Orchestration: Composers Reveal Tricks of the Trade Daniel D’Quincy



Daniel D’Quincy
Photo from video by Brian Hoopes

On the New Art of Orchestral Simulation

Oh, ye gods! Have mercy for the innovators. What the world likes least is change, even when the status quo is widely held to be unsatisfactory. Better to go on and on, repeating endlessly all the age-old patterns of tired familiarity, rather than to entertain the possibility of something new. Can this be said more convincingly of any endeavor than that of classical music?

I propose in this article to ignore this caveat in order to discuss something that is both new and demonstrably unwelcome: i.e. the new digital art of orchestral simulation. Let’s be clear at the start, I am not referring to the common MIDI orchestration, nor even to the typical ersatz orchestrations that we hear ever more frequently from Hollywood. No. I refer instead to the emerging reality, and plainly evident potential, of a wholly new musical instrument, which we may henceforth call the “synthony“—an instrument capable of being played at the highest standards of artistic excellence.

This instrument is still in its developmental infancy. Yet, already, it has enabled me as a composer to present my orchestral works in recordings, which more than a few sophisticated musicians have actually mistaken for recordings of live orchestras. (Please note that the standard of comparison is the recording, not the live performance.) And, with these recordings, I have brought original new music before the public, at a fraction of the cost normally entailed, and with nary a thought for the political machinations ordinarily required.

One would think that, this being true, composers everywhere would be clamoring to learn more about the synthony. Quite the contrary is, in fact, the case. Over the course of more than a year, seeking support for my own continued research and development, I have tried to inform a great many musicians, composers, and academics about recent advances in digital music technology—advances that place orchestral simulation in an artistic category never before considered possible. Alas, the response has been underwhelming.

On the one hand, some responses simply turn a blind eye to the practical implications of this new technology. Time and again I have heard composers say that they love the sounds of real violins and clarinets (as if I do not), and that they would rather get a real symphony orchestra to play their compositions. Oh, yes, I think to myself, just run out and get a symphony orchestra. Why not? (And then, see if you can also obtain the rights to sell or broadcast the recording if you are fortunate enough to get a performance.)

Then, on the other hand, there are the responses that seem to view orchestral simulation as somehow outside the bounds of any respectable use of electronic instrumentation. I remember the late 1960s, when I was a student composer at a university that was one of the first to establish a studio for electronic music. In those years, only the unaccountable musical kooks of the world had any interest in electronic musical instruments, while most composers turned up their noses and asked, “But is it music?” Today, nearly every university in the land has an electronic music studio, but it is astonishing to discover how regimented the composers in these studios have become, and how ready they are to designate a new generation of kooks. Thus, over and over, one hears the same refrain: “I prefer to use electronic instruments to make sounds that the traditional instruments do not make.” It is difficult to imagine a more pointlessly self-imposed limitation, especially when one considers how the sounds of traditional instruments can be manipulated and employed by the synthony in ways that are utterly unthinkable outside of the electronic studio.

And I shall never forget the words of the “Master Artist” who directed the residency for composers that I attended last year at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, a conductor whose students had nothing in their satchels more recent than Stravinsky‘s Sacre. In his moment of greatest exasperation with me, with veins popping, he exclaimed, “Why can’t you use electronic instruments the way all the other electronic music composers are using them?”

These responses betray a breathtaking conventionality of thought, and a deplorable lack of imagination. But more importantly, they represent indefensible insouciance for the immense musical potential of the most significant new musical instrument of the modern era, i.e. the synthony. Moreover, they fail to recognize the larger context in which this development is taking place, which bodes very poorly for the future of classical music in general. With every passing year, the crisis in classical music has become more acute, and nothing is more central to the problem than the obstacles in the way of bringing new music before the public. Eugene Lehner, of the Kolisch Quartet and the Boston Symphony, recognized this fact in the mid-20th Century. He said that, if he had his way, young people would be introduced to classical music through the works of Webern, Bartók, and Boulez. One could then conceivably hope that the experience would stimulate them to look more deeply into the tradition to which these works belonged, and so listen to Mozart and Bach. He was ignored in that long ago, and his idea is still being ignored, but much to the detriment of the art and its future.

It seems unconscionable to me for composers to be inextricably wed, like abused spouses, to the institutions and methods that have served them so poorly through so many years. Composers bear primary responsibility for carrying the tradition of classical music into the future as a living art. We must justify and make real the ethos and ideals of classical music in the present cultural milieu. Can we afford to turn a blind eye to a technology that may facilitate this mission?

One can readily understand the reluctance of performers to countenance the development of an instrument for orchestral simulation. The recent strike on Broadway that threatened to replace live music with digital sound happened not in a vacuum, but in an environment that is increasingly and everywhere less and less patient with the financial burdens imposed by flesh and blood musicians. As a professional violinist for some thirty years, I think I understand their position very well.

But, as a composer, I have to face a reality imposed on me by the implacable demands of a historical process that cannot be halted any more than the tides. As a matter of historical fact, we know that instruments have come and gone in the course of our musical traditions. Viols and hautboys were replaced in their day by violins and oboes, and I personally know musicians in the domain of early music performance who still regard that fact with scorn and regret. But can they do anything about it?

The compromises to which composers assented during the last century can hardly be considered anything but an impoverishment of the art. Where once the art of composition meant writing for the most part for the symphony orchestra, it became an exercise restricted almost entirely to small chamber ensembles. To compose for a consort of fifteen instruments—or “one of each” as it was charmingly called—was to indulge in almost frightful extravagance. Only when younger composers arrived on the scene who were willing to eschew the technical innovations that made much of the music of the first half of the century so compelling and, face it, so really alive with the spirit of the modern era, only then did we see a half-hearted recovery of orchestral composition. These composers were granted a more favorable reception in our symphony halls, and this stimulated more works. Their more “accessible” styles of composition were surely defensible on purely aesthetic grounds. But, should composers have been compelled to write in those styles simply in order to be heard? One would like to ask Shostakovich and Prokofiev this question (and not the Soviet Commissars who answered it for them). Here, in America, composers were asked to put the practical interests of the art above their purely aesthetic concerns. Budget-minded symphony directors could not be expected to let a thousand flowers bloom. Minimalism and neo-romanticism alone promised to save the day. But did they? And, when compromise fails even to achieve its ostensible end, is it not ignoble indeed?

It has been said that growing old is nothing more than a process of saying good-bye to everything one holds dear in the culture to which one was born. It distresses me as much as anybody to think, as I sometimes do in my darkest hours, that the symphony orchestra is doomed. Fortunately, nobody can tell the future with any real reliability. It is highly likely, however, that if the orchestra is to survive, it must adapt itself to the demands of the present. And this, apparently, it is little disposed to do apart from the ineffectual musical compromises referred to above. A half-century ago, Pierre Boulez put forward recommendations for innovation, which one reads today with a sense of the inherent futility of trying to reinvigorate the doughty old institution. But, as a composer devoted to the still thankfully living tradition of classical music, I see no alternative to innovation of various kinds.

One such innovation pertains to the demands of the newly emerging art of orchestral simulation. For technical reasons that I will not go into here, this new art is dependent on the willingness of orchestral musicians to record sounds suitable specifically for digital manipulation in the electronic music studio. It is a great pity that orchestral musicians tend to regard any activity of this sort as beneath their dignity, if not actually unethical. Were they to view the matter in a different light, they could, with the sale of these recordings, substantially augment the income of the orchestra and thereby further its prospects for survival. And in doing this, they would at the same time enhance the art of orchestral simulation, making it a more viable option for living composers. This would lead to a renaissance of composition for the symphony orchestra. I can envision a time when a profusion of new works heard by the public at first in superior orchestral simulations will result in demands to hear the same works performed by living orchestras in symphony halls. What better way to insure that a new work will be warmly received by the audience? This could resolve once and for all the dilemma faced by orchestra directors who quite understandably fear the uncertainties of performing unfamiliar works. At last they would have a reasonable excuse for sticking to the tried and true, without at the same time harming the interests of living composers upon whom the ultimate fate of the art depends.

This article is a call to composers and performing musicians, as well as those who support the musical arts, to wake up to their own share in the so-called digital revolution. A blanket refusal by musicians to participate in these developments is, under the circumstances, to be like the man who cuts his nose to spite his face.

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