Pas mon ami Pierrot

Will Robin over at New Music Box had the inspired idea to write an homage to the Pierrot ensemble, since the centennial of Pierrot Lunaire is upon us. The flute/clarinet/violin/cello/piano combination took a few decades to take off, but it has conquered: we are awash in such ensembles, and no student achieves professional status until he or she has written his or her “Pierrot piece.” It’s the lingua franca of the (academic) new-music performance world. As I mentioned in a comment there, I’m not thrilled about the development. I wrote one piece for it (Hovenweep, 2000) and found it gummy to work with, though I think I succeeded in making into something; Da Capo has played the piece many times, and it’s been done by the Seattle Chamber Players and St. Luke’s Orchestra Players as well. It’s on a New Albion CD.

Half of what I dislike about the instrumentation is a lot of little built-in tendencies. The strings don’t really balance the winds. The winds provide a dollop of color, but nothing exotic. The piano fits like a table-top over the combined ranges of the other pairs of instruments. Everything’s centered toward a homogenous middle, with few extremes of register or timbre. The symmetry is both oppressive and deceiving. Making the ensemble work is a problem, but doesn’t seem like one because the instruments are so normal and speciously balanced. One’s initial idea is to write for the strings and winds, leaving the piano to function as ornament, pointillistic percussion, or filler; or to basically write kind of a piano chamber concerto, though the wind/string quartet isn’t really a strong balance for a virtuoso piano part. I watch my students struggle with it, thrashing between polyphony and homophony. My solution, which took much rewriting to arrive at, was to write almost in rhythmic unison for the entire ensemble at the beginning and end, while breaking the group up into smaller subsets in a middle section. It comes off well in performance, but the piece feels like an outlier in my output, because I had to bend to meet the instrumentation.

The other half of what I don’t like are the ensemble’s virtues, which are all academic. It teaches students to write, or, alternatively, proves they can write (because everyone has to prove that, don’t they?), for both strings and winds. (No one feels bad if they graduate without brass experience.) It’s kind of a mini-orchestra that gives a full sound without stretching the school budget. Get the winds to double on piccolo and bass clarinet, and the student gets a range of experience that stands in, in the professor’s mind, for a much larger range that they might well never receive access to. In other words, it’s a great compromise medium that doesn’t challenge the imagination and makes modest institutional demands. (I think of Wolpe’s Quartet for trumpet, tenor sax, piano, and percussion – an oddball grouping that makes originality mandatory.) And the more composers write for it, the more advantages there are in continuing to write for it because ensembles can make up a repertoire.

If somebody wanted to commission another Pierrot piece from me, I’d happily accept, because overcoming technical challenges is part of the fun. But I find it disappointing that this rather drab, difficult-to-spark medium has become the new standard chamber ensemble, and that compositional academia is committed to pushing it for perhaps decades to come. A great Pierrot piece is a great piece period, but many students will rein in their imaginations to fit the requirement, and fail to make anything special. The string quartet, the former universal chamber medium, was a more neutral canvas to work on, though admittedly it’s become a difficult slog as well – partly because there are so many thousands of great string quartets to compete with, partly because the ensembles have their hands full with current repertoire. I’ve had a hard time getting my string quartets played, and my students do too. Sax quartet seems like an almost explosively fertile medium, or at least I’ve been impressed with most of the sax quartets I’ve heard; but I guess there aren’t that many non-jazz sax players around. So I don’t see any alternative. But neither have I ever believed in gamely pretending that the status quo is the best of all possible worlds.

Remember, Morton Feldman had a perennial challenge for his students: he’d buy dinner for whomever could come up with the worst orchestration. No one ever won, he said, because the more bizarre their orchestrations became, the more original and imaginative the music got. Last semester I made one of my students write a piece with accordion, melodica, harmonica, toy piano, mandolin, and other exotica – her result was amazing! But the Pierrot ensemble has become somebody’s idea of a sane, reasonable, one-size-fits-all orchestration. I think Feldman owes Schoenberg dinner just for thinking of it.

UPDATE: Just had a happy thought. Replace Pierrot with the Herzgewächse ensemble: celesta, harp, harmonium. Lovely!



  1. says

    It might be fun if professors used a randomized process to select the instrumentation for a chamber piece assignment. When I was at Simon’s Rock in the ’70s, I was one of only two composition students, and there were very few instrumentalists of accomplishment, so I wrote my senior piece for piano, electric guitar (me), flute, and oboe because that’s what was available. I’ve since learned to embrace (and even prefer) the virtue of constrained resources.

    KK replies: Nothing wrong with constraints. Colorful ones are better than vanilla ones, I think.

  2. says

    I think another reason the ensemble has become standard is because it’s easy to gather those forces. A woodwind quintet is, in my experience, harder to put together. Everybody knows a handful of violinists, cellists, pianists, clarinetists, and flutists. They are a dime a dozen. If so-and-so can’t make this concert, just call someone else. As soon as you get to horn, or oboe, or bassoon, or even viola, you start running into trouble.

    KG replies: Well, sure. I didn’t even think of wind quintet – thank goodness you don’t hear many of those anymore. Though there are a couple of great ones by Nielsen and Jolivet.

    • Kyle says

      and Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles, although I MUCH prefer the original piano pieces (Musica Ricercata). In response to the idea of the fertile Sax Quartet medium, what are your thoughts on the marimba quartet. We had a long discussion here at UK in a rep class about marimba quartets and whether that was percussion’s version of string quartets, and if, not, what would it take for them to become so. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on both the instrument and the medium.

      KG replies: I believe the only marimba quartet music I’ve ever heard was at UK and maybe a couple of pieces back at Oberlin in the day. Interesting possibilities. Though I’m such a sucker for vibes and glockenspiel that I’d personally rather have a variety of mallet instruments. In fact, that gives me an idea. But outside of UK and another school or two, it’s a logistical nightmare.

  3. says

    You know, I never thought about this. It is a “rather drab, difficult-to-spark medium”. The only piece I’ve ever written for it was the static, half-hour “New Granite”. In a way, I turned the strings into winds … senza vibrato for everyone. The piano was punctuation. Though it was commissioned for the Pierrot orchestration, I spoiled the Pierrot purity by making it a bass clarinet. So yes, I’ve managed to avoid Pierrot Absolute. How’d that happen? Did I naturally gravitate away from its bland sound? Do we all need the discipline to write for it as penance for enjoying our art too much?

    KG replies: Wow, I won’t touch that last question. Raised Protestant, I have no gut feeling for what penance is. But clearly, you were a good enough artist to perceive weaknesses in the medium and work around them.

  4. says

    Isn’t it kind of telling that the now-standardized version of the “Pierrot ensemble” doesn’t include voice?

    KG replies: Count your blessings.

  5. Charlie Mann says

    I love that last anecdote about Feldman’s orchestration challenge. It seems to me, from my limited knowledge of recent music, that all the interesting stuff is being written for chamber ensembles, and often very heterogeneous chamber ensembles. It didn’t quite occur to me that this was happening because that ensemble happened to be what the composer had access to, but it makes a lot of sense, since getting musicians together in any capacity can be such an expensive headache–you work with what you can scrape together for free. I think the reason so much of the music is good is that writing for such an unusual ensemble forces the composer’s brain into problem-solving mode, since no one has yet made up the rules for how to write for that particular ensemble, and the challenge of figuring out those rules leads to a greater outpouring of creativity.

    It’s something I notice in horror film franchises, too: the first in a series is usually good, while the sequels are crap. I’ve always thought this was because the budget restrictions the filmmakers had to deal with on the first film when they were unknowns forced them to come up with creative solutions to their production problems, while the sequels were inferior because the creatives had made all the money they needed off the first film and didn’t have to make compromises–and they got complacent, thinking they already knew what they were doing. Sam Raimi side-stepped the problem with his Evil Dead series by making both sequels fundamentally different from their predecessors, so that all three of those movies, if not great, are at least good. The point I’m circling around to is that it seems to me that in any art, singular circumstances lead to singular creativity.

  6. zcr says

    Well, I am affraid even all subsets of this Pierrot combination are getting a bit tiresome (‘oh my, ANOTHER piece for flute, clarinet and cello’)… so ubiquitous. I would kill for English horns and bass trumpets… I sincerely hope, that the increased interest in “extreme” members of instrument families will make a difference.

    KG replies: You remind me that Feldman’s standard teaching method (I was in group lessons with him, so I saw him look at a lot of music) was to tell young composers to use more exotic instruments. “Make that piano a harp… rewrite the violin part for viola da gamba… get rid of the flute and use an oboe d’amore….”

  7. says

    Well, I have to say I’m very pleased that you’ve stopped reviewing (have I got that right?), if the result is a piece as insightful and informative as this. First off, as a “lay listener,” I had no trouble following what you were saying, but at the same time I learned an enormous amount about instrumentation choices, academic choices, and so much more. I would simply love to hear the student’s composition for “accordion, melodica, harmonica, toy piano, mandolin, and other exotica.” Do you think the intrepid band Contemporaneous might be willing to put it on next season? And I would also love to hear student work written for celesta, harp, and harmonium. What a marvelous thought!

    KG replies: Hi Susan – that’s a great idea, having Contemporaneous play the piece, I’ll approach them with it. Thanks for the great Eve Beglarian interview on your blog. She’s fantastic.

  8. says

    Regarding the Pierrot Lunaire ensemble, the Manuel de Falla Harpsichord Concerto is similar but so much better in my opinion – flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, cello and harpsichord. Also the slow movement is a good tutorial in how to incorporate a much older song into a contemporary work.

    As marimba was mentioned, two weeks ago my trio for violin, marimba and cello was performed; an ensemble that proved really popular with the audience. Although about ten years ago I wrote a work for contra-bass clarinet, percussion, electric guitar and turntables that was performed.

    Regarding unusual instruments, there are limits. For a recent ensemble work I asked for a keyed bugle – the director made it clear that was, categorically, not going to happen.

    KG replies: I don’t know any de Falla, but you’ve piqued my curiosity about that piece. I have a soft spot for modern harpsichord concerti anyway. And that must be a keyed bugle in Stravinsky’s Threni, but it probably wouldn’t get performed even without that.

    • says

      If I remember correctly Threni uses that modern development of the keyed bugle, the flugelhorn – apparently Stravinsky decided to hear it after hearing Shorty Rogers. However I read this information a long time ago and not everyone considers Craft a reliable source of course.
      I forgot to mention, I think your post is excellent, and agree with everything you wrote. It has helped me understand some of my feelings about various ensembles.

  9. says

    I’ve been writing a setting of James Dickey’s epic poem “The Firebombing” for Pierrot ensemble plus tenor and percussion, and I’m agreeing with you. It provided a starting point, but I may yet throw in a euphonium or trumpet or saxophone.

    Also, let me put in a plug for the tuba-euphonium quartet (usually 2 euphs and 2 tubas, though I’ve seen 3/1 and 1/3 as well). We low brass players would love more and better chamber lit.


  10. says

    Hey, welcome back from retirement! 😉

    Funny, whenever I think of the ensemble I always think of the Messiaen Quartet minus a flute. And really, what ensemble doesn’t benefit from adding a flute so, voila!

  11. Isaac Schankler says

    Very thought-provoking post! It’s funny though, I have completely different associations with the ensemble — I like the heterogenous, ramshackle nature of the instruments, and with violin and clarinet in there together I sometimes feel like I’m working with a cabaret or klezmer or gypsy folk group more than a chamber ensemble. The pieces in Will Robin’s article already prove to me that it doesn’t have to be “gummy” — Webern’s crystalline arrangement of Schoenberg’s goopy Chamber Symphony being a prime example. I’ve also never totally understood the complaint about it being weighted too much toward the mid-range, since that charge can be leveled against pretty much any standard chamber ensemble.

    Maybe the Pierrot ensemble’s oppressiveness for many simply comes from its status as the ubiquitous standard-bearer of new music. While your suggested “alternate” ensembles sound fun, I shudder to think of a world where they became the new standard. (See also the rise of the ukulele and glockenspiel in indie rock.)

  12. says

    I second the call for more low brass. I recently reconnected with a tuba player I hadn’t seen for 30 years, and have been enjoying writing for those glorious bass notes. Fewer flutes and clarinets; more euphoniums, serpents, and cimbassos, please. If I were a composition teacher (which seems unlikely at this point), I would recommend those low brass to get the kids’ heads out of the clouds.

  13. says

    Totally agree. I’ve sometimes recommended Pierrot ensemble to my students in the past, and I may reconsider due to this post. Most end up simply flitting from one instrument to another and struggling to create any strong timbral identity. Plus, there are so many other 20th century chamber combinations that are more distinctive to me (L’histoire, Octandre, Ancient Voices of Children, Rothko Chapel, Le Marteau sans Maitre).

    I do tend to like smaller combinations of the same instruments like violin, clarinet and piano; or flute, cello, and piano. However, the “eighth blackbird” variant with percussion seems to work better somehow.

  14. says

    I often substitute accordion for piano, because I got sick of “we’re playing in a venue that doesn’t have a piano.” It makes a nice timbral bridge between the winds and the strings.

    KG replies: I love the accordion; I would love to write for accordion, but have never been given the opportunity; every time I see a nice accordion in a music store, I consider buying it and learning it. My mother played the instrument as a little girl.

  15. Alex LaFollett says

    When I was finishing up my doctoral composition portfolio last year, my adviser recommended I add another mixed chamber work. As I already had a Pierrot ensemble piece, I decided to go out in left field: flute, horn, violin, viola, violoncello, and celesta. The seeming balance mismatch really forced me to be creative, and the end result had an absurd, mocking neo-classicism about it. Personally, I think it turned out to be the best thing I’ve written.

    The aforementioned Pierrot piece I did ended up being kind of like an overripe banana–syrupy and melodramatic–and I’ve had a complicated relationship with it over the years. I think you hit the nail on the head with the problems of the ensemble. It’s paradoxically too homogenous and not homogenous enough.

  16. William Chevdar says

    So it’s not only inadequate, now it’s the worst orchestration ever?!?! Is there nothing that Europeans can do right? I bet if John Cage wrote a famous piece for fl/cl/vn/vc/pf and virtually every composer since had done the same you would be telling us how “natural” the orchestration is. And if Feldman hated the line up so much (your words, not his) why did he write for it so many times?

    KG replies: What a huge mess of hyperbole to read in the morning on my way to the comics!

    • William Chevdar says

      Sorry, I didn’t think you’d actually post my comment or I would have taken more time with it. Basically, you’re kind of infamous around people my age (20’s) for being this über-patriotic, fascist dictator when it comes to new music from abroad. You had some article a few years back where you claimed you never heard of Spectralism, or something. Anyway, my friends say they post all the time and you never accept their comments so I thought I would chime in on this one. Pierrot Lunaire is the piece that actually got my into modern/contemporary music in the first place so, naturally, I thought this was too good to resist. It’s actually a very easy ensemble to write for as long as you treat it like a chamber orchestra and don’t treat every instrument like a soloist.

      KG replies: That’s really cool. I never heard of spectralism? I reject people’s comments? Don’t like European music? Fascist dictator? Patriotic? What a vivid caricature of a kind of person I can hardly imagine. Perhaps people your age should take the time to read my books and articles in between episodes of The Wire. Allow me to quote your god Arnold Schoenberg (to continue in the hyperbolic mode): “So it always goes with very great men. At each are fired all those accusations of which the opposite is true. Yes, all, and with such accuracy that one must be taken aback by it.” And while I’m always happy to take compositional advice from people half my age, if you’ll take the time to look at my piece Hovenweep (for Pierrot ensemble), you’ll find it written very chamber-orchestrally, with lots of doublings, triplings, quadruplings, and quintuplings:

      Go tell your friends.

  17. says

    Well I am European and I do know what ‘spectralism’ is. It is yet another sub-category of a sub-category of European electronica that only seems to exist in U.K. universities.
    For a short time I belonged to a U.K. organisation devoted to this kind of stuff and apart from a couple of people, they were an insular group of intellectuals. Spectralism, is as pointles as Strato-D-ism, rock music played only on the D string of a Stratocaster guitar.
    Sorry William, I’m with Kyle here. Although I don’t want to get at you personally, the attitude you seem to be promoting is a very British attitude (and I am British) and goes a long way to explaining why American composers sell out our major concert halls and U.K. electro-acoustic composers play to an audience made up entirely of other electronic composers and their students. I asked one such composer why he didn’t go to the local arts centre and perform in front of the public. His reply? – he will after he has had a meeting with an information technologist to see what the audience expects from a concert.

    Finally for those readers who are not Biritish, in the U.K. the phrase ‘fascist dictator’ is used as a general, all-purpose, insult for anyone who has a view they disagree with. By the way, do you live in Shoreditch?