Interview | Composer/Arranger

Published in SOS January 2001
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One of Britain's leading experts in orchestral arrangement, David Sinclair Whitaker has worked on everything from the original version of 'My Way' to hits by S Club 7. Mike Senior finds him still going strong after more than 35 years in the music business...

Anyone with an eye on the music press in 1997 can scarcely have avoided the furore over The Verve's 'Bittersweet Symphony'. Its integral, but uncleared, sample of an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones' 'The Last Time' brought ABKCO Music's lawyers out in a rash, and it wasn't long before they had deprived The Verve of all the royalties from the biggest hit of their career. However, few of the public were aware that the string line within the offending snippet came not from Mick Jagger or Keith Richards, but rather from the expert pen of David Sinclair Whitaker.

Indeed, the reputation of the Rolling Stones could not be further from one's mind in the arranger and composer's presence. As the Sound On Sound photographer and I are ushered to our seats in comfort of the composer's living room, there is no doubting that Whitaker draws on utterly different traditions. "Do you take coffee?" he enquires. "Good show!"

While a listing of Whitaker's recent credits — including arrangements for Natalie Imbruglia, the Eurythmics, Simply Red and S Club 7 — shows how highly his abilities are rated within the modern pop industry, they're only one aspect of a career that started well before any of the members of S Club 7 were even born. This is a man whose arrangements graced the earliest Marianne Faithfull albums and who scored the Jerry Lewis film Don't Raise The Bridge, Lower The River in 1968.

The Prince Of Denmark Street

Though Whitaker is well-known for his arranging, he actually began his career as a songwriter on Denmark Street, Britain's version of Tin Pan Alley: "Following National Service during the Korean War, I spent two years in the Army, after which, in 1951, I completely dropped out. I then went to the Guildhall School of Music and in the early '60s started trying to write pop tunes. Inevitably, I gravitated to London's Denmark Street, which was thriving during the early '60s, full of publishers. This was a time when people like Les Reed were writing things that really took off; we were at the tail end of Adam Faith and others, and it was before the Beatles really got started. What you used to do was think up a song, pay a singer a couple of quid, and take them into Regent Sound, a small studio on Denmark Street, to record it. They'd make an acetate which you'd then try to hawk round the publishers — you'd get your arse kicked out of 90 percent of them!

"After a while, I managed to get work part-time for a publisher in Maddox Street called Freddie Poser, making string arrangements for BBC orchestras when they wanted something 'adding' to whatever songs they were performing. One day, I got a call from Freddie Poser to say that the redoubtable Andrew Oldham wanted me to do a couple of arrangements for Marianne Faithfull. I had to get up there pretty quickly and met Andrew, who was riding high at that time, managing the Rolling Stones. He gave me these two songs that he wanted arranged, and said that the recording session was booked for that same evening at Decca Studio Number Two — he wanted both of them to be ready for then.

"I was quite terrified! So I sat down at Freddie's piano and I worked through the charts adding parts for a few strings, a rhythm section, a flugelhorn, and for a group of singers who in those days called themselves the Ivy League. To be honest, I wasn't quite sure what a flugelhorn was, although I'd learnt orchestration, harmony, counterpoint and all those other technical things at school, so I more or less guessed that it must be some sort of trumpet, a 'fat trumpet' as we now call it, and things turned out fine. And that was what really got me started off as an arranger."

The Pen Is Mightier Than Cubase Score?

Writing an arrangment is by no means an exact science, but it doesn't mean that there aren't tried and tested methods for tackling the task. And there are few who have done as much trying and testing as David Sinclair Whitaker, so I was keen to find out how he sets about the process. "Whenever I have a job to do, I'll do a sketch. I use pen and ink — I used to use pencil, but I found that I couldn't read it in the end. I like to use that off-white, yellowish type of manuscript paper, because white paper tends to shout at you, particularly under artificial light. I count the number of bars that are in the song, and I write down the melodic line of the singer more or less. I make a note of the harmonies, as chord symbols with the bass notes, or sometimes in the old-fashioned manner of figured bass. Then I run the tape back and check that this bar numbering is correct. Often, though usually the writers are unaware of it, they have a 2/4 bar stuck in the middle of nowhere, so I will have to work out where that needs to be as well.

  'Comme D'habitude'  
  One of David Sinclair Whitaker's most famous arrangements was for a French artist called Claude Francois. Although Francois is unknown in this country, 'Comme D'habitude' would be recognised instantly by most of the UK population because of Frank Sinatra's cover version, which replaces the French title line with 'I did it my way'. As David recalls, the melody's merits shone through right from the very start: "I went over to France to routine with Claude and his little travelling band, and then we went to Pye Studios to record. Claude didn't turn up for the whole afternoon, and when he came back we'd done about six songs, which he said were all crap with the exception of this one, where he said 'You have exceeded yourself'. It's been one of the biggest hits ever in France — it was slow to take off, but it's now become the most-played song ever on French radio and television."  
"In the early years of my career, I'd have been given an acetate to work from — nowadays, of course, it's a cassette or a CD — only very rarely was a lead-sheet provided from which to do the arrangement. Even now, the written note is almost non-existent in the popular music business. I don't really blame anyone for that, though I do sometimes get a little hot under the collar when people call themselves composers for film when they cannot even write music. For example, I did one or two conducting sessions for Francis Lai [who is credited with composing the film scores for Un Homme Et Une Femme and Love Story]. He was a charming man, but he had a man in tow who could play something like a melodica. Francis would hum or whistle tunes, and say things like 'No, not like that... like this' to the melodica player, who would jot down the results for him. He'd then hook up with three or four French arrangers, who between them would write the whole movie score, while Francis Lai smoked his cigarette and hummed them more tunes. Curiously, there are a lot of people who get away with it like that.

"Anyway, having jotted down a sketch of the song's melody and harmonies, I then incorporate any ideas that the writers might want in the arrangement into the score, and I'm always happy to fit in with what they want. For example, when I was working with Andy Wright on the Eurythmics album Peace, both he and Dave Stewart had put ideas into the demos from which I was working. These I worked into the score, and also some of my own ideas. In the old days you were given much more of a free hand in this respect — one would be working with already accepted songs, and you'd be expected to give them a new and different treatment, which gave you a lot of licence to do your own thing. In a way, it is nice that songwriters now remove much of the need for the arranger to summon ideas from thin air, though this is something I've always been perfectly capable of doing. It's just that bringing in new ideas takes more time and more effort.

  A Bitter Aftertaste  
  "I did a set of arrangements with Andrew Oldham of the Rolling Stones' songbook, and it was my high string line from the arrangment of a song called 'The Last Time' that was pinched by The Verve for 'Bittersweet Symphony'. I've worked quite a lot recently with Youth, who was responsible for the session at Olympic Studios at which my arrangment was used. They had a string arranger, called Wil Malone, there with them and Youth said that he liked that tune, which Wil jotted down and used in the arrangement. They didn't like it at first, but it was just as well for them that they came around to liking it in the end. At least, it was just as well for Jagger and Richards that they did, seeing as they've copped all the royalties from it, but there is still a long court case going on and on about it now with Andrew Oldham. The whole thing just makes one a bit sick, really."  
"Not that everybody now is so worried: I did a chart for S Club 7's 'Two In A Million' from a demo sent to me by the girl who had written the song. I did a fairly large arrangement, but when I turned up at the studio there was no-one there other than myself and the engineer. Not a producer or even an A&R man! We'd booked a three-hour session, but we finished after about an hour and a quarter and the musicians could all go home.

"If I do take it upon myself to think of another idea or two, I always look for the 'cracks' in the arrangement — for example, whenever the singer is not singing. Here you might want a little bit of 'musical embroidery', or you might create something which reflects the main melodies. It's in these gaps that there can often be room for thematic development. However, when the person is singing you'll usually only want a minimum of activity — this is where the strings and horns are employed as a carpeting sound. Sometimes there is scope for a high string counterpoint going against the vocal melody, though the higher this is the better, because then it never really interferes with what's going on down below, and it gives it what I call a breadth of sound — all the way from the lowest root notes up to the highest notes on the violin's E string — and this adds to the drama of the arrangement."

Working Methods

"I work a lot at the piano," explains Whitaker. "I know that a lot of people work away from the piano, but I find it very useful for getting a better impression of the voicings I'm using. However, the more arranging you do, the less you really want to work to anything except to a full score, so I usually work directly onto the score manuscript paper — I have to have a board on the piano's music stand to support the large paper size. Also, I never work at night. If ever I schedule to do something at night, I always find that the next day is a lost cause. Normally, I'll try to get up at about five o'clock every morning, have breakfast and start work at about half past six. This gives me a lot of time during the day, and it's so essential to use the daylight hours.

"Once the arrangement is done, I always prefer to routine the arrangement with the artist before recording it. I've even managed to do this over the phone before now, by preparing a sketch to read from and then getting my wife to hold up the mobile phone close to me at the piano! This allows me to address any further requirements that the artist may have, but before we're being charged by the hour. I sometimes use my Korg T3 keyboard for this purpose, in order to illustrate a few points about the arrangement. However, I never really get into programming it — I just press record on the sequencer and play everything in directly. The only problem with it is that the sounds which come out of the dear old machine are ghastly! I toyed with the idea of getting a new Korg workstation or of getting their little D16, but I decided that it would be a waste of time for me. I've done so many things recently with orchestra that now people come to me asking me mainly for an orchestra. I'm not decrying the new technology, but it makes very little difference to the work I do."

  Screen Gems  
On top of his arranging work, David Sinclair Whitaker has also written more than 20 film scores, and he has seen many changes in the film industry during his career. "Nowadays, directors are more specific about what they want than they used to be, so my hands are often fairly manacled. While I don't really like that, I'm quite used to it now. When I first started writing music for picture back in the old three-track days, I hardly even met the directors or producers. I was given tremendously free range, and I would hurl everything at those scores. And you had to: I went wild doing a Western once for Irving Allen and I had a huge bloody orchestra with eight horns, four trumpets, two bass trombones, three tenor trombones, two tubas, with wind and strings to match, but when the score was finished he said 'Not noisy enough!'

"However, you still had to write the music to fit the film. Back when I did my first movie scores — the first ever one was Jerry Lewis' Don't Raise The Bridge, Lower The River in '68 — it was before the video was invented, so you had to go and see the film two or three or four times, following through cue sheets which you'd been given. These were the size of the New Testament, with every single detail transcribed, together with its timing down to the nearest third of a second.

"It can often be very hectic doing music for picture — the biggest tour de force I ever had to pull off was with a film called The Sword And The Sorcerer, which had 75 minutes of music which I had to compose and orchestrate from scratch within six weeks. I had to work straight to score paper, because there could be no sketching around — this was a score that had six horns, triple woodwind and God knows what else! But it was not an option not to have it done: there were thousands and thousands of dollars' worth of musicians and studio time booked in Munich, who needed a score."


Learning The Orchestra

Despite Whitaker's enormous experience of arranging and composing, he emphasises that his job is still a continuous learning process. What's more, he is clearly of the opinion that arranging skill can be accumulated by anyone, given sufficient application, and is happy to offer advice for up-and-coming arrangers. "It probably sounds a little bit parochial to say 'Know your orchestra', but that's one of the most important things about arrangement. The orchestra is divided into choirs really — the strings, the woodwind, the brass. You need to know what each player expects to see written down — violas in the alto clef, for instance. You also need to know how the clefs change with register. For example, as a 'cello proceeds higher into its register, it moves out of the bass clef, through the tenor clef and into the treble clef. All of these sorts of things are very important.

"Moreover, you have to realise how the different registers sound. For example, everybody knows that when the violas get up to a certain point they become a bit feeble, whereas 'cellos are always pretty strong, even when you give them countermelodies on the A string. When I first started writing professionally, I had to put myself back to school: to refresh myself I bought Rimsky-Korsakov's book on orchestration, and also another orchestration book by an American professor called Wagner. I even went back to my old composition professor at the Guildhall to get myself back into training.

"It's worth bearing in mind, though, that you can make your life a little easier if you use musicians who you know can do certain things you require without you having to write them down. One guy I used to use was a keyboard player called Harry Stoneham, who used to play the organ like a dream just from chord symbols. He gave me back more or less what I wanted, though I could never have written out the way he played, because he was scatting all over the keyboard like a jazz player. Likewise, you can often get a piccolo player to scat like they do in Hyde Park when a military band is playing, but without having to write a note!"

  No Second Chances  
  "In a lot of the early records and films I worked on, everything went down to tape at once. You'd go in there with a rhythm section which would include a sit-down drummer, a lead guitar, a six-string open guitar, a Spanish guitar or jumbo, a six-string bass guitar to give it extra kick, along with various percussion as well. In addition to this line-up, any strings, flutes, or brass would also have to be set up and the whole lot would have to be recorded directly to tape once you'd got the balance. The only thing that was ever overdubbed was the voice, because often the voices of those young singers would be so weak that we'd have to double-track them.

"Likewise, I did my very first full film session directly to three-track tape. You got a balance before they recorded and that was what appeared with the film. The funny thing is that a lot of old recordings sound incredibly well 'mixed', merely by virtue of how the musicians and microphones were positioned. I have recordings going back to 1928, but you still get a pretty good idea what's going on. I think studios make a lot of money from all the 'mixing down' that goes on."

Stringing Along

In pop production, it's the job of the arranger to do what he or she is told, even if it sometimes conflicts with their own creative instincts: "There seem to be a lot of rock and roll bands who want strings, which I think is sometimes a waste of time. By the time you've got to cut through all the electric guitars and things like that, you can't hear a bloody thing! It's just acting as a pad, basically. It is true that a lot of people just want a carpet of sound behind their rhythm section, but this of course means hollow notes, breves, 'footballs', or whatever you wish to call them, which I detest. Thank God there are some particularly good simulated string sounds available. However, if you really want to hear it, then no module can really replace the nuances of real string writing.

"I always try to make the strings work a little, if at all possible, even when they are carpeting. Sometimes people will say that they don't want the strings to be 'so busy' — I suppose it all goes back to the old phrase 'Too many notes, Mr. Mozart' — in which case I just tell the string players to play semibreves on those notes. Life would be utterly simple if one really fell into doing things like that from the start, but I prefer to provide more interest and motion than that. However, it all depends upon what people really want, and one has to learn to swallow one's pride in some cases, because there is an awful lot of competition now.

"One thing that is invaluable when writing for strings is to include a harp, particularly because a harp glissando is good for giving a little run-up to the chorus. I always maintain that when you put a harp or two into an orchestra you can make everything sound twice as big, even if you don't have a very big line-up. When you're only working with strings it helps to give them much more breadth and depth — Mahler's incredible Adagietto is a perfect example of this.

"As Rimsky-Korsakov himself says, orchestration is composition, so it's always worth investigating new instruments and new ways of arranging them. For example, when I wanted to have a bass flute line in the octave below middle C, I found someone to play it on a contrabass flute, which has a stronger sound in that register. Likewise, many years ago I did a recording using the bass harmonica — which is a wonderful sound, though there is always a slight pause between when you blow into it and when the sound comes out. I've used the Jew's harp, ocarinas of different types, the concertina, the contrabass clarinet — the only consideration with using any of these is that there are only ever a couple of guys available who can play them well."

And, of course, when you want an orchestral arrangement, the same principle applies: those who can do it as well as David Sinclair Whitaker are few and far between.

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