I love to write to an edited scene, but for this piece I didn’t have visuals, so I just imagined what a Star-Wars-like scene might look like. I think writing to visuals forces a lot of cool, unexpected choices, but I didn’t have that here.
I could not imagine writing a piece this massive without starting on piano. I create a piano sketch, or what I call a piano foundation, first. That piano foundation contains every part you hear orchestrated except for percussion and harp, which are added at the end. The piano foundation even contains some harp glissandi, if I know for sure it’s going to need it.
When I say piano, I don’t mean sheet music. I mean it’s sketched in a DAW, using a piano plugin. Usually it’s 3 parallel piano tracks. Some of it is played in, some of it clicked in with a mouse. Some great composers work with staff paper, but my reading skills, though I’m not totally incompetent at it, are too weak for that to be practical for me.
After I’ve completed the basic sketch, it’s a complete piece but it’s a little thin on the delicious flourishes and spices. So I have a process I follow whereby I add additional elements. I ask myself certain questions—I actually have these questions written down. I ask, for example: “are there places for high string activity above the main melody line”? I ask this because if I don’t, frequently the melody line will always be the “top line”—a piano foundation will sound good this way. But we often want the orchestra to be more “extended.” There are places where you want energy at higher frequency than your main line.
Other questions I ask: is there opportunity for ostinato that could add energy without distracting from the main line? Have I sufficiently used themes developed elsewhere in the project as counterpoint? Am I underutilizing low brass? (This is a tendency of mine I try to force myself to work against.)
So I go through those questions and add piano parts to flesh out the piece.
At this point, it’s all piano. I need to keep it piano because I just need to hear how the lines and harmony are working together, the “grammar” of the piece.
Then I go through the piano foundation and separate it into winds, brass and strings. It’s still using the piano sound: I don’t commit to any particular instrument yet. Some lines I will assign to two instruments—say, strings and winds—for doubling. This forces me to make sure each instrument is playing a line that is musically pleasing by itself, as well as part of the whole. If I had tried to start with samples instead of piano, it would be very hard to keep sight of the whole as I construct musically sensible lines.
With parts thus divided, then I open my orchestral template and start porting these piano lines over to the orchestra. Now I’ve gotta make it sound good, sound real. Nonetheless, it never starts sounding amazing until the end, and I always go through a period of insecurity, wondering whether this piece, orchestrated, will turn out bad. It never does, though: what sounds right on piano will always sound right orchestrated, if you do it sensibly. Maybe there will be a couple of adjustments, but if the foundation is strong, you can have confidence as you work.
It takes about 6 hours for each section. 6-9 for strings, 6 for brass, 6 for winds. Give or take.
Then I add percussion.
And finally, I add harp—the pixie dust that just makes everything magic. I have a few things I love to do with harp, but my favorite thing about harp is this: when I write my piece I try to keep the orchestra in constant motion. It’s undulating and flowing, never static. Even in quiet moments, it’s still usually vibrating with some kind of movement. But my arrangement—counterpoint, internal chord movement, trills, swells, etc.— always fails to fully complete this task. But harp plugs the holes. Harp can keep subtle movement going constantly. If you listen to my quietest passages, the harp is usually active, just bubbling under the main lines. I love this final stage, when this magical movement is added.
Then the mock-up is done. For some pieces, the next step is to chart it and add some live players. That adds yet more magic.
But the key to it all is that it starts with that rock solid piano foundation. If it’s not built on that, I don’t think you can have this amount of complexity and keep it cohesive. It’ll get away from you very quickly.
You asked about trial and error also. I do have a fairly extensive theoretical knowledge (mostly jazz based). And I also have some theoretical concepts that I have engineered on my own. Sometimes from analyzing John Williams or another composer, sometimes from my own discoveries. I don’t generally work atheoretically. I like to know what I’m doing.
That said, there is also some trial and error. I come to a chord, and I say to myself, “this needs more spice, more dissonance, but I’m not sure which note or notes to add to get it.” So I may resort to trial and error in this case. But once I’ve found that note, I seek to understand theoretically what role it’s playing, because that may affect what I do to get into or out of that chord, and of course I may want to use that concept again.
I believe the great composers—including Johnny—do continue to use trial and error to supplement their always growing knowledge.