Eating is something we (well, most of us) experience every day. We may enjoy many different kinds of food, from quick and easy fast food to the more expensive but ultimately rewarding haute cuisine. If we take a look at haute cuisine, we see that there are many different styles and tastes; some dishes may even have a delightful mix of different tastes. These fantastic flavors are created with a smorgasbord of ingredients; the right amounts in the right conditions at the right time. Of course, cooking takes a lot of practice. One cannot simply pick up cooking and expect their dishes to be the best (unless you’re a genius). Food connoisseurs with some knowledge and understanding of how cooking works might be able to create such delicious dishes, but knowledge and understanding of how cooking works only go so far. While you might be able to identify the ingredients used, you may not know how to use them, how much to use, when to use them, etc. For example, how much water are you going to add? How much cornstarch? How many spices? Are you sure you got the ingredients right (MSG or salt?)? What temperature should the water be? How long will you keep the flame burning? High heat or low heat? How long should you let it simmer? If you simply toss all the ingredients together and “flame on!”, it’s going to be the same as nuking a dish. With a nuke. Or at least, that’s my understanding of it.
Music is something we (well, most of us) listen to every day. We may enjoy many different genres of music, from quick and accessible pop music to the more complex but ultimately rewarding classical music. If we take a look at classical music, we see that there are many different styles; some pieces may be written for solo instruments, others for larger ensembles like orchestras, eliciting many tonal colo(u)rs. These terrific tonal colors are created with a smorgasbord of instruments; suitable ones in suitable conditions at suitable rhythms. Of course, orchestration takes a lot of practice. One cannot simply pick up music and expect their creations to be the best (unless you’re a genius.) Music connoisseurs with some knowledge and understanding of how music and orchestration work might be able to create wonderful orchestrations, but knowledge and understanding of music and orchestration only go so far. While you might be able to identify the instruments used, you may not know how to use them, how much to use them, when to use them, etc. For example, how many oboes will you have in unison? How many violins to compliment? How many brass instruments? Are you sure you got the instrumentation right (bassoon or sax?)? What tempo should the piece be, practically? How much passage-work will you give? To what instruments? When do you switch instruments in good klangfarbenmelodie? If you simply make all instruments play the same notes altogether, it’s going to be the same as blasting the same notes on many speakers. With General MIDI. Or at least, that’s my understanding of it.