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Puzzled by orchestrational choices in "The Imitation Game" score

Discussion in 'Tips, Tricks & Talk' started by Francesco Bortolussi, Oct 24, 2019.

  1. Years ago, when the movie “The Imitation Game” came out, I remember enjoying the movie and really liking the main theme. Back then I was not nowhere as good as I am now as a composer, and I was just happy to find a transcription of the main theme on the piano and play it for myself.

    I’ve recently stumbled upon the soundtrack again, and I was really surprised by the main theme’s orchestration/sound: I can’t tell if it’s me or if it sounds a bit cluttered and messy at times.

    The pulsing bass synthesizer sounds a bit intrusive to me, although I’m not sure if it’s me being exceedingly picky.

    From the beginning: the piano introduces this piano figure that is present throughout the piece. I’d say this works well: it’s a consistent motivic idea, and sets the tone well enough

    However, as soon as the main melody starts at 0:40, Desplat (or whoever orchestrated this) doubles down on the rhythmical piano figure, by putting it (basically) in octaves; this clashes A LOT with the melody: they're on the same octave range and they have the same dynamic presence in the mix. Orchestrationally speaking, I would've at least moved the ostinato out of the way of the melody; moreover, it sounds like the piano is waaay too high in the mix. I get it, oftentimes pianos are just recorded with a close mic and then brought out in the mix, however the piano shouldn't be the protagonist here.

    It sounds like Desplat (or whoever orchestrated this) has a tendency of cluttering the octaves where the melody is playing. It happens again in the same track at 1:40, where everything is moved to the lower range (can the piano not just be moved to the higher octaves now, away from the melody?). I can't say that this passage doesn't sound 'okay', but it's bound to sound pleasant just because of the fact that it's a restatement of the melody with a different orchestration: it always works, because we like patterns and repetitions, etc.

    What I described before doesn't sound as intrusive in live recordings, where the piano is lower in the mix:

    However, I still think it can be clearer if other instruments move away from the goddamn melody :D

    Thoughts? Am I going insane?
  2. #2 Alexander Schiborr, Oct 24, 2019
    Last edited: Oct 24, 2019
    Hej Francesco,

    just took a couple of times listening to the theme. It is very repetitive and stays in that way safe that certain elements are caried throughout his theme like that piano arpeggiating figures. It is a bit fighting with the range of the violins at 40 seconds but the piano with this figure is also played quite and mixed very settle plus also presented before so it´s not too much making things cluttered or adding to many new things which wasn´t there before. (So its okay..) In the live version it´s even quiter in the mix and so even less apparent and just adds a bit of that flowing sparkly twinkly texture what probably was originally intended. But who knows. We all need these days some emotional arrpegiating piano, right? :D oh wait..thats not right..that technique has a total different purpose there (which I found out later while watching that behind the score video)

    So due to the simplicity of the idea and the long introduction, I think it is probably..not the most coolest orchestration and exciting theme for me personally here though presentable and I liked the winds parts arrangement later reinstating some elements of the A-Section in the theme which is nice.

    Overall I was then curious to know a bit more about the movie, the settings and I was surprised reading that the movie is set in the 1930s to 50s and having that war scenario wept around. I listened to a couple of more cues of that movie which I wondered then a bit: The music overall doesn´t at all let me think of such a scenario so it must be more or specifically character based writing focussed in a way scoring mentality. A bit confused first by the approach so I went through a video "behind the score" by Ashton G. Guy who is analyzing the score which was quite interesting to hear some more insights which makes sense.

    A bit off topic still the soundtrack fits for me into that typical modern drama scores driven by elements with synths, piano, celest, some flutes and strings. Desplat had 3 weeks to compose and record the score and he was nominated for an oscar with that score also, also quite interesting. Then I listened to a couple of other themes from him like the phelomena theme and a couple of more themes simply to get a better overview on his writing also. He has an interesting palette presenting in his writing though I can make out things what he likes and presents throughout his other works as well. He is very diverse, cool thing, I definitely hear he has some sort of elfman influence in his writing at least very recognizable in the fantastic Mr. Fox soundtrack. I am not familiar at all with his music and barely listened to any of his works so I thought to get a better understanding of his music simply by listening to more 5-6 other soundtracks. Then I also listened to some more epic blockbuster music from him like the Godzilla theme even there I hear his Danny influence? Then I went to his Harry Potter work and simply thought, oh well yeah there it is again his things he likes (the harmonic progressions and elements), replace the orchestrations there with the imitation games "enviroment" and that cue would probably make it into the imitation game? Also he has his HZ influences for me, or probably its been due to the overall influence which Zimmer has on soundtracks these days.

    (is that Harry Potter? Sounds not all like that to me, but I am so much used to John Williams take on the Harry Potter franchise presenting "Strong iconic themes".

    Back to the imitation game..

    What I overall would have loved that he would present some more edge in his harmonies. His work is so far I can tell super melodic but also so "super safe" for most of the time, therefore it´s totally pleasing to listen to while also sometimes a bit boring for me personally because I simply want that he goes more other places with his harmonies to get more challenged and excited with surprises.

    For me so far Desplat is interesting because he manages to fill in a gap in that modern hollwood music presenting his music still modern enough but not with overly too much epic tropes that I still can enjoy the work to a certain extent. I think that this is a great technique he developed there.
  3. Ahh ...... did you eat the "Del Taco". It will do that and more to you.


    I don't really have an answer for you. I am most disturbed by the outfit the conductor is wearing. What is that? Is he from the Death Star?

    The obvious answer is the piano was recorded separately. Also, I think it benefits from the fact that the piano is an "attack" instrument, so it naturally contrasts with "sustain" instruments.

    I don't know....it's been a very "in vogue" film music sound these past 5-10 years. Who knows what the director/studio wanted.
    It kind of sounds like someone took a few scores and put them into a blender.

    Off the top of my head, I feel like I hear a mix of

    and maybe

    Yeah, I really agree with this. I don't know who orchestrated these two cues below, but these are really great!

    This guy must be a genius. And good looking. Funny too. Whoever it is.;)

    Now if you bag out anything about these two clips you might get a visit from me in my limo

  4. The orchestration didn't bother me. I am very fond of this theme. It works well in the film, which I would recommend seeing for those of you that haven't. It is a fascinating true story.

    I don't think being a "good" composer should really make too much of a difference in being able to enjoy this (or any) music. I am of the school of thought that judges music on the effect it has and not too much on the craft. In other words, does the music create the desired emotion or reaction? If so, I would consider it successful. A good composer may make use of any and all theoretical knowledge (and should) but I am not very interested in thinking much about that when I listen to music. I'm not saying that you do this, but if you enjoyed it a few years ago and now you can't because of your music education, I think that is a shame.

    I'm glad to listen to and enjoy the simplest pop to the most avant garde classical.

    All that being said, I can totally understand if the actual sound of the music is bothersome to you. I too find that sometimes when I listen to music I like that I haven't heard in a while, the mix (or in your case the orchestration, but in effect the same thing really) can be distracting if it isn't as good as it could be. But, I try not to let it bug me too much and just focus on the music.
    Doug Gibson likes this.
  5. It was tempting, but I stood my ground and announced to the world "One day I will fall for the desire and eat at Del Taco, but it not this day!". I did try In n Out, to see what the hype was about, and I found it okay. Went to Wendy's and was a bit disappointed.
    Legit Mexican food there is really good though! Don't know if eating tons of enchilada makes you crazy and delusional as a side effect, but hopefully I'll be alright.

    Yeah I get that, I'm mostly nitpicking, and it's hard for me to evaluate whether that decision was correct or not. My opinion is that it could work orchestrationally speaking, just because of the balance of the piano in the room. It's hard sometimes to judge something like this, as it may come down to subjective experience: being a better musician makes you hear all the instruments more clearly, so sometimes it's difficult to imagine how something is being heard by other people.

    The piano was obviously recorded separately, my take was that maybe they mixed it too high, forgetting that the violin melody was far more important. Maybe it wasn't clear, but my question was more like: does this work balance-wise in a live setting? Because it for sure sounds whack when you artificially mix it together with these volumes. I can agree with the fact that timbre helps the situation a lot!

    I watched a part of that video (it's a cute video), and the main concern I have with those types of analysis is that they tend to jerk the composer off a bit too much. The comments are always along the lines of "all these decisions that the composer made are genius for all these reasons", "[anything from the score] not only fits the movie perfectly, but uses the [instrument] in a delicate and elegant way", and indefinitely praise the score over and over again. Never ever do you hear: "the attempt of [the composer] was to communicate this feeling, but in my opinion the arrangement maybe lacks some rhythmical drive because of [reasons]"; like it is a critical analysis where the composer behind the video puts his opinion and criticism on the line. But this is just me, I'm a cynical asshole at times.

    Off topic: the other day, while still in LA, I went to see a talk by a well known TV composer about scoring some big series and movies throughout the years. Not gonna lie, I personally thought that some of the things he wrote are subpar and boring, but it's just my opinion and I'm always happy to discuss and maybe change my mind. However, I was a bit put off by the size of the circle-jerk at these kinds of events; the participants are mostly small composers who are trying to make it in the industry, and all the conversations have the same script: "have you seen [generic movie]? It was scored by [composer], it was soooo good!" - "oh yeah man, I thought it was brilliant, the combination of accordion and alto flute made it a total masterpiece!". If you ever say anything along the lines of "I really liked the score of that movie, although when I listened to the other movie [composer] did, I thought a bit lazy because of [whatever reason]", they just stare at you like you're an actor who broke character for a few seconds, then change topic.
    I guess I like to argue about what I'm passionate about, but maybe I'm just a little pretentious, who knows.

    What a banger! I heard that the orchestrator is a total legend.

    I think it's easy to get away with a piano and a string section, and it feels like sometimes people are a bit lazy with it. The result is sure really effective, can't blame directors for wanting this kind of sound. Maybe a bit cheesy at times, but I can see why they would do it.

    I have a few comments. Please don't take it personally:
    • I don't think I've ever talked about me enjoying the experience or not. I only talked about
    • The discussion is purely on orchestrational choices, and craft. I don't know how bringing up that you listen to "the simplest pop to the most avant garde classical (music)" is relevant here. You have some simple songs that are well executed and arranged, and you have complex and experimental pieces that are badly developed and chaotic. You can have good or bad execution on any level of complexity and genre.
    If I wanted to sit here and discuss about emotions, I would've talked to all my non-musicians friend: "isn't this music nice?" - "yeah it is indeed nice, and I liked the movie". Imagine me going up to non-musicians and saying "do you think the piano is mixed too loudly against the strings? Do you think it's an orchestrational mistake or would that work in this context?"; my friends would probably think I actually went insane.
    If you're not interested in discussing orchestrational choices and craft, I don't see how your points are relevant to anything that I talked about. I'm honestly not interested in the "if the music is shit but it touched someone's heart, it is as valuable as anything else" conversation. Hell, I even bet that there are some people in the world who probably LOVE listening to white noise.

    Except mix (or the orchestration) IS the music. If you have a rock song where every instrument track's volumes is turned to 0, except the bass guitar, then all you have a boring bass line. The delivered mix is the only version of the music you have, and should be representative of what the message was. This is a forum where we're trying to get better as composers. Being bugged by something that isn't as good as it can be is exactly the goal of this forum.

    But I guess all of this is my opinion anyway. Did I already say that sometimes I can be a pretentious asshole? :)
    Doug Gibson likes this.
  6. The genre is called "harsh noise wall". They even "play" live! Blew my mind when I stumbled over this:

  7. One time I went to a pretty well respected art festival with a friend (Biennale, in Venice). He bought tickets for us to see this "drone music" concert. I sat there for one hour listening to noise and random sounds being played from a DJ-like station. Never felt more alienated from anything else I've experienced! Afterwards all the people there were talking about how they loved it, I couldn't believe it! It felt like I was in some kind of psychological experiment, where everyone was in for the joke, and I was a patient being tested! :D

    That video is really funny, thank you for that! :D
    Doug Gibson likes this.
  8. #8 Alexander Schiborr, Oct 25, 2019
    Last edited: Oct 25, 2019
    Hej Francesco @Francesco Bortolussi :

    Completely agreed here and no you are not. Sure, Ashton G. is not going to feature content and videos where he critisizes a composers work, so there is mainly praise and its a bit biased content for sure. And he is doing of course what he likes to do and he picks out music and examples which he enjoys the most and also what is considered these days as interesting to people as he also wants to build an audience for his channel. Also that music is very approachable for most of the people and everybody can feel good and have a great time because you can learn to write things like that without spending decades of studying repertoire music, theory, harmony, and developmental techniques like if you want to write an impression of the seahawk suite from Korngold. (And who wants that anyways to do apart from some few crazy people)

    Regarding that experience with that interview: Speaking out loud things you critisize may not be well received specifically when it aims at people who are succesful. I went through that process a couple of times having talks with people about the flaws of modern scoring and there is a tendency that you are quickly put down as a grumpy cat when you start to questioning things. (But I try to let it go..:D and concentrate on things what I like, I think better time spent :D)

    I mean when I look at Desplats music from a standpoint what I personally like in music then I would say that most of the stuff he composes doesn´t really intrigue me too much but I can admit that there is a quality behind his writing which I respect. What I enjoy on Desplat are 2 things: He has some sort of voice. So I can make out specific things in his writing where I see his trademarks and where I see influences. And second though he writes modern filmmusic its not overly excessive filled with epic tropes. It has still some classic scoring devices in it what I think is nice considering that we have that recipe of ostinato strings, loud brass, Choirs and percussion with Synth Drones. And that is cool because I think he still embraces classic scoring where they let them do that.

    ((total off topic: I thought about to write a few cues in the style of desplats drama scoring. Maybe I can learn something from that too as it is something very different what I do and I think it would be a refreshing. Who knows..I can warm up with that stuff instead of writing epic music. In fact I enjoyed the Godzilla theme also. Is some sort of cool theme. Maybe that is also something to try out. Who knows maybe my love will grow on that? Always trying out different things..))
    Doug Gibson likes this.
  9. I don't know the answer. Too many unknowns I think.

    Here is what comes to mind.

    1. The REAL mix would be for the film and the dialogue with the sound design and in surround sound. So our stereo listening may just be fucked from the start.

    1b) Movies have more extra sound in them. Check out the difference between the original Robin Hood and Black Hawk Down.

    2. Piano within a classical orchestra is a funny one. Unless it's a concerto it's in the back. The soundtrack style is more pop anyway.

    Off the top of my head, from the classical rep.....which piece (not a concerto) would have a most similar texture?
    I don't know the exact answer but Saint Sanse popped into my head. As you can see they take off the piano lid.


    BTW, I bet you are correct. I just am not emotionally invested in the soundtrack posted to have a real strong opinion.

    Hope you are enjoying LA. Did you see Chris? Is Samantha still running his studio? I totally agree on "In an Out". Over-rated by far.
    It was average at best. Safe travels!
  10. This is why we like you !
    Francesco Bortolussi likes this.
  11. Hi Francesco,

    No worries, I am not taking it personally. I don't think I did a good job expressing myself. Let me give it another shot.
    To put it succinctly and to answer your question in the original post - Yes, I think you are being exceedingly picky. Here is my evidence (besides my own personal opinion of the music): Alexander and Doug don't seem to feel that the orchestration is problematic.

    (Warning! Generalizations and anxious ravings ahead!) What I worry about when I'm at Redbanned is that I see many composers here who seem to adhere to the "rules" explained by Mike V a little too religiously at times. And I don't think the concepts Mike V lays out in his classes are bad at all, quite the contrary - I believe it is great to emphasize thematic writing, certain structural and developmental choices, and other fundamentals of composition. However, sometimes I think the focus of the composers can become too narrow to where one could be listening to a great piece of music that did NOT state the theme simply to begin with, did NOT repeat it etc. and think "oh, well this piece did not follow the formula so it is not good". When you stated that you used to like the theme, but that you are a much better composer now, that implied that the things you have learned have caused you to not like this theme because of some supposed flaws of the construction (in this case, orchestration). In my opinion, in this case, you are becoming too focused on one particular thing and have lost the bigger picture a bit.

    I didn't mean to imply that we shouldn't discuss orchestrational problems, I just didn't explain myself well. My bad.

    Let me just state also that I am not meaning that because of your one question that all of what I wrote above is applying to you specifically. Much is just general thoughts that were initiated from your question.

    I hope I explained myself a little better, but honestly I know I probably didn't. For me to communicate well when writing I have to go over what I wrote several times and I'm too lazy to do it. Sorry in advance!
  12. Just wanted to acknowledge this. Bravo ! Here lies the difference between here and Vi-C. It's possible (not always happens, but it's possible)
    to have respect for dissenting opinions.

    Well done Francesco and Patrick.
  13. Yeah, it was a bit disingenuous of me to ignore the context of this Youtube channel.

    Gotta also agree with this, I have to remember that I'm not part of the audience he's targeting :D

    This is actually a great point, moving things around spacially help a lot sometimes.

    Such a lovely piece, thanks I wasn't aware of this!

    Yeah probably, I have this feeling many times, and I wanted to get a reality check from other people that actually actively study/write music! I live in my own bubble, and I have a 0% interaction with composers on my day to day life, hard to know what people think sometimes.

    Yeah I get that. Personally, I think that the reason why so many people might quote Mike verbatum is because what he teaches is backed up by countless of examples. Some of the concepts might start sounding like rules, because they just flat out work in 99% of the cases.

    In the kind of scenarios where people would say "oh, well this piece did not follow the formula so it is not good", I'm much more interested in understanding why something worked and didn't follow the 'formula', or why it didn't work even though it followed the formula. There are passages where there are instruments overlapping the same range that totally work, and passages like the one I linked which - in my opinion - don't (as well). Mike's classes are so ahead of the competition, that sometimes it feels a bit awkward for me to just say things that I probably heard on the classes; but they are really great rule of thumbs, I can't seem to disagree with a lot of the things that he said even if I have a critical stance.

    I still want to emphasize that I never mentioned anything about my subjective enjoyment of the theme OR the music. What I learned made me question the orchestration and made me say "isn't there a better way to do this maybe?". I have this thoughts ALL THE TIME, and nobody is really safe from it. There are some pieces that I LOVE where sometimes I'm like "daamn that's such a missed opportunity, it could've been so much better!". I think that the fact that I'm correct or not in these instances is not as important as the process of listening to music critically, and experimenting with alternative solutions - be it for compositional choices, orchestration, arrangement, etc.

    Oh no yeah of course, all good! Thanks for elaborating :)


    A bit off topic/on the topic of pieces that don't follow the formula:
    I've been obsessed lately with this piece by Brahms - Schicksalslied

    The melodies are extremely drawn out, and while the patterns, it takes a lot of digging to see how things relate to each other in the piece (in a "theoretical" sense). It's such a great piece, and I've been fascinated at how well it works even though it seems like there is a melody line that last for 2 minutes straight :D

    Not the usual "melody repeats twice, then onto the B theme" kind of deal, but of course it all works really well! This piece has SO MANY good things, that it probably deserves a separate thread altogether.
    The section at 3:53 is impossibly beautiful, and the cellos at 4:13 melt my heart every time.

    I rehearsed it a couple of times in a choir (singing in the tenor section), but I haven't done any other studying yet. I feel like transcribing it would give me an understanding of lot of new things that are not necessarily in my style!
    Patrick McClanahan likes this.
  14. Yes, that makes sense. I totally understand that. It was interesting to read the replies on the subject.

    Very true. A good point. I think I am the one being very nitpicky in this situation, but alas, I cannot help myself :)
  15. I agree it could be clearer. But the plinky piano and the sustained violins don't really step on each other because the texture is different.

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