Saturday, September 23, 2006


Orchestrators -- a set including but not limited to composers -- fall into three broad groups. There are members of each who orchestrate wonderfully and inventively, but they do tend to hold ideas about their craft that are incompatible with the ideas of their colleagues in other confessions. The three groups are

(1) The well-trained, who go by the textbook definitions of range, register, combinations, scoring patterns and devices.

(2) The idealists, who will write the sounds they want to hear, regardless of what the textbooks say, and expect the players to come up with ways to realise those sounds.

(3) The optimizers, who are not so interested in extremes as in using resources optimally. When Morton Feldman was composing a score for the Brandeis Chamber Choir, he asked Alvin Lucier about the range of the choir. Lucier responded with a list of extremes, which Feldman rejected. "What's the range?" he asked again, wanting to know not the possible ranges but instead the ranges in which each singer sounded at their best.

My own sympathies are with the idealists and optimizers, but they work at the peril of ever having a well-trained orchestrator judge their work. A well-trained orchestrator will condemn the optimizer for conservatism, and the idealist for impracticality. I once witnessed a well-trained orchestrator who rejected a score (I believe by Henze) for having a low double-B natural in the contrabass. His critique was that the composer was another one of those impractical idealists, asking for the impossible. The textbooks, after all, say that the bass goes down to E, and sometimes to C. Too bad that the well-trained orchestrator had never heard the Berlin Philharmonic live, with their full set of five-string tuned-in-fourths-down-to-B contrabasses!

1 comment:

Trevor Murphy said...

This is all true, but you seem to be a little hard on the 'well trained' orchestrator. One thing I have learned from playing with ensembles of widely varying quality is a sincere admiration for what I think of as 'bullet-proof' scores*, written so well for their instruments that even a mediocre ensemble can create that weird, vivid electricity in the room. I've learned the hard way to tone down my idealism, since, hey, I don't see the Berlin Phil lining up to do my pieces.

*I'd classify, say, Petrouchka as a bullet-proof score. Everybody is working hard, but it sounds like they're working 5 times harder than they are.