Adventures in Orchestra, Part 3: Final Thoughts

Seattle Symphony Sonic Evolution 2012. Photo courtesy of Jerry and Lois Photography.

A lot of ground has been covered in Part 1 and Part 2 of this little series on working with an orchestra. Here are a few final points, based largely on questions people have asked about the process and timeline of this composition for the Seattle Symphony. I hope that readers with additional thoughts and insights will share them in the comments section.

It takes a village.
It is said that it takes a village to raise a child, and making a large musical composition come to life is not so different. The composer is only one little piece of the puzzle; an important piece, of course, but there is so much more involved. The amount of administration necessary to make an orchestra run is staggering—artistic planning, development, publicity, education, operations, music librarians, and more—and it is quite an experience to stand in the midst of the machine. And that’s before you get to the fact that there are 80+ people playing your music at the same time! It’s like the ultimate musical aircraft carrier.

It never hurts to ask.
Augmenting the above organizational village over the course of composing this work were a number of behind-the-scenes musician consultants, helpers, and advice-givers whom I contacted at various points, and they generously shared their knowledge and experience. For instance, when the idea of having an organ involved in the piece struck fear into my heart, what better way to fix that situation than to hang out with an organist? Every one of these people played crucial roles in making the music better than I could have done flying completely solo. I am beyond grateful, and I’m really, really glad I asked.

It’s not sexy. (It’s really not.)
Composing for orchestra sounds very romantic and kind of sexy from the outside, and there are definitely moments when it feels that way, but those moments add up to a grand total of a few hours, or at most a couple of days—a tiny percentage of the complete door-to-door process. I was well aware of this before I started, but nothing drives a point home like the actual undertaking. The reality is that it can be grueling, exhausting work. Obviously the level of toil differs for each composer and for each project, but I think that very few composers will say that it’s an easy ride from start to finish (and I’m not sure I’d believe anyone who does say that).

Basically, the trappings can be very nice (if they happen), like staying in a fancy hotel or possibly hobnobbing with the wealthy and/or famous, but they are simply icing on the cake. Everyone knows what s/he looks and feels like after wrapping up a long day and/or night of composing. It’s not always pretty. That is far more the daily reality one faces, and it’s the part you gotta love.

It ain’t over till it’s over.
Once the score and parts were sent there was a fairly steady stream of other items to take care of: publicity things and assorted other communications, travel arrangements, etc. Lots of folks needed stuff. There was no real detaching from the piece until well after the premiere. This somewhat affected my composing schedule immediately after turning in the piece, so next time I will adjust my calendar accordingly.

Post-premiere self-care
One of the trusted advisers mentioned above said it’s common to feel a little depressed after a premiere, so treat yourself well, get sleep, exercise, eat good food, etc. Although I didn’t feel sad, I did feel a bit numb for a while, as if waking up from a dream that I couldn’t remember fully. Those suggestions are things I do normally, but like a lot of people, when things get really busy I tend to slack off, so kicking a healthy routine back into gear helped to clear my head and restore balance. In addition, now I also completely understand why composer Pierre Jalbert tries to alternate between composing orchestra music and chamber music to reset his ears. Soon after finishing the orchestra piece, I had to jump into a piece for solo percussion, which was completely refreshing and just what the doctor ordered.

One thought on “Adventures in Orchestra, Part 3: Final Thoughts

  1. Danvisconti

    Great series of posts, Alex! I am pointing some students here because these three posts are such a good summation of How It Works to Write for Orchestra. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply

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