Inside the Federmusik: “Pero nunca podrá ser”

Welcome back to the podium! As my semester in Los Angeles comes to a close, and with it my internship at Sparks & Shadows, I am reminded of where I was at this time last year. So, I wanted to try something different.

In this edition of my notes from the podium, we’ll be taking a look inside one of my cues. “Pero nunca podrá ser” (“But it can never be”) was written and recorded one year ago, in December of 2013, as the final assignment for the Dramatic Scoring course at Berklee in Valencia. I previously detailed some of my experiences with the composition and recording of this cue in End of Act One and Settling in, but for those of you just tuning in now, the assignment was to rescore either the introductory scene from Silencio en la nieve (“Frozen Silence”) or a climactic scene from an episode of the Spanish television series Gran Hotel (“Grand Hotel”), both of which were originally scored by Lucio Godoy, our program director at Berklee in Valencia. Seeking the opportunity to include orchestral fireworks in my portfolio with a cue that I could really sink my teeth into, I chose the latter. As the Gran-dest assignment of the semester, we were privileged to record with members of the Budapest Art Orchestra, conducted by Peter Pejtsik, with whom Lucio has worked in the past to great effect. Getting to work with one of the most in-demand session recording orchestras in all of Europe was a tremendous opportunity, and indeed a feather in the cap of the Master’s program.

Before we go any further, however, I invite you to take a look at the behind-the-scenes recording footage of this cue:

The Setup
This scene was described to me as “the kiss of the year,” and a moment that the audience had been anticipating all season. I was advised that as Gran Hotel was scored in a very straightforward, on-the-nose manner, I should be prepared to go all-out and over the top. As we saw with The Frog Chase, this is a challenge that I embrace with gusto (and the occasional slide whistle). I decided to heed Lucio’s advice and score this scene in a very classic, give-them-what-they-want style. The musical gloves were off.

In this scene, Alicia, the wealthy daughter of the eponymous hotel’s owner, chases after Julio, a waiter who has just left the hotel’s employ. Under the pretense of returning the beret he left behind, she goes to see him one last time before he is ostensibly out of her life forever.

The Process
If there’s one thing I know about classic romantic scenes, it is the importance of melody. I placed myself in Lucio’s shoes and decided that if the series had been mine to score, I would have signified the importance of their relationship — a subplot that plays out through the entirety of the show — by assigning it its own recognizable theme. I began my process by designing what would hypothetically be the Alicia and Julio Theme, sketching it out by hand (and digitized here for your convenience — click the image to hear it):

The sketch of Alicia and Julio's Theme.

The sketch of Alicia and Julio’s Theme.

You may notice that the theme is generally built in an ascending structure over the first three melodic gestures (mm. 1-6), each phrase reaching higher in spite of all the ups and downs — which, come to think of it, sounds like a pretty good analogy for their relationship overall. You also may notice that the melody ends without a proper resolution; it’s almost as if the theme is posing a question — “Can we be together?” for example — and awaits the response at the very end. That the ending is deliberately harmonically open in this way grants me a certain flexibility in how to resolve it, which would hypothetically depend on what the answer would be.

Once I was satisfied that I had a plausible love theme, the next step in my compositional process was to translate my sketched notes into a form that would ultimately be more useful. As every project essentially has different requirements, each one demands a different process. For this cue, I produced a vocal mockup for the piece to serve as a baseline sketch that I would musically paint over later. Exactly as that term suggests, I sang into my computer’s microphone as I watched the scene, and then imported the resulting audio clips into my digital audio workstation. (No, it is not available for public consumption.)

Okay, so now we’ve got our love theme for Julio and Alicia (and now it’s in my DAW). The next step was working out the harmonization and arrangement.

Luckily, the melody that I wrote has certain tonal and harmonic implications by itself, with the leaps between notes in the phrase outlining certain chords for me already. As I sketched it, the melody implies a major modality, which is generally associated with positive emotions, and for the gran finale, I harmonized it appropriately with a goodly amount of major chords, as you can hear in the cue (you can also hear that the melody in the final version is more embellished; you’ll see that later on in this post). I conceived of it structurally in terms of a melody, a countermelody, and harmony, as you can see here (click the image to hear it):

Alicia and Julio’s Theme, harmonized.

…or, at least, that’s more or less how it would have ended, si podrá ser, but that’s not this particular cue — pero nunca, after all. 😉

Let’s keep that lovey-sounding major-chordal harmonic language as a baseline (don’t worry, I’ll fix the ending later). All that positivity is well and good for when the kiss of the year happens, but since the first half of the scene is fraught with angst, anxiety, and longing, I didn’t feel that would be entirely suitable. When we first hear the theme in this cue, Julio is visibly despondent, and Alicia is trying to come to terms with her feelings (or the fact that she even has feelings). This suggested to me that I might consider slightly less of a straightforward harmonic approach. If there’s one thing that all of my years of music theory has taught me, it’s how to adapt melodies and harmonies for various circumstances.

I observed that the pacing, movement, and overall feel of the segment in which Alicia meets Julio was slightly more ponderous than the fluidity found in the moment of their kiss, and I wanted to express the coldness, awkwardness, and distance between the two characters that I was picking up when I watched the scene. As well, I challenged myself to state the entire theme by the time Alicia gives her answer to the question that my theme poses.

I was reluctant to alter the core of the melody substantially — it still needed to be recognizable to the audience without them requiring a music theory degree — but at the same time, I wanted it to feel different. I started by adjusting the tempo of my music to roughly match the pace of the visuals (but not to the point that it would constitute mickeymousing). However, I found that keeping the rhythm as originally written made the theme run too long. So, I changed the time signature from 4/4 to 3/4 time, and simplified some of the melodic motion, removing a neighbour tone here and stripping out repeated notes there (click on the image to listen).

The altered version of the Alicia & Julio Theme.

The altered version of Alicia & Julio’s Theme.

More importantly, however, I wanted to properly convey the insecurities of our characters, and I aimed to accomplish this in two ways: first, by reharmonizing portions of the melody, and second, by altering the texture of the accompaniment. For the beginning of this part of the cue, I wanted to make the theme sound more brooding. In addition to transposing it to another key (from C to F), I moved the harmonic centre to the relative minor (D minor), representing the disconnect between the two characters — the notes are there, but it doesn’t feel quite right. I accentuated the sense of unease through the use of dissonance, whether through gnawing oscillations pulsing in and out of the harmonic fabric or more deliberate, slow-moving crunches inspired by music of the Romantic era. As the frost between them melts, the harmonic centre moves back closer in line to what I had originally intended (click to listen).

The altered version of Alicia & Julio's Theme, harmonized.

The altered version of Alicia & Julio’s Theme, harmonized.

In terms of the orchestration, I knew that I would be remiss if I did not pull out the orchestral big guns for the moment of the kiss (just following orders, folks), but since the first half expresses more uncertainty and is significantly less passionate, I decided that a more simple, subdued arrangement would feel more appropriate. That said, however, because the mood changes on a moment-to-moment basis, this section of the cue is composed of a series of carefully-sculpted moments that are designed to comprise, rather than distract from, an overall emotional gesture.

A solitary clarinet carries the theme as Alicia appears, with the strings (without bass) providing chordal support. However, since the melody is quite lugubrious and legato at the best of times — even more so at a slower tempo! — I wanted to use the strings’ ability to serve as the engine of the orchestra to maintain a sense of motion. Playing straight chords (as in the above example) would not accomplish the desired effect. Instead, the violins and violas play an oscillating motif that wavers in and out of consonace with the melody, while the celli keep time:

We add the rest of the orchestra as Julio and Alicia share a moment over his beret, with the melody rising in the violins, flutes, and oboes. As the melody is handed off to these instruments, the clarinets and bassoon pick up the rhythmic duties with their own version of the accompanying triplets:

Alicia & Julio Theme Pt 1b orchestratedAs their eyes meet, the orchestra breathes a sigh of relief as he utters, “Pide me lo y me quedaré” — “Tell me so, and I will stay” — but winds up to deliver an emotional sucker-punch — in musical terms, a deceptive cadence — for Alicia’s response: “Sabes que no puedo” — “You know that I can’t.”

Sabes que no puedo

If you look close enough, you can see Julio’s heart breaking.

Definitely no happy ending for this theme here.

I bring back this idea of using triplets to provide rhythmic support during Alicia and Julio’s big moment. As the music swells and the upper half of the orchestra (flute, oboe, trumpet, and violins) carry the melody, the clarinets and violas — the middle voices of their respective families — play the accompanying triplet motif, essentially in unison, but in the manner in which they did so before: violas oscillating, clarinets straight (but with a little rhythmic variation, like a fluttering heart skipping a beat).

Alicia & Julio Theme Pt 2a orchestratedNow that I think about it, if I were hypothetically scoring this series, I may well have used that triplet figure as a recognizable motif in and of itself. One thing that was half-deliberate, half-serendipitous was the timing of the three kisses with the three (well, two-and-a-half) thrusts of the melody. With the opening of the melody synchronized to the moment of the first kiss, I set the tempo such that the first half of the theme could be stated by the time she grabs his collar. The rest fell into place, just by the way I happened to have phrased the theme.

Alicia grabbing Julio’s collar to break their embrace is answered musically by a change in orchestral texture: a solo oboe, doubled with embellishments on harp, takes over the melody, the horns quiet down from their full-spate countermelody to a supporting line, the low strings and trumpet drop out completely, and the rest of the orchestra fades out. In this moment, things are essentially suspended in mid-air as she catches her breath, their eyes meet, and Alicia responds with…

"What part of 'Sabes que no puedo' did you not understand?!"

“What part of ‘Sabes que no puedo‘ did you not understand?!”

…well, huh. That was unexpected.

I guess there’s no happy ending to the theme this time, either. Nunca podrá ser.

That’s all for this edition of Inside the Federmusik! Are there other aspects of this cue that you’d like me to discuss? Are there other cues that you would like to know more about? Tell me in the comments!

Until next time!