Writing ‘backgrounds’

Some aspects of writing cause anxiety and apprehension, a feeling of inadequacy. Counterpoint, ‘straight’ four part writing, adding a chord sequence to a melody…etc. All of these subjects receive detailed examination in the book.

Another stumbling block for beginners is the ‘background’. They write the intro, follow on with the first exposition of the tune and they’re reasonably happy. Then what? Often it’s time for the featured soloist to enter. After a loud ensemble it can be an idea to continue with soloist and rhythm section/percussion only and build from there.

Inexperienced writers, if they’re honest, find themselves with a blank piece of paper at this point but there are professional pointers that lead the way out of the abyss.

There are many styles of background writing: sustained chords (probably the first to spring to mind); repeated riffs or vamps; call and answer section work; unison lines; counterpoint…

The interaction between the melody and the lead note of background harmonies needs to be considered but potential clashes between the melody and harmony voices is rarely a problem, especially at medium tempos and faster, and even less so when orchestral/instrumental separation (contrast) is taken into account.

Orchestration/instrumentation is a rich source of contrasting tone colour. Where music is colouristic rather than harmonic/melodic, many transgressions of conventional wisdom can be tolerated. Voice leading may lose its importance (with detached, percussive harmonies, for example) and instruments can be taken down lower than usual in the orchestral range, even to the extent of using noise.

Developing the analytical power to understand the material we’re working with is essential to any aspect of arranging. All compositions have intrinsic features of one kind or another. There may be a descending or ascending line in the harmonies (or one can be made to work by modifying the chord sequence); often there are distinctive chord changes that we perceive to be important and that we can seize upon to create motifs and phrases; the melody itself can be used in simplified form with increased note durations to provide the lead note for sustained background chords. Because the durations have changed, the relationship between the lead note and the chord sequence goes ‘out of sync.’ giving rise to some interesting harmonies. Occasional lead notes may require modification. Or we can go the other way and compress note durations in the melody and use the result as a series of fragmented figures. Or we could use both of the above together with unison/octaves against voiced sections and employ role reversal later on. Dynamics become important when we do this or the background becomes too obtrusive.

Background figures and instrumental fills used in the exposition of the tune can be re-used with modifications or temporal contractions and expansions using different orchestration. Use your imagination. Write loads of adaptations and rid yourself of inhibitions, especially where two or more overlapping sections use different rhythms. This is the orchestra, not a piano. We don’t want too many ideas in the final version, of course. This is where it can be difficult to throw out unwanted material we’re really pleased with, especially if we’ve spent (wasted) a lot of time on it, as I did a couple of weeks ago!

Retrograde and inverted retrograde forms have definite applications in background writing. Retrograde forms are particularly effective in drawing a passage to a close.

The object of this blog is to instil coherency into writing, and encourage people not to write the first thing that comes into their heads in the blind belief in their own genius.

This might be a convenient point to remind ourselves that the arts frequently evolve via a process of action and reaction. We’ve recently witnessed a movement away from formalism in jazz. ‘Been there, done that’, some say. These people will obviously not need the book or these blogs. Interestingly, there has been a movement back to well written and orchestrated film scores of the kind we associate with the superb music of the Thirties and Forties.

When we move away from section-by-section writing (in the big band environment, for example) it becomes more difficult to hold the music together so it’s important to keep stepping back from a piece to ensure things don’t fall apart. This will entail resisting the temptation to commit too firmly, too early, in the writing process.

You may wish to build the music gradually, from small beginnings to a loud climax. You will certainly wish to ensure an evenly distributed mix of instruments, sequentially. It’s difficult to make hard and fast rules but you should be careful with situations where a certain style of orchestration appears out of the blue and then disappears without trace, never to be heard of again. The music can get bitty when you do that. It also gets bitty when it’s chopped into compartments, without interlocking lead-ins and taper-offs etc. Integration is the thing.

Homework: listen again to your favourite tracks with the above advice in mind. Learn from the professionals. You will often notice instruments deep in the background that you hadn’t noticed before. Using headphones is a big help here. In the living room environment there’s a greater tendency for the ears to focus on the foreground. This is what the arranger intended, of course, but not much help to us as we analyze the music. The process resembles the way our eyes focus on an object causing the surrounding details in our peripheral vision to become subservient. Similarly, if we’re listening to someone speak to us our ears which, too, are direction-finding (which is why we have two of them a distance apart) will focus on the voice and filter out the background buzz. This natural human tendency is undermined by stereo reproduction which sets out to ‘unravel’ the orchestration. That statement should throw the cat amongst the pigeons!

Early in my own career I wrote an arrangement for a radio orchestra which used only the rhythm section and tuned percussion as a background to a clarinet solo. I thought it worked well. Then the phone rang: It was the MD, who explained that when people listened to his show, which was broadcast all over the world, they expected to hear a full orchestra, not a small band. That’s why they tune in every week. He was a multi-millionaire so I figured he knew a thing or two about public acceptance. Similarly, a big band audience will arrive with certain expectations so that scaled down interludes (a band within a band) must be treated with restraint. They can be effective. There’s an interaction between audience and performers and the chemistry varies from one time and place to another for reasons that are difficult to identify. It also shifts internally, within the band.

Get it all going together on one night and the result can be electric but if someone at the back of the hall shouts ‘Pep it up a bit will yah!’ it’s a good sign that subtlety, at least, is out on this gig.


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