Saturday, July 01, 2006

Orchestras: real, imaginary, and in-between

I went to two concerts at my son's school this week. The first with his school orchestra, composed of kids from the 5th through 7th grades, with an instrumentation pretty much like a middle school orchestra anywhere else on the planet, and the second by his class orchestra. The class orchestra is composed of the students in his homeroom class, and to accompany the music appreciation class, they form an orchestra with whatever instruments happen to be at hand. In this case, it meant five flutes, three soprano recorders, a clarinet, an alto sax, two trumpets, a trombone, two classical guitars, an electric bass, tympani, three Orff glockenspiels, a marimba, piano (four-handed), two electronic keyboards, two violins, two celli, and a contrabass. They played a set of pieces arranged from the Mendelssohn incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream. On the one hand, this was something like the Scratch Orchestra playing popular classics, but on the other, the tutti and various sub-ensembles had such a distinctive and charming quality, that I left the hall half-tempted to write something substantial for a technically more accomplished ensemble with exactly the same instumentation.

While that particular temptation will probably remain a sin imagined rather than a sin committed, it can also be understood as a response to a fundamental irritation I have with the premise underlying the teaching and practice of orchestration. I really enjoyed Orchestration class as a college student, and I continue to be fascinated both by the history of orchestration and theories of orchestration. I enjoy finding colorful little details in Berlioz, Widor, Koechlin, Piston, or Stiller, but the premise of most orchestration texts (as well as the premise underlying most "effective" music for orchestra) is that (a) there are some optimal ways of distributing notes among instruments, that (b) these can be observed in the music of the composers recognized as good orchestrators*, and that (c) we can derive some rules-of-thumb based upon those observations. A lot of music has been orchestrated from this premise -- especially in film and the opera -- but isn't it striking that in a great part of that lot, the orchestration is scarcely noticeable as a feature? The problem with the premise is clearly that if you want to do something with instruments that will be heard as distinctive from routine music-making, then you are going to have to do something that is other than optimal, or done differently from the practice of good orchestrators, and/or violate or ignore some of those rules-of-thumb.

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A friend just emailed me with a quote from the film director John Waters, defining beauty as "a look you'll never forget". What is the orchestration you'll never forget? Here are a few examples of orchestration that I happen to find beautiful: Monteverdi's use of the regal to accompany Charon in Orfeo, Vivaldi's use of solo winds in Tito Manlio, the scoring patterns for Mozart's quintets with two violas, and the basset horn writing in the Masonic music (including Zauberflöte), almost any inner-voice writing by Rossini, Schumann obstinately doubling the violins with flute in the Symphonies, Berlioz's Ophicleide in the Symphonie Fantastique (substituting a tuba doesn't have the same terrifying effect), Varese's ensemble in Hyperprism, practically any film score by Alex North (many of which were orchestrated by Henry Brant) or even some Bernard Hermann, and there are moments in Hawai'ian string band music, Martin Denney, Spike Jones, that I will never forget. Sometimes I think my personal compositional heaven would be a land where every orchestra had basset clarinets and horns, natural horns, ophicleidi, and gambas at the ready. (Satie: "With six trumpets you can do anything!") But as much as, if not more than, odd instrumental combinations, it's voicing and registration that can lead to more distinctive orchestrations. There are tutti in Beethoven and Stravinsky that are totally unmistakable, totally right, and yet from a theory of orchestration viewpoint, they do everything wrong: putting instruments into odd registers, crossing lines, doubling thirds etc.. Here's an ambition: to be able to orchestrate with access to every point in the continuum of between the "effective" orchestrations of Jackie Gleason's Velvet Brass and the anarchic orchestration of Cage's orchestral masterpiece Cheap Imitation.

As a couselor at a summer music camp, I once had a few orchestration lessons with John Prince, a Hollywood/Big Band arranger. He had charts and charts showing which chord and interval combinations "worked" for each instrument or combination. One was not, for example, supposed to assign a major third to trombones below Bb-d. It could well be that a step towards a good balance between musical maturity and adventure was taken when I realised that if I had my trombones play the A-c# major third, leaving the registered where the interval "worked", something interesting might just still happen. Not necessarily something that "worked" within the narrow definition of the musically effective found in the textbooks, but definitely something with potential to be useful in the right musical context. And I suspect that there's still plenty of original orchestration to be found in the continuum between the possibilities that we're told will "work" and those we're told to avoid.

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* Isn't good orchestrator often a kind of consolation prize for technical achievement given to composers who are not-quite great composers?

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