Q&A: Conductor and Orchestrator Extraordinaire, Anthony Weeden
Article by Coriander Stuttard
Music for TV and film serves myriad purposes: from creating the right atmosphere to leading viewers between scenes, via creating suspense or capturing the personality of a character. With the award season upon us once again, it’s interesting to look at one of the other roles behind the scenes on the music side – that of the unsung heroes of film scores, the orchestrator.
Enter, stage left, Anthony Weeden, who splits his work between conducting orchestras in concert performances and orchestrating music, mostly for films. He’s conducted many orchestras around the world including The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Metropole Orchestra (Amsterdam), The New York City Ballet Orchestra, The Greek National Opera, The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, to name just a few.
He has collaborated with some extremely talented artists from a fairly diverse range of musical styles and genres such as singer-songwriters Antony Hegarty (Antony & The Johnsons), David Byrne (Talking Heads) and Anna Calvi, composers Jóhann Jóhannsson, Tarik O’Regan, Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL), Michael Price, David Arnold, Rael Jones and Peter Gregson.
Weeden’s touring work has taken him around the world, and to special events like the Givenchy Paris fashion show (Women’s Autumn/Winter collection 2013), performing with Antony & the Johnsons, and it’s worth noting that in an effort to appear more appropriately smart and stylish on stage, he had a suit made by Chittleborough & Morgan of Savile Row. On Joseph Morgan’s suggestion, he now wears the suit to perform in whenever he gets the opportunity
In 2008, Weeden was asked by EMMY award-winning composer and pianist Michael Price to orchestrate his score for a film named The Mountain Within. The two have since formed a strong working partnership (Weeden has orchestrated the music, written by Price and David Arnold, for every episode of the award-winning Sherlock series). Here, he explains a little more about his revered and rarefied job.
C.S: What does it mean to be an ‘orchestrator’?
A.W: For me, an orchestrator’s job is the process of transforming existing music from one instrumental format into another (usually upscaling in the process) where the character, colour, texture and depth of the music can be further explored – usually, although not always, using real musicians. The orchestrator’s role is perhaps very loosely synonymous with the colourist’s role in the world of graphic illustrating.
The final output of an orchestrator’s work is usually a traditionally notated orchestral score, enabling musicians to perform and record that music. In the modern world of music production, in which sampled musical instruments are readily available for composers to use “straight out of the box”, a final notated score will often never be created other than in digital formats which are not possible to perform with real musicians.
A sampled orchestra will never bring as much quality to a performance as the best professional orchestras, and currently the quality gap between them is simply enormous, so the orchestrator isn’t likely to be out of a job just yet. Producing a film score for an orchestra is expensive, and the alternatives are often exploited, but in my experience a score is often only fully realised after the orchestrating process. It is brought to life in a live performance by real musicians, and re-lived in a recording.
C.S: Could you describe the process?
A.W: It actually varies a great deal, and very much depends on the type of project I’m working on and for whom. Traditionally, orchestrating a score is a lengthy process that would be completed by the composer herself or himself, usually at the very end of the composition process, transforming a finished, and perhaps annotated, “short” score – on two or three staves (like piano music) – into a “full” orchestral score, sometimes taking up as many as 40-plus staves.
The modern day film industry demands very fast turnarounds by composers, and at every stage of the compositional process, a film’s director or producers will expect to hear demonstration mock-up versions of the score. These demands often require a team, led by the composer. Mock-up demos are created and sometimes, if budget allows, an expensive orchestral recording is made. The orchestration of the score takes place towards the end of the compositional process, ideally once all the demos have been signed off, but sometimes sign-off happens very late – sometimes even the day before the recording – leaving very little time for orchestrating.
C.S: Do you sometimes get to ‘compose’ any of the music or are you always working with someone else’s notes?
A.W: It’s not strictly composing, but I’m often required, as part of the orchestration process, to create lines, countermelodies, textures, rhythms and such like, where the notes aren’t necessarily given but are implied in the material handed to me. I’ve not yet been asked to compose a complete section of music from scratch as an orchestrator, but orchestrators have certainly been known to do this in the past – usually when a project is time pressured.
C.S: How have things modernised over recent years?
A.W: Unfortunately, as digital music production technology has advanced, largely gone are the days when a film score orchestrator would receive a score in the form of a traditionally notated “short” score, perhaps annotated with some helpful ideas by the composer. Orchestrating film scores isn’t quite so straight-forward anymore – although film composers are able to keep their musical ideas tightly synchronised to the picture.
What I usually receive from the composer instead of a short score is a mock-up demo in a digital format of any music requiring orchestration. It’s usually in a music sequencer like Apple’s Logic Pro or Steinberg’s Cubase – essentially a combination of MIDI and audio information. This might sound terribly convenient to work with, but as the technology is far from perfect, it often requires an number of processing stages before it’s in a legible, traditional music notation format, from which the orchestration process can be begin.
As the composer will have already created mock-ups of the score, many of the broad strokes regarding orchestral colour – for example, a selection of instrument groups such as strings, woodwind, brass, percussion and so on – will have already been made, synonymous with annotations made on a “short” score. So much of my time orchestrating is spent creating a score that, on its first playing in the studio with a real orchestra, will honour the orchestral intentions of the composer broadly demonstrated in their mock-ups. For some composers, this is also their brief; others allow a little more freedom to the orchestrator, laying out more of a skeleton score to flesh out, which can be more rewarding and certainly more creatively stimulating for the orchestrator, but can also take longer.
C.S: Are things handed over to you at the point of orchestration or do you keep working very closely with the composer?
A.W: It’s really important to keep close communication with the composer throughout the process, especially as things can change quickly – I’ve had to re-orchestrate several minutes of music a day before recording it before now – but it’s also important to protect the composer from issues they don’t really need to deal with. I’ve now found a balance, and feel much more comfortable making decisions, without the need to chat things through, than when I first started orchestrating. And, of course, some composers actively encourage the input of the orchestrator while others want to keep the process tightly under control.
C.S: What equipment do you need? Would you say you rely heavily on the computer and keyboard?
A.W: It’s vital to embrace new technologies in this business, otherwise you’ll get left behind. Media composers will expect an orchestrator to be fully up to speed with the latest and greatest software, and have the right computers to run it on. I use a similar set of equipment that other orchestrators will also be using: a selection of Apple Mac computers, a nice weighted MIDI controller keyboard, various bits of audio hardware, fast SSD hard drives. Software includes Logic Pro, Sibelius, Cubase, Pro Tools and lots of musical instrument sample libraries. My favourite bit of kit is my two 27-inch monitors, one above the other, so I can see the details of an entire orchestral score without having to zoom in and out incessantly.
C.S: Do you conduct the players in the recording?
A.W: I’m often asked to conduct the orchestra in final recording sessions and, as much of my time has been spent conducting orchestras over the last 20 years, I’m always very happy to do so. It’s great to see the project through to the recording stage, and London’s session orchestras – essentially comprised of the City’s finest orchestral players – are the best in the world.
It’s always such a pleasure to work with them, especially in world famous recording studios like Abbey Road Studios and Air Studios. Some composers also like to conduct the orchestra themselves at the recording stage, in which case I’d usually be on hand at the recording to assist with any score changes that be might be required during the session.
C.S: Would you say you have your own ‘sound’?
A.W: With enough creative freedom, it’s certainly possible for an orchestrator to have, whether consciously or not, his or her own trademarks, whether that’s a strong liking for woodwind flourishes or sweeping string melodies doubled in three octaves, rather than two. If I have a trademark, I’m not yet aware of it, although I’d like to think there’s some kind of continuity running through all the scores I’ve orchestrated. It may be that someone points it out to me in the future, but for now, as an orchestrator, my main concern is trying to realise the orchestral sound inside the composer’s head.
C.S: How long would it typically take to do an episode of Sherlock?
A.W: Sherlock is always incredibly fun to work on, and I work with a very experienced and wonderfully talented music team. It varies a bit, as some episodes will have more new music than others, but generally I take around two weeks to orchestrate the score for each 90-minute episode. I often also provide the music preparation service too, which means that I, or more often than not my assistant, creates the physical paper parts and scores for the orchestral musicians, conductor, producer and engineer to read from in the recording sessions. The TV show’s composers, Michael Price and David Arnold, also recently won an EMMY for ‘Outstanding Music Composition For A Mini-Series’ (Original Dramatic Score). We’re looking forward to resuming work on Sherlock later this year.
C.S: Do you always make the score bigger – from keyboard to orchestra?
A.W: The role of the orchestrator is usually upscaling from one format to another, but I’m also asked to reduce orchestral scores for smaller ensembles, or even solo instruments such as piano. I’m currently creating a piano book, for publishers Hal Leonard, of a film score I orchestrated and conducted in 2014 at Abbey Road Studios; Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music to The Theory of Everything, a wonderful film about Stephen Hawking, which has recently won a Golden Globe for best original score and has been nominated for an Oscar and a BAFTA. Fingers are crossed for the winners announcement in February! There are also plans to make the music from Sherlock available in sheet music format during 2015.