The symphony orchestra is the one of the most exciting, challenging, and rewarding mediums in concert music. Here are ten things for emerging composers to learn now that will make give their orchestral music instant (and ongoing) finesse. I’ve honed these in my own orchestral works and those of my students at the New England Conservatory in Boston.
1. Sing what you’re writing. If you can’t sing it, then why should someone who plays in an orchestra learn to play it? If a player or conductor is having trouble with a passage that you’ve written and you can sing it to them, you gain instant credibility.
2. Pay attention to what is going on in your bass. The bass sonorities have greater sonic weight because they have a broader range of overtones. The clearer you are about the harmonic implications of your bass, the clearer the harmonic palette — and progression - - of your orchestral piece.
3. Steal from other composers. No police person will ever come to your door and accuse you of ripping off Debussy, Messiaen, Stravinsky, or whichever living composer you most admire. People will just think your scores sound good. As long as we have our own creative vision, the things that we borrow from other composers get filtered through our creative prism, so they come out sounding like us anyway. It would take lifetimes if we started from scratch in the orchestral medium.
4. Any texture that you write for orchestra should be reducible to a short score that you can play on the piano. If you aren’t fluent enough to play a reduction of what you are writing for orchestra, then practice every day for a few weeks, and you will get there. Very rarely does any effective orchestral sonority have more than four (maximum five) layers. Knowing what is in every register at all times, and making sure there is only one line or texture in each, will help you avoid muddy writing. Playing through your piece in real time will help with architectural clarity.
5. Make yourself into a pest to your player colleagues. They will think of you as the composer who writes lines for their instrument that make them sound like gods and goddesses of their instruments, and are not a pain in the ass to play. You’ll be amazed at how generous with information players are if you simply ask for help. None of the established orchestral composers whose music you admire learned to write those great licks in a vacuum. They have go-to players that they run things by. Start now.
6. Don’t be so caught up in your vision that you forget to give others positive feedback. If an ensemble reads or performs your work, be sure to be gracious and thank them. Single out specific players or passages to complement. Even if it was a train wreck, find something positive to say.
7. Don’t hesitate to revisit, re-hear, and revise. Be analytical about what worked in your score and what didn’t. The orchestral medium is forgiving, but you will be shooting from the hip for your first few works, so accept that (and develop your mechanism for when and how to revise until you hit that sweet spot where you are one hundred per cent sure that you got it right).
8. Don’t overuse your percussion, but be bold with your rhythms and percussion instrument choices, supporting the large-scale structure. As my grand-teacher Roger Sessions (with whom three of my own teachers studied) said, “The more things you hit and bang, the less it matters what you hit and bang.”
9. Develop a thick skin. The orchestral world is tough. You will be humiliated. (Orchestral composer colleagues, you know what I’m talking about).
10. Keep it short. People rarely want to sit through a long piece from a composer they’ve never heard of. Make your impact succinctly (five to six minutes is better than fifteen). Show them that you have chops and something to say. Longer forms are more challenging to pull off. You don’t want to be challenged in form and medium at the same time. Once you prove yourself in the orchestral realm and are more comfortable with longer forms, you can write that longer orchestral piece, and the world will be ready for it.
- KATI AGOCS (6/2013)