The Orchestral Mystique

I’m not one of the composers who’s allowed to write for orchestra much, so I don’t teach orchestration. But I do have my own little orchestrational experimentation sandbox, which is that my composition students write orchestra pieces that get played when they graduate. So for a year they double clarinets with oboes, and voice brass chords with the horn on top, and ask me what I think, and I mumble things like, “I dunno,” “Looks good to me,” “Yeah, that might work.” And you know what? Almost everything works. I heard two of my students’ pieces last night, and all the things we’d agonized over worked just fine. We were afraid the violins wouldn’t be heard above the brass chords: well, they weren’t at first, and the conductor just told the violins to play louder. One student, god bless ‘im, had a long quotation in the winds and brass of “The Internationale” – a tribute to his deceased Communist father – doubled and tripled in 15 different combinations. Some were smooth, some were rougher, but the rough ones had their charm, and everything was clear and audible. He went through and revised some dynamics after hearing the rehearsal, which is the kind of thing Mahler did after hearing his symphonies, too. You need some common sense, and experience of instruments. I know better than to rely on high flute notes pianissimo, and that trumpets are louder than horns, and that the contrabass’s lowest notes can sound flabby. I check the voicing of brass and wind chords to make sure they’re well spaced. I’m sure there’s a level of really exquisite orchestration one can develop with enough experience; but to orchestrate adequately is just not rocket science. I’m convinced that most of what critics praise as “superb orchestration” in new music is merely the colorful use of obscure instruments in music that has nothing more substantive to comment on. And I resent that composers get turned down for grants and commissions from lack of orchestral experience, because it’s just not that big a jump from chamber ensemble to orchestra. If orchestration was some arcane technique that required loads of special training, then over all these years my students would have fallen into numerous traps and had disasters. It hasn’t happened. 

(Years ago when I had an piece played by a sub-professional orchestra, I showed the score first to a famous orchestral composer and asked for advice. This esteemed personage suggested three changes – two of which didn’t work out in rehearsal, and I had to retract them.)

The problem of writing orchestra music is the same as writing any other kind of music: fashioning a continuity in which the ideas make themselves clear, take time to breathe, and lead from one to another with a plausible logic, resulting by the end in a meaningful and satisfying large-scale shape. Errors in these areas get writ large in an orchestral format, but the orchestra also provides lots of colorful toys to compensate and distract with. Places where the orchestration seems awkward are almost always places where the musical idea wasn’t well thought through, and wouldn’t have worked any better in a string trio. Writing orchestra music requires a ton of work in checking parts, deciding whether to go solo or “a 2,” and so on, but the common idea that only those in some upper echelon with special experience should be trusted with an orchestra is ridiculous.


  1. says

    Thanks for this wonderful post. Not sure I understand what you mean by that “allowed” in the first sentence, though. Simple politics?
    Something you don’t come out and say, but seems implicit coming from the players direction, is that any musical ensemble that plays well as an ensemble is going to be making all kinds of helpful individual adjustments if they can hear the, “continuity in which the ideas make themselves clear, take time to breathe, and lead from one to another with a plausible logic, resulting by the end in a meaningful and satisfying large-scale shape.”
    Also, it often seems there’s some sort of vestigial guild mentality in the music world that seeks to make the simple complex to the uninitiated, and this would be a good example.
    KG replies: Your second paragraph is a crucial point: if the piece is clear enough that the players can hear how it’s supposed to sound, they’ll make it sound that way through adjustments that no notation could accurately mandate in sufficient detail. I’ve often thought that Schoenberg’s using Hauptstimme and Nebenstimme signs in his music was an abdication of the composer’s responsibility to make the music clear.
    As for the “allowed,” I dunno. I’m not on any orchestra conductor’s list of composers to commission. There’s a certain track you need to be on, and if you’re not on it by grad school, you’re not gonna be.

  2. says

    Agreed. You know that first sentence in Persichetti’s ‘Twentieth-Century Harmony’? ‘Any tone can succeed any other tone, any tone can sound simultaneously with any other tone or tones…’ etc? We need an orchestration book which starts by saying something like ‘Any instrument can be doubled by any other instrument or instruments…’
    KG replies: I remember that sentence, which I probably haven’t read since I was 16. Good thought.

  3. says

    If it’s the case that all of the new music for orchestra currently being performed is 100% the commissioned work of some subset of people who have attended grad school and jumped through some other hoops as well, that would explain a lot.
    KG replies: And not just grad school, but about a dozen or 15 specific grad schools. Counterexamples welcome.
    My friend George Tsontakis is friends with a well-known conductor who does a lot of new music, and who tells George to advise him of any composers he finds whose orchestra music should be played. And he emphasizes that he’s only really interested in composers in their 20s.

  4. Greta Brannan says

    I chuckled here: “I’m convinced that most of what critics praise as “superb orchestration” in new music is merely the colorful use of obscure instruments in music that has nothing more substantive to comment on.” So true all too often – though sometimes there is more to the praise.
    Last year I had the chance to study and present research on the orchestral music of E-P Salonen; in the process touching on Lindberg and Saariaho. Some of these scores honestly made me dizzy to look that – they are orchestrated out the wazoo. On further examination though, more than just use of obscure instruments (save his love of contrabass winds), striking features turned out to be the rulebreaking odd spacings, unusual voicings, unexpected combinations of instruments and notably, the sheer amount of figurations used for sheer effect (ie. the impressionists). Unusual harmonic movement and a constantly shifting textural and rhythmic spotlight also play a big role for all three Finns. (In fact, in Salonen’s music it would be very hard to separate the rhythmic elements from orchestration; rhythm becomes orchestration, in a sense.)
    Your last paragraph on structure – I think the orchestra almost invites an utter engorgement for composers that can be very dangerous. Too much to play with in the toy store. Tried and true forms are still very satisfying; ie. the theme-and-variations in Salonen’s L.A. Variations is extremely so, but many recent orchestral works distort and explode structure to the extent they take far too many repeated listens for the average listener to even discern.
    KG replies: As with Mahler, I’m sure Salonen has an intimacy with the possibilities of the orchestra that most of the rest of us can only dream about.

  5. peter says

    As a teenager, I played in an amateur orchestra affiliated with a university music department, and most years we would play new pieces written by the final-year graduates. A key challenge for us performers was that the student composers often knew the basics of our instruments — eg, the pitch range of each insrument — but nothing at all, or very little, about actually playing these instruments. Thus, for example, a brass setion might be given very fast and very long semi-quaver runs with multi-octave jumps between successive notes, requiring a flexibility of lips or arm (in the case of the trombonists), or a lung capacity, that even virtuosi would struggle to achieve. In such music, there was also usually very little thought given to co-ordination between different instruments – eg, having one trombone play exactly a note behind one second violinist in one of these long, fast semi-quaver runs, each at ppp, while the rest of the orchestra was doing something else at fff.
    The problem was not simply that the music was difficult for us amateurs: Lots of music we played was difficult or had difficult passages for us (eg, most Wagner overtures), but we knew that with sufficient practice, alone and together, we could master these passages. The music by the student composers, in contrast, we knew could never be mastered no matter how much we practiced, because it was so often written against the grain and against the physical properties of the instruments. I think this is where the real knowledge in good orchestral composition comes — in knowing the grain of each instrument, and working with it, not against it. The arm-movement physics of playing, for example, a trombone means that writing an actual, human-controlled trombone part is qualitatively different to writing a part for a synthesized trombone-like sound.
    KG replies: Well, absolutely. That’s why we insist that students compose a number of chamber works for strings and winds first, so they can get a realistic grasp on ensemble-performance realities in a non-life-threatening situation. Once you’ve written an idiomatic piece for mixed octet, I just don’t think the orchestra is that big a jump. The main difference, for students and all of us, is that with an orchestra you’re just never going to get as much rehearsal.

  6. mclaren says

    Dare I suggest that the reason all your students’ orchestrations worked might be because they can try ’em out beforehand on their laptop with softsynths?
    This is just one of many ways in which younger composers today kick older composers’ asses. The orchestral samples in Kontakt might not be exactly the same thing as a real live orchestra (the brass certainly aren’t), but at least you can get an idea of how stuff is going to sound. When I was a kid, you couldn’t do that. At all. Period. You had to fumble in the dark and guess. Today’s young composers probably gain more expertise in orchestration from trying compositions out on their laptops in 3 years than a typical 19th century composer got in 20 years of orchestral performances.
    Likewise, today’s music students seems comfy with all kinds of outlandish rhythms because they can hear ’em on their laptops and get used to ’em. In the old days, only freakish geniuses like Bill Wesley knew what 11/8 against 13/8 sounded like, because he trained himself to play that kind of stuff live.
    We’re living in the golden age of composition, when a composer can hear “any timbre, any timing, any tuning” (in Wendy Carlos’ words from her 1987 Computer Music Journal article “Tuning: At the Crossroads”). When you can instantly hear stuff like that and marinate yourself in it, eventually you begin to internalize it. Maybe that explains why today’s ensembles of young performers are able to easily perform rhythms and tunings declared “impossible for humans to play” only a few decades ago.

  7. Ian says

    LOVED this post, sorry I’ve only just come across it, and agreed with all the comments.
    I’d say the biggest problem with young composers and orchestras (not that far removed from it myself) is the much-mentioned ‘toy store’ effect. The temptation to go nuts (for some reason, the percussion section is a favourite target) needs far more monitoring than whether the trombones have doubled the bassoons.

  8. says

    “(the brass certainly aren’t)” – why is this? Being a brass player, the brass sounds are atrocious. I used to wonder if it was because I was so used to the real thing, but I just think they’re very poor. Anyone know why?

  9. says

    Thank you for writing this post. I don’t have a problem with teaching people how to write for orchestral instruments in combination, but, having little practical experience aside from studying scores and having played in several orchestral sections, both as a wind player and as a string player, I feel that I have very little authority to make acoustic judgments–especially when it comes to offering suggestions to improve somebody else’s work.
    With all the difficulties involved in making good orchestration judgments, I think that writing a piece for orchestra is far, far easier than getting a piece written for orchestra performed (unless you happen to know a good conductor who makes the programming decisions for a good orchestra, or happen to have a lot of money to hire an orchestra with a good conductor).
    There is no question that when it comes to orchestral music, a good conductor is absolutely essential. S/he can turn something mediocre into something that sounds remarkable, or, in the case of a less-than-good conductor, turn something quite good into something that sounds dull and boring.