Last month, our MA in Scoring for Film & Visual Media students journeyed to Sofia Bulgaria to record their own compositions with a 110-Piece Orchestra at the BNR National Recording Studio’s. This was a massive undertaking for both the students and the course faculty but the results were simply amazing! We asked student David Geraghty to write a diary of experience, which you can read below:

The Longest 2.49 mins of my life

We had a plan, we were getting organised, things were taking shape, or so we thought!

Since I was first accepted onto the MA in Scoring for Film and Visual Media program, the promise of composing for an immensely large orchestral force loomed over my head, constantly niggling away at every creative idea that passed through me from September 2014 up to May 2015. What I mean is, it was always there. It begins with, ‘I wonder what this would sound like, or, ‘thats a lot of brass, this might sound cool’ etc, etc. Its like planning for a holiday 9 months before you leave. You are always throwing items, or ideas, into the suitcase, things you might need, maybe, just in case.

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Before long you have a suitcase brimming with ideas, but its a mess, its clouded by variety, you have just too many choices. But don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining and fortunately we were taught well on how to prioritise, how to sift through the good from the bad, and how to construct compositions from the ground up.

Prior to leaving for Bulgaria we had an incredible 2 weeks of classes and tutorials with arguably one of the finest composers, orchestrators and teachers in the business, Conrad Pope. Conrad has an impressive musical heritage and has acquired an amazing deep understanding of how music works. Our time with Conrad has been one of the highlights of studying in Pulse College. He was there in the capacity of an orchestrator and this was the primary focus of our sessions together. He taught us about effective orchestration, the professional roles that an orchestrator must play, and what a composer should know when approaching a work for orchestral ensembles. This knowledge provided us with invaluable and enlightening tools at the early stages of the Bulgarian compositions.

We were encouraged not to progress too deeply into the pieces until we had met with Conrad, and this proved in all our cases a most valuable stage in the process. We all had ideas, stories, visual thoughts, musical themes, but holding back on the construction of the orchestration was difficult yet necessary. Conrad gave each one of us intelligent and thorough tutorials on our sketches and in turn fuelled the composition and inspired the orchestration of each piece. This was a truly magnificent stage in our preparation for what was to come, but, it wasn’t all sweet smelling roses in the garden of composition. And that being said, there were lessons to learn which were neither creative nor spiritual, but very practical and at times insanely stressful.

Monday 18th May

Today the orchestrated score has to be ready for proofreading, and we are planning on reading each others scores for errors later in the day. This has to happen before we extract each instrumental part into a separate score that the player in the orchestra would need. Conrad is also kindly looking over my score later as I am a little behind after my rather disastrous experience of loosing my entire Sibelius score and backups, while I was doing a backup last week. This meant I effectively had to start from scratch, when I should have been 80% done. Luckily, I had strong thematic ideas and a clear structure in my head.

Anyway, I am seeing Conrad later and I always feel more positive and confident after his tutorials. What a great teacher. From talking with the others we are mostly getting to the part creation stage, so I’m not panicking just yet… well maybe a little. I always finds it hard to stop the writing and progress onto the practicalities of creating a composition like this.

So after my tutorial, which was great, a little stressed, but Conrad seemed pleased with what I had managed to write and his suggestions for orchestrating it as always are golden. He did suggest I add a few bars in to the end section as I am a little under time, and we both felt it needed a further statement before the final hurrah gesture at the end. This is great BUT I am supposed to be creating parts, but I am still a long ways off that now.

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(The parts need to be created tomorrow the 19th so that they can be proof-read, especially important as the one place you do not want to be answering players questions is during the recording session. NO WAY!)

I have headed home to finish the score and I face another sleepless night. The amount of sleepless nights is taking its toll on me and i can see that it is affecting my thought processes and effectiveness to make creative decisions. Note to self – try get some sleep, any is better than none. Trouble is I have so much to get done, and every hour matters.

I have checked in on the others, everyone is motoring along well. Some of us are even talking about organising players folders for the parts, the spare parts, folders for all the relevant people involved in the recording session, how are we going to transport thousands of pages of music, what tape will we use to tape the parts… Its like a whirlwind forming, as I don’t even have my score finished…!

Tuesday 19th May

Right! I have finished the score, but have not had it proof-read. The others are creating their parts which will be printed tomorrow morning and then sorted and compiled into the relevant folders. Trouble is we have never done this for so many players, and we don’t know how much time is needed. There have been emails going back and forth to Bulgaria regarding exact players and instrument doubling of parts etc. These details are vital as each orchestra handles player doublings different and we wanted to make sure that we had parts playable by everyone. A flautist may or may not play piccolo, we may have two piccolo’s… There was a lot of clarification needed. Christo Pavlov of the Bulgarian Radio Symphony Orchestra was superb in his capacity as our liaison and fixer of the orchestra.

The information was forming and we managed to get a clear list eventually, and just in time! I have to start on the parts asap. But I can’t stop tweaking the score, it’s like letting it go, I’m not ready, it’s not ready. But I have to start the parts today, and its already lunchtime.

In the score writing software Sibelius there is the function whereby you can extract an instrument and it will generate the parts, easy surely! Now ‘ have used this function many times in the past year, and as always you expect some editing etc to get the part looking well, and more importantly looking playable for the players. One lesson Conrad highlighted is that the player must want to play your music, feel good about playing your music, and want to play your music well. If your part is illegible or musically challenging you may achieve the opposite and the player may not play the full potential of the music. NOW THAT would be a shame after getting to that point in the process.

So what could go wrong…turns out plenty. I spent 4 hours trying to figure out why all the music fonts were looking corrupted when I extracted the parts only to discover that I needed to Un-tick one box deep in the settings of the program. So simple, so incredibly basic, but without proper sleep, and a head so frazzled even the most basic thoughts can seem ridiculously difficult. And thats where you need the support of others, and I am lucky to have made great friends on this program.

It would appear that creating these parts is taking a lot longer than anticipated! It is nearly midnight and I am barely even scraping the surface of them. But I need some sleep as I fear tomorrow is going to be a very long day!

Wednesday 20th May

We fly out tomorrow, scores done, parts done, bags packed, all that is left to do is to turn up and let the magic happen, its so exciting and ridiculously stressful all at the same time. The reality is that my parts are no where near finished, let alone printed or taped or organised into the folders. More coffee please. Some of the others are going to the printers this morning to get the parts printed. It took 3 of them several hours and I think several thousand pages… Oh god I am so far behind.

Luckily I have my own printer, and have lots of paper. Just need to get the parts finished. The luxury of having the parts proof-read has since passed, so its down to diligence and attention to detail. Oh God I’m screwed. Some of the class have begun taping pages together already. Each player may have 2 to 4 pages in their part so each page is taped together, a slow and tedious process. Not to mention each player must have a spare part, the conductor must have a set of spare parts, we must have a set of spare parts, for 110 players it’s a lot of paper, a shed load in fact. Thankfully they are getting organised in our MA room in Pulse, folders organised and they are getting through it. Quick dash into the printers to pick up my A3 conductors scores, it looks amazing, getting nervous.

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My parts are coming along, it’s 9pm now and I have printed the string section, that’s a big one, I am feeling relaxed, tired but industrious. It suddenly dawns on me that I can’t print in my flat all night. My printer is loud and my room is right above where my neighbours sleep, it will drive them demented, and I can hear them getting ready to go to bed, early risers. Okay, decisive action required, so I gather up the parts I have already printed, my laptop, and my printer and I head into Pulse. There is a mighty push going on in the room, pages and pages, roughly 6 or 7 thousand pages in piles around the place. Some are taped some not, but the craic is good in here, I’m glad i came in.

I get set up and its back to creating parts and printing as I go. Trying to be careful not to have any errors but its tough and the head is fried. Some of us are nearing the end of the parts, I am getting through the printing part. It has taken some of them 6 or 7 hours to tape up, and organise the folders. Its now 2am and I have finished printing the last of the parts!

Thursday 21st May

We fly out in 9 hours time. I have just finished printing, and my printer has developed a nasty squeak but it has served me well. Have just spotted an error in one part! Crap have I messed up others, I don’t have time to recheck them all, got to get taping. Oh boy! I fixed the part as and I begin taping some of the others have finished and are heading home to get a few hours sleep before we meet at the airport. More coffee, please!

Occasionally I reflect on the composition, do I like it, it matters to me that I do. In the business of film scoring we are taught to do the job, supply what is needed and that is the job. But as a musician I care far more than the reality of that, I want my music to have integrity, I want it to BE something, I worked hard for it, and I want to feel proud of it. Not sure how I’m feeling now though, it could all go to shit. What if my parts are transposed into the wrong keys, or accidentals are misplaced, there is a million ways that this could be messed up, and ultimately it rests on my shoulders. The fear is not that I cant compose decent music, its that here I am with the opportunity of composing music for a massive musical force, an opportunity afforded to the very few, and I mess up, GONE the potential for greatness, my moment in time, my time to NOW. Its not just another assignment, its way more important than that, it is stepping up to the plate and being able to look the challenge in the eye, and know that i kicked its ass! Wake up Dave!

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Right, it’s 2am and I have to start taping. I have to be at the airport at 10.30am. I have to collect Bojan and Hannah at 9.45am, so I have to leave my apartment at 9.00am that means I have to be finished here by 7am to go home and get ready! The taping is going well so far I am quietly confident. I am quick at this and I finish taping at 6.30am. I have been entrusted by the group to collect and transport the folders to the airport. I get home at 7.15am. Throw together a bag, find the passport, check I have the scores, all the scores. We get to the airport, the work is done, parts are made, sorted, everyone is feeling tired but excited, and we divide up the folders into separate cases, weight is an issue we can’t afford to pay for.

I hope I haven’t messed up my parts, I’m nearly afraid to look over them. This is our primary concern from now. Not is the piece any good, but have we prepared them sufficiently, and we are naturally fearful for each other, we don’t want to see anyone suffer in the session because of bad parts, the stress is still high. A beer on the flight over helps, oh 2 beers! Better again. We arrive to Sofia airport that evening and are met by Derek and Christo. The heat is lovely, it feels like a holiday, sort of.

Crap! I never packed for the heat, jumpers! What do I need jumpers and jeans for in the high 20+ degree heat. Never thought that far ahead. Christo brings us to a lovely restaurant where we eat, drink and discuss the session tomorrow. Its nice to chill for a while, it feels like a holiday, but not quite. They have put us up in a nice hotel, could get used to this. So after some score folder swapping everyone turns in for the night. Those ‘few’ beers will help with the sleep.

Friday 22nd May

Today is the day.

Everyone staggers out at different times, and we all eventually meet up. We have a score discussion with Maestro Derek, just to clarify what we want from the performance during the session. Derek is enthusiastic and you know he will get a good performance out of the orchestra, as long as my parts are okay, mild panic brewing.

The hotel is very nice and it definitely helps us to relax, wait, gather our thoughts, mild panic still there. I have butterflies all day. The ‘what if’ parade is playing loudly in my head. Taxi’s arrive and we head, a little late to the Bulgarian National Radio for the session. When we arrive we get the first impressions of what it means to record on this scale. The sound stage is huge, so many players. Tony and Debbie have been busy setting up the mic positions, and of all the stages of the process we had most confidence in this stage. Debbie and Tony both are so experienced at this level we new we would come away with superb recordings, as long as our parts are right, oh crap, the stress. Conrad and Derek are around the place, this is normal for them, all in a days work, for us we were about to enter a baptism of fire, in the true ‘epicness’ that is associated with large film scores!

We get set up on the balcony, do our pre-session interviews and it’s down to business. We are nervous for each other as much as ourselves. Ronan is up first! Thankfully our parts are virtually flawless, a few minor moments of panic, but the parts were okay. Those first few notes, until every players has played something, only then do you relax. Conrad score supervised each of our sessions, and what a true professional he is.

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Although we only had 30 minutes per piece, his attention and clarity to detail is quite astonishing. The orchestra had 5 extremely challenging cues to play, and the tiredness was evident in the room. For any group of musicians to perform at 100% for 3 hours is an amazing achievement and credit to Derek for keeping the level of musicality up throughout the whole session. We were mere observers for the most part, although at times our input was needed and witnessing the professional workings of a large scoring session first hand was perhaps the greatest experience a learning composer could wish for. All the drama, stress, excitement, fear, frustration, anticipation led to this moment, when you hear your music in such a dramatic setting and you go, ‘yeah I like that, I can stand up tall, I did my part, and it was good.’

From the earliest conceptual ideas of our music, through 2 weeks of intensive work with Conrad the score preparation was ultimately a huge lesson for us. While creating the parts for the players we all found that we thought differently about the music, and if I was to say ‘what was the greatest lesson I learned’ it would be that as a composer you must think about every step in the process and ultimately remember that it is the players playing your music which decide whether or not the audience will hear your musical thoughts and intensions. And in order for that to happen every stage of the composing process must be thought out and decisive.

What an experience.

Blog Post written by David Geraghty

Click here to check out the gallery from the trip to Bulgaria on our Flickr account.

Have a listen to David’s composition above, or listen below to the Pulse College playlist of all our students pieces from Bulgaria!

Find out more about our 1-Year Film Scoring Masters program by clicking here


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