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For the past year or so, as I have been getting back into orchestral music again, I have been transcribing some of my favorite compositions as a part of my self-study of composition and orchestration. I found it to be a very valuable learning experience because transcribing lets you really get “inside” the music and, to a certain extent, simulate the creative process by recreating someone else’s composition. Writing music down by ear, as opposed to simply playing it on the instrument is particularly rewarding. Music composition is an intellectual process and to really understand a particular piece of music, its logic and structure it is helpful to have a visual representation of it. So, despite transcription being a laborious and time consuming activity, I think it is the most effective way for a composer to learn and improve at their craft.

Transcribing ensemble music, especially the orchestra, is quite difficult, as often things tend to blend in and not always we can be sure that what we hear is what is actually being played. For example, some parts might not be in the spotlight (in fact they might not even be particularly audible) but they make the overall sound fuller and stronger. In these situations, knowledge of music theory and common practices can guide you – in particular, in the transcription below I’ve encountered a particularly sonically busy spot, where what I think I’ve heard lead to a bad sounding movement of voices, so I chose to ignore what things appeared to be like and instead applied the rules of proper voice leading to correct the error and this fixed the problem. This illustrates that in the saturated orchestral arrangement not everything can be captured only from listening and it’s important to also put some thinking and theoretical knowledge to get proper results.

Today we are looking at my version of “L’Evocation” composed by Bruno Coulais, an instrumental track from the movie “Les Choristes”. The whole transcription was done completely by ear, without playing any instrument, it was written down line by line only from listening to the original recording.

 I’ve transcribed this composition quite a while ago and also, as a little extra challenge I’ve decided to try to produce a mockup of this piece, which I present to you today. Despite certain software issues and limitations that always come with producing a realistic orchestral demo using virtual instruments, I am fairly satisfied with the result I managed to get at this point. I do see spots where things could be improved by overcoming said software limitations and take these as notes for the next project but this mockup definitely makes a pleasant and immersive listening experience and this is what I’m always striving for.

At the first glance this piece appears to be very simple, but if we analyze it we will see that it has many intriguing compositional choices.  It is written in 6/4, not a very common time signature which in this particular case helps to create an extended melodic line, very much vocal in style which is beautifully performed by Cor Anglais, a close relative of the oboe, often used as soloist for its mellow yet piercingly expressive timbre. 

The harp part deserves a special mention as even though the composer could take a shortcut and use a simple repetitive arpeggio figuration to accompany the solo, he instead created a very developed part which stands well on its own and creates an interesting counterpoint to the melody. 

The piece opens up with two introductory bars played by Harp which is followed by the melody played by English Horn. The texture develops gradually, first the French Horn joins in with the counterpoint line which provides support and harmonic context to the solo and in the second sentence the orchestra comes in to add weight and dynamic expansion anticipating the approaching culmination. The B section is modulating to the parallel minor and changing the meter to 4/4 which, combined with the change of rhythm in the harp part, creates the sense of movement. Violins lead the melody built on stepwise motion over the simple yet effective chord progression building up tension. Overall all these choices provide a powerful dramatic effect which is magnified by the abrupt ending of the section on minor tonic. But the melody does not yet stop there and with reminiscence of the Section A solo it leads us to the cadence in the original F major, where it peacefully resolves.

In conclusion, the lesson that we can draw from this particular piece is that we know that it is often encouraged to simplify music to make it more appealing to a mass audience, but oversimplification tends to lead to boredom and thus loss of intended effect. This piece is a perfect example of how a simple idea can be developed into a more expressive and effective result by slightly diverting from plain and obvious decisions and making more sophisticated compositional choices.