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Orchestrating Blake

Who is this Blake?

What is this Blake?

To what am I referring?


Don't worry - I have the answers!


I am, of course, referring to the incomparable William Blake - the English poet famed for a certain collection - or rather, two certain collections - of poems titled


'Songs of Innocence' and

'Songs of Experience'.


The clue is in the title there for a musician - 'Songs' - just crying out to be put to music!


And some of them have over the years, dating right back to the living years of Blake himself right through to more recent efforts.


HOWEVER...


There doesn't appear to be a conclusive anthology of Blake's entire works. That is, aside from some songs here and there, the entire collection needs putting to music in a fresh and contemporary way!


Hello!


I did that, and I did that right back towards the end of 2020 / early 2021, but since then the project has lay dormant.


HOWEVER...


recent inspiration to get back into composition made me rethink my life and realise that rather than start on a brand new composition, I ought to revisit one of my projects that was barely started, let alone finished.


I'd transcribed them all for voice and piano and that was that!


So I ordered myself a proper printed copy of my score for quick and easy reference (and to refresh my memory of them on the old piano) and over the past few weeks I have started the first step towards my dream. Whatever that may be (probably an album!).




Jack Mitchell Smith songs of innocence experience music musician William Blake



Orchestra and Instrumentation



The big project that is much farther along at present is, of course, 'Morella', and this was orchestrated with the intention of being performed by orchestral instruments alone;


Flutes

Clarinet

Bassoon

Trumpets

Tubular Bells

Timpani

Piano

Drums (Bass / Snare / Cymbal)

Violins

Cellos

Double Basses


...and this has served the project so well, creating an atmosphere of moodiness that matches the gothic opera of the time.


However, for 'Songs' I wanted to bring in some more contemporary inspiration, as I felt that this would work so beautifully in contrast to the often archaic text of Blake (I have made very few alterations to the text. The occasional pronoun change from 'thee' to 'you' etc. but fundamentally it is all still there).


I have made the bold decision to drop the double basses out of the above orchestration, otherwise the setup stands with some additional instruments:


Piccolo

Alto Sax

Horn

Glockenspiel

Acoustic Guitar

Electric Guitar

Bass Guitar



Instrumental Choices



The original orchestration above that I am using for 'Morella' is failsafe as there is plenty of opportunity to create different timbres, but not so much that you face;


  • too wide a scope of instruments, meaning the musicians don't have to play as often as they may like, and


  • too wide a scope that the ear can't enjoy a passage of music because there is too much transitioning between instruments / sections.


In order to address the first point, instruments have been doubled up:


  • The piccolo has really only been introduced for the first piece (Blake titles this as 'Introduction', but I might rename it 'The Piper' - that ought to be a clue!). This instrument gives a much brighter sound than the flute, not least because it is pitched one octave higher. However, a piccolo player being brought in for the opening number of a 47 piece strong suite is not ideal, so this player doubles up with the bassoon.


  • The acoustic and electric guitarist will be the same. During 'Innocence' the electric guitar will be employed far less, as the acoustic guitar will complement some of the pieces beautifully: Gentle, childlike pieces of music. In 'Experience', however, things take a darker turn and the electric guitar will be able to create more mood to this end. This doesn't mean that each guitar is a stranger to the opposite 'act', but to ensure than one guitarist wouldn't spend one half of a performance waiting around, they are the same person!


  • The percussionist and the drummer are separate people. The drummer keeps any beat and does any fills or cymbal work as needed, whereas the percussionist focuses on timpani, tubular bells and glockenspiels.


  • I have not yet employed the alto sax, but I have an idea for where I want it. This will be doubled up with one of the woodwinds - possibly one of the flutes (as the score is for 2 flutes).


  • I have one bar in mind for the horn out of the whole show! If this can't be doubled up by a trumpet player (as a real horn would sound amazing!) then the bassoonist can play this bar.


  • The bass guitarist will add extra oomph where the double basses have been removed. Less frequent in 'Innocence' and more prominent in 'Experience', again to highlight the darker turn of the latter.



Principles of Orchestration



Back in 2014 or thereabouts, I ordered a book titled 'Principles of Orchestration' - a book by the great Rimsky-Korsakov - and I feel I still adopt some of the titular principles today.


  • Flutes are the best at rapid passages of music - something that I utilise heavily in my orchestration.


  • Creating texture between parts is all about interlocking notes in instrumental groups rather than stacking. For example, a C major chord rising as C - E - G - C - E would orchestrate better with a cello playing the C bass note, Violins 2 on E, violins 1 on C, flute 2 on G and flute 1 on E that it would with the cello keeping the C on the bass, violins 2 and 1 playing E and G respectively and flutes 2 and 1 playing C and E respectively, as the former would mesh them together pleasingly rather than keeping them notably distant.


  • It isn't uncommon for trumpets to be tacet for large passages of music, if not entire pieces.



Songs to Look Out for...



As I previously stated, there are a whopping 47 pieces in this suite. I have now orchestrated 17, there being 18 in 'Innocence' - so that's nearly act one. Despite act two featuring 28, many of these are short reprises of pieces from 'Innocence', so shouldn't take as long. Compositionally I have kept themes recurring to this end, occasionally turning the tonality minor to better correspond with the cynical, adult viewpoint given in 'Experience'.



Songs of Innocence



I am very proud of the style of music that has come out of 'Innocence', often not a million miles from the style of music you could expect to hear sung in primary schools! Focusing heavily on the almost arbitrary requirement of schoolchildren to believe in and worship God and Jesus (and lambs - Blake has a bit of a thing for them!), this section is largely in the major key and upbeat. There are, however, some deviations. Some of my proudest work from this first act are:


  • The Chimney Sweeper - this piece for me had to be in 12/8, and it had to be in the minor key. And I believe it complements the tone of what Blake is writing about so beautifully, with the implicative transition from life to death. Interestingly, this is one song that did not have to change tone for its reprise in 'Experience' because it's already in the minor key!


  • Cradle Song - perhaps I'm not making a strong argument for the case that most of 'Innocence' is major because here's another minor song (which is again reprised in 'Experience' in the minor tone!). I think overall the simplicity of my composition with this song is what makes me so fond of it - typically 'lullaby' like, which will not come as a surprise given its theme.


  • Night - ...OK, this one's minor too. But there's just something to be said for heavy use of woodwinds to create a nocturnal atmosphere musically. In fact, the piccolo comes back into play for a guest appearance in this one! The first half of each verse in 'Night' is in this minor key, but then modulates to an unrelated major key for the second half, just to create a little bit of hope and optimism before transitioning back. The exception to this is the verse that I consider the Middle Eight ("When wolves and tigers...") as this increases the drama of the song before quieting down again for the last two verses.


  • Nurse's Song - a song in the major key! And I am very fond of this. This also has a lullaby like quality to it, but this time in the major key it has a beautiful air to it that screams innocence - almost intentional!



Songs of Experience



In 'Experience', the overall cynicism of adulthood is rife throughout the poems - reprising some of the poetry of 'Innocence' with a newfound angle, but introducing several new ones. This is tremendously exciting from the point of view of the composer as it allows him (ME!) to create spectacular contrast between the first and second halves. As previously mentioned, the electric guitar will come into more prominence in this half, making it heavier (albeit not necessarily rocky). Here are some handpicked favourites of mine:


  • The Little Girl Lost / The Little Girl Found - these are actually two separate poems that follow on from one another, but musically they just have to flow into each other to appreciate the full spectacle. There is a trepidation in here, and if you read it alongside the aforementioned 'Cradle Song' you will be able to appreciate how some of the musical themes are shared. However, it is the hopeful climax towards the end of 'The Little Girl Found' that makes the whole journey rewarding for me.


  • The Tiger - show me a poem by William Blake more well know than 'Tiger, Tiger, burning bright...'. This is the one! And upon stumbling across this one (well, I knew it was in it but go with me!) this was the first actual anxiety I had compositionally. Will by music live up to such an iconic poem? I believe it has, as I've taken the rhythm of the verse and created a relative bass-line for which the song can sit on top.


  • The Human Abstract - abstract? Abstract? Say no more! Say the word 'abstract' to a 20th / 21st century inspired composer and just see the light in their eyes! This unpredictable music with unpredictable arrangements is atonal and I adore it!


  • The Schoolboy - in musicals, it's common to refer to the 'eleven o'clock number'. This is the number that comes shortly before the end and is often quite a big number ('Bring Him Home', 'Memory' etc.). Well, this is the eleven o'clock number for 'Songs of Innocence and Experience'. This piece is amongst my favourite if not my favourite from all 47, and despite coming right at the end of act two, it is in the major key. A song about a young boy likening his obligation to school as caging a beautiful bird (cue more tweeting woodwinds!), this is a big, emotional number. If you read it, you'll also spot the line where I want to use the horn!


Oh well...I suppose you have made it this far and you're probably thinking:


YES - BUT CAN I HEAR SOME?!


Well, on the basis that I'm not going to sing it myself (nobody needs that)...here's the latter. 'The Schoolboy' performed instrumentally by myself on piano:







What's Next?...



Next is simply a matter of completing the orchestration, then deciding on what I want to do. Maybe I'll seek to perform it - or songs from it. Maybe I'll look into fundraising for an album of it. Maybe it will just sit for another two years when I've completed this second major obstacle and I can procrastinate for longer. But I feel too positive at this point to let it get to that stage again. So hopefully not!


 

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