Building to Scale

When I was a kid, I derived an almost unreasonable amount of pleasure from designing and building random structures with Lego, which I suspect might have something to do with my creative roots—an interest in creative expression as play or a kind of hand-on puzzle. But before I was admitted to the suave, sophisticated realm of Lego I first plied my burgeoning block-building skills on Duplos: larger, chunkier versions of the standard Lego blocks that were not nearly as tantalizingly swallow-able for toddlers. While Duplos are basically oversized Legos, they are not proportionally to scale and I remember realizing this one day when I tried to translate a Lego pattern into Duplos and the their proportionally greater length made this impossible.

One of the most important things I have realized about writing for the orchestra and other large forces is that, just as in my aforementioned Lego/Duplo dichotomy, large ensembles can’t really be handled like small ensembles simply blown up to scale—they generally call for much broader gestures. One of the reasons for this seems to be the added heft inherent in the sound of massed instruments, which expands to fill a larger space than the same music scored for an ensemble of soloists. I’ve been dabbling in making an arrangement of a chamber piece for large orchestra and in several spots I’ve found it necessary to actually insert extra beats of rest at the ends of a few phrases, or occasionally extend phrases with contrapuntal imitation. I am attempting to make a very literal rendition of the chamber work rather than a re-composition, but even so it felt necessary to take advantage of what the added voices and sonic mass had to offer if it was to be an honest-to-goodness orchestra piece, where phrases have the luxury of trailing off in echoing conversation rather that stopping with the often troubling (but occasionally stimulating!) lack of resources inherent in writing for a limited number of voices.

I have another orchestra piece that was arranged from a chamber work in which the original piece’s slow 12/8 groove had to be changed to 6/8. At first I resisted this change as the music just felt like it was in 12/8; at some point it occurred to me that the music might come off like it lacked backbone and confidence if I persisted in notating some very complicated rhythms—perfectly acceptable in the chamber version—in a huge, broad 12/8 with a sea of ungainly, finicky rests. I have heard the piece performed both ways and I’m glad I made the change. Sometimes what is virtuosic or just barely acceptable for soloists crosses the line into almost unplayable when literally translated to an entire section, and it’s in the tweaking, finessing, and recasting where I learned the most about what it actually means to set sound in order as a composer. And it’s in exactly these kinds of finagling compositional tasks that I find my sensitivity to (and appreciation of) different sonic experiences becomes most acute.

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2 thoughts on “Building to Scale

  1. Tom Myron

    Lost in Translation
    Excellent points. Everyone who writes regularly for orchestra has to figure this stuff out. Also check out Berio’s chamber & orchestral versions of O King and the two versions of Colin Matthews’ Hidden Variables.

    Reply
  2. danvisconti

    Thanks for the listening/study suggestions! Makes me hanker for the days when I had access to a great music library…

    Reply

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