THE ORCHESTRAL SOUND part 2

by Dick O'Connor

 

Copyrightę  1982, 2000 Dick O'Connor

This article first appeared in the Fall, 1982 issue of Music Research, a short-lived journal devoted primarily to youth-oriented popular music.   At the suggestion of the owner of this web site it has been resurrected, slightly revised for clarity and completeness, and presented for its historical content.

(CONTINUED from PART 1)

By this time a generation of listeners could easily identify the characteristic stylistic traits of the most popular of these orchestras.  Percy Faith's medium high unison violin lines, broad countermelodies, sighing woodwinds and keyboards, and constant forward motion, David Rose's quirky, humorous original compositions and stifling massed string evocations of night in the city, Mantovani's melodic violin time-delay effects, lower string "yawps," and simpler harmonic structures that often seemed to move only from the weight of the ensemble, Morton Gould's symphonic and salon approach, Henry Mancini's warm French horn section, jazzy and ominous lower flutes, and clownish muted trombone commentaries, Robert Farnon's more subdued, dissonant harmonies and steadily moving inner lines, Michel Legrand's abrupt changes of mood, tempo, and style, Paul Mauriat's tense and subtly inflected unison violins, jangling keyboard inflections, and brass and keyboard punctuations, Paul Weston's smooth and reassuring dance band sound, Hugo Montenegro's gusto and rhythmic vigor, and Anita Kerr's simpler, jazz-influenced, naturalistic blend of strings and solo winds with Rod McKuen's poetry for the San Sebastian Strings, all became familiar sounds on radio, recordings, television, and sometimes, in movies.  Some artists bolstered their popularity by touring with their orchestras.  A few, such as Mantovani and the Boston Pops, made yearly tours.   Most of these orchestras, however, remained studio ensembles, committed to their popular leader (or leaders, since many musicians played under several of them) but active in a wide variety of studio work.  Similarly, these leaders regularly contributed their arranging, conducting, and other skills to many musical genres, crafting backgrounds for vocalists, scoring television and advertising.  Only a few - Mantovani, Percy Faith, and Ray Conniff come to mind - eventually enjoyed record sales consistently large enough to allow them to concentrate on their own recordings and tours.

The golden years of this music's popularity ended with the close of the 1960s, although the afterglow of its success lasted another few years.  Musical, sociological, logistical, financial, and taxonomic reasons combined to bring about the demise of its status in the music industry.

From the early 1950s the simpler sentiments, direct expressiveness, and more rhythmic basis of rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and soul music had been capturing the ears of the youth of America.  After the mid 60s these styles became increasingly sophisticated and complex, maturing with their audience and carrying it with them.

The established arrangers and leaders were not comfortable with, and sometimes scornful of, these new rhythmic and expressive styles.  Yet by the mid 60s each one found himself or herself having to come to terms with them or at least define their position towards them, as they had so permeated popular music in general.  Hugo Montenegro, Johnny Douglas, and, to some extent, Richard Hayman (with the Boston Pops), moved easily into them and worked with them on their own terms.  Morton Gould, Michel Legrand, Paul Weston, and others, either by inability or inclination, chose not to deal with them at all and effectively curtailed their recording careers (Mantovani basically chose this position as well, but his great popularity gave him another decade of production).  Most of the heretofore successful leaders remained uncomfortable but, urged on by record companies and the A&R men, sought and found a means of adapting to the new rock and soul styles.

By the end of the decade the standard format for an orchestral popular Lp had narrowed to a collection of instrumental covers of current pops and movie themes.   Even Paul Mauriat, Hugo Montenegro, Caravelli, and others who scored with major chart hits during this period would not alter this format.  Popular orchestra success had become tied to and dependent upon the culture of recording and screen which by the mid 70's catered exclusively to the youth market.  This narrowing and dependency stifled and suffocated the genre.

The Standards - what people expected from popular music - began to change.   The "rebel" and "bad boy" poses of some of the 1950s rockers took root and grew a generation of listeners who increasingly looked to their popular culture to trash and defy all forms of social cohesiveness, a negation which left only a pursuit of self and self-fulfillment as societal norms.  Instead of servants of society, we came to regard ourselves as embodiments of society.  What is good for me is good for you all, or so many of us thought.  This attitude became common currency among the dangerously innocent post-World War II generations brought up in child-centered homes sheltered by parent's hard-earned material affluence.  And for a few years in the late 60s - early 70s a number of wistful and hopeful parents saw in this innocence of their children an antidote to their own cynicism, disillusionment, and stress.  What was selfish was natural and good.  What had been social was now artificial and forced.

These new cultural standards demonstrated, above all else, heightened personal expressiveness from musical artists.  This took the form of more loose, disjointed, postured, and distorted vocal styles where the stability of the sustained human voice increasingly gave way to screams, grunts, shrieks and moans and the steady objectivity of the melodic line was sacrificed in favor of a more improvised melismatic, or, at the other extreme, conversational or raw ejaculatory style.

More simply put, popular songs became so highly intricate and personal that it became increasingly difficult for other vocalists to perform them, or "cover" them, and virtually impossible for an orchestra to do so.  A single instrument, often yes, and the "easy listening" and "beautiful music" radio stations of the 70's would increasingly feature these solo instrumental contemporary song interpretations in which the orchestra, when used at all, was relegated to a background role.

An orchestra by its very nature is a cooperative and not a solo venture.   Its success depends on the equality, flexibility, and mutual interplay of its various component voices and parts - in other words, on the very forms of social cohesiveness that were being negated by the new standards of popular culture.  The very notion of a "popular orchestra" had become a paradox - a contradiction.

Between 1960 and 1975 the creative emphasis in popular music moved from songwriting to recording, calling into question the nature of the arranger's art itself.   The recording of popular songs less and less involved the mere execution of an arranger's preconceived and prepared score.  The advent, in the 60's, of multi-track machines gave birth to new studio techniques and practices that allowed new recordings to be "built" - constructed over a period of time from the rhythm section up, with each new part considered, overlaid, reconsidered, altered, etc.  One came to speak of "laying down tracks" rather than of "making a recording."  Near the end of the process an arranger might be summoned to "sweeten" - to add an enhancing string or instrumental line to what had already been recorded - but was often not involved in the conception and planning of a session.  No longer vital to the success of a recording, the arranger became a relic of an earlier time and a vestige of a former way of doing things.

From the time of the depression record companies had been run essentially by music lovers who allied themselves with ambitious individual businessmen.  As record sales began to increase in the 1960s stockholders and boards of directors came to insist on greater and more regular financial accountability from these men, and to achieve this lawyers and accountants were placed in executive positions.  As they rose to power and came to dominate the day-to-day affairs of their companies these new executives tended to give pride of place on their labels to acts which brought in the greatest amount of revenue within a given reporting year.  Thus the recordings of youth-oriented rock and pop artists that would make a stir and generate quick sales upon their release came to be the mainstay of the companies to the exclusion of those of popular orchestras which, in the 60's, would often sell more units but over a longer period of time.

In addition, cost-conscious executives tended to favor and cultivate acts that wrote their own material, making it possible for the companies to receive a larger share of the song publishing rights and royalties, and that were relatively inexpensive to record.  In the mid 1960s production and recording expenses for a rock combo were only a fraction of those for a 45 piece orchestra.  After 1970 this was often no longer so, but by then the soaring sales of rock and soul music rendered the success of orchestral popular recordings less necessary to the well-being of a company.  The corporate mergers that affected the recording industry in the 1970s made it irrelevant.

"Mood Music," later to be referred to as "easy listening" and "beautiful music," as a category, can be traced to the 1952 release of George Melachrino's "Moods in Music" series on RCA and Jackie Gleason's first Capitol Lp of the same year.  It was quiet, unobtrusive orchestral music apparently designed not for listening but to be used as background for various domestic duties and friendly activities.  Paul Weston had been making mood music albums for almost ten years and companies such as Muzak had offered such a product via radio wire to industries, shops, and restaurants since the 1930s.  By 1954, however, the idea caught on and soon mood music was the new recording industry craze, and it became terribly important for many people to acquire at least some of these recordings to improve the quality of their lives.  Mood music was supposed to calm, to relax, to comfort, to refresh, to restore, to quiet the tensions and frustrations of everyday life - in other words, to soothe the savage beast of post-industrial urban America.  It is worth noting historically that 1954 was also the year the first over-the-counter tranquilizer, Miltown, became available to the public.

By the end of that decade many orchestral popular recordings were being produced or marketed as mood music or easy listening.  By the early 1970s that category had been so expanded that it covered virtually all such recordings.  Rock had taken center stage, and beside it any popular instrumental music was considered quiet and unobtrusive.  A record company choosing to entitle an album The Exciting Music of Percy Faith (as Majestic had done in 1947) in the 1970s would have risked being laughed out of the business.  Not that Percy Faith's approach changed, but the music industry had changed around him.

As sales have dwindled and companies have stopped producing this kind of music, FM radio, increasingly limited, syndicated, formatted, and automated, has become its last bastion.  More and more a reassuring refuge for older listeners, these stations all too often program pale and watered-down versions of this music's former glory, dutifully commissioned by the growing syndicators, assembled year-to-year out of whatever songs and themes happen to gain popularity by nameless arrangers, and recorded by inexpensive, faceless European musicians.

Now we have come full circle.  Where are the orchestras to inspire and to play this music?  No longer on our radio and television broadcasts, certainly not in our "salons," and only occasionally in our studios.  In Europe, yes, where state-financed orchestras continue to offer a modicum of orchestral popular and light classical music on national radio networks.

The 1970s saw a return of the "orchestral sound" on Philadelphia soul and disco recordings, where it lent sophistication and expansiveness to their insistent dance beats.  Indeed, it seemed as if disco would transcend all musical barriers, melt all hate, and bring everybody together at last.  By the end of the decade however it had become synonymous with, and symbolic of, only mutual self-seeking.   Barry White, Van McCoy, the Salsoul Orchestra, MFSB, and others scored big disco orchestral hits.  Percy Faith, on the eve of his death, had a minor success in this style.

Denounced, scorned, and shunned, disco barely survived its decade.  Mature listeners who could not stomach the anti-melodic dreariness of punk, who were not moved by the clever technical innovations of new wave, and who had no taste for disco, turned to jazz-rock fusion and, more recently, to the simpler classical and folk-influenced pastoral patterns of the new acoustic music.  Significantly, both of these genres are rhythm-driven, soloist-oriented, and orchestra-exclusive.  Faith died in 1976, Andre Kostelanetz and Mantovani in 1980, leaving no musical heirs to succeed them.

The 1970s heard the large orchestra return to the move soundtrack as well, due to a string of giant successes scored by Hollywood veteran John Williams.   Significantly, in 1980 Williams was chosen musical director of the nation's oldest continuous popular orchestra - the Boston Pops.

Today, standing symphonic ensembles like the Boston Pops are the only regular working orchestras remaining in the United States.  American cities with large musical communities continue to produce fine instrumentalists who may be hired and assembled into an orchestra for a limited time or a special occasion, but the ensemble cohesiveness that only comes from working together day-by-day and the extreme flexibility that can only be achieved by the necessity of regularly performing different styles of music will be lacking.  Such a lack, and the absence of such orchestras in general, insures that in this country Percy Faith, Morton Gould, Hugo Winterhalter, Les Baxter, Nelson Riddle and all will have no successors.

-August 19, 1982

 

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POSTSCRIPT 2000

Eighteen years after the initial publication of this piece the trends in popular music cited therein continue unabated.  Unrestrained personal expression and deconstructive nihilism run rampant.  Large rock concerts have become ritualistic celebrations of self-indulgent excess, bigotry, and bad manners.   Rhythm remains king, and melody often exists only as the optional tool of an artist's ego.  Indeed, the popular rap and hip-hop genre has so dispensed with the melody and harmony that it offers little more than statement and attitude.  The introduction of MTV and VH1 so revolutionized an already image-driven industry that now a popular song must be a television show as well.

"Beautiful Music" radio has passed away with the greater portion of its listeners.  Most of the artists mentioned in 1982 are gone as well.  The great success of the compact disc put out of business the myriad used record stores that stocked popular orchestra Lp's, rendering the latter rare and more difficult to find than ever.  The "Lounge Music" fad of the 1990's, actually a somewhat tongue-in-cheek backward glance at the 1950s kitsch, ostensibly included these orchestras, but tended to regard their music as a bizarre expression of post-war angst.  The styles now designated as "smooth jazz" and "new age" (some of whose artists, interestingly, have appropriated, albeit on synthesizers, the orchestral ethos of forty and fifty years ago) remain the refuge of mature listeners who seek a more stable and peaceful auditory experience.

Yet there exists a global audience for this music and it has slowly been making its preference known to and felt by the music business.  Mantovani and Melachrino orchestras continue to record the work of their namesakes and new arrangements by others.  Japanese enthusiasm for Percy Faith led to new studio accounts of many of his most famous settings, and a Percy Faith orchestra now tours that country almost yearly.  John Williams, whose direction of the Boston Pops until 1993, commissioned and recorded a number of fine scores from Alexander Courage, Billy Byers, the legendary Angela Morley, and others.  in 1998, Erato released Happy Radio Days, Michel Legrand's first orchestral popular set in twenty years.  And new product regularly appears from the "mystery" orchestras with nameless arrangers.

On compact disc the often awkward compilations assembled from older material have begun to give way to impeccably transferred original-format Lp reissues and to exciting collections of pre-1950 78 rpm transcriptions.

In Eastern Europe an orchestra devotes itself to the interpretation of British light music while in England orchestral concerts of classic popular arrangements are well-attended, well-received, and a "Legends of Light Music" program often graces the airwaves of the BBC.

Most importantly, there are scattered reports of a new willingness among the young to just listen, and this is encouraging.  We burden popular music too heavily with our politics, attitudes, declarations, images, and with our egos, our rituals and celebrations.  In the end, music is just music, and what does not consistently appeal to and delight the ear, and, in so doing, move the hearer, has little of lasting value.  Orchestral popular music, whatever other use we may make of it, is for listening, and all we can ask for any music is that there be listening.

---November 2000

 

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