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Simon Franglen on Technology, China, and Composing in Mandarin

At age 13, Simon Franglen knew he wanted to be a composer. "Two things got me interested initially," he reflects. "One was a BBC documentary by Humphrey Burton about the making of West Side Story. Leonard Bernstein had created a new version with Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras; here was this amazing orchestra and Leonard Bernstein jumping up and down – it was magical."

The other? "My dad had a cheap Akai reel-to-reel tape recorder," he recalls. "I discovered I could add a sound on top of another sound and bounce it from one track to the other."

Then came the Casio FX-502P calculator. "Somebody at Casio decided to allow you to program notes into this calculator," he explains. "You could play an A for two tenths of a second, then play a C for a quarter of a second, and so on. I discovered I could effectively sequence on the Casio FX-502P."

For Franglen, it has been a crazy technology evolution ever since. "Over the years I've moved from a 2-ton synth rig based around the Synclavier when I was a session player in LA to current studios based around a few Mac Pros. I use almost no hardware, everything's inside the box, with 32TB of NVMe RAIDs for sample libraries."

But one thing hasn't changed – the need for written musical scores. "If you are going to have people play music in ensembles, you need some way of letting them understand what notes they're going to play," Franglen points out. "That involves notation—and that involves Sibelius."

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Indeed, the power duo Sibelius and Pro Tools have become crucial to Franglen's success. "I use ReWire to link the two," he explains. "I have Pro Tools and Sibelius running on the same machine, but I display them on different screens. I use a screen you can twist 90 degrees vertically for the Sibelius display."

"Of course, the new Intelligent MIDI Import feature is stupendously good. It's a sea change in connecting my MIDI in Pro Tools and its notation in Sibelius. I worked with an early version and I was astounded; suddenly a few hours of tidying up the chaos of my export from Pro Tools became a few button presses. It consolidated 30 tracks of strings into five staves while I had a cup of tea. For anyone who links MIDI and notation this is essential."

"To put how much of a timesaver this is into context, I recently wrote a 105-minute film score before IMI appeared - epic action/fantasy score, 90-piece orchestra, 30+ cues. With this feature my team would have saved two to three hours of session conversion and cleanup time per cue. You add that up over a whole film, and you've saved a week or more of someone's time just there."

Franglen's team includes orchestrators Steven Baker and Graham Foote. "Graham oversees the translations to Sibelius, although Steven is a total Sibelius wiz," he reports. "We have templates for Vienna Ensemble Pro and Pro Tools, which I tweak on a project-specific basis. I may play something into Pro Tools, and if I decide it's working well, I play it into Sibelius or type it in with the keyboard. That way my draft score can run in line with my mockup, so that I can see what's going on. Then I hand that over to Steven or Graham for the grownups to take control. Using Sibelius and Pro Tools together works very well for all of us."

Franglen's newest piece, The Birth of Skies and Earth, is a 94-minute work with a libretto in Mandarin Chinese. The premiere performance featured 176 musicians: a 90-piece orchestra, including Guzheng and Xiao Flute, 80-voice choir, and 6 soloists. "This came about because of an installation I wrote a couple of years ago, that is still running in Shanghai; a 3D immersive piece, which uses 4 interlocking orchestras playing through a torus of 244 loudspeakers currently running in the world's highest art space, on the 126th floor of the Shanghai Tower – 2000 feet up" Franglen relates. "Shanghai Media Group and the Shanghai Orchestra of Light really liked it. They commissioned me to compose a large-scale oratorio based on a libretto written by some of Shanghai's finest poets. This was to be a musical epic based on the creation myths and legends of China, from the chaos at the beginning of the universe, through the creation of heaven and earth, to end as China came into being as a country. It features giants, dragons, phoenixes, even the creation of Chinese writing and music. It was deeply fun and deeply challenging, everything one could hope for in a project."

If you are going to have people play music in ensembles, you need some way of letting them understand what notes they’re going to play. That involves notation—and that involves Sibelius.

SIMON FRANGLEN, COMPOSER

 

"The first big issue was how to work with two different forms of Mandarin for the vocal parts. For me, I needed to work in Pinyin (western characters) for speed, however the singers and choir all needed parts in Hanzi logograms (Chinese characters). Sibelius became the unifying standard for this project. Franglen notes that Sibelius is widely used by Chinese orchestral musicians. "Everyone I've worked with in China on the orchestral side uses Sibelius," Franglen reports. "I've lectured at Chinese universities and conservatories, and I've not come across any of them using anything other than Sibelius. I think it has become the standard, and for an institution like a music conservatory or university, the standard is the only way you go. The Chinese Sibelius engravers who worked on The Birth of Skies and Earth were really, really good at what they did."

Creating The Birth of Skies and Earth involved a lot of international back-and-forth between London, Los Angeles and Shanghai. "Once orchestrated in London, we'd create a master score with a demo mp3 from the Sibelius output (either via a Pro Tools Mockup or Wallander's NotePerformer), with all the choral and soloist parts in Pinyin. This would be sent to the local copyists in Shanghai. There it was proofread, and they would add Chinese characters to the choral parts, then double check with the poets that I hadn't caused too much mayhem; with a couple of minor tweaks the Chinese language escaped unharmed" details Franglen. "This is where Sibelius's multiple lines of lyrics came into its own. The Shanghai team would align the Pinyin and the Hanzi perfectly, then it was sent back to me so I could double check the scansion at the end. Sibelius handled the Chinese characters well once we found a Chinese font that everyone liked. Obviously, being able to use nonstandard characters and languages was essential."

The Birth of Skies and Earth has another life as a touring show with a more modest orchestra, adding to the complexity. "I had to end up with a score that was right for touring but also sounded great for the premiere and the big shows that we're doing," Franglen expounds.

Franglen traveled to China twice to rehearse the entire work with the orchestra and choir over a couple of weeks and each rehearsal period revealed things he wanted to refine. "Obviously I wish I could be Mozart, that every note arrives perfectly the first time never to be changed," Franglen confesses. "But the reality is that rehearsals are a microscope, you have new ideas, sometimes better ideas, sometimes you write revisions to get the best out of the music, the singers or the orchestra."

"That's where I took advantage of Sibelius' allowing people to make notes as we go along. As a movement went through the rehearsal process, I would put a sticky here and a sticky there to highlight certain things. Time zones were my friend. At the end of the day in Shanghai, I could send the score to Steven or to Graham as morning started in London to get them to amend something overnight my time in Shanghai.

"Sibelius also allowed me to adapt as Xu Zhong, the conductor, started to bring me gifts during rehearsals. He's one of the best I've worked with; he really knows his stuff. He'd suggest adding forces to the orchestra, then each new morning I'd discover extra players in the band as if by magic. We started rehearsing with 40 or 50 singers and a 60-piece orchestra, by the end, we had 90 in the orchestra and 85 singers, and I made changes to accommodate that."

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