Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Orchestration Lesson

It was the student's first composition.  Copies of the score were handed out to us in the jury and we dutifully followed the performance.  Bassoon and marimba.  Two big bundles of sticks, Ithinks to myself.  It was well played, the composer handling the mallets, all from memory, and the bassoonist very tightly in synch throughout.  Not an earthshaking piece, especially with the continuous melody and accompaniment texture with the instrumental roles fixed in the obvious way, but a solid and musical little work.  What to say?  

A jury colleague surprised me by jumping out front with two sharp comments.  The first asked why the composer chose two "so very different instruments."  The second asked why there are so few dynamics and articulations.   Looking for pleasure before duty,  I jumped on her first comment.  "I find the two instruments very similar, especially in the tenor/alto range. In fact, the two instruments are often so similar in character that the sound of one could easily submerge into the other." (A chalumeau-register clarinet, with the right tonguing, and sharing the marimba's 1/4-wave length resonances of every odd harmonic would even be closer.)  Then I challenged my colleague, perhaps a bit rudely: "Since when is similarity such an important constraint?  We accompany every possible instrument with the piano.  The difference in character, technique, and timbre between a violin or a flute and a piano, for example,  is or can be much greater than that between a bassoon and a marimba, yet it's considered a standard, and unobjectionable, combination."  I believe that her critique was not of the inherent differences between the instruments but rather more that the combination of instruments was not a traditional one.

Then came the dutiful comment, with my standard attack on over-abundant dynamic and articulation markings.  I suggested that the more important question was what kind of dynamic and articulative profile the composer intended for his piece and whether he felt that the profile was appropriate to (or productively inappropriate to, as the case might well be)  the pitch and rhythmic materials and the ensemble texture he had used.   My colleague was less philosphical than I, and countered that, in practical terms, with limited rehearsals, it's better to notate something rather than nothing in every case of doubt.  

Poor kid: writes his first piece — and a sweet one at that — and gets immediately thrown into the middle of one of the raging debates of our little republic of Newmusicland.     

As it turns out, the choice of instruments was determined less by design than by opportunity. The composer played the marimba and had a friend who played bassoon.  He wrote a piece that could get played.  No problem there.  This information breaks the ice between my colleague and I. We start throwing out suggestion, almost in unison at times.  Did he take full advantage of the opportunity and actually play with the combination, bringing some raw materials into early rehearsals and actually play with the possibilities?  Why stick with a constant melody-and-accompaniment scoring pattern? How about hocketing melodic lines between the two instruments.   How about more contrast between sustainable bassoon tones and rapidly-decaying marimba tones?  What about the registers (low bassoon, high marimba) where the two instruments don't overlap?  How about playing with similar and different articulations between the instruments?   I then offered a compromise, perhaps more to my colleague than the student composer: How about using some very simple dynamic markings to make subtle contrasts when the instruments are playing the same or similar materials?  

We then asked to hear the piece again.  On second hearing, it seemed just fine the way it was. Congratulations, we assure the bewildered young composer.  We look forward to Opus Two!


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