It Came from the Pit!

Of the many general points one might acquire from any time spent studying music for the stage, one point in particular impresses itself upon the aspiring orchestrator: this whole instrumental shebang is taking place in a pit for crying out loud—a deep, dank, cavernous pit that will swallow up all manner of sounds and render useless some of our carefully-acquired acoustical sensibilities. A pit that’s physically removed, in fact submerged beneath the singers, occasionally dragging them toward its dark depths of insidious tempo-stretching. It’s a black hole of sorts, dragging passages that would come of very nicely in a concert performance down into a confused mess.

While useful orchestration texts abound, I have always been surprised that I have never come across any devoted to the specific challenge of composing for pit groups. Indeed, none of the standard orchestration texts that I used to develop my early understanding of the orchestra even addresses acoustical space in a meaningful way.

What are some characteristics of The Pit, then? The most obvious is its tendency to swallow sounds, but in a way that does not reward traditional “overscoring”; frequently details are lost inside a sound mass of any density, but occasionally bright, sharp timbres pop out much more forcefully than their accompanying tutti sound mass, and a stage-level observer might have the impression that a would-be tutti became excessively punctuated by certain timbres—say the glockenspiel. There is something curious that happens as all that instrumental sound becomes blended, mixed down as it were.

Of course, the pit has many redeeming features, not the least of which being that its troublesome submerged state allows solo singers to project over textures that would tend to cover voices in, say, a solo song cycle. The need keep other prominent lines away from the singer’s own is lessened, even unnecessary at times. And the pit’s unique placement also makes possible other spatial novelties, such as the effect of small instrumental groups onstage, interacting with both the singers and the larger pit ensemble. So while it’s a wild beast to tame, it seems to be a worthwhile one as well. Who knew that sticking the band in the basement would require such a fundamental rethinking?

3 thoughts on “It Came from the Pit!

  1. Tom Myron

    La Vie de Bohème
    Welcome to the pit, daddy-o. For my money, the gold standard of texts that address scoring for the pit are the operas of Puccini. Break out the Dover Scores & Post-It Notes.

    Reply
  2. danvisconti

    Thanks Tom! If I’m lucky I might get to witness an act of Puccini being committed later this year. You’re right that textbooks are no substitute for post-its and genuine aural elbow-grease.

    Reply
  3. philmusic

    “..its troublesome submerged state allows solo singers to project over textures that would tend to cover voices in, say, a solo song cycle…”

    I really think that you need to look at and hear different singers as they are not like violins or trombones. That is that they are not nor have they ever been a type. Not all voices have the same weight, power, or flexibility even with in the same vocal range. Each opera composer that we care about developed their own kind of singer.

    Lately folks, not just composers, have ignored fach. I don’t see the advantage to it It leads to the problems that you mention.

    If you want to compose opera study the voice. However if you want to get your opera performed that’s different.

    Phil Fried
    Phil’s page

    Reply

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