The Lessons of Youth

The Lessons of Youth

A few weeks ago, Dan Visconti lauded the virtues of composing for youth orchestras. I’d like to second Dan’s endorsement: As I approach the double bar of my own piece for youth orchestra and the stiff challenges of the project begin to recede, I can echo his sentiment in good conscience. There’s a lot about writing for youth orchestra that took me out of my comfort zone—huge ensemble, relatively inexperienced (albeit eager) players, periodic changes in instrumentation due to fluctuations in personnel—but the experience so far has been invaluable, and the parts aren’t even due until December.

Again, that’s not to say it’s been particularly easy; because many of the techniques I rely on (including quarter-tones, obscure rhythms, and certain advanced instrumental techniques) would require an impractical amount of rehearsal time to realize, I’ve taken them off the table. Notice I don’t say they’d be impossible: In fact, I imagine that the process of learning and rehearsing a piece with microtones and a high degree of rhythmic complexity could be quiet horizon-expanding for a group of young players. However, the “overhead” that accompanies such challenges would in this case be prohibitive. The result of this paring-back is that I’ve had to look for new ways of achieving the musical relationships I crave.

The suspicion (not, of course, the certainty) that particular passages within a piece can’t be taken at face value is a sensation I love to induce in listeners. I often use quarter-tones and altered instrumental timbres to destabilize and ambiguate familiar-sounding material, but I’ve had to investigate new ways to reach these goals in the absence of my fallback tactics. I’ve had to consider the possibility that some of my cues won’t be picked up by the listener, that without the sonic subtleties of which I ordinarily avail myself I may have to accept a wider range of “misunderstandings” of the piece than I usually encounter.

I’m okay with that, I think. Controlling a listener’s perception of one’s music is and has always been impossible, so maybe by abandoning some of my technical capability to work with younger players I’m acknowledging this truth in a more honest way. Maybe some or all of my audience will take my material at face value—there’s nothing I can do about it but provide them with a sufficiently interesting musical object to observe and draw what conclusions they will. But to discuss the audience’s reaction at this point is to put the cart before the horse: First I have to finish the piece and get it to the orchestra!

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3 thoughts on “The Lessons of Youth

  1. danvisconti

    Hey Colin, first of all congratulations and good luck; I hope it turns out to be a nice compliment to your experiences with the LCO.

    You bring up a very good point about effective writing for orchestra–not in favor of dumbing down one’s music but rather in favor of paring down one’s technique to keep writing the kind of music you want to. In my experience I found that writing a lot of chamber music made me lazy–it allowed me to get away with things that would never have flown with any kind of orchestra! I think writing for orchestra forced me to find the clearest and most easily-executable way of doing everything.

    The other big issue that orchestra writing forced me to confront was balance. Any balance issues in a chamber piece truly pale in comparison to the perils inherent in the orchestra. And I also think I had a bad habit of overusing “chamber music” dynamics like mp, mf, etc; everything has to be projected on such a larger scale and part of the fun is learning how to compose all over again, in a sense.

  2. Colin Holter

    And I also think I had a bad habit of overusing “chamber music” dynamics like mp, mf, etc

    Interesting – I’ve never heard middle dynamics like mp and mf referred to as “chamber music dynamics” before. But I totally hear what you’re saying about skill set interoperability between composing and chamber music and composing orchestral music. Thanks for the comment, Dan.

  3. danvisconti

    You probably have not heard that term since I appear to have fabricated it!

    Maybe a better way to say it would be that I relied too much on notated dynamics to express minutely-controlled gradations of volume, and I wasn’t as aware of how I might control the size and mass of sound to accomplish many of the same things, and often in a more aurally satisfying way. There are so many other ways to control volume through orchestration, so to me it’s often in chamber music when things like poco and mezzo are most useful—because the dynamic markings are pretty much absolute.

    I might have accidentally given the impression that mp/mf never have their place in orchestra music, but it’s just that I think they are very overused in the contemporary orchestral canon. That’s why when I see an orchestra score that employs mezzo and poco a bit too zealously, I find myself thinking “these are chamber music dynamics–they would make a lot of sense for a string quartet, but there’s no way they’re going to succeed in capturing the subtle details the composer was hoping for when the orchestra rips into it.


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