Composing For Panorama
By ORVILLE WRIGHT
Panorama, Trinidad and Tobago’s national steelband competition, has been a key avenue through which the art of arranging for steelbands, which requires a very specific skill set, has emerged among Trinbagonians. It is a marvel how successful these pan arrangers have been, given the fact that they are almost all self-taught. A similar thing happened in 2000 when Pan Trinbago introduced the Pan Kaiso Monarch which helped to stimulate and elevate a different art, that of composing for the steelband, although, in my opinion, this skill set has not been as successful as that of arranging for the steelband.
Of course, composing for the pan did not begin in 2000. Well before then, countless Trinbagonians had been composing calypsos with great success despite not having formal musical training. The difference between the proliferation of composers in the twenty-first century and those of the twentieth century is that today’s composers are creating specifically for the steelband. This is due, in part, to the notion that many of the pre-2000 compositions were not adaptable to the steelband, a view with which I disagree strongly.
The idea of the pan song goes back to 2000 when some misguided ‘musicologist’ came up with the idea of a Pan Kaiso competition as a solution to the perceived problem of there not being enough songs suited to pan. I would argue strongly, however, that there is no such thing as a pan song. Colin Lucas, now the CEO of the Copyright Organisation of Trinidad and Tobago (COTT), won the 2000 competition with Pan Is Mine, and repeated the victory in 2001 with Real Pan Jumbie. Unfortunately, neither composition was embraced by any steelband—which should have immediately indicated to those involved, something about the existential qualities of the so-called pan song.
Pan Trinbago has not been able to sustain the competition but this has not stopped the avalanche of compositions for pan and/or Panorama. In the meantime, the number of compositions specifically composed for pan or Panorama has morphed into compositional or musical cacophony. Put simply, most of the melodies suck.While Trinbagonians have been able to make enormous strides in arranging for the steelband without formal musical training, composing requires more than a perfunctory level of the fundamentals of music.
Having declared that there’s no such thing as a “pan song”, the question to be asked now is what qualities should an arranger consider when choosing a calypso/song for performance at Panorama? Is it a song with the word “pan” repeated many times in the lyrics? Should it have the word “steelband” in the lyrics? Is a song composed by an arranger specifically for pan that may or may not have the word “pan” in the lyrics? Must it have lyrical references to the history of pan? Or is a song about a flag woman at Panorama? It it a song with a synthesized or electronic pan playing obligato throughout the composition? Or is it a song with an acoustical pan playing obligato throughout the composition and then ramajaying at the end of the composition in order to incentivise an arranger to choose the tune? Is it a song with lyrical references to the Panorama competition or Pan Trinbago executives? Or a song with the word “pan” in the title?
Of course, the questions are bordering on the facetious but you get my drift.
For me, the defining question regarding the choice of a song for Panorama can only be: Does it have a great melody?
So then, you may ask, what constitutes a great melody? For me, a great melody is one with good shape/intervallic range or good contour, and rich harmonic structure. A melody with a good shape, intervallic range or good contour is analogous to a Trinidad mountain with peaks and valleys, with the range between the peak and the valley being the intervallic relationship of the line or melody. Contrast this to a speed bump on any road in Trinidad where a car goes over the bump and continues for as little as a half a minute: this would be a static/stagnant melody. As for the rich harmonic structure, this can be described as the qualitative use of chords derived from a scale.
Granted, there are different approaches and techniques used in arranging for bands with conventional instruments like trumpets, trombones and saxes in small and large combos, big bands-a real big band with eight or nine brass, five saxes and rhythm section, (not a band with five horns that Trinis call a big band), orchestral arranging, and any configuration of a steelband ensemble. Nonetheless, steelband arrangers- again because of their uniqueness- utilize different approaches and in some cases, a melody with a great shape or contour may not always take precedent.
Clive Bradley was a master at taking melodies with not too much of an intervallic range and making truly exceptional arrangements out of them; it was a talent that set him apart from most other steelband arrangers. I clearly remember attending Panorama many years ago in New York (Labor Day celebrations) and being mesmerized by Bradley’s interpretation or arrangement of Shadow’s Stranger. Carlton “Zanda” Alexander is another arranger with a proven record of taking compositions with a limited intervallic range and creating great arrangements. His success with Radica in 2010, having won in the medium category, and I’m Not Drunk (not as a winner) prior to Radica, proves that there can be varying techniques and approaches to steelband arranging that are unorthodox, but also successful.
This year, When Steel Talks, a website devoted to the advancement of the steelpan, listed fifty-three songs under the heading “Panorama Tunes for 2011”. Of the 53, nineteen had the word ‘pan’ in the title: De Power of Pan, Do Something for Pan, Land For Pan, Leave The Panman Money Alone, More Money for Pan, Pan Badjohn, Pan For Peace, Pan Fur So, Pan In Front Meh Face, Pan in Meh Head, Pan in De Panyard, Pan is De Ting, Pan is My Drug, [Pan] Jam in the Rama, Pan Jammin, Pan Pa Lam, Panorama, Pantrix and [The] Journey of Pan.
Of the comprehensive list, how many of these compositions were chosen by bands to be performed at Panorama this year? If a large percentage of the fifty-three tunes did not make it to any round of the competition, the question has to be asked, why? This is my primary issue of inquiry, and I will examine a number of these compositions along with some from the pre-2000 period to see if I can come up with an answer.
As a trained musician who has studied arranging and composition, I am going to employ all the objectivity I can muster, even while recognising that the outcomes may still be considered subjective. As in any evaluation process, there are bound to be those who will not agree- and may even disagree vehemently. My hope is that all composers, even those whose compositions are selected as good examples, will learn something from this exercise.
I have immortalised Lord Kitchener because of his great melodic sense or concept. His harmonic intuitiveness serves as a great tool for re-harmonization, examples of which can be heard with his use of passing diminished chords in tunes like Pan In A Minor, Fever, The Bees Melody, The Spirit, The Road, Pan In The 21st Century, Jaws, Rain-o-Rama, and Tribute To Spree Simon. As testament to his greatness, steelbands playing Kitchener’s compositions have won eighteen times since the launch of the Panorama competition. It is therefore fitting to use several of Kitchener’s compositions as a barometer in making comparisons with the compositions of 2011. Space does not allow the comparison of entire compositions; instead I will compare phrases within the compositions through excerpts of varying lengths.
I have had conversations with arrangers about their methodology in selecting a tune to arrange. Among the varied responses was one from an arranger who told me many years ago: “I ain’t choose no tune because I waiting to see what the big bands playing”. What I deduced from this is that while an arranger may prefer a particular tune, the big bands certainly influence the selection process. I should have done this study as a questionnaire survey; nonetheless, some conclusions can be drawn by examining this year’s compositions and their performance frequency.
One of the nuances of composition that plays an important role as far as an arrangement in the panyard is concerned, is the integrity of a melody. Arrangers may not be consciously thinking of this when they select a tune; however, the way pannists function in the panyard for the two months or so before Carnival, is crucial to the success of the arrangement. Given an interesting or challenging line to learn, pannists will go out of their way to please the arranger and get the part down which for the uninitiated means learning the part and learning it quickly. The uninspired pannist is likely to become bored with a consequent loss of morale. This, in turn, can have a negative impact on attendance and commitment to practice. Even a small number of unhappy pannists could seriously affect the overall cohesiveness of the orchestra.
The point here is that a repetitive melody of limited shape could create real problems for an arranger who has the challenge of getting the best out of the pannists with whom s/he is working.
Here is an excerpt from one of Kitch’s compositions. I am not going to disclose the title but hope that from a visual perspective, readers will be able to focus on the shape of the melody (the highs and the lows or the peaks and valleys) as a way of understanding the linear qualities of a composition. Musicians will be able to sing the melody. I should state that in all the excerpts used for this piece, I did not use a lead sheet but, rather, listened to the composition and utilized my ear-training skills to notate the melodies. This will be referred to as Exhibit I. The peak represents the highest point/note in the melody, and the valley its lowest point/note. The interval between those two notes in this excerpt is a perfect eleventh-an octave plus a perfect fourth.
With these 16 bars, the intervallic range spans a perfect eleventh. This melody does not have the original harmony although the sample represents some harmonic enhancements that, from an arranging perspective, provide some more options. On a scale from 1 to 10, 10 being the highest, I rate this melody a 10 because of its great shape. My harmonic enhancements differ from the original and make for better harmonic continuity.
Exhibit II is an excerpt from one of the fifty-three compositions under the heading “Panorama Tunes for 2011.”
This melodic fragment, when compared to Exhibit 1, is stagnant. The intervallic range is limited-a perfect 5th or five notes compared to eleven notes in Exhibit I. If a lead pan player has to learn this melody-even if it were to have some melodic alteration-the line could be boring. The melody is somewhat repetitive and, for me, is weak in terms of a choice for arrangement. On the scale, I give it a 1,the lowest score. Additionally, the harmony is also limited and while it is possible to choose a tune like this for Panorama, it requires a more in-depth harmonic analysis and musical savvy to come up with an interesting arrangement. One drawback with Exhibit II is the range of the melody. If the principal lead pan players are using a C lead pan, chances are there will be problems with projection. From a compositional point of view when writing for pan or Panorama, one must take into consideration who or what you are writing for, and this is where formal training comes in. Granted, the melody can be transposed, but when a steelband arranger listens to a number of compositions in order to make a choice, the arranger’s primary preoccupation is how is this going to sound with the band? Modulation and/or transposition get into the picture after the choice has been made and work begun on the actual arrangement. Bradley could have done something with this melody, but Bradley has gone. No committee or arranger chose this tune for Panorama 2011.
Exhibit III presents another excerpt from one of the fifty-three compositions under the heading “Panorama Tunes for 2011.”
There are some similarities between this melody and Exhibit I. There is a nice shape to it; the intervallic range is wide-a major tenth; harmonic continuity is rich and there are harmonic characteristics that are also present in the Exhibit I. Compared to Exhibit II, there is a remarkable difference in terms of shape. There are other parts of this melody that are attractive in terms of building an arrangement, and make it a great choice for performance at Panorama. Eight bands chose this tune for Panorama 2011.
Here is another excerpt from one of the fifty-three compositions under the heading “Panorama Tunes for 2011.” This is Exhibit IV.
This excerpt is stagnant-at least it starts off that way. The chords are pretty stagnant too, but because of the way the melody is composed, it has a climactic aura, and as it progresses, the melody (range) becomes higher. As a student of arranging, this type of melody lends itself to endless possibilities in terms of building an arrangement. Additionally, because it offers the possibility of having more than one chorus of the tune performed during the arrangement, what an arranger cannot accomplish in one chorus, could be easily done in another chorus. There is a certain amount of space within the melodic line that naturally gives the arranger the opportunity to fill those spaces, and in so doing, utilize specific motivic devices in the context of building the entire arrangement. Because of space limitations, I did not include the introduction of this calypso, but there are many ideas in the intro that one can draw from with regard to creating a story that makes this tune a great choice for a performance at Panorama. Compared to Exhibit II, the intervallic range is limited-the first eight bars or so, but there is much more activity with the melody, and therein lies a big difference with these two compositions. Four bands chose this tune as their tune of choice.
Here is another excerpt from one of Kitchener’s composition. This is Exhibit V.
Just look at the range/shape of this melody! It has an intervallic range of a perfect eleventh. It is only after doing a melodic analysis of the excerpt that I realized that the range of this excerpt is the same as the Kitchener excerpt in Exhibit I. From both a melodic and harmonic point of view, there is a lot that could be done with this tune. It has one of the nuances I referenced earlier that was characteristic of Kitch with his use of passing diminished chords-this time descending. To me, a composition like this is an arranger’s dream. The band that played this tune in 1992 placed 3rd in the Panorama finals.
Here is another excerpt from one of the fifty-three compositions in “Panorama Tunes for 2011.” This is Exhibit VI.
There is an intervallic range of a minor sixth with this excerpt, and it repeats, so that for forty-eight bars or more there is a melody that, at least from my perspective, is very stagnant. The harmony is pretty static also which is why, on a scale from 1 – 10, I would give it a 1 in terms of choice. The original rendition of this tune has an excellent tempo, and from a Panorama performance perspective, it is excellent (tempo wise). I would speculaete that most of the composers who are attempting to have their composition selected by a band for Panorama, think that tempo is more important than melodic line, and in this particular case, the melody is boring. No band chose this composition. I want to emphasize the importance of shape here and urge readers to compare the various exhibits.
Here is another excerpt from one of the fifty-three “Panorama Tunes for 2011.” This is Exhibit VII.
This excerpt is the chorus of this composition and as far as the verse is concerned, the range of the melody is somewhat low, so from an arranging perspective some creativity has to be put into this tune for the melody to project. However, from my arranging perspective, there is a lot in the chorus that one can use to make up for a minor drawback in the verse. Additionally, there is a very interesting deceptive harmonic transition between the verse and chorus with regard to the key relationship that is unusual, but very effective. This makes its harmonic content very rich, and as a result is another great choice for performance at Panorama. The structure of the melody in the following eight bars offers scope for taking the bars with the sustained melody and expanding on the harmonic structure. This subtlety makes this tune very appealing.
Ten bands made this tune their tune of choice for this year’s Panorama.
The excerpts chosen from this year’s crop of songs are far from being comprehensive, but I believe is a fair representation of the plusses and minuses of the songs chosen by the arrangers this year.
Of the fifty-three songs on the website under the heading “Panorama Tunes for 2011,” steelbands performed twenty-one songs, or forty percent. Delving into those numbers reveals that eleven, or fifty-two percent of the twenty-one songs, were played by only one band. Of these, arrangers composed six, or fifty-five percent. If a composer was commissioned to arrange for a band, it stands to reason that s/he would choose the tune s/he composed to arrange. This is both intriguing and interesting because it would not be surprising if at least one of these composers of the tunes played only once might have preferred some other tune, but felt obliged to stick with his/her own composition.
Regardless of what statistic you look at, more than sixty percent of the “Panorama Tunes for 2011,” were thought of (by the arrangers/committees) as not worthy for performance at Panorama. While each category-small, medium or large-is important in terms of competitiveness, the medium and large categories generate the most competition. Three of the songs that I chose as examples of strong composition, were performed at the Panorama finals; it would seem that stagnant melodies-or melodies with a limited intervallic range-are less likely to be performed on the big stage. Exhibits II & VI are examples of stagnant melodies. The compositions in Exhibit III & IV ended up as winning compositions in the large and medium categories respectively; I want to emphasise that this analysis was done in early February when bands made their decisions on the tunes to be performed.
Based on my analysis and comparison, I have concluded that a melody- one with an intervallic range of a major tenth or more- has a very good chance of being performed at Panorama. If the harmony in the song is rich, the chances are likely to increase. This is going to be very subjective on the part of the committees and arrangers who make the choice of songs because music- powerful medium it is- does not affect, nor does it have the same effect on two different individuals. There were four songs chosen to be played that had an intervallic range of just an octave, and all the other compositions had intervallic ranges of a major ninth or greater. The composers whose compositions were not chosen and ended up in the sixty percentile should continue composing, but make an effort to study. A good start can be achieved through listening and analysis, and this has to be done with some guidance from someone with musical credentials. Kitch’s repertoire alone is a valuable and invaluable source, but of course, music education is the ultimate.
Here is a list of songs with their composers and the number of bands that played them.
Readers should now draw their own conclusions on the status of composition in Trinidad & Tobago As much as the focus that has been put on Panorama, this competition should not be the sole medium for which composing is generated. Back when I studied arranging and composition as a student, the thought of composing for one family of instruments such as strings, brass, or even pan-never entered my mind. I was given the tools to compose. I hope the academic institutions in T&T will develop curricula to attract the younger generation to study composition, and as they hone their compositional skills, help send wannabe composers into oblivion.