It’s the Orchestras that Are Experimental

Words from a great composer:

There was an agreement among journalists after about 1970, when America took a sharp turn to the right, to call all music that did not use traditional instruments – the orchestra or combinations of orchestral instruments – “experimental.” This was a greater disappointment to me than most things that journalists do, because it showed a deep misunderstanding of the way things were. There were noble aspirations among a few younger conductors to revive the relationship between the composer and the orchestra, but there were no orchestras to speak of… there were no commissions of the sort that might be valuable to the composer, in the sense that a commission involves some sort of discussion between the composer and the orchestra; and most important of all, there was never any rehearsal time, in case an idea did not work. Orchestra commissions of the time always sounded like they were being sight-read, which in fact they were. I am sorry to say that this is still largely the case….

I think that even for the best composer (better than I am), ideas don’t always work. That is why the orchestra pece without lots of rehearsal is in some way doomed. And dreaded by the composer…

[A] friend told me that a distinguished violinist told him that in his youth he had played La Mer with Ernest Ansermet’s Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, and had remarked to Ansermet that the violin part was not the same that he had known with other orchestras. Ansermet replied that Debussy said that he had always regretted the published violin part, and so with Ansermet’s approval had written a new violin part. (Which one do we hear now?)

So, in this situation it is actually the American orchestra music that is truly “experimental.” When you have thought about other kinds of musical ideas, and worked with, say, electronic music for most of your composing life, the composition is anything but experimental. It is the epitome of expertise. It may be aleatoric or purposefully unpredictable in its specific sounds, or purposefully exploratory of a sound, but experimental is the wrong word, and its use has more or less divided composers among themselves….

It is a problem to write orchestra pieces that can be played after one or two rehearsals. I can’t even learn my own compositions in a six-hour rehearsal. (Recently I was listening to a performance of La Mer on the radio and remarking to myself on its difficulty and it occurred to me that is a composer wrote La Mer today, no orchestra could play it. Not enough rehearsal time.) If it were not for this drastic restriction, orchestras and orchestra literature would not be in such dire straits. And there would probably be a very different idea about electronic music, and so probably a different kind of electronic music….
– Robert Ashley, liner notes to Superior Seven, 1995

In 1997 the American Composers Orchestra, urged by board member Tom Buckner and with evident reluctance, commissioned Bob to write When Famous Last Words Fail You, for singers and orchestra. The orchestra members in the piece are cued by the lead singer’s words, so the conductor merely adjusts volumes, as at a mixing board. Dennis Russell Davies ran through the piece Thursday morning before a Saturday performance. The parts had just been handed out, so everyone was clearly sight-reading. There was a planned meeting afterward to discuss the technique of the piece; that was cancelled. There was a scheduled dress rehearsal; that was cancelled. The performance was the second run-through of a piece that had never been rehearsed, and sounded awful, not at all the way Bob imagined it.

A classical music world that treats great composers that way deserves the worst that can possibly happen to it.

Comments closed.


  1. says

    I suppose we can file this under “even more evidence that the symphony orchestra is the dinosaur of music.”
    The orchestra today requires too many resources – first from the composer and then from the players and the organization – to be viable. I play as a volunteer in a university orchestra so you would think there is gonna be lots of time to understand a work in depth. Nope. We’re going to do three Beethoven pieces for our fall concert with a total of 7 2-hour rehearsals. Our director is experienced and a good musician – so I know he will have us sounding good – but he has to watch the clock like a hawk to get to everything that needs work.
    So even an organization without the normal demands of a professional symphony would seem to have zero time for new or experimental works.
    Went to a concert of Philip Glass music three weeks ago and the LA Phil sounded like they had gone through ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ maybe once. And this is an established piece.
    Seems like the full symphony orchestra just gets less and less relevent…

  2. msk says

    It’s hard for me to imagine that a professional theater company would put on a play with a similar lack of preparation, although maybe it happens (I don’t work in that business). Sight-reading is an amazing tool, but to essentially limit music to that which can be pulled off with little or no rehearsal just astounds me. What a way to choke innovation, a musical virtue (loved the “Epistemology of Elitism” post) that many people really value.
    KG replies: Good point: imagine any other performing art whose criterion for putting a performance on was that they shouldn’t have to rehearse.

  3. says

    The problem is not just the week-to-week logistical constraints of the American symphony orchestra. It lies in the core values of the institution, represented by the ultimate litmus test and sole access point of artistic membership: the audition.
    How many orchestral auditions have contemporary music on the list?
    “That’s not true. We ask for Stravinsky and Bartok excerpts all the time!”
    The character of this +100-person ballast determines the soul of the institution. It would be like building the board of directors out of an interview that measures only net worth.
    Lack of education has certainly hurt the publics ability to appreciate classical music as a native aural experience, but the flip side is that a peer-review of shrinking membership has allowed orchestras (in whole) to slide into the lunacy we currently harbor.
    The only question is how quickly these dinosaurs will turn into petroleum that can fuel the future of bigger musical ideas…
    KG replies: Your last line gave me a hearty laugh. LOL, I guess I’m supposed to say.

  4. says

    Another interesting facet of that Ashley piece is the style of orchestral writing: I seem to remember that the instruments only ever play a single pitch in various octaves. The vocal soloists then meander around that pitch with those eerie, speech-like incantations that Ashley does so well, but there’s not much to do for the orchestra. Reading Bob’s quote, I understand better why he chose that particular approach. I also know from having talked to some of the orchestra members involved that they HATED playing that piece. (I’ve never met an orchestral musician who likes playing Philip Glass, either.) So if a composer gives the orchestra too much to do, the performance will be sloppy, but if he or she tries to simplify the parts, the orchestra will be surly. Quite a Catch-22! There are a few composers who have navigated a middle ground to great success, otherwise I wouldn’t think it is possible. Chris Theofanidis may be the best at it today…his “Rainbow Body” gets played everywhere, and the one live performance I heard was quite good.
    KG replies: Yeah, the only pitch was A. Knowing his other music, I can imagine it might have been really magical had they one it right, but it fell pretty flat.

  5. luk says

    You know, I was always so impressed by the fact that the US had an orchestra specifically devoted to performing works by American composers, that I toyed with the idea of trying to set up something like that over here. But I guess it works no better than an ordinary orchestra. Too bad – it’s still a wonderful idea, though.
    I don’t like to agree that “a classical music world that treats great composers that way deserves the worst that can possibly happen to it.” You’re probably right, but the consequences are awful, for it will be contemporary orchestral music that suffers them, not the classical music world.
    KG replies: Hey, where would we be without threatening hyperbole? Kill that, and my whole aesthetic falls apart. }:^D
    But seriously, I’ve often thought, since I was a teenager, that the total death and eradication of “classical” music might be the greatest boon to contemporary music that could ever happen. A gigantic vacuum would appear that we could rush in to fill.

  6. says

    Well said on the “experimental music” points (both Robert and Kyle).
    And yes, even a theatre’s readings or staged readings are gone through – often, even rehearsed! – beforehand.

  7. says

    A little over a year ago the Seattle Symphony played the first performance anywhere of “Genesis Suite” since its 1945 Los Angeles premiere — the suite written by seven different composers, including Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Milhaud, each composer setting a story from “Genesis,” which is spoken by an actor. I had heard a recording and was excited to hear it live. The Symphony hired two Academy Award winning actors to read the text — F. Murray Abraham and Patty Duke. And they certainly didn’t rehearse enough, if they rehearsed at all. Duke and Abraham sometimes sounded like they were reading the text cold, stumbling through the King James syntax like 14-year-old volunteers at the Sunday service lectern. Then the actors got lost in their cues and the story of Noah’s Ark abruptly ended before the appearance of the rainbow, as Duke and Abraham glared at each other, and conductor Gerard Schwarz barreled ahead. The orchestra members looked deeply embarrassed when they got a Standing O at the end, as Abraham and Duke gave each other stiff and angry Hollywood hugs. I almost asked for my money back.
    No reviewers mentioned the blunder, which is amazing too — I had thought the rainbow was a pretty famous element of the story, but I guess not.
    What a shabby relationship with music, and what a cynical attitude toward the audience. If you want to read things cold, that’s great, but you shouldn’t charge money for it — but the audience doesn’t notice shabbiness anyway, so perhaps the cynicism is justified, if unworthy of respect.
    KG replies: Great, and by great I mean terrible, story.

  8. says

    I don’t agree with most of the points here. Just because orchestras might be arrogantly run, have a low opinion of contemporary music, and have no rehearsal time to do new pieces justice, it absolutely does not follow that the orchestra as a medium is useless to the contemporary composer.
    The orchestra is still the fantastically rich palette that it always has been (richer in many ways!), and perhaps orchestras won’t always be hamstrung the way they are today. There is no *artistic* reason (at least, not one put forward here) not to write for the orchestra, although there may be many *practical* reasons.
    This can easily be demonstrated – which of you composers would turn down the chance to work personally for a year with (say) the LSO, plus unlimited instrumental doublings and enthusiastic conductor and players, to write a half-hour piece that would receive a solid two weeks of rehearsals prior to a 20-date tour with network radio and TV broadcasts, followed by a commercial recording?
    I’d wager that not many composers would turn that down, unless they are either very unsure of their ability to deliver something worthwhile, or so sure that they want to only write non-orchestral music that they would turn the opportunity down.
    Of course it’s a relatively unlikely scenario, and perhaps more unlikely in the US than in Europe, but still… you would, wouldn’t you?
    KG replies: I don’t think you’ve gotten the point. Of course everyone accepts even the bad orchestra gigs, hoping against hope for a good experience, possibly a better performance later. Of course the orchestra would be a wonderful instrument *if* you could get two solid weeks of rehearsal. No dispute there. And *if* your grandmother were a frog, she could catch flies with her tongue. I left out an anecdote Ashley included: Takemitsu had an orchestra piece played, and someone asked him how the performance was. Takemitsu replied: “It was better than the rehearsal.”

  9. says

    I’ve felt orchestras are dinosaurs for years, yet I’ve accepted a couple of commissions for orchestral music in the last couple of years. And while I’ve enjoyed writing for a larger palette than I often have at my disposal (and am excited for the next commission), I have had to compromise a great deal of my own language to write pieces that will receive hopefully a decent performance in such limited conditions. Like you, Kyle, I wonder if the eradication of the orchestra specifically (and the notion of “classical music”–gods how I hate that term!–in general)wouldn’t actually be a boon to classical music. I have found more exciting and fulfilling vehicles for musical expression in large chamber ensembles like the Ensemble Moderne, Alarm Will Sound and my own Great Noise Ensemble, where you can achieve something like the large mass of sound capable by an orchestra with the level of virtuosity achievable only in the chamber music world. I think, not without a little selfinteest, that groups like that represent the future of our art.

  10. says

    Well, on the positive side, some of the economic impediments (in the US at least) that contribute to this unhealthy situation are beginning to be removed by technology.
    I know as well as you that digital orchestras are not as good as acoustic ones, but they are unquestionably improving faster than acoustic orchestras. And in the hands of skilled musicians, this technology is becoming an expressive musical instrument for performing orchestral music at a high level. (Some of my thoughts on that.)
    At the Fauxharmonic Orchestra (my performing alter-ego) we search out, rehearse (a lot), perform and record new orchestral music (next stop: Brandeis University, Oct. 4, 2009). Here’s a rehearsal run-through of new student work for orchestra we’ll be performing on that concert: Animated Watercolor, by Jeremy Spindler
    As you can hear, it’s pretty good … and we can focus on musical expression since we don’t have to waste time learning the notes.
    Composers are VERY involved with revision, adjustments, etc. And because of what you might crassly call “productivity gains” that accrue to us via the use of digital technology, we can play each new piece many times over, and in many places, allowing not just us and the composer to really get a chance to hear and revise, but also allowing audiences to become acquainted with a new work via repeated hearings.
    Indeed, it’s the mission of the Fauxharmonic to foster free orchestral expression (“free,” as in unencumbered by the pressure to write music that can be sight-read, or to use instrumentations that don’t require hiring extra players, etc., etc.).
    Taking the long view, it might be that digital orchestra instruments help keep orchestral creativity alive during this dry spell (of at least 40 years and counting) in a way that brings new ideas into the art, so that some future generation that (wishfully thinking) perhaps will have found a way to support orchestral performance will also have some great works from this century (akin to La Mer) to play in 2109.
    KG replies: God bless you, I’m all for it. The Ashley text I quoted was his justification for releasing MIDI versions of pieces that were intended for orchestra.

  11. Robert Berger says

    The kind of circumstances under which new orchestral works are sometimes performed today are nothing new.
    It was much like this in the time of Mozart and Beethoven, and there was not much rehearsal time then, either.
    The first performances of the Beethoven symphonies were apparently woefully inadequate, tentative, ragged, and out of tune.
    At that time, these works were way out and avant garde. The first really carefullly prepared performances were not until many years later in Paris under Francois Habeneck, after Beethoven had already been dead for some time.
    But the symphonies survived,none the less.
    But some orchestras today DO give adequate rehearsal time.
    The orchestra is not a dinosaur; it is very much alive and relevant, and today, orchestras perform a wider variety of repertoire than ever before.
    Those who lament that in the past at concerts,
    all or most music was new, fail to take certain facts into consideration.
    In the late 18th and early 19th century, the orchestra as we know it was a relatively new thing; the enormous accumulation of repertoire we have now just didn’t exist; and there were also only a tiny fraction of all the orchestras which exist today, and far fewer concerts.
    KG replies: True, but orchestras of that day were focused on then-contemporary music and often conducted by composers, rather than by jet-setting star conductors who see composers as charity cases. So Beethoven’s raggedly-played symphonies weren’t contrasted with other works gorgeously finessed. Also, and perhaps more to the point here, composers didn’t have to write their orchestra music in a style different from their other music. But you do offer one slim reed of hope, that our orchestra music, so shabbily treated now, may get played well after we’re dead.

  12. mclaren says

    Paul Henry Smith remarked “I know as well as you that digital orchestras are not as good as acoustic ones, but they are unquestionably improving faster than acoustic orchestras.”
    Digital orchestras prove superior to live orchestras in some ways, inferior in others. They remain different media, in the same way that a piano differs from a harpsichord.
    A digital orchestra allows vastly more complex rhythms and far more exotic tunings than are practical with a live orchestra. A digital orchestra permits total control of dynamics, with many coordinated crescendi and decrescendi not just possible, but easy, and capable of being regulated with exquisite precision.
    Absurdly large groups of additional exotic instruments ca easily be inserted into digital orchestras: koto, biwa, shamisen, khaen, gamelan, Japanese wind gongs, devil chasers, balafons, shakuhachi, kacapi, ney, lithophones, glass marimba, taksim and koro would be impractical to include in a live ensemble but can easily be added to a digital orchestra.
    A digital orchestra also allows the mix to be defined in such a way that contrapuntal lines become much more clearly audible than with an acoustic orchestra. In a typical concert hall, the physical placement and reverberation of the hall blurs many of the contrapuntal lines to the point where even in a superb and exhaustively-rehearsed performance, intricate contrapuntal lines dissolve into mush.
    I have had the experience on many occasions of listening to a live recording of a symphony orchestra and wishing it had been rendered by a digital orchestra, so that the individual parts could be more clearly heard.
    Against this, any reasonable person must admit that digital orchestras still suffer many drawbacks. Brass instruments still don’t compare to the live versions; full titti tend to lack the weight and authority of a real orchestra. Solo instruments can be problematic, unless physical modeling synths like the VL-1 (a model no longer manufactured) are used. Small string ensembles tend to sound bogus. The ultimate challenge for digital instruments remains the string quartet, a challenge which digital instruments have still not met.
    Depending on the particular composition, some pieces seem to sound better on a digital orchestra, other pieces (no matter how much time and trouble is taken to realize ’em) never work except in the live acoustic orchestral version.
    Contemporary composers have not yet committed themselves to producing expressive MIDI performances; you can’t just press a button on your Sibelius score and get it to play and hope to come up with anything listenable. Each part must be played in live, then carefully adjusted, which takes endless amounts of work. A program like Cakewalk’s In Concert or Max Mathews’ Radio Drum must then be used to conduct the overall performance. Until such practices become commonplace, digital orchestras will never approach their full potential.

  13. says

    Brett Mitchell, Assistant Conductor of the Houston Symphony explains in an article on NewMusicBox how he incorporates contemporary music into concerts.
    Link is here:
    KG replies: Yes, I saw that. I got to this line –
    “‘Accessibility’ has come to be a dirty word in some circles, so let me first define what I do not mean when using this word: mindless, one-dimensional works that are nothing more than ear candy.”
    and I suspected he was talking about some of my favorite music. If not, then I can’t imagine what he’s referring to, not having ever heard any orchestral works that fit that description.

  14. James S. says

    Just to play the devil’s advocate: a large orchestra is already an incredibly indulgent, excessive instrument. I have always wondered why people think we should be able to support even as many orchestras as there were decades ago (when they had a huge audience), because of how incredibly indulgent, huge and excessive they are. So I’m not saying composers shouldn’t try to get the best conditions possible: but is it actually realistic to expect that a large amount of composers could be able to write music for a huge ensemble that costs a huge amount of money, and have the orchestra spend huge amounts of money specifically rehearsing one piece (that’s not evening length)? It seems to me that the idea that many composers could regularly premier pieces on a grand scale, eating up two weeks+ of rehearsal time (I don’t mean to speak for all orchestral musicians, but this really is quite a lot of time if you’ve ever played in an orchestra), looking for extreme interpretive subtlety in an ensemble that, by the nature of its size, demands simplification to a large degree for success is mostly impossible. (maybe taking new pieces on tour would solve this? – I feel purely intuitively that it probably takes repeat concerts more than extra rehearsal to make a piece work) I personally feel like it’s a good thing that a mixed, flexible chamber ensemble or at the biggest chamber orchestra up to 30 people is the most fertile medium for music – it’s really a lot more interesting than a huge orchestra in most respects anyway.
    I’m probably misunderstanding several points of the lack of rehearsal time and lack of adventurous commissions, and certainly there are a few specific models at certain points in time of orchestras performing several interesting and demanding new pieces well, but I can’t imagine any new orchestra music working that needs more than a few rehearsals. I’m not trying to lecture anyone on what music works in the orchestra: but the musicians in the orchestra that have soloistic passages have to work them out on their own, and the virtue of an orchestra is its ability to read (even if it’s too hard to play technically clean, it’s not impossible to get through at least, even if not unscathed). I think the Philadelphia Orchestra, in the 1930’s and 40’s performed something like 5 different programs a week in the summers at Robin Hood Dell. I’m sure technically these concerts were lacking in many ways – but I’m sure the plaing with these 1 rehearsal per concnert at most (although for very standard repertoire) was more than technically good enough to get across the ideas of the piece in a good fashion and some musical excitement from the lack of staleness probably made up for it anyway, at least in this genre of familiar music. But even the most difficult pieces of the 20th Century repertoire (like for instance Turangalilah Symphonie) don’t require an orchestra to all of a sudden become a totally different type of ensemble (might it be selfish to ask that?). Turangalilah is still very hard for orchestras to put together, but the technique is good enough usually that you get it (unless you’ve really know the piece) pretty well and be engaged by the music – maybe this piece will technically be a joke in 50 years. Sure there are huge evolutions and high difficulties, but great pieces like Turangalilah or the Rite that were huge nightmares when originally performed: tons of student orchestras over the world play the Rite of Spring technically better now than the premiere probably was, but there was something in there amid the wrong notes that caused it to keep getting the pieces played – the difficulty was evolutionary in big steps rather than turning the orchestra into the Steve Reich Ensemble – one of those already exists anyway. (I didn’t mean for this to a have a lecture tone, but am not a good enough writer to make this post not sound like an agry rant that takes itslef to seriously, my apologies.
    KG replies: I just wonder how the Devil chooses his advocates, he gets so many applicants for the position.