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?