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!