Orchestral Music as Paradox

A brilliant composer friend of mine recently had a reading of a piece done by a major orchestra. All the other composers, she said, and the orchestra management, went around talking about how the orchestra desperately needs to come up with new ideas, so they can build up a new audience. Her piece was very percussion driven, centered around a trap-set part that the orchestral percussionists didn’t know how to handle, and so the reading was somewhat lacking. The other composers, commiserating, told her that the string section really needs to be the driver of an orchestra piece. And as she told me about it, I formed exactly the same question she’d been asking herself: Which is it? Does the orchestra need new ideas, or will composers invariably get screwed over if they don’t stick to the tried-and-true? How do these fucked-up orchestra composers and musicians manage to keep those contradictory principles in their heads at the same time?

UPDATE: I should have recalled that Charles Ives had similar experiences with orchestras, and wrote that the advice he received boiled down to: “If you want something played, write something you don’t want played.”



  1. mclaren says

    This kind of deliberate Catch-22 offers a superb example of the way the contemporary music establishment systematically crushes innovation and enforces the status quo ante with an ideological purity more savage than the NKVD under Stalin.

    Example: last year, one of the front-pagers on New Music Box asked composers what they wanted to create in new music. Every single composer answered “Novelty.” All the answers boiled down to creating new types of music never heard before. Except…all the composers intended to work in (wait for it…) the conventional 12 equal tones per octave. Catch-22: require that composers produce amazingly new startlingly novel dramatically unprecedented music…then force ’em all into the standard squirrel cage of the conventional 12 pitches per octave. Presto! Change-o! The Catch-22 elegantly sets up a requirement and then makes it impossible for composers to meet that requirement…enforcing the brutal lesson that You Are Not A Worthwhile Composer to everyone foolish enough to enter some scam contest or composer’s prize, the better to teach the Eternal Lesson of America to every composer out there: The peg that stands out must be hammered down.

    Another example: in the single most hilarious example of Catch-22 repression I’ve ever encountered on New Music Box, Alexandra Gordon asked in an essay “Why are there so many books about kick-starting your creativity?”
    In my comment, I answered her question — because America hates creativity and imagination and joy, being a fanatically puritanical culture centered around the adoration of suffering (“No pain, no gain!”) and the loathing of pleasure (which, as everyone knows, is the gateway to sin and damnation). Thus, to be taken seriously, American music must be utterly abstract and totally joyless. American music can never be taken seriously if it disrupts the Very Serious musical status quo with joyful imagination and fires up the audience with enthusiasm. These are the characteristics of deeply unserious music.

    And ever since the American musiKKKal elites enforced a rigid orthodoxy of worshiping ugliness starting the 1950s, Amercans composers have been required to act as a herd of bovine avant gardists mooing in rigid unison — only the creativity deemed appropriate by the American modernist musiKKKal elites is permitted. The composer can create grinding unpleasant shrieks and hoots and howls by bowing the back of the violin or rasping against the brudge of the violin or scraping the bow along the tuning nuts of the violin…or the composer can create grinding unpleasant roars and blasts of noise by scraping amplified phonograph cartridges against various types of rough material. Or the composer can create teeth-scrapingly unpleasant thumps and hoots and screeches by breaking up the 12 equal pitches into a five-dimensional hypersurface of numerically assigned sets of pitch, loudness, timbre, duration and time-point attack. Or the composer can create rasping skittering nails-scraped-against-chalkboard sounds from a conventional cello, as in this widely-praised example of pure timbral ugliness (go to 6 minutes 40 seconds for a perfect example).

    But if a composer tries to be creative by doing something beautiful, say, writing a gorgeous melody in 37-limit just intonation, or in 19 equal pitches per octave, or with a non-just-non-equal tuning on a Balinese gamelan, why…that’s just not real music. That kind of music cannot be taken seriously. That kind of music simply does not meet the standards of substantive musical practice among new music elites.

    In short, America allows people only to the rock the boat in the direction of “more of the same old sh*t.” Creativity in contemporary music is truly creative only if it produces uglier sounds.. Creativity in serious music is only creative, genuinely novel and truly daring if it pistol-whips the audience with a sonic bludgeoning that makes them cringe and whimper like whipped dogs….

    Because this is the way you show that America welcomes creative people who rock the boat and dissent from the status quo.

    Sometimes, you just have to laugh.

    Don’t get thinking it’s a real country because you can get a lot of high school kids into gym suits and have them spell out “bananas” for the news reels. — F. Scott Fitzgerald [Notebooks: entry 441]

    • kea says

      I don’t know that it’s very useful responding to comments like this, but thought I’d mention that I quite enjoy Ferneyhough’s Time and Motion Study II (more than many of his other works, in fact) and don’t find the sounds it makes ugly at all. I also doubt Ferneyhough created it for the sole purpose of novelty as all of the “technical devices” it uses (live electronics, tape delay…) had existed for about two decades already; imagine he was driven at least in part by the basic urge of the creative artist, to make something beautiful and meaningful. It may be that his definition of beauty or meaning is quite different from yours, but I am not aware of the existence of any objective artistic truth to say he’s “wrong” per se.

  2. kea says

    By ‘build a new audience’ orchestras usually mean ‘bring back the audience we had 75 years ago’. They are looking for new ideas not on how to appeal to any existing audience but on how to somehow reverse societal change so that their ideal audience exists once more.

  3. says

    To my feeling, there is something wrong with the question. If you write for ‘the orchestra’, you have to deal with the possibilities and limitations that is a natural given of any instrument or ensemble: the piano, the violin, the clarinet, the chorus, the church organ, the string quartet, the piano trio, etc. etc. If you want to write in a percussive way, and (for instance) combine it with electronics and winds, you have to seek another ensemble. There are many ‘modern music ensembles’ around with a flexible composition of means, different from the symphony orchestra.

    The question is formulated too much in material terms. It is on the level of the composer’s imagination where the answer is to be found. If a composer’s imagination requires different means than the symphony orchestra can provide, well, leave the orchestra alone. The symphony orchestra is not merely a bunch of players, but a differentiated group of highly-trained musicians (as one would hope) who carry a very long tradition with them, forming a kind of ‘instrument’ together, one of the most sophisticated creations of Western civilization. Writing for such ensemble requires a thorough understanding of its tradition, and of course that implies accepting a number of aesthetic and stylistic norms. Nothing wrong with that, in our postmodern times. If the composer feels that this ‘instrument’ is not quite relating to ‘modern times’, it may be the ‘times’ that are at fault, not the ‘instrument’.

    KG changes his reply: In other words, you don’t like the question because it’s not the one that gives you the answer you already want.

    • says

      That’s merely circumventing the argument. The mistake of many contemporary composers is their demand, that the world conform to their ideas BEFORE these ideas have been tested in reality and proved to be acceptable and worthwhile. This is a typically 19C romantic idea of the artist as ‘priest’, ‘exploring’ new territory, struggling against slow convention, etc. etc. Before 1800, art music developed according to new ideas from composers which were tested, step by step, within existing perceptive frameworks. Their new ideas were new in terms of expression, the effective ones stimulated players’ and audience’s interest, which in turn led to developments in instrument building (pianoforte) and ensemble constitution (the first developments of ‘the orchestra’). All this happened gradually in a context where there was a demand for new music – i.e. an attentive and curious audience – and composers’ imagination. That contact between composers, players and audiences, within a shared perceptive framework, has – in relation to ‘the orchestra’ – eroded and one of the greatest influence onto that erosion was postwar modernism, turning ‘classical music’ as a whole into a museum culture because the then ‘new music’ was based upon a fundamental break with history, tradition, cultural and aesthetic norms, etc. etc. You cannot have your cake and eat it.

      So, if contemporary composers want to write for orchestra, they simply have to accept the nature of the medium. Complaining that an apple is not a pear, is just silly.

      KG replies: You keep restating my point only with approval: the orchestras don’t want new ideas except a few circumscribed and predetermined ones screened and authorized by tradition-revering people like you. You’ve sent me five comments, all pompously defending privilege from creativity. This is the last one I’m approving. The classical music world is dominated by people just like you, in love with the status quo and your place in it. The rules of this post-classical blog are here:


      It’s unfortunate that you stumbled across my blog and got reminded that there are musicians out there who think there’s something wrong with the classical-music world, but you can go to almost any other classical-music blog and feel all fine again.

  4. says

    Clamoring after “new ideas” is problematic, often driving compositional thinking toward the “novelty” for novelty’s sake that mclaren notes. I was recently at a concert where a young composer, writing a chamber work for traditional instrumentation, expressed emphatically his desire, above all, to “do something new,” and chose, therefore, to work completely against the character of the instruments for which he was composing. Two other composers in the same program, writing for the same instrumentation, worked with, rather than against, their chosen instruments and, to my mind, created excellent additions to the contemporary repertoire. My belief is that the latter two did not focus on “new” or “novelty,” but on making it their own. I think that ought to be the goal, always, and if the work expresses something authentic and resonant, listeners will lend their ears.

    When I think of the orchestra, it seems to me perhaps not limitless, but nonetheless inexhaustible, in the possibilities it makes available for creative expression. We have before us a very recent example of a piece for orchestra that is a case in point: John Luther Adams’s become ocean. I don’t know, but I suspect that Adams, in composing become ocean, was not driven to “make it new,” but rather to express in music his deeply-lived connection with the natural world. Anyway, I would like to think so.

    In the end, whether the orchestra is appropriate to the composer’s vision comes down to what Feldman wrote: “My definition of composition is: the right note in the right place with the right instrument.”

  5. jk says

    I think it’s accurate to say that most orchestra administrators have zero desire for new ideas; and recalling the lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra, I think one could say that many administrators don’t even care for old ideas. What they DO care about, however, is new forms of marketing (though they tend to be about ten years behind the curve even on that front). Hence the demand for composers to put the cart before the horse (as one of my teachers says) by replicating Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration with new notes. It’s unfortunate that orchestra musicians tend to be recalcitrant towards new musical ideas. It’s probably partly a result of training and experience (and that same teacher of mine would say that there’s a specific second violinist-mindset, and a specific principal oboe-mindset, and so on, and that these musicians resent being required to work against their training), but I think the main cause is the atmosphere of monotony and intimidation created by administrators that threaten cut-backs while programming the same rep over and over again. It feels like a losing battle, but I think the only good way for composers to respond is to refuse to put the cart first and insist on their ideas. Because in the converse situation, where we all re-compose Scheherazade, even the winners still lose.

    • says

      This comment perfectly shows the problem in the raw. Why should orchestral planners be enthusiastic about new works which are expected to be a grave intrusion upon the orchestra’s performance culture? And thus, chase away audiences? Interest from that side has been destroyed by the many misconceptions on the side of contemporary composers.

      By the way, someone who could manage to write good and personal (!) music using a Rimsky-idiom, would REALLY explore new territory. That it is not done, is not because it is not possible, but because such thing does not fit into the wide-spread misunderstanding of concepts of novelty, originality, musical value, musical tradition.

      Mr Beethoven wrote music in an idiom he inherited from Haydn, Mozart, Cherubini and Clementi. But he said some very personal things in it. Later-on he even used idiomatic elements from Bach and Handel in his own version of a common language. The aspect of traditionalism in Beethoven has been greatly ignored while focussing on the deviating elements.

      KG replies: To ask that one of the percussionists be able to play a trap set is a grave intrusion on the orchestra’s performance culture? That’s one hell of a delicate, insular culture.

      • jk says

        I guess I would just say that good and personal music ought to be welcome no matter the idiom. On the question of tradition, I would say that a trap-set isn’t a novelty–it’s borrowed from the Rock tradition, just as other percussion was borrowed from the Janissary tradition, or trombones from church tradition. Many of the extended techniques in use now are borrowed from various types of electronic music.

        The real problem to me is that, despite my theorizing above, I don’t really understand why orchestra musicians seem so miserable so much of the time–maybe I just don’t have a full grasp of the pressure they’re under. I suspect the final responsibility lies with those in charge. Nevertheless, it seems that orchestra performers acquire the chip on their shoulder pretty early–I remember at a rehearsal being told by a (pretty good) about-to-graduate-with-a-Master’s violinist that one couldn’t play harmonics molto sul ponticello! I am not an adventuresome orchestrator by any means, so I can only imagine what complaints other composers get. I have found, though, that those pieces get the most complaints are often the most memorable. A pity then, that the easy music is more likely to be repeated.

        KG replies: It’s a good question. I don’t know many of them, but years ago a friend from Oberlin (since deceased, bless her) got a bassoon chair in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, in my home town. One day I saw her and she said she was tired because the orchestra had played the evening before. I asked what they played, and she replied, “Mmmm…. M-Mahler… I *think*.”

      • says

        That is a good point Kyle. Sometime ago I composed a work that used timpani – no other percussion – and I wanted a referee’s whistle in one part. Because of the great timpani tradition, I thought it would be better if I didn’t ask the timpanist to use a whiste. After the performance i told the conductor and he said I should just have done it and not worry about such things.

  6. says

    Your short post covers a really wide area of human activity. The organisations or people who really need new ideas are often the ones that cannot let themselves try these new ideas. Like most people, I have been in meetings where new ideas were demanded. When a new idea was put forward the reply was usually “I mean sensible ideas”, or “well that won’t work”.

    The other problem is how much do the funders of the orchestras put the brake on things? In Britain we have the dreaded Arts Council. I have only known one Arts Council employee who had an IQ above -15, and she left screaming after a very short time.

  7. says

    Good lord what a rant… i’ve played 19 note octave, 37, 48, 72, and 100 note octave divisions, as well as what you deem ugly music. Basically I’ve worked with almost every system in new music at some point or another – and I’ve played them all at major venues in New York City and conservatories and schools across the country, as well as many venues in Europe.

    I’ve never had a piece booed or get a bad reception. Every style, from gregorian chants to >12 note octave to noise and timbre based music has been met well by appreciative audiences. Good music is good, no matter how it’s written, and audiences realize this. Some music is more specific for smaller audiences – but it’s all ok.

    I don’t know what personal experiences you have had with music being taken from you in enjoyment or even performance, but you come across as damaged in some way. I’m sorry if you have had bad experiences – but there is an audience out there for everything – and there is no group or society of people trying to keep any music from being performed. If there are people who are hostile to certain sounds – there are just as many willing to listen.

    I hope you find whatever audience and balance you need – but please don’t denigrate so much! It hurts music appreciation to see and hear so much polemic thinking.

    (one last consideration. Kronos Quartet and the Bang on a Can All-Stars are probably two of the most famous new music groups that exist today. Neither one traffics in untraditional, timbre-based Fernyhough-esque music, but instead focuses on world music and tonality in what can often be deemed joyous.)

    • kea says

      If that comment was meant to be addressed to McLaren rather than KG (as I assume) I believe on rereading his comment, in spite of my knee-jerk defense of Ferneyhough, that he was talking more about the situation in academia, where students are often “forced” to write in whatever style their professors favour (often 12-note or noise/timbre-based), even if only as a result of peer pressure. Which is certainly something I’ve experienced personally at one music school (though I do remember cheating the system a few times, e.g. using a restriction to only write with certain intervals to compose a tonal melody in F-sharp major, which my professor was not happy about at all :P) and have heard many, often much worse, stories about. Perhaps ironically, it was going to other music schools where I had much more freedom to write what I liked that actually turned me on to post-serial and experimental music in a big way, after thinking it all had to sound like Webern and Babbitt for years.

      I suppose I’m lucky now to live in a small country with only three music schools of note, so there’s not really room for those kinds of academic circle-jerks and rivalries and my current uni’s student concerts typically contain electroacoustic music, pop songs, Hindustani classical music and Whitacre-style choral works with no trace of discomfort on anyone’s part. It was an educational first composition forum when one of the postgrad composers, after presenting a dense, timbral choral work somewhat inspired by Ligeti, sang a pop song he had written, and the composition professor, instead of asking questions about stylistic consistency or whatever, asked if he also did covers.

  8. Alexandra Gardner says

    Hi Kyle – I don’t think it’s possible to generalize one way or the other, but it seems (in my opinion) safe to say that for something really different to happen, both composer and orchestra (particularly the musicians themselves) need to be actively on board the plan. Orchestral percussionists are not always (um, not often?) going to be good or experienced trap set performers, and that will be tough no matter which way you slice it. It’s possible to find out, for instance, which player is best at what instrument, and make sure people are working their strengths. I think it’s a problem when anyone – composers or orchestra administrators – expect that substantial alterations from the orchestral norm will just work because they want them to. It takes elbow grease and a lot of communication. Dealing with an orchestra is like, musically and otherwise, steering a giant cruise ship. It can take a long time and be difficult, but again, it’s not impossible.

    KG replies: Well all that’s true. But with Mason Bates’s music being performed so much, and Anthony Davis’s and several other people, I think it’s time the orchestra should be apologizing if they can’t accommodate a trap set, and not tell the composer she ought to be writing more heavily for strings. Ives was told over and over that he was asking the impossible, and now his music is played all over the world. Every conductor, every manager, every orchestral musician should keep that fact in mind in their every dealing with a living composer.

    • says

      The drum kit is problematic though. Percussionists who play drum kit rarely play it well, in Britain it is often said that a drum kit played by percussionists sounds “ricky-tick” – there are of course exceptions. There is also the problem with timing. I once formed an ensemble with classical, jazz and rock musicians: the classical musicians were slightly behind the beat, the jazz musicians slightly ahead, and the rock musicians dead centre, almost like a computer sequencer. This is changing now, I did a session with classical string players a few years ago who were as dead on the beat as any rock player.
      The arts world is strange. When I used turntables in the music for a dance performance – at a dance centre that considered itself at the cutting edge of dance – a woman in the audience commented that the “record player was definitely broken”.

    • Alexandra Gardner says

      100% agreed, Kyle. I’m sorry for your friend that the orchestra couldn’t handle the task at hand.

  9. Joe Kubera says

    I guess I don’t see the big deal. Why didn’t they hire an extra percussionist who knows his/her way around a trap set? After all, orchestras hire extras to play mandolin, or accordion, or electric guitar parts all the time. Maybe they were just unwilling to do this for a reading session. In which case, why did they select that piece?

    KG replies: Worse than that. I’m trying to not give enough details to blow my friend’s cover, but it was an explicit attempt to draw composers from jazz backgrounds. But to educate them to give up their primitive drumming ways and learn the chaste beauty of writing mainly for strings, I guess.

    • jk says

      Jeez, that *really* makes it worse. They’re reinforcing the WORST aspects of orchestral jazz! They may as well ask jazz composers to write “swing” in 12/8.

  10. says

    I think the orchestra should be primarily regarded as an “amassment of forces” and used as such, and adapted as needed, where “as needed” is “as the composer needs”, not “as the players wish”. (What about a whole concert season consisting exclusively of works once bemoaned to be unplayable, which are now integral part of symphonic repertoire?… Janáček’s Symfonietta being an excellent example…)

  11. says

    First thing that came to mind: Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms 1931, no violins or violas, although calling it an Orchestral Piece may be a stretch, but it’s a repertoire piece, isn’t it? So what is the model they have in mind for us? I have to admit I was in thrall of Stravinsky’s wind-orientation when I wrote my first orchestra piece, and I remember the first first violin telling me afterwards that he had never had to count 100 measures of rest before.

    I love the Ives quote.

  12. says

    “The Orchestra,” as in “a group of 100+ musicians prepared to realize the composers’ imaginary landscape” is a consensual fiction. I don’t know that they ever existed, but if they did they were certainly extinct by the time Ives arrived on the scene.

    What we actually have, and we have a lot of them, are Archaistras: groups of 40 or 50 musicians, mostly string players, who assemble every week to play Mozart and Haydn symphonies. They play them amazingly well, but when they want to play anything that’s not a Mozart or a Haydn Symphony, they have to hire extra people to play harpsichord, sing, bang a gong, or whatever.

    There is still plenty of good music to be written for Archaistras, and they might even be eager to play it; but if you mistake them for an “Orchestra” (very easy to do, as they persist in calling themselves by that name) it will all end in tears.