Color vs. Content
As I’ve been asking composers what their creative process is, I’ve noticed a curious pattern related to orchestration. Most experienced composers tend to put the specific and painstakingly complex task of orchestration on the back end of their process, waiting until the piece in the abstract is sketched out (especially if it is a large ensemble work, where they have a great deal of timbral flexibility). Even those who feel comfortable composing “direct to score” on a large work will wait until they have a very good sense of what the piece is about conceptually before making orchestration decisions. In any event, experienced composers in general tend not to allow the colors of a work to drive the content of the work.
Now younger composers, just starting out, tend not to think this way—in fact, many composers early on place much more focus and weight on the colors they are using in a piece during the front end of their creative process, and it is only years later that they shift their process to composing material without the timbres being a forgone conclusion. Having taught orchestration classes to both college and pre-college composers, I’m to the point where I can guess when their eyes will glaze over (ranges, transpositions, fingerings, etc.) and when their eyebrows will lift and ears will perk up (anything that adjusts the color of an instrument—mutes/pizz./tasto/ponticello/harmonics or other extended techniques). It seems as if I am giving them the recipe for alchemy, and in some ways I guess I am; knowing how an instrument works seems pedantic to a young composer, but knowing how to change an instrument’s sound from its default to some new color is an extremely enticing notion. Once they have been given the musical equivalent of Crayola’s 64 box-set, it is almost inevitable that they will attack their next works from the direction of color, often to the exclusion or detriment to all other musical parameters.
There are two aspects to these patterns that I find interesting and which may even correlate to how audiences interpret a composer’s work. First, the consistency with which young composers are drawn to color before more abstract musical concepts; anyone who has heard or looked at works by most young composers would note the lack of dynamic, phrasal, articulative, or even harmonic variation. Second, the point at which a composer switches from thinking of their music in terms of timbre to melodic/harmonic/conceptual parameters is different for everyone, but sooner or later it does happen. The more we understand how and why these evolutions happen, we may be able to better interpret and understand a composer’s output throughout their career.
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome!