It’s our fault

Is orchestral music a style? My answer would have been a quick No, as neither is trumpet music a style, or vocal music. But I had to stop and wonder, since the issue came up on Kyle Gann’s illuminating blog PostClassic. He recounts the tale of a composer who had a new orchestral piece—a commission—performed, and who was fairly horrified that it received only one run-through at one rehearsal. That was all, followed by a very sub-par performance.

Not a fun experience for any composer. I would have thought no more of it, except that the blog comments coalesced around lack of rehearsal time as the primary culprit for why new music is not more successful with orchestras. That struck me as odd, since new music is more successful with orchestras now than in decades, and since throughout history composers have complained about lack of rehearsal time.

It seemed to me, then, that composers who write successful pieces for orchestras learn to work within that reality, no matter what style they write in. Since I’ve written well over 20 orchestral pieces (some of which I’ve kept), I’ve had a bit of experience with the huge amount of work that goes into getting a piece to “sound.” While I hope that I’m continuing to learn, I commented that we ought not blame rehearsal time for our troubles.

The jist of some of the responses was that of course it’s no problem to write for orchestra, so long as you accommodate your style to orchestral limitations. But I can’t agree with that—it’s not easy to write for orchestra, and I wondered what those styles might be that orchestras just can’t play.

One person heard a Glass piece with the L.A. Phil, said it didn’t sound good, and so blamed the orchestra for not spending enough time on it. His logic eluded me.

In the back of my mind I was thinking: Rosenkavalier (is there anything more complex than one page of that?), Messiaen, Bartòk, Hiroshima, Mozart: if orchestras can play those, they can play anything, can’t they? And that music just doesn’t “play,” it leaps off the stage. Gann said that I must not know too many styles or I would never say that style doesn’t matter.

I sensed a confusion of “style” with “technique,” as when he mentioned rhythms the fabulous Ijsbreker Ensemble can play that an orchestra couldn’t (without a lot of rehearsal). I wondered what these non-orchestral rhythms might be, and if they were limited to a particular style? He also mentioned that the piece in the original story consisted only of the pitch A. Come now, there is no live ensemble in the world that can make unisons and octaves sound good without a huge expenditure of blood, sweat, and probably some tears. Perhaps it wasn’t about the orchestra after all, but about live performance.

My main point, though, was that the responsibility of making an orchestra “sound” rests, above all, on the composer. Whether the orchestra is professional or amateur, has lots of rehearsal or hardly any, the one person who has to make it work is the composer. For too long we’ve let ourselves off the hook. We are, many times, unprepared, sloppy, and even arrogant. Orchestral music is nothing but truckloads of little tiny things to get right or to mess up. If we can’t be bothered to sweat that small stuff, and orchestras have trouble with our music, it’s our fault.

And don’t even get me started on page turns.

Now I don’t know the piece in question and so have no opinion on it. Perhaps it was entirely the orchestra’s cavalier handling of it that was its downfall. There probably is less rehearsal time for some orchestras now. And there are some (few) players who bring ungenerous attitudes to anything new. But I wrote this:

I’ve heard way too many stories by orchestral players—professional, vital, fully engaged artists who can play and sight-read anything—who are incredulous at the poorly written stuff they have to slog through, by big names, huge names, no names, this style and that style. Music that they try to bring to life but that will never, ever sound good no matter how much it’s rehearsed. Music that buries them. Music where mistakes don’t matter. Music where the composer never hears what’s right, what’s wrong. Music that forces the player to wonder, “Why am I even here?”

A list of 14 composers by Gann—again, I suppose, to display the range of styles he must be assuming I didn’t know—stymied me. Not that I didn’t know them; I had heard the music of 12 of them, including one orchestral piece, which I thought was brilliant. No, what puzzled me was why he mentioned them. Was he saying that if only I had known them, then I’d have known that these were composers who obviously can’t write for orchestra? I thought that was odd, especially if he knew any of them personally. But I could imagine any of their music with orchestra.

Maybe some have chosen not to write for orchestra. Fine. And electronic music is, okay, electronic. But so what? Music for viols is different from music for violins. There are people (few, but there are people) who can’t stand the Ravel orchestration of Pictures, since it ruins (they think) a perfectly good piano piece. That’s fine, too. Orchestras don’t play electronics… well, pianos don’t play portamentos, big deal.

But this is not style. What (I continued to wonder) are the stylistic barriers?

I never have gotten an answer to that. Gann quipped that since it was all so easy, why doesn’t he tell all those composers to send me scores and I can distribute them to conductors. I wrote back to say that’s a great idea, please go ahead, since that’s one of the things I do at the Fleisher Collection. But his heart must not have been in it since he didn’t print that response, and then closed the comments.

You can read it here.

[Update: that “here” used to have a link, but a correspondent informed me that all my comments have now been removed. Looky there… sure enough. How delightful to be deemed so dangerous to an orthodoxy as to warrant obliteration in an Orwellian memory hole. Well, it feels good to be liberated. Such agita, figuring out whom to blame. Thanks for setting me free!]

One thought on “It’s our fault

  1. Becky

    I couldn’t agree more. It rests solely on the composer. Rhythms? Have they heard Stravinsky? When the Philadelphia Orchestra trombone section has to play a piece with their feet helping them stretch their slides to the limit because their arms aren’t long enough, there is a slight problem. It is not with the players.

    Reply

Leave a Reply