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.  




Physician, heal thyself

In my last blog I made the following comment, which I repeat here for the sake of convenience:

I’m currently working on a saxophone section feature for the highly acclaimed Walsall Jazz Orchestra which, as well as being staffed by so many talented players, also has a true rhythm section, rather than four individuals with their heads buried in the parts. I’m using number XIV of the 36 seven unit scales listed in the book which has a diminished 7th chord as its tonic chord. The chord on the dominant is a minor chord with natural 7th. The chord on the 7th degree of the scale is an augmented chord with natural 7th that isn’t found in the family of six chords normally used in jazz and popular music. I’ve always enjoyed a challenge!

For the theoretically inclined reader, the compound structure (13) has a diminished 7th chord with a major triad above it. (On a C root a Cdim7 and Db major

The long absence from this site is due, amongst other things (musicians have other things going on in their lives), to the difficulties I had to face writing this piece.

Firstly – and I have to put my hand up here and admit to ignoring advice given in my own book – I made the mistake of wasting a huge amount of time trying to make something work that just didn’t want to know about me or my composition.

The problem was this: I originally decided to use a succession of five-part chords (that’s five real harmonic parts, not five voices, which can result from note-doubling in the unison and octave, etc.). To cut a very long story short, I faced two main problems (1) the rapid (not tempo-wise) succession of different harmonies was more than even my well-tortured ear could cope with. Numerous contradictions of pitches in adjacent chords were creating an unpleasant effect. (2) The chords, in the forms I had selected, offered fewer opportunities for using the inversions that are so commonplace in jazz section writing.

OK, so I saved my embarrassment over this by demonstrating my knowledge of musical resource and my powers of analysis. So what was the solution?

(1) I reduced the number of chords used (no prizes there, then). Rapid chord changes are typical of slow ballade writing (which this piece is an example of), so I did have an excuse for using too many in the first place.

(2) I settled on a style of writing that has been around since the time that men had to dodge the dinosaur droppings when they went out to find a meal for the day. I used the two alto saxes in two part harmony over a more sustained succession of harmonies underneath, played by the two tenor saxes and the baritone. There’s nothing new here. One of the best examples, if you really want to go back in time, is Kenton’s ‘Opus In Pastels’. This piece still works for me.

The earlier, abortive, work wasn’t wasted. It never is, really. During its course I’d evolved a scheme where the two notes not present in each five-part chord (it’s a seven note scale and 7-2 = 5) were identified and pencilled in above each chord out of expediency. This isn’t ‘painting by numbers’. I wasn’t a slave to the result but I knew that the most expressive notes for melodic purposes are those found in the higher extensions of harmony; the 7th, 9th, 11th and 13th functions. What I’m doing here is similar in principle: to use notes that have a ‘surprise’ value when used against the accompanying harmony. The two part harmony used for the alto saxes follows these notes predominantly, but not slavishly! Of course, unessential notes can be equally expressive, especially when used on the beat but these, too, can receive harmonic justification (which is how higher tension chords found their way into music in the first place).

Another interesting feature of the tonality I’m using is the high incidence of situations where the four trumpets, as one ‘choir’, use a four part block chord and the four trombones, underneath, use another. The two combine to produce an identifiable chord as a conventional 8 piece brass section but the treatment, of using one tone colour in the upper stratum and another in the lower, produce an arresting effect.

One of the reasons for this is the fact that the diminished 7th (tonic) chord of the scale results in a high level of malleability at the outset (to cut another long story short). Conventional scales have the authority of the ‘dominant 7th’ to deal with, together with its cadential tendencies.

Listen to Michael Buble’s version of ‘Cry Me A River’ and you’ll hear this stratified style after the key change during the loud ensemble. At one point, the trumpets play diminished 7ths with the underlying trombones/saxes using a plain old dominant 7th. The two together still produce an identifiable chord. I’ve heard a couple of transcriptions of this piece that completely miss the subtlety. Michael always uses good arrangements played by good musicians and is a perfect example of the fact that you don’t have to be a total bastard to succeed.

I have to admit I only recently learned the full significance that choosing the right title can have in helping an audience identify themselves with a piece of music. As I began writing the present piece, my mind became full of images of a lake and I was impressed by the way the harmonies implied reflections, something I latched on to straight away in order to exploit the effect fully. The last piece I did for the Walsall Jazz Orchestra soon earned the title ‘Eye Of Newt’ which prompted the pianist/arranger to suggest they could do an album of spells. I can’t interfere on this point but I’ve chosen ‘The Lady Of The Lake’ as the title for this latest arrangement, which at least maintains the period imagery.

Because my music notation program allows drag and drop I’ve taken to adding a graphic to each part and an image of a lady’s hand emerging from the water holding Excalibur proved ideal.

The next question is ‘Will the band like it?’. There’s a huge age difference between me and them so being considered to be dated (which is something I don’t usually worry about) worries me now. Having said that, this band wisely avoids the current crop of forgettable doowapbedowap banal rubbish that is so readily accepted by so many bands.

Watch this space…