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.