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The Orchestra as a Puzzle


Welcome to the fourth instalment of my series on getting your composition career off the ground. In my previous post, I warned of a long delay... I wasn't, however, expecting a two year delay!

Today we're discussing orchestration; that is, the art of putting sound together within the context of multiple sounds. This is, after learning the building blocks of melody and harmony and form, the most complex issue of composition.

As always, we'll start by defining a few resources for you to have at your disposal:

Principles of Orchestration by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

The Study of Orchestration by Samuel Adler

Rimsky-Korsakov's text is widely considered to be one of the best and, since he is considered one of the greatest masters of orchestration in history, it is a well-deserved reputation. Bonus: it's old, therefore public domain, therefore free.

Samuel Adler's manual is widely used in university music programmes. The above link is for the book only; it does have a workbook that you can purchase for some exercises.

But, this being the modern era, there is a lot more out there. An excellent resource is Orchestration Online, which has a series of blogs linked under their resources section. Tim Davies's is particularly good.

Getting Started

Enrich thy knowledge

You can read texts and do exercises as much as the day is long. But the best orchestrators have learned the art through trial and error and by studying the music of the masters. Studying scores is the thing that will help you more than anything. Get your hands on every bit of music you can and study the scores while listening to recordings. Listen to more than one recording, as well--different groups or conductors will alter balance in subtle ways, altering the ultimate colour of what you're hearing.

The International Music Score Library Project is your best friend. Start with your favourite pieces and tear them apart. Figure out how the composer created your favourite sounds. Be prepared to be surprised--things are often less complex that you think they're going to be.

Focus on groupings you want to write for. If you want to write string quartets, I suggest you study Beethoven's, Shostakovich's or Bartók's. If you want to write for orchestra, study Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel, or Beethoven. For concert band, Alfred Reed's work is the best with respect to orchestration. Frank Ticheli is also a master and has very interesting ideas about colour and instrument groupings.

If your focus is on concert band music, it's worth noting that, due to the relative youth of the ensemble, the literature tends not to be public domain. Most of the main-stream/titanic literature for the ensemble is hidden behind the doors of major publishing houses, so that's purchase-only territory. You'll have to either purchase scores or spend some time in a university's music library. But a lot of younger, more social-media-era savvy composers (like Steven Bryant and John Mackey) put up perusal scores on their personal websites.

They say that emulation is the sincerest form of flattery. Spend a bit of time emulating your favourite composers, create sounds similar to theirs. Then explore how you can shift them around. Think about how you can change combinations and textures and create your own sounds based on them.

Consume everything you can and avail yourself of all the wonderful resources of the internet. IMSLP and YouTube have the basic tools you require to start acquiring an understanding of how instruments and voices can interact with one another. You don't need to spend an arm and a leg, and you can teach yourself to do this. I did--I was writing music for large ensembles (and having it performed) for years before I took an orchestration class at university.

Making (and learning from) mistakes

When you're first learning how to orchestrate you're going to make some mistakes. You're going to be shocked by what doesn't work and what does. There's a great deal of trial and error that's involved in this process, even for those of us who know what we're doing.

For myself, it was always the fear of balance within the ensemble... that if I put a line in just one instrument it wouldn't be heard. My early pieces for concert band were clunky at best. I had everyone playing all the time.

I was lucky because I was surrounded by musicians and teachers who supported me. Feedback from conductors and fellow musicians was essential (especially in identifying just how clunky my music was). You just have to do it--get writing and then get people to sight read it for you. Record your readings. A simple voice memo on an iPhone has surprisingly good quality these days. Or you can pick up a Zoom recorder, which is an affordable way to get high quality recordings.

Perhaps most important of all, let go of your fears that people won't like your music. Some people aren't going to. If you're going to be an artist, you're going to have critics. Listen carefully to what they say. Extract what is (or can be) constructive. Ignore the rest and forge ahead.

Start Small

I think the biggest mistake that I made was trying to start too big, too soon. I jumped straight into writing for concert band before ever trying to compose a small solo or a simple piano piece. Of course, there was nothing that was going to stop me from doing this, but that's just me.

But where I got better was going back and writing for smaller ensembles. Also, it's easier to get your music performed when you write for smaller groups, especially starting out.

The thing is, chamber music forces you to use instruments for their sonic identity--you have to pay attention to colour and timber more. This understanding of the instrument translates into composing for larger ensembles. Also, you get better at blending harmony and melody together as moving parts in smaller contexts.

Every bit of skill you develop along the way is infinitely applicable.

The Puzzle

You might have gathered by now that I am a big fan of using metaphor (and simile) to explain musical concepts. So, here's your comparison of the day: the orchestra is like a giant puzzle that has multiple solutions. For me, thinking in this way was very important on my journey to understanding how to use voices and instruments together.

Next time: A discussion on competitions and getting your music performed

#Composition #Orchestration

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