Assumed audience: Fans of contemporary classical music, or people interested in how modern orchestra music gets recorded.
The main thing up front: you can now listen to a real live orchestra playing my “Fanfare for a New Era of American Spaceflight” on the service of your choice:
You can also watch a recording of the orchestra doing the recording:
Now, for a deep dive!
I started on this project almost three years ago: when the launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo flight was scheduled. The project took up almost all of my time on a week I took off from work with an explicit aim of composing the work — as chronicled in this Journal series. I managed to create a decent, though not great, mock-up of it using Dorico, Logic, and Spitfire Audio’s BBC Symphony Orchestra, which I then self-published in July 2021; I wrote about that part of the process here.
For all that I like the results I could get with good samples, I also always wanted a real orchestra to play the piece. I had written that off, though, as I did not have any way to get access to an orchestra. Or so I thought! Over the course of late 2021 and early 2022, two separate people suggested to me that I could just… hire an orchestra. This was not a thing I knew was remotely possible. One of them knew only of orchestras in L.A., who only worked locally; another suggested a specific ensemble which works well for filling out popular music but is far too small for an orchestra. But the suggestion got me looking around.
After a bit of investigation, I found the Budapest Scoring Orchestra. Though not especially well known, they have recorded everything from scores for Star Wars: The Clone Wars to collaborations with Oliver Davis and Kerenza Peacock. So: I hired them!
The way this works — the reason it can be viable for me to hire an orchestra to play my music, when that means hiring dozens of musicians, videographers, and audio and video editors — is that orchestras like the Budapest Scoring Orchestra hire the musicians for a whole day, and then sell chunks of that time. I only hired them for a single 30-minute session. Others used the rest of the day.
I spent some prep time last summer doing a further revision of the score — making some small revisions to the melodic and harmonic choices in key spots, to a few instrumentation and orchestration choices, and especially to the presentation of the score. (I spent a lot of time with the Scoring Notes guides to score and part preparation (1, 2, 3!) The result was something that was much stronger than my previous pass even in mock-ups. I have never really done this kind of revision work before on a piece of music, but it really paid off. You can see the final score as actually performed by the orchestra here.
Of course, I did not fly to Budapest for a single 30-minute block. That would have been prohibitively expensive. One of the delightful opportunities afforded by the era of high-speed internet everywhere is that this sort of thing can be managed digitally. I would of course prefer to be in the room. Given a choice between no recording at all and doing it via a video conference call, though, the video conference call wins, hands down.
The experience of recording was quite something. I have had a piece recorded by an orchestra before, but in a very different context: the OU Symphony Orchestra doing a “reading” of my senior capstone work, a ~12-minute orchestral tone poem. As good as that collegiate orchestra was, though, they were not a professional orchestra, they did not make a living from recording, and the recording itself was just a single tree microphone in the middle of the rehearsal room. Recording with a professional orchestra, whose specialty is recording, in a professional recording studio, is a very different experience. There were dozens of microphones around the room, ranging from the up-close microphones for the various instruments and sections to the various whole-orchestra tree and outrigger microphones capturing the sound of the whole space.
The orchestra did five takes total. The first few were effectively just “reads”, though they were also filmed and recorded. (The final video shared above is a composite of all five of those takes!) The point was getting a handle on the piece and providing me an opportunity to address issues I heard: from intonation challenges in various sections, to exactly how long the piano should ring out at the end of the piece, to relative dynamics around the room. You can do a lot in the mix, but it is always better for the sound in the room to be as close to your desired sounds as possible. On each of those, I marked up my own copy of the score with notes for the next pass — a scribble here, or a circle there, translating when we paused for feedback to things like “intonation problems in the winds in section B” or “let’s bring up the dynamics for the flutes and piccolo in sections C through E” and so on.
When we had done the first read and the conductor asked for feedback, I had an amusing/terrible moment of trying to dredge up the relevant musical terminology from my years doing undergraduate studies in composition well over a decade ago. “Intonation”… was not a word I managed to get to, so I stumbled through my description of the problem and felt thoroughly silly at my inability to use the right word. Happily, I heard the conductor say it to the orchestra — in the midst of a string of Hungarian! — and I felt my brain successfully pulling back up more and other terminology to use in the rest of the session.
The final recording is a careful mix of the final two takes: mostly the last one, but even professional musicians mess up, and there was one absolute flub in the final few measures of the piece on the final take. That was not a thing I had considered before, though I should have given my own long history of making “takes” work even for a very conversational podcast. Doing it with a full orchestra is a bit harder, but the great advantage of a click track shows through here: while every take is subtly different, the timings are close enough with a good orchestra that you can blend them together.
All told, this was a fantastic experience and I would happily do it again — including hiring this specific orchestra. I hope in general to be able to continue recording actual musicians playing my music in the future, and indeed to build some long-term collaborations with individuals or smaller ensembles as well as working with orchestras.
(I haven’t stopped composing since I wrote this in 2020. But the things I have been working on since then are not yet ready for the world to hear, or are silly things on Soundcloud. Keep your ears peeled, though: there will — I hope! — only be more of this sort of thing in this space in the months and years ahead!)