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.