Release the Horns!
A year or so ago I was working on a piece for chamber ensemble with a standard sinfonietta lineup—wind quintet, piano, percussion, and string quartet plus bass. It’s a versatile ensemble with no shortage of timbral possibilities, but one of its constituents confounded me so completely that I had to kick it out: the horn. What the hell was I going to do with it? I’ve never been able to write as successfully as I’d like for brass instruments, and that deficiency is never more apparent than when I’m obliged to deal with this four-valved emotion machine.
Not only is it hardwired to produce a tangle of just and tempered intervals, the horn is wedded inextricably to the most affectively laden slices of the 19th-century symphonic rep. When is an orchestral horn player not playing something designed to pull the listener’s marionette strings? Setting aside the mechanics of the horn, years of conservatory practice refine the mechanics of horn players to better inspire, lament, terrify, or serenade—their literature requires them to be conveyors of emotional pseudo-information.
That’s not to dismiss the instrument; the ornate sentimental verdigris that covers the horn is actually kind of appealing, in its way. And I’ve heard two of my teachers, on two separate occasions years and thousands of miles apart, reminisce fondly about playing the horn parts of the Schubert Ninth Symphony, so the instrument clearly has some resonance with composers. But what I guess I find most puzzling is that there are two sides of the horn that never seem to meet: the signifier of the hunt on the one hand and, on the other, the producer of psychoacoustically mesmerizing sonorities. Why don’t more horn players specialize in the natural horn and commission pieces from people like Marc Sabat and Alvin Lucier? Assuming that horn players have the expertise to operate a wider variety of instruments than the conventional F horn, the spectral and tuning possibilities are potentially quite broad. Horn quartets should be playing glacial, program-length textural monoliths instead of Ewazenian frippery and arrangements from Candide.
So as I prepare to embark on a new piece—one whose instrumentation, within some boundaries, I’ll get to select—I’m tempted, at last, to confront the horn. I have to deal with it sooner or later. Who knows? Maybe something will emerge that will answer some of these imponderables. In the meantime, I’ll be going back to the Ligeti horn trio.