Insight | Life as an Orchestrator

Dan O'Neill is a film composer and orchestrator based at his home studio in Dublin, Ireland.

As far back as I remember I’ve loved the different sounds of my favourite classical composers. Early on I became fascinated by how I could identify each composer by their unique blending and balancing of the instrumental families within the orchestra: the dense, thick textures of Wagner and Brahms; the romantic and impressionist works of Ravel and Debussy; and the elegance and charm of Mozart and Schubert. These composers all have something in common: they were all expert orchestrators.

Orchestrators essentially write and arrange music for the orchestra. They’re tasked with balancing all the families of instruments so that there is a homogenous sound throughout. They also write music that is idiomatic for the particular instruments that are playing, and will arrange the music based on the ranges and registers of these instruments.

Another hugely important factor of their work is the ability to create timbres and tone qualities by blending certain orchestral families together. This can be done in many ways and depending on the size of the orchestra and the instruments available, it can lead to some wonderful tone colour and enchanting orchestral character.

For ‘The Adventures of D’Artagnan’ (watch and hear below), I composed and orchestrated the entire piece in about three days. It took up quite a few hours but I think in the end the result is very close to what I had imagined in my mind, and that is really important to the creator.

A piece of music will oftentimes start with an imagined sound or tone colour, and through this comes the craft of composition and the sculpting of form and structure. As the composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov said, ‘Orchestration is part of the very soul of the work. A work is thought out in terms of the orchestra, certain tone-colours being inseparable from it in the mind of its creator and native to it from the hour of its birth.’

So for a composer to begin her orchestral work, she must enter in to the mind of a creator of sound worlds, an inventor of new ones and occupy a deep well of imagination. Only then can she bring to life the most vivid imageries. This is perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of writing orchestral music: that it gives the composer a palette unlike any other from which to paint a particular musical vision.

Ultimately I think it’s through the union of exciting orchestrations and well thought out compositions that classical music will be kept alive, for centuries to come.

Dan O’Neill is a film composer and orchestrator based at his home studio in Dublin, Ireland. He has two feature films due for release this year and more projects planned in Los Angeles and London in the near future. For more examples of his work visit