It was sometime in April 2020, when I first thought: I really wanna do an orchestra arrangement of Kawaki wo Ameku. But not just that one song, I had a bigger ambition – an actual medley of every song in her album.
The plan was supposed to be like this:
- Kawaki wo Ameku – featuring the entire orchestration
- main actor – focusing on the Woodwinds
- Lilac – focusing on the Brass
- Hollowness – Focusing on the Strings
- Prologue – featuring the entire orchestration to wrap it up
I didn’t have much music theory to go on; I only barely completed my ABRSM grade 5 theory, and my only arranging experience had only been for the solo piano, Strings (Cello Quintet – Unravel), and Chinese Orchestra (NDP Medley, 那些年). You could probably already see the problem here I guess :p
Relying purely on gut feeling and “oh this sounds nice”, I quickly finished the first draft for Kawaki wo Ameku, featuring the solo piano for the intro,
And the outro,
At this point, it was probably quite telling what the first mistake I made:
1. I ditched my piano too fast.
In hindsight, I should’ve continued to feature the piano along with the piece, unless I was trying to pull a Hisaishi move (but even he had a second pianist who played during the rest of the piece :/)
There are many parts that I tried to highlight in my arrangement as well, from the horn melody in the beginning verse to the ascending harmonies at the second chorus.
The second chorus drew some contentions though, with the intended harmonic clashes not boding well with some of my friends I consulted. Though, I personally still liked it :/
Whelp, no point continue to drone off about the other stuff, so let’s dive straight to the learning points from me arranging this.
2. Familiarity with the instruments
It’s one thing to enjoy the sound of the instruments, but it’s another thing to know how to write for the said instrument. For me, I’m somewhat confident in writing strings (not to a good extent, but as in playability) as I’m a Cellist myself, and I’ve heard a fair-enough share of Strings pieces played when I was in my school’s String Ensemble. However, with my small knowledge of Brass, and even more minuscule knowledge of Woodwinds, I really struggled to try to write for them. I’m addicted to the trumpet solo sounds featured in Joe Hisaishi’s Merry go Round from “Howl’s Moving Castle”, but I’m unfamiliar with how to use the trumpets to their fullest potential. Or woodwind glisses.
And, especially percussion.
I overly relied on the snare drum this time, with its backbone rhythm paving the way for the energy and mood of the arrangement. But beyond that, I had a lot of issues I faced on the way:
- How fast can the timpani shift their notes? Or should I only stick to 4 / 5 notes per section?
- What other percussion instruments were there in a common orchestra?
- What different kinds of windchimes?
- Can a xylophone/glockenspiel/marimba do double mallets? Triple? Quadraple? What’s considered playable or not playable?
So, all in all, I didn’t have much of a clue on how those instruments work, and it definitely impacted on how I wrote for those instruments in this arrangement.
3. Writing for an orchestra
A solo piano arrangement is just 2 hands. Writing for the orchestra is like writing for 50 hands (a gross exaggeration I know, but it really feels that way). Oh, let the upper strings play the melody, the lower strings the bassline, and wait what do I do with the gazillion other instruments who have nothing right now? How many sub-melodies can I write before it becomes too much?
Fun fact: The second chorus had multiple intended melodies: (a) The strings and woodwinds playing the actual melody, (b) the brass playing an ascending scale (somewhat), (c) xylophone going ham, (d) chimes to “raise the stakes”. (e) In the second part of the chorus, the triangle joins in as a final layer
So, to sum it up basically, I had a major problem – experience. I had the motivation, the ideas, but not the expertise and knowledge to fully utilise the instruments. I know that everyone do start somewhere, but at the point of finishing Kawaki wo Ameku, I didn’t have much confidence that I’d do Minami’s other songs justice.
In fact, I did have a draft of main actor up to the second verse, and the intro of Hollowness, but they didn’t have the “ah this feels right” that I’d normally feel while arranging, and as such I shelved them.
To be completely honest, the timeline of the project should’ve been completed by Christmas 2020, and I wanted to upload it as a fully completed medley as a New Year special, as well as maybe publishing it on Spotify. I had friends who were ready to help me mix it with really nice sounds too! But in the end, I didn’t feel that this arrangement is complete enough for me to say “okay, I’m 100% confident in this arrangement”. As such, it’s published as an 80%-completed piece, available here:
So, what’s next?
I do plan to come back to this one day. When I’ve experienced more orchestral works, and when I’m feeling more confident in tackling a fully-featured orchestra arrangement. But for now, this is it. A rewrite of Kawaki wo Ameku is probably not really likely, as the arrangement I did is mostly to what I’ve envisioned it to be in the beginning, and while I feel that it can be improved, I can’t really spell out what that improvement would be.
As for the rest of the album, I’ll be back one day. Once I’m more confident, I’ll tackle it once again. Who knows, it may be this year-end, or next year, or even a decade later. But this is on my to-do list. Minami’s one of my all-time favourite artists, and I love this entire album, I do want to arrange the entire album for the orchestra one day.
So with that said, I hope you enjoyed reading this short post on the journey of orchestral arrangement for me, and hopefully, I can see you in the next post about the next song in this album :p