An Anatomy of an Arrangement

3 08 2009

Hohoho…been neglecting the web journal a bit have we, ey?

Well, its only because there’s not a whole lot to write about – mom came down with a pretty severe case of bronchitis, and so I’ve been doing a lot of domestic chores (you know: laundry, dishes, cooking the occaisional meal) – the most exciting of which is feeding our big, ornery Doberman, Weiner. Use your imagination.

Hmm…I have been trying to write a story – but details on that are privy only to me and a select panel of editors/reviewers. Sorry, ladies and gentlemen.

When I’m not working on that (which is often, since mom calls me every few minutes to do a chore or help her with a chore – I’m not complaining, mind you), I try working on one of my arrangements; the current one being 다시 만난 세계.

Unbeknown to most people, I do not go rooting around the World Wide Web (does anyone still call it that nowadays?) looking for orchestral scores. This is because the music we The Orchestra plays is very often either not scored for orchestra, or the score is not readily available (i.e. for free, since we can’t afford them). Thus, unless I can find a midi file of a melody or (preferrably) a piano arrangement, I usually have to transcribe the whole thing by ear. Such was the case of Fureai and Viva la Vida.

But what if we want to play something that was never meant to be played by an orchestra? We’re not talking taking a poprock song and sticking string arrangements onto it (ala Iris) – we’re talking translating a whole song in the language of rock or pop into the language spoken by an orchestra.

I realize this closely parallels my (mis)adventures in trying to learn the Korean language by total immersion – in KPOP tunes; but more on that some other time. Jinjja.

다시 만난 세계 is, to put it bluntly, a KPOP tune. It’s run mainly on synthesized sounds and beat, with 9 female voices singing in simple, two-part harmony (sometimes) – but mostly solo or in unison. The melodies are somewhat angular and are at times heavily syncopated, primarily because it helps make the song “danceable”.

Well, the language the orchestra speaks is quite different – the intricacies of angular melodies and heavily syncopated rhythms get lost among the sheer number of sonorities being produce, and two-part harmony suddenly seems eminently laughable when trying to produce it on an instrument that can, without much effort, produce ten-part harmony if it so wished – and sound like the voice of God in the process. It’s a bit like trying to get somebody who speaks Italian (with all those lovely rolling lines and intonations) sing in, say, Swahili…or that language spoken by the natives of Jumanji (comprised entirely of snorts, clicks, and whistles).

The solution? A little of give and take from both sides. I have to modify the syncopations of the melody to make them easier to produce by say, the brass section, and so that when the whole orchestra is going full blast, you can actually hear the melody being played. It mean really getting into the two-part harmony and figuring out (mostly by trial-and-error) what chord is really being implied at that moment before exploding it into, say, 4-part harmony.

It sometimes means having to change the tempo – for my arrangement of 다시 만난 세계, I’ve chosen to take the original 120bpm tempo and bring it down to 90bpm, since I’m going for a more majestic approach to the overall tune. This will allow me to use other rhythmic figures, played by other instruments (like the horns) to drive both the rhythm and outline the harmony.

Lastly, it involves composing a few measures of original material, which will serve as transitions between sections. Sometimes these are just chord progressions that go from, say, a minor 6th, and go down stepwise to the tonic, with an ever-diminishing dynamic level, which will then allow me to introduce the melody for the stanzas within a more subdued atmosphere. Sometimes it involves coming up with little flourishes for the winds or the high brass or the strings.

All in all, its taking longer than I first imagined, but I am pleased somehow with my current progress – that for once, my creative powers are being put to the test.

I’ll let you know how this turns out. GTI, hwaiting ipnida!

…at least I hope that’s how its supposed to go.


Cake before the Icing

16 07 2009

I was still wide-awake at 2:30 this morning, hunched-up in bed with the laptop, marvelling at how clear my latest arrangement sounded in my head as I tried to get it down into Sibelius (which I shall shamelessly plug as the music transcription software to own) – I ended-up sleeping at 4AM, and no, its not done yet.

Of course you’re wondering what am I working on (and if you’re not, why are you reading this?).

Well, you’ve probably read about my current wave of fanboy-ism, and so it shouldn’t surprise you that I’m working on a song called 다시 만난 세계.


Yeah. This PC can now handle Korean characters…and you need to learn to read Korean 😉

So anyway, there I was last night, listening back and forth across my reference recordings when I stumbled upon a classic case “Icing before the Cake” – technique or virtuosity for the sake of…well…technique or virtuosity.

I found two fanmade piano renditions of 다시 만난 세계 – one was by a dude (I think), the other by a girl (judging from the nail polish). The dude was clearly the superior pianist, technique-wise, at least – he skittered up and down the keyboard, added some really funky inflections and reharmonizations here and there – while the girl pianist basically stuck to the “melody supported by chords and arpeggios” formula. They also differed in terms of tempo, with the dude taking a fast, closer-to-the-original tempo, while the girl laid it back by a significant amount.

I remember telling my students some time ago that audience applause is a poor standard by which to gauge one’s success as a musician – most audiences (most, not all) will applaud anything, especially if its something novel or something they cannot do themselves. Nevermind excellence – most applause is a way of saying “I was entertained, regardless of whether or not you were actually worth watching.”

Now please, before you react, I am not saying we should therefore treat the audience with contempt – I am simply saying not to trust in the applause. Be thankful for it, be a gracious, humble recepient of it, but don’t attach significance to it.

Anyway, I really felt this was the case of the dude’s rendition – it was novel, it was impressive, technique-wise, it was testament to his skill and undoubtedly awesome talent – but it didn’t mean anything. It felt like, as far as he was concerned, just another song to play around with.

The girls rendition, however, was something else – technically simple and straightforward, but it made things move inside me. Her approach opened up the melody and song structure for scrutiny, allowing the listeners to judge the music first and foremost (and despite my biased position, I would like to say that the melody is excellent – it would not sound out of place on an anime or videogame soundtrack), and then her approach. Her piano was slightly out of tune, but even that lent her rendition charactert – one viewer commented that her sound “…seemed to be coming down from the sky.”

You know, after awhile you get used to the applause, to the people who slink-up to you and say nice things about your abilities and your talent – and when that happens, you start looking for something beyond all those things, something more transcendent, something meaningful. You start wanting your music to mean something, to change something.

More often than not, the best cake needs no icing – and the best music needs no virtuosity.

I Remember

3 07 2009

The other week I asked one of my students (Kyu-Yeon, henceforth to be known as The Q – that’s awsomeness right there) to track down an old (5+ years) KPOP tune for me. The tune was Lee Soo Young’s LaLaLa.

Well, The Q and her sidekick Minji (or is it the other way around?) are quite efficient when it comes to anything Korean (duh!), and so she found me a link, I loaded it up into my mp3 player, and had a listen to a song I havn’t heard in a looong time – right in the college library (I’m a student again, remember?).

And I remembered Nari, singing it in her pale yellow top and white skirt. I also remember the time she came to my classroom fighting back tears: she had accidentaly (who would do such a thing on purpose?) bashed her head on a fire extinguisher outside and was rather stunned by the sudden rush of pain usually associated with bashing one’s head on blunt, immovable objects with great force (and vice versa).

It was only my second year of teaching, and well, since I don’t get high school students with blunt force trauma in my class everyday, I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do. Rather innocently, I held-up two fingers and asked her to count them. She laughed (as best as one can when one’s head is ringing like a church bell).

As one memory leads to another, I then remembered Yoojin – one of the gentlest souls to ever grace my classroom. I think whoever composed her writeup in their batch yearbook was onto something when she called her a “Choi-doll” – she was always very soft-spoken and self-effacing, gently bopping her head when she found herself slow on the uptake. She helped me start The Orchestra, along with Abbie and Kristine and Yona and Yookyung – she was our first concertmaster.

She gave me kimchi – a whole bucketload of it (my attempts to store it on campus made me an instant celebrity). She called her violin kking-kkang because of the sound she made on it.

I remember Abbie, who is in Japan now. She had just about given-up on playing the violin, since she had been through a string of sub-par teachers (excellent players, but really bad teachers) before me. She was one of my tallest students, around 5’5″ or 5’6″, with nicely-tanned skin (a color we call moreno/morena) and wise-looking eyes.

During The Orchestra’s very first concert, she came onstage for her solo part in this gold and scarlet gown, all prettied-up (there goes good grammar) and beautiful, and I still remember the collective gasp from the audience.

I could actually go on and on with this, but I’m long on memories and short on time. All I want to say is that if your name is on this list, then know that today, I speak it in rememberance. If not, its probably because either you were never a student of mine to begin with, or you still are 😉

  • Nari Yim
  • Tanya Aritao
  • Kristine Borja
  • Seoyun Park
  • Taerang Park
  • Yookyung Lee
  • Yoojin Choi
  • Eric Wong
  • Benjamin Tolentino
  • Eunice Oquialda
  • Fahad Al-Khaldi
  • Kenzo Teves
  • She Ha Nul Hong
  • Monserrat Gonzales
  • Katrina Gonzales
  • Jonty Domingo
  • Katlyn de Mesa
  • Abiel Balon
  • Abigail Balon
  • Jen Miguel
  • Anna Calcetas
  • Charisse Cruz
  • Kathleen Hyun Kwak
  • James Oquialda
  • David Vidad
  • Juwon Park

I have this hankering feeling I’ve forgotten a few people, as is wont when it comes to this sort of thing. I apologize – frankly, I’m amazed I remember this many.

Wherever you are, whatever you might be doing, whatever you might have become, I remember, and thank God for you.

In recent events…

27 06 2009

Yesterday, our Educ110 class met for the first time. Entitled The Teaching Profession, the teacher had us watch a teacher movie – Freedom Writers featuring a shockingly-thin Hillary Swank and, if I’m not mistaken, a pre-Gray’s Anatomy Patrick Dempsey (who I better remember from the late-90’s film With Honors) – but not before making us give answers to a few questions:

  1. Why do you want to be a teacher?
  2. What do you think the average citizen thinks of our school today?
  3. How important do you believe teachers are to our society? Why?
  4. What are the characteristics of the best teachers you’ve ever had?
  5. How would you rate Filipino secondary teachers as a group?

The first question is asked endlessly in the College of Education, regardless of the subject. It’s cliché, I admit, and the answer is often cliché-er (“it’s a noble profession”, “to help the country”, blah-blah-blah”), unfortunately. Not wishing to become a statistical cliché myself, yet wanting to be honest, I opted for this answer: “I derive a great deal of personal pleasure and professional satisfaction from teaching – I cannot, for the life of me, imagine myself doing anything else.”

And I mean that, in case any of you are wondering.

After the movie, she gave us another set of questions to answer:

  1. Do you still want to be a teacher?
  2. Do you think you have the talent necessary to become a good teacher?
  3. Are you willing to learn the necessary skills required of a good teacher?

In a fit of what some people here might call “suffocating hubris”  (I prefer to call it “overwhelming passion”), I just wrote down “yes” to every question (my handwriting got bigger with every “yes”), turned in my paper, and went home.

Teaching: it’s what I do.


I auditioned for the university band this morning – the bulk of their ranks were graduating, so they needed “fresh meat”. I was probably past my expiration date, since I was the only fellow who showed up who was…well…old (I graduated from college five years ago. All the other auditionees were still within their first three years of college.)

I’ve done quite a bit of reading about auditions, since the orchestral life (in the States, at least) is rife with them, and they are taken very, very seriously (if you fail to win one, at some point, you will likely have to trade in your instrument – which you’ve been studying for more than a decade – for something else…like an office cubicle).

Well, there I was, surrounded by (for lack of a better term) kids who, if they were not showing-off to one another how well they could cop the latest tune from Paramore (AAUUGGHHH! EMO!!! RUN!!!), were busy worrying about how the next arrival would ruin their chances of winning a slot. Funny – I was in the exact same position some six years ago when I auditioned for conservatory.

The outgoing members of the band lined the well-equipped room and watched as their “leader” made me play the violin, then the bongos and the congas, then the bass guitar.

At this point, kindly postpone judgement and just let me be honest instead of PC: while the guy plays a mean guitar, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was a college washout. I can’t explain it, but it was just there. Like ROTC officer-alumni who show-up on training days because that’s the only place where they could get a modicum of respect, this guy seemed to be there because…well…it was the only place where he could get a modicum of respect.

I could be wrong about the fellow, but that’s how it felt at the time. If I’m wrong, I would like to apologize in advance. If I’m right, well…it doesn’t matter anyway.

I bring this up because (and my students can attest to this) while I love music, and making music, and teaching music, I can’t see sacrificing one’s future for the apparent glamor of the stage (which is never as glamorous as MTV would like you to believe) as a profitable exchange. Get that college degree, make sure you’re qualified to take on a job that provides a steady, albeit modest, income, and then go, be a rockstar…if you can. Beware: few people make it…and most of them fizzle out after their first album.

I say this having witnessed numerous examples of skilled musicians who have grown old in “the business”, yet lead lives that border on pathetic. I just don’t believe music was meant for that.

But anyway. That’s my rant. Before I find myself eating my own words, I shall find something more productive to do.

Exit, stage right.

5 05 2009

I suppose there’s no point hiding it anymore, now that the people who really need to know about it already do.

I shall be going on a year’s sabbatical, if you will, returning to my home province to complete the requirements for the national Licensure Examination for Teachers. This year, the Comission on Higher Education and the Philippine Regulations Commission raised the number of education units needed for one to take the exam from 18 to a whopping 30. If I studied for that while working, at a rate of 3 units a semester, why, I’d be studying for five years! My parents, who are educators themselves, got a whiff of this and dropped me a line, saying, “We would like to sponsor your studies. Board, lodging, and tuition care of us, of course. The catch? Please come home for a year. You might want to take the opportunity while we’re still around to offer it.”

That was almost a month ago. I thought about it for a week, knowing that my parents had an excellent point (many of my colleagues agree – their eyes and faces all lit up when I mentioned my parents would sponsor me) but that taking the opportunity would mean leaving the students that I so dearly love and the school that has been my home for the past five years. And yes, there’s The Orchestra to consider.

Five years ago, I walked onstage as The Orchestra’s only cellist. I had put The Orchestra together so as not to have to listen to 30 students play Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star one after another. Seeing they, now joined together as a larger performing group, could play more dignified repertoire, I proceeded to be ambitious and program arrangements of Vivaldi’s Spring, the popular hymn Amazing Grace, Edgar Meyer’s Short Trip Home, and Jay Ungar’s Ashokan Farewell. I was young and a bit more foolish than I am today, and I confess I shamelessly inserted a cello solo into Ashokan Farewell when I, in retrospect, really should not have done so.

Five years later, I can no longer be so shameless, since I can’t take anymore solos. The Orchestra has more than doubled in number and the students have time and again surprised many a jaded colleague who thought they were coming to watch a laughable, if adorable student performance. Today, the students are such that what used to take 3 months to learn they can now do in one rehearsal. There eyes are experienced, their fingers accurate, their ears sharp.

And for one year, I must leave them.

I confess, it is flattering to hear reports of them losing the motivation to play in my absence, to hear some of them whine, “Don’t go…” even though they know I must. But it also disturbs me that I have failed to train a successor, or at the very least, a substitute, thus making The Orchestra very me-centric, which was never my intention at any point. Now, as I prepare to bid everyone goodbye for a year, there’s a mad scramble to prepare everyone to carry-on without me. Mental note: train a pool of conductors when I get back.

Of course, I don’t intend to just study (oh, how boring!) – I intend to tie up the several loose ends that I’ve left hanging ever since landing my teaching job at school. Things like learning to drive and getting a driver’s license, clearing up my social security and taxpayer’s status, that sort of thing.

And so I will miss the school, the students, The Orchestra – some of the students I might not see again, since they graduate this school year and few students are seen again on campus once they’ve graduated. I will miss my colleagues – some more than others *ahem* – but I will be back. I can only stay away for so long 🙂

Odd. I’m actually excited by this sabbatical – I have loved every moment of the past five years – but this…this feels like I’m turning a corner.


3 05 2009

I had another rehearsal today with a drastically-reduced (5) orchestra; We put Dante’s Theme from Full Metal Alchemist on the lineup right away (I had just completed arranging it at 1AM that morning), as well as The Opened Way from Shadow of the Colossus, and of course, Woodcarving Partita from Castlevania.

We did The Opened Way first, which is the first time I will actually be conducting the piece, as opposed to playing someone’s part (double bass) while simultaneously directing someone else’s performance. Early in the piece there’s this section where the 1st and 2nd violins double each other an octave apart on top of a tempo I would have to describe as “insistent” – it’s a simple part with just half, quarter, and the occasional eighth note, but I got an immense feeling of pleasure listening to it: there’s really nothing like the live sound being generated by players you can actually see.

Dante’s Theme came about as a suggestion by one of the 1st violins – I must admit it took about 3 listenings before the piece grew on me. But grow it did, and I must say I have never arranged a piece as complex and as densely orchestrated as this one in one sitting. I gave a few pointers on how to get a crisp attack on the 1st violins opening 16th notes (spicatto), placated the whining cellos (the tenor clef was obfuscating them to no end), and finally getting the whole thing running. Even from our initial runthrough, the feel of the piece was already there – as one of the cellists put it: “The melody is so…haunting“.

Woodcarving Partita is not really something we will perform as a full orchestra – it’s written as chamber music for a piano quintet – but we rehearse it as an orchestra anyway, getting the frontliners and the understudies ready in one fell sweep. I have to admit I only really heard, for the first time, the difference between the “orchestral” and “chamber” sounds of a piece.

I realize that I am just rambling at the moment. It’s 2AM on a Sunday morning, I’m not really sleepy enough to shut down the computer – I just want to commit to this journal how thankful I am to God for allowing and enabling me to do what I do: my work with students and the orchestra and the music itself.  I am very, very privileged.

Thank You.

En peu musiquè

18 04 2009

Alright, alright, I stink at French. I just thought something French-sounding in the least would be appropriate for this post.

Last night, a few members of The Orchestra (myself included) went to what is starting to become a yearly oddessey for us: the last concert of the season of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra.

Unlike during the previous two years, the PPO did not embarrass itself this time – even though I felt the conductor (some French guy who’s name escapes me at the moment) was a little hard to follow sometimes (OK, OK, a lot of the time), apparently he was well-liked by the orchestra and they chose to follow him, so pizzicato sections were clear, cohesive, and “together”, there wasn’t much fuzziness in the sound, and the orchestra seemed reasonably happy to be onstage.

But it was also last night that I noticed how small the PPO is as a symphony orchestra: at only 60+ strong, everything seemed to sound rather small. Not small as in pathetically small – just small. They sounded big for their size, but 12 first violins is not 16, 10 second violins is not 14, 8 violas is not 12, 7 cellos is not 10, 5 double basses is not 8. This isn’t there fault, of course. I’m just saying I was looking for (and naturally didn’t get) that sound.

My students weren’t nitpicking this year – most of them were simply mesmerized by the coordinated bowings (which they are still learning to do themselves). Sure, the 30-minute pieces bored them somewhat, and one of them threatened to pull out an iPod, but it seemed like a positive experience for the most part – very much like going on a fieldtrip.

I noticed there were more black-haired heads in the orchestra (as opposed to gray-haired heads) this year than before. There were still a few mainstays, whom I’ve been seeing for years, but for the most part, the guard seems to be changing and this strikes me as a good thing – perhaps we can expect a younger, fresher sound from our national orchestra in the years to come.

Well, that’s that. Thanks to JT and Kyu Yeon for the ride which made this year’s trip to the CCP considerably less-stressful than before. We should do this again sometime 🙂