Solving Someone Else’s Puzzle

This week I’ve been discussing a future collaboration with one of the most surprising and interesting ensembles I’ve had the chance to write for: a massed string group that will be drawn from students of various experience levels, placing technically adept players alongside absolute beginners. More specifically, the project would involve several studio classes at various points of study, so players of similar technical ability would be seated together within their instrumental section and would have their own dedicated “third year viola” part, for example.

To me, writing for an ensemble like this is both a challenge and an inspiration; without a doubt, it gives the composer a lot to work with, but in doing so also requires that he or she accept certain insurmountable truths—the lack of technical uniformity in the ensemble, for one thing, not just as a purely technical obstacle but also as a central artistic premise for the piece. In other words, the technical challenge of writing for this strange ensemble is at least equaled by the corresponding creative obligation; what would be the point of my writing a piece that was technically feasible for the different sections but didn’t exploit the unique nature of the ensemble as a driving force in the piece’s central drama?

I’ve always found projects like this especially interesting in that they represent one of the very few cases where a significant portion of the composer’s artistic agenda is bound up in responding to the uniqueness of the project itself. That’s not to say there won’t be plenty of room for me to contribute my own vision, but in this case that opportunity comes in the form of my response to an essay prompt, as it were. It’s kind of liberating—for a while at least I’m freed from the big question of what and on to an experience that is going to focus a lot more on how.

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4 thoughts on “Solving Someone Else’s Puzzle

  1. pgblu

    Do you know Louis Spohr’s pieces for double string quartet? Anyway, I think that sort of thing is, to put it mildly, an underexplored concept.

    Reply
  2. danvisconti

    Thanks, I have heard a few of the Spohr double quartets and should listen to them all in sequence sometime; if I recall correctly, the later ones become much more demanding on the players as the group of students and patrons Spohr was writing for gradually improved?

    There’s also an obscure concerto grosso by Vaughn Williams that dates from 1950; it’s for three string sections of varying technical skills. I’m not sure it’s a work that I particularly desire to emulate but it was helpful to see how RVW handled something similar to the group I described.

    Reply
  3. lawrence

    Dan, I wrote a triple quartet for Cassatt to perform with two high school quartets. You are right, it is a fun challenge. One of the challenges I didn’t discover until late in the game was how to put cues in the HS parts — I needed lots of them, and didn’t have much confidence the players would be able to read them effectively.

    But it all worked out well in the end, and everyone was very gratified with the results. Good luck!

    Reply
  4. rskendrick

    great project
    This sounds like a great project Dan. Many churches have scaled down versions of this sort of thing for Easter, where there might be a group of professional brass players and an organist, then you’ve got the adult church choir, and the student bell choir and youth choir.

    These sorts of community based projects are appealing to me more and more of late. If you can get the amateur performers past the initial ‘scariness’ of cell notation, you can really get some complicated textures from them without them having to count complex groupings. Good luck! Please report back as to how it went, would love to hear an update.

    Ralph Kendrick, Iowa Composers Forum

    Reply

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