Chapter 2: Composing, arranging and orchestration

2.1 Composing

Moving back to Kristiansand in 2008 for my master studies at the Department of Popular Music,UiA, I reconnected with my mentor and friend Egil Kapstad (Figure 3), meeting up to discuss aspects of music in general, and composition in particular.

Figure 3: Me and Egil Kapstad in Kilden, Kristiansand (2014)

Kapstad emphasized the American jazz pianist Bill Evans’ philosophy on harmonies and reharmonization, namely to work in-depth with one tune rather than touching the surface of many, with reharmonization as a key tool.

Another important influence is the jazz pianist and composer Jan Gunnar Hoff, who mentored my master’s thesis (Haaland, 2010) and first album. A key element he highlighted was clear singable melodies and simplicity. I embraced this principle often associated with pop music. I still wanted to use complex harmonies but sought to make voicings that did not sound too disharmonic or “jazzy” to the untrained ear, but that would be recognized by musicians. Listening to non-western artists and traditional music, and working in countries outside Europe, has expanded my musical horizons. It has influenced my way of thinking in bringing together instruments with microtonality, and vocalists with a background in traditional music, into arrangements as key elements. Building on Kapstad and Evan’s philosophy, another goal is to create an equalness in the harmony that match the melody – a logical path and arrangement that can stand on its own without the melody. The arranger Don Sebesky (Sebesky, 1984) gives valuable insight into the structure of how to compose and arrange by providing four main elements which I use as guidelines:

           Balance: Restrict the melodic themes and vary the themes or background instead. Economize the use of instruments throughout the piece.             
           Economy: Every note and melodic line should have a reason for being in the score. Portion it out wisely.
            Focus: Remember not to lose focus on the primary elements like the main melody by creating a too busy background.
            Variety: Maintain the listener’s interest by varying tone colour, timbre and harmonic variety.

According to Sebesky and Kapstad, the key to a good arrangement is an in-depth knowledge of the specific instruments you are writing for, which is especially important when working with traditional musicians. This is a skill that needs practice in listening to each instrument, analysing, writing parts, and then interacting and communicating with the musician to get advice, adjust and learn. I use The Study of Orchestration (Adler, 1982) as an encyclopaedia and tool for tips on how to orchestrate. One example of how I apply these principles can be heard on the instrumental theme in the bridge of the tune “Remembrance” (Haaland, 2014b), in which Yun Theara plays the melody on the Tro, the Cambodian traditional fiddle. I asked my guitarist Knut Ingolf Brenna to dub the theme with a half distorted sound played with bottleneck. He added a lot of guitar tracks to choose from. As you can hear, every time the eight bar 6/8 theme repeats itself there is a new element added:

1st: Tro and Guitar
2nd:  Tro in octaves – Guitar tempo delay tracks added
3rd: Band and Bratislava string orchestra theme added
4th: Piano chord theme and dubbing the theme

Figure 4: Audio extract from the bridge, “Remembrance” (Haaland, 2014b)

The four-bar 6/8 time signature outro theme is also a variation of the intro theme. Here is the latter:

1st:: Tro and Piano
2nd: Tro in octaves and full strings

Figure 5: Audio extract from the intro, “Remembrance” (Haaland, 2014b)

Here is the Khmer and Thai version of the outro:

Figure 6: Audio example no.1 from the outro “Remembrance” (Haaland, 2014b, 2015b)

1st: Tro and piano plays the instrumental theme
2nd: Savy vocalist dub of theme and counter melody in strings
3rd: Reharmonized chords and slight melodic variation
4th: String background lines
5th: Reharmonized chords and piano improvisation fills
6th: New melodic theme played by acoustic guitar and strings
7th: Reharmonized chords and piano improvisation fills
8th: Melodic theme from bridge as counter melody.

The lyrics were originally written (and co-composed) by Hildegunn Gjedrem. We collaborated in New York, USA, where she worked as a freelance arranger, composer and singer with amongst others Snarky Puppy and Michael League. Her lyrics were then freely translated to Khmer and Thai in the other recorded versions.

Hildegunn recorded the vocals at Atlantic Sound Studios in Brooklyn, New York, and then added some vocal improvisations – vocalizing – in the outro, which we applied in the English version of the song:

Figure 7: Audio example no.2 from the outro, “Remembrance” (Haaland, 2014b, 2015b)

Where the composition gives us a melody and harmony, the arrangement gives us structure and how to play the specific notes, in addition to scoring the harmonies and voicings for the specific instruments. An arrangement can often make or break a song, especially in the pop music industry with its strong focus on income. The orchestration and arrangement has therefore historically been of great importance to the final sound. In western music, scoring has mostly been used for symphony orchestras and big bands, but now music technology has provided us with electronic instruments, sequencers and samplers, thereby giving composers and arrangers a wide range of new tools and ways of working. Apple Logic is my primary tool for composing and creating sketches of arrangements, where I can play around with different samples and plug-in instruments to come up with beats, harmonies and melody. In my arrangements, we can divide the orchestra into five sections:

  • A (western instrument) band with drums, percussion bass, guitar and piano; 
  • A (western instrument) classical string quartet or orchestra;
  • Traditional Arabic instruments:  the oud, qanun, buzuq, darbuka, riq and tar, including Istanbul strings;
  • Traditional Southeast Asian instruments: the saw, tro, khim, ranat, khong, pi, chakhe, khean and phim (Thailand/Cambodia/Laos); and
  • Arabic or Asian lyrics for the vocalists singing in their native tongue.

I think of these elements as circles regarding how to organize them in an arrangement loosely based on Moore’s layers (Moore, 2001, 2012):

  1. The first circle is the rhythmic core with drums, percussion and bass. The guitar operates as part of the rhythm section, and is connected to the harmony transcending towards the second circle.
  2. Piano and strings, where the core of the harmony are played.
  3. The traditional instruments play unison melodic lines, which may occasionally be dubbed by strings in unison. Because traditional instruments have a rich timbre and microtonality, I create their melodic lines independent from the harmony, since it allows the musicians to ornament the melodic lines individually without adapting them too much to fit the western instruments.
  4. The fourth circle is the vocal part, where they often sing lyrics in their native language, as well as bringing in ornamentations from their traditional music culture and further connecting to the traditional instruments in the soundscape.

In my view, there are no separate rules for arranging for traditional instruments other than an awareness of them as a symbol of their culture, and hence paying close attention to how they are scored. Respect all instruments regardless of cultural background. Following the rule that every note or instrument should be there for a reason covers this aspect.

However, traditional instruments are learnt through practice and not through notation or books. Obtaining this knowledge requires collaboration and interaction through rehearsals and concerts.

Another example of the elements from above can be found in the mid-section of “Asian Flow” (Haaland, 2014b, 2015a), recorded both in the studio and live. Theara plays the theme, and in the studio version I used the sample software East-West Hollywood Strings through my keyboard to programme the arrangement. Here is the studio version:

Figure 8: Audio extract from the bridge, “Asian Flow” (Haaland, 2014b)

For the live version, I wrote a slight variation of the string arrangement for the KSO. Notice the difference in the overall sound from the studio version:
Figure 9: Video file from the bridge,  “Asian Flow” (Haaland, 2015a)

Working with traditional Cuban music for a couple of years in the late 1990s opened my eyes to the Cuban clave and tumbao bass lines applied later in my compositions like the intro of “No More Tears” or the unplanned montuno piano riff in “Wish” (Haaland 2015a) ending a small solo part. Melody and lyrics by Hilde Norbakken, arrangements by me.

Figure 10: Video file from the outro, “Wish” (Norbakken/Haaland, 2015a)

My improvisations are influenced by my jazz background, although the solos are connected to specific harmonic structures with minor melodic phrases outside the diatonic harmony, as in the outro of “Asian Flow”:

Figure 11: Video file from the outro, “Asian Flow” (Haaland, 2015a)

The process

I use the grand piano as my primary tool for composing music; the ideas emerge when I sit down to freely improvise without any purpose and I use my iPhone App iTalk to record an idea, usually a 2-8-bar melodic theme with chords. On occasion, playing a new sound from a digital plug-in instrument may trigger ideas as well. I always compose the melody and harmony at the same time, as these two elements are inseparable for me. After some time, I listen to all the ideas and pick out the ones I want to work on at the grand piano. This is a challenging, and at times a frustrating process, applying structure while at the same time attempting to improvise the continuance of a melodic idea. It can take months before a solution is reached in puzzling all the elements together, or days if I am under high pressure with a hard deadline. Parallel to this process, I record the ideas into the DAW software Apple Logic to arrange sketches and use artificial sounds to try out different versions. Then it is back to the grand piano when I arrange for all instruments, playing and testing every line before I type it into the Sibelius notation software via a MIDI keyboard. I try out the compositions with my trio in rehearsals and in studio sessions abroad, adjusting and adding elements or parts. Recording a composition is a time stamp of one version, and some of the compositions have been re-recorded later with new parts, like the tune “No More Tears” (Haaland, 2014b, 2015a, 2015b). After the framework is set, I sometimes re-harmonize my own arrangements and make alternative versions before choosing one. Typically, I have versions with advanced jazz chords. Then enter the arrangement process: I try to keep the more disharmonic notes in an arrangement by hiding them in string lines or other instruments.

Figure 12: Photo from my office at the University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway.

My voicings on the piano are the core of my signature, and are spread out into different orchestral instruments. Even though I have studied and taught music theory, I work on an intuitive level when arranging and orchestrating. Sitting by the grand piano, I put the musicals ideas from my thoughts into voicings and melodic lines at the piano before I type it into the digital score in the Sibelius software, thereby breaking or bending the music theory rules as I see fit. I need to try out different solutions on the piano before I decide on the final notes, although I do dwell on the decisions since I want every note in an arrangement to have a meaning. The final sound is influenced by all those thousands of micro-decisions, in combination with the performers adding their signature and the aesthetic choices.

I like harmonic variations and chord changes. Voicings are an important part of these, i.e., which notes are applied in a sequence. I often use closed voicings, such as in the intro of “Longing” (Haaland, 2015a), in which Bendik Hofseth (Composer, vocalist and saxophone player in Steps Ahead and released a variety of albums of his own) improvised around several major 9th chords with a major third in the bass: 

Figure 13: Audio file from the intro “Longing” (Haaland, 2015a)

Figure 14: Score from the intro “Longing” (Haaland, 2015a)

Here is another example of the major 7th with a major third in an open and minimalistic voicing from the last refrain in “Hold You” (Norbakken & Haaland, 2015a). Music and lyrics by Hilde Norbakken, vocalist and colleague from UiA. Arrangement by me:

Figure 15: Video file from the last verse “Hold You” (Norbakken/Haaland, 2015a)

Figure 16: Score from the last verse “Hold You” (Norbakken/Haaland, 2015a)

In the “Interlude” (Haaland, 2015a) of the live concert, I wrote a major 9th with major thirds falling in intervals of four:

Figure 17: Audio file from “Interlude” (Haaland, 2015a)

Figure 18: Score from “Interlude” (Haaland, 2015)

2.2 Arranging and Orchestration

Musicologist and composer Jeannie Gayle Pool defines arranging as

…the adaptation of an existing composition for performance on an instrument or voice or combination of instruments for which it was not originally composed…Many arrangers approach this kind of work as a kind of re-composing of the song and may enhance the harmonies, use additional keys, develop transitional passages, create an introduction, and so on (Pool, 2008, para. 2).

Furthermore, she defines orchestration as “the art and craft of arranging a musical composition for performance by an orchestra or other ensemble” (Pool, 2008, para. 4). In western pop and jazz, the term arranging can refer to both a small setting such as piano and vocal, as well as a symphony orchestra. Historically, orchestration is a classical term, and in the Middle East the word orchestration is used for both arranging and orchestration regardless of genre. The orchestration of traditional Arabic music and pop music from the 1960s up until today is mostly dubbing melodic lines in unisons for all instruments with little focus on harmony, in contrast to western pop and jazz arrangements, in which harmonies and reharmonization are often a key element.

Contemporary music is a problematic term with different meanings in Europe, Southeast Asia and The Middle East. In Europe, it usually refers to experimental classical music, and in Southeast Asia it means everything outside traditional music styles regardless of genre. So a traditional music orchestra playing a newer melody, although traditionally arranged, is contemporary. World music is also referred to as contemporary in Southeast Asia. Working in three different cultures, and using the terminology differently created challenges that took me quite a bit of time to figure out, and has had an impact on how one addresses the specifics, particularly in presenting papers in conferences and in panel discussions, but also working with artists and musicians. This of course is in addition to misunderstandings regarding language.

2.3 Rehearsals

In my first CD, Journey (Haaland, 2009), I had a couple of electronic compositions fully programmed with a mix of acoustic instruments, and was convinced that it was the signature I wanted to pursue. But after a while, I reverted back to acoustic instruments since I feel connected to the grand piano, and the electronic versions could not replace the complexity and feel of a good acoustic instrument. I found that my sound as a pianist got “lost” in the electronic world of sounds, even though I have used a lot of money in buying most of the high-end grand piano plug-ins. However, I still make sketches in Logic, but like to explore them further in rehearsals when collaborating with live musicians, particularly my trio, which started in 2013 featuring Karl Oluf Wennerberg (a well-known Norwegian drummer who has been a backing musician with A-ha and Morten Harket) on drums and Torbjørn Tveit, at the time a master student at UiA. Skilled musicians often bring a new approach into the arrangements by adding their own signature. Musicologist and jazz musician Bjørn Alterhaug (2004), and popular musicologist Tor Dybo (1996), refer to the phenomenological embodied and cognized (high) skills in the long-term memory as a condition to improvise and communicate on an intuitive level in the short-term memory. Collaborating with highly skilled musicians has been decisive in achieving those special moments captured in some of my live recordings.

In a rehearsal setting, I usually have a sketch with a beat from Logic, or sometimes just give oral references in describing it or “beatboxing” a groove. Then Karl Oluf searches for his own take on the songs, and tries out different approaches in exploring the possibilities. For Torbjørn, I write more structured lines, which he then expands on and improvises around since the bass lines are a crucial part of the root of harmonics. We brought together our sound as instrumentalists trying to find a sound as a band, thus influencing the arrangements. There were several times where we improvised and the feeling of “flow” was present. Alterhaug defines this instant moment  as “..’peak-performance’, ecstatic heights in a musical interaction” and “ this ‘aesthetics presence’ a state is reached that is often referred to as flow” (Alterhaug, 2004, p. 105).

Here is a short video clip (Figure 19) from a rehearsal at my soundproofed office at UiA, where we are practicing a specific bass pattern I wrote in 12/4 from the rearrangement of my tune “Embraceable” (Haaland, 2009, 2014b, 2015b):  

Figure 19: Video file from rehearsal of the intro, “Embraceable” (Haaland, 2014b, 2015a, 2015b)

My laptop with Logic played an important part in connecting artists and musicians I worked with around the world, such as recording vocals in Cambodia, which was played back in trio rehearsals. I recorded layer after layer, building a studio production from electronic sketches to audio recordings with live vocals and instruments, rearranging them in Logic moving around segments, and then re-recording them, constantly developing and expanding the compositions. When playing live concerts in Cambodia with Savy and Theara, I used my laptop studio with backing tracks and playing software plug-ins live. This next clip (Figure 20) is from a rehearsal with Theara at a rooftop apartment before a concert in Phnom Penh:

Figure 20: Video file from a rehearsal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (2014)

Field log: Excerpts

Performing at smaller venues in Phnom Penh provided an opportunity to test out new musical material. The technical live setup on stage on these gigs was one mic each for Savy and Theara, a laptop with Logic software containing some backing tracks like programmed synths, drums and bass, as well as a plug-in piano connected to my keyboard.  Everything is routed through my portable Soundcraft mixer, and I only send a stereo signal out as I never know if there will be a sound engineer or not. However, on smaller stages it is easier to mix things myself.

Unexpected situations usually arise when performing live, such as the time we agreed to let a country band play a set as a warmup before us. When planning the concert two days before, the organizer and I were informed by their manager that it was “music from the countryside” aka Cambodian Romvong songs, which are mostly ballads. This style is quite different from Western country music. It was interesting to observe the body language of the arranger, who was clearly not satisfied by this “lost in (cultural) translation” moment.

The venue was at an rooftop terrace. The Romvong vocalists had paid television stations to attend, and they performed with playback tracks. It felt a little out of context at an intimate outdoor rooftop stage as the artists had sunglasses on in the dark and seemed to perform for the cameras, and not the audience. I noticed the audience got a bit impatient after a while as the vocalists almost doubled their agreed upon time.

We finally got on with our set and at the end the neighbours in the building next to us hammered metal rods from a window to get our attention. They wanted to sleep at 9.30 pm, which started an argument in the audience where most people encouraged us to play on. I could see that Savy was uncomfortable with the negative attention from the neighbours, so we made a compromise by playing the last two songs at a low volume, the opposite intention of the buildup in the set.

Figure 21: Photo from concert at “The Mansion” Building in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (2014)

This photo (Figure 21) is from an outdoor concert in Phnom Penh in 2014, playing at the opening of an art festival as my tune “Siem Reap” (2014b) was used as the official festival tune.

The venue was a beautiful worn down old French colonial building, “The Mansion”, opposite the Royal Palace. Arriving at soundcheck around noon, the stage was not built and the speaker system I had inspected and approved was missing. Instead, there were some tiny speakers from a home speaker system. Apparently, there was a rumour going around that the king had called and complained about the loudness on a previous occasion, so no one dared to rig the equipment, which was nowhere to be found. Since the Cambodian king lived in China and not in the Royal Palace, the rumour was obviously not true. I had contracted a fever and stood on the stage in 40 degree heat with no protection from the sun, and struggled with my temper trying to remain calm. If I were to become agitated, I would have lost face. At times, it was very difficult to restrain my Western way of reacting, which on many previous occasions I had failed to do so. We eventually got a hold of the owner of the building, who instructed the team to set up the sound system.

Arriving at night it was crowded, as they expected an audience of 200, though 500 turned up. Savy, Theara and I were scheduled to perform after the US Ambassador’s speech. It was quite formal and all three of us greeted the audience bowing with a synchronized Sampheah (Thai: wai). When we sat down there were no sound in our monitors, so I had to address the audience about a technical issue, thus puncturing the formal mood. It turned out that the technicians had turned off the monitors to save power and forgot to turn them back on again. And they also forgot that they had done so at all, so it took some time before we got started again. Luckily, from there on out it worked out as planned.

In Thailand I searched for a traditional vocalist similar to Savy. I did a rehearsal with a respected vocalist who received the musical material some days before. At the rehearsal things were moving slowly, and after two hours she had only learned eight bars of one song. I could not wrap my head around this. Was this a cultural problem? A musical problem? Was my music too challenging? Was it that much different working in Thailand compared to Cambodia?

I learned later that she was instructed by her superior to work with me, and this was her way of politely turning me down by underselling herself as a vocalist to avoid embarrassing me. I would have been perfectly fine if she just told me that she preferred to perform traditional music and not do fusion music. But as Thais in general try to avoid confrontation, this is one way to react. Another one is to answer, “Maybe tomorrow,” which usually means no.

In many ways, obtaining cultural knowledge is a quest for the correct question to understand the context. In failing to ask the correct question, the person often assumes you know the same as him or her. In my experience, it is in these moments that some of the misunderstandings emerge.

2.4 Microtuning

Most if not all traditional instruments have microtuning and quarter notes. Western instruments follow the chromatic tempered scale and half notes, and combining those with microtonality may present challenges, as it will sound “out of pitch” or detuned to the untrained ear.

Western tempered scales are the starting point for each of my compositions. Working with traditional instruments with quarter tones and microtonality challenges the homogeneous western sound, and adds a richer timbre in each note. The sound signature of a traditional musician, and the key to understanding the instrument, is the uniqueness of how they ornament a melodic line. This creates compositional and arranging opportunities and challenges. Combining different scales, instruments and genres into something new demands a wide perspective and deep knowledge in a wide range of fields, and is not easily accessible from written sources. I had to find ways to creatively combine musical ideas and different approaches.

The Southeast Asian countries of Thailand and Cambodia have a mutual historic music tradition from the royal courts, although it is practiced differently in each country today. Listen to the instrument known as a khong – a tonic centre in traditional Thai and Khmer music – as demonstrated by the multi-instrumentalist Kappathep “UP” Theeralertrat (Figure 22) before a studio session we did back in 2017:

Figure 22: Video file from Silpakorn Studio Talin Chan, Thailand (2017)

The instruments are mostly part of ensembles and music connected to Buddhist ceremonies, theatre performances or cultural events. Mahori and Pinpeat orchestras are a combination of all traditional instruments with a specific repertoire. However, there are small(er) repertoires available for solo performances. Historically, there is a strong collective focus in Southeast Asia, like the Indonesian gamelan orchestra, which cannot be performed separately. North Thailand and parts of Laos share many mutual folk music instruments, as the borders were decided by western countries. I orchestrate the phin and the mouth organ the khean. Here is a clip from a soundcheck (Figure 23) in 2018 before a concert at the Thai Cultural Centre in Bangkok, performed by the multi-instrumentalist Tontrakul Kaewyong:

Figure 23: Video file from soundcheck at Thai Cultural Centre, Bangkok Thailand (2018)

In the Middle East, Arabic maqams are the foundation of traditional music and improvisation (taksim). Maqams are not only scales, but also modes with musical lines and motifs connected to the specific maqam. In many cases, the lyrical content defines what maqams are being used. Arabic pop music is still heavily influenced by maqams and microtonality, and even in Arabic EDM the digital software plug-in instruments are adjusted to microtuned scales.

One key element in Arabic music is the focus on melodic unison lines, whether it is solo or part of an ensemble or orchestra. Harmonics are often basic chords limited to three or four variations. The same goes for repetitive lines in traditional music, which are present in the Arabic pop music from the old classics by the acclaimed Syrian singer Sabah Fakhri and the legend Feiruz, as well as the songs of the famous Rahbani brothers. Later, her son Ziad Rahbani introduced a fusion of jazz and Arabic in the 1970s, while keeping the essence of repetitive rhythmic patterns. My musicians Rony, Feras and Elie have toured with Rahbani and Feiruz. The maqams and repetitive patterns aim at Tarab, a form of musical ecstasy or “flow”.

In older pop songs, there was often a long intro and occasionally a middle part, in which the vocal improvises within the maqam: the mawal. The latter follows a structure either defined by the specific maqam or an established traditional performance of the mawal that the artist may vary to some extent.

These may contain moments of tarab, which can be identified by immediate responses from the audience in live performances. In particular, Fakhri (Figure 24) is famous for a high-pitched power belting perfection learned in the minaret at a young age, calling for prayer five times a day:

Figure 24: Video file from a live performance of Sabah Fakhri (Year unknown)

Interestingly, the same qualities and background can be found with the vocalist and Oud player Dhafer Youssef, as well as Palestinian singer Munther Al Ra’i, who I collaborated with in Bethlehem in 2017 (More in chapter 4.3.2).

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