Tuesday, October 09, 2007

In the company of instruments

There is definitely something to be said for the composer who can make do with a good pen and a blank sheet of manuscript paper. In principle, that's all I need, or all I've been trained to need, but in practice, I do like the company of instruments and have been known to make a noise or two in-between drawing lines, curves, and blobs.

I don't have a piano in my studio, but there's one upstairs if I ever need it, and I do find it tough to walk by the piano without pressing a key or two. My studio computer has a very modest midi keyboard, and I will admit to using playback in my notation program, especially for timings and corrections and for some microtonal work, with pitch environments that are not yet familiar. Around the studio are a violin and a cello, a flute and my father's old eb clarinet, my alto trombone and my son's tenor, a case full of recorders (I'm especially proud of the set of renaissance recorders in meantone, g-alto, tenor, bass), a small bagpipe, a cornetto, a fretless banjo, a cheap hawai'ian guitar, lots of flutes from central America and southeastern Europe, a small collection of chinese instruments, several jaw harps, as well as various gongs, clappers, and cowbells.

Not to mention the gamelan.

Now, having these instruments around and being able to operate each of them at at least a minimal level of competence is something entirely different from staking a claim to a level of virtuosity on all of them. Beyond the joy I take with consorting in one form or another, having them around makes composing into a more immediate and concrete experience, and is a natural extension of two important early experiences: a junior high band director who, recognizing my interest in composing, let me systematically borrow instruments from the school's collection to take home, look under the hood, and test drive and, later, working for Charles Chase in the Folk Music Center, learning how to repair many of them, at least at a rudimentary level. For students of composition, there's probably no course of more practical use than one of those music education classes in preparation for instrumental instruction, a class in which you learn something about where you have to move your fingers to get each note and a bit about posture and emboucher and bowing. Do that, then take a history of orchestration class, study a few scores that tickle the timbral tendrils of your heart, and you're ready to orchestrate, kids.

But there really are composers out there who do without all the noisemakers in their houses, and many of them do just fine, too. One of the reasons our musical lives are lively is that there is music that lays well in the hands alongside music that tells the hands, "I don't care what's easy to do: surprise me!" Isn't life grand?

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