Hoop Dreams

I decided last week, in a fit of whimsy, to start working on an orchestra piece. For a young composer in America with radical musical tendencies, beginning a piece for symphony orchestra is like putting some time in on your three-point shots in the hope of eventually playing for the NBA: Except as an exercise, it’s simply not going to pay off. Furthermore, it’s occurred to me that I’m really no better qualified to write a symphonic work than I am to start for the Bulls. In fact, my three-pointers are probably even a little sweeter than my orchestral chops, and I don’t make a statement like that lightly.

Where do you even begin?! There are so many instruments. Granted, some of them are traditionally treated in groups, but is that something I can get behind, you know, philosophically? It seems somehow undemocratic to demand that all the violas play the same thing.

How will I even know exactly which and how many instruments are available? Can I get away with writing quarter-tones? How tough can the rhythms be? How long will it take to write? Should I invest that much time? What if I can’t get anyone to play it? What if I can? What if they program it next to Beethoven’s Fifth or something and nobody likes it? What if the orchestra walks out during rehearsal because of some union dispute? A professional misfire of symphonic proportions is the kind of thing I might not recover from.

It’s a frightening proposition, no two ways about it. Like most composers of intimidating-looking music, I’ve always just assumed that I’d never be able to have my orchestral cake (write a piece I really stand behind) and eat it too (see said piece on a program). Although major American symphony orchestras seem as content as ever, by and large, to play warhorses and pops concerts, there seem to be more and more opportunities to work with smaller orchestras on adventurous pieces. Maybe it’s not so far-fetched after all. In any case, the first step is to write a piece worthy of those opportunities, which is easier said than done. First, however, I have to go out to the courts and practice putting the rock in the hole from twenty feet away.

10 thoughts on “Hoop Dreams

  1. pgblu

    Identity
    You’ll eventually write an orchestra piece once you stop asking yourself these questions. While they are louder in your mind than the music you want to write, you should probably wait.

    I find it very interesting that you call yourself a “composer of intimidating-looking music”. I know it isn’t supposed to be a self-definition, but does this phrase say anything about your music, actually? Or does it say something more about your own ambivalence toward your music?

    Sorry if that rubs you the wrong way: I hope that you’re able to dismiss it as psycho-babble if that’s all it is. Just the phrase “intimidating-looking music” provoked me.

    Reply
  2. SCartwright

    Don’t worry about the violas. They won’t all play the same thing anyway. Besides, an orchestra isn’t a democracy. You don’t need to give everybody equal time. There is a temptation to fill up all that blank space on the page when a little restraint might result in a better sound. That said, you also don’t want to make any one part too simple or too difficult. No sense in getting perfect strangers mad at you.

    Reply
  3. kmanlove

    Colin, my friend, thank chance that you have me in your life. All of these questions are clouding out the one ~*TRUE*~ question: what is the story, the story forged in the deepest part of your emotional experience, that you are going to tell with this orchestra piece?

    Your grandma died lately?

    Reply
  4. philmusic

    Dear Colin:

    As a composer who has had some small experience as an orchestral composer the question is not “what” you compose but “how”. Time is the issue. The problem with realizing non-standard notations is they are, well, non-standard. Its best to check on what kind of notation styles a performing group prefers because your rehearsal time is precious and limited. The Minnesota Orchestra’s reading sessions do a wonderful job of helping composers gain this kind of experience.

    Phil’s Page

    Reply
  5. GalenHBrown

    Colin-
    When I wrote my first orchestra piece (and to date my only _real_ orchestra piece) a few years ago I struggled with related questions. I like big, thick textures, and when writing for chamber ensembles it generally makes sense to have most instruments playing most of the time, but with an orchestra piece I didn’t think that would make sense. So with so many available notes, how do I decide what groupings of what size to use where in the piece? Plus, I like to write the kinds of rhythmic patterns that require more practice and precision than an orchestral section was likely to be able to tackle, especially since the only “performance” opportunity was going to be a reading by the NEC Philharmonia, and I needed it to sound good for my portfolio.

    My strategy was to do a lot more pre-composition strategizing about form and materials than I usually do (I usually just dive in and figure that stuff out based on what the early fragments seem to demand). I decided to structure the overall form of the piece on the fibonacci sequence, with different choirs featured in each section, and full-orchestra interludes between each section. I also decided that I would try to have most of the melodic/thematic/cellular materials derive from the materials that immediately preceeded them. I also limited myself to simpler rhythmic patterns than I usually do, and focused on making them elegant, and I put a continuous hi-hat 8th note pulse over a big chunk of the end, both because I wanted something to make the piece a little less generically orchestral and because I figured having a grid would make it easier for the players to follow the rhythms. I also stuck to a standard double-winds orchestra with no wierd doubling requests or demands for precise numbers of players, figuring that if I can’t write a worthwhile orchestra piece for standard forces I don’t have any business writing for orchestra anyway, and why limit the possibilites for future performances by making such demands. I no longer remember the precise details of how I implemented these strategies, but they solved my problems by keeping me focused on specific structural goals and imposing artificial limits on what I could do at any given point.

    Anyway, I don’t know if this sort of strategy coming up with an overall structure that’s calculated to impose limits on you before you start trying to write would work for you, but I figured I’d offer.

    Also, in the interest of being as shamelessly self-promotional as possible, I will note that my aforementioned orchestra piece is called “Invisible Architecture” (as a shout-out to my structural strategy) and can be found at my MySpace page.

    Reply
  6. andyriggle

    I decided one day that I was a composer, and was going to write music no matter what. And write whatever I wanted to, even if it wasn’t cutting edge contemporary weirdness. And so what if it’s been done- it’ll still be mine.

    So I put the pedal to the floor, pulled out all the books and dove right in to my 1st orchestral piece: 3 fl, 2ob, E.H., BbCl, BCl, 2bsn, Cbn, 4Hn, 2trp, 2trb, tba, Hrp, tmp, gloc, chm, sn, bd, cr.cym, sus. cym, tri, w.blk and strings.

    Wow, was it hard- but man did I learn alot about instruments, ranges and writing.

    And it’s the best feeling now that I’m almost done- score editing takes forever.

    Here’s mine “Beauty Creek”
    http://www.soundclick.com/pro/view/01/default.cfm?bandID=498460&content=music

    Get out Finale and start writing :)

    Best of Luck and Kind regards,

    Andy

    Reply
  7. kacattac

    play
    Step 1: learn an orchestral instrument well enough to play in an orchestra. Step 2: join an orchestra. Step 3: learn about the orchestra.

    Reply
  8. amc654

    This is, w/o any doubt, the worst (!!) collection of advice I’ve ever seen in a row. Truly appalling and embarrassing stuff. Every last drop of it.

    Colin, I do sincerely hope that you’re no longer reading the responses and that you’ve moved on to next week’s (eagerly-anticipated!) column.

    Reply
  9. jbunch

    Use lots of pentatonic scales and cymbal crashes.

    There. Now the compilation of worst advice possible is completed.

    Reply

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