Overhead the Albatross Hangs Motionless Upon the Air

I just got back from a week in Minneapolis for the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute followed by a day of jury duty. My time in the Twin Cities is always extremely inspirational. (My time in the jury room was, on the other hand, thankfully short, although I have to admit that I found the litigation process quite fascinating when I served on cases a few summonses ago. But that’s a story for another day.)

Admittedly the orchestra is something of an albatross to me. While I greatly admire a lot of orchestral music, I tend to usually be most moved by music with fewer players. In fact, the period instrument movement is what finally made the symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven palatable to me, largely because the smaller number of participants makes the structures more transparent, and what keeps me focused in works of long duration is structure. As a composer I have avoided the orchestra, which is actually pretty easy for most composers to do since the orchestra largely ignores us. And the few pieces of orchestral music that I did write when I was much younger (none of which has even been performed) are in retrospect really chamber orchestra pieces, e.g. never more than double winds, if even that. That said, after hearing these seven wonderful new pieces and how well they were performed and received would leave only the most inflexible of muses to be completely unintrigued by an orchestral prospect if one were ever to emerge.

Much has been made about how despite what a wonderful timbral resource the orchestra is, there are so many limits as to what a composer can do with it based on the limits of rehearsal time and the weight of established conventions (on administrators, orchestra musicians, conductors, and audiences alike). Yet many composers this week were able to contribute small details that I had never heard before in quite the same way as in their pieces, e.g. a string glissando from a tutti unison to a divisi triad in Roger Zare’s Aerodynamics or a quick chordal utterance from three muted trombones in Fernando Buide’s Antiphones that felt like a short exhalation, to name just two of the things that captured my imagination this week. What I most appreciated about those two sounds in particular is how neither of them could even be hinted at in any telling way by a MIDI mock up.

Perhaps even more of a hot button topic than the limitations that writing for orchestra requires of a composer is the limitations put on a composer by his or her reliance on MIDI and computer notation software. While the ability to hear aspects of your music before it is ever played by a human being is undeniably alluring—I confess to being one of the folks who uses such tools and it certainly has helped me get a fuller grounding in the kind of microtonal melodic and harmonic shapes that have obsessed me for decades—other things are lost. If your expectation is based on what you’ve already heard, albeit in a less than ideal fashion, it is much harder to imagine a sound that you cannot hear because there has been no precedent for it for someone to pre-program for you.

Max Giteck Duykers, a composer familiar to readers of this site, is currently conducting a survey on the impact of MIDI and computer notation software on composers writing today which he will eventually write about for us. (It would actually be great if all the composers who are reading this take the survey.)

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