Hail to the Copiests

My respect for composers in the past continues to grow, particularly in terms of producing the parts for their music. The orchestration of a work is one thing, and I don't want to make little of the effort in getting the orchestration right. Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition is owed much to the popularity of the music. Certainly numerous books have been written on the subject of orchestration (I owned at least a half dozen, which I refer to often). Orchestration of a piece, while important, is creative, in many ways, very much like composing. The orchestrator is making personal choices as to what instruments, dynamics, articulations - and so on - to create the sound he/she wants.

However, the copiest, the poor bloke who ends up putting pen to paper so the various musicians can turn those little black spots into something wonderful, is just moving those little black dots from one page to another. There is craft involved (it has to be ledgible), there is certainly patience (which I find in short supply), and there is attention to detail (which I definately have none of).

Software tools today do a great deal of the work. Sibelius 4 (they are now on version 5, but I've yet to upgrade) will take your orchestral score and parse it out into the variuos instruments, but this is only a rough draft and a lot of amendments will need to be made to make each individual part print perfect. Finale Allegro does perhaps a better job of moving from score to part, but there is still a vast number of edits to be done before the printed copy should find it's way to the musicians. If you're working with a standard triple wind orchestra, this means there are at least twenty-seven different parts that will need to be created for each movement. I know this because that's how many I'm having to do. Multiply that by the number of movements (in my case, five) and you end up with a fair number of parts that have to be "cleaned-up" before they're ready for prime time.

However, both of these pieces of software are new additions to the composers/arrangers/orchestrators/copiests toolkit. Before computers, all of this work was done by hand, and in terms of the greats, Beethoven, Mahler, Ravel..., they did all the copy work themselves, putting ink to paper by hand - and if they made a mistake (they were working with ink and not pencils) they scratched it out and moved on (or threw the page away and started over). I'm not a music historian, so I can't comment as to how often they made mistakes in the parts they created - but the sheer weight of all that work is daunting.

Having said all this, my respect for the professionals in the industry today who do this job, copying music from score to parts, is in no way diminished. As I mentioned above, software tools do a lot of the work, but there are still a lot of fiddly bits that have to be cleaned up before it's playable. Conductor/composer/arranger Pete Anthony, who seems to conduct the music for half the films in the cinema (he is credited with conducting 16 films in 2007 and orchestrating half of those), must have some secret in creating parts from a score. He does enough of this kind of work, he has to be not only very good at it, but extremely fast. In the film industry, time is money and if it takes the copiest too long to get the part to the orchestra or if the players have to take an inordinant amount of time familiarizing themselves with the music the costs of the recording session rise accordingly.

So, hats off to all those copiests out there, those that use computers and especially to those before computers did so much work for us.


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