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Archive for April, 2011

My most recent piece, Moments of Beauty for Chamber Orchestra, was written for an amateur orchestra with many good players, but some weaker ones. This gives me an opportunity to blog about writing new music for amateurs, and to explain why I disagree with the approach put forward by CoMA – Contemporary Music for Amateurs.

The chamber orchestra is the London Contemporary Chamber Orchestra. Unlike most amateur orchestras, which aspire to play the classics, the LCCO is a rehearsal orchestra for composers. Its role is to play new pieces and give feedback to the composers. It also performs and records the best pieces. I conduct the orchestra, so I know the individual players and their technical standards very well.

I was taking part in a project involving several composers, based on trying to use the 18th century orchestral form of the Concerto Grosso as a basis for a modern piece, using in some way the alternation of chamber and tutti passages typical of pieces such as the Brandenberg Concertos.

With an amateur group, this immediately raises the question of how to write successful chamber music passages. There is also the question of how to organise the tutti passages in a way which both gives the players sufficient ‘cover’, but which also provides each of them with a reasonable sense of challenge.

The CoMA view (and I played in their groups for many years, and think they have done great things) is that the way to produce effective contemporary music for amateurs is to use devices such as flexible instrumentation, unspecified pitches, and ways of producing complex effects without using complex notation.

My experience of amateur players is that most of them do not take to this approach. Partly they are keen to play music which is idiomatic to their instruments, rather than lines which could be played on a variety of instruments. Partly they wish to use the skills in reading and interpreting conventional notation which they have worked so hard to learn.

I recall one member of a CoMA ensemble who then played in the LCCO commenting that it was really nice to play some notes for a change.

In writing the piece, my aim was to give the players a fair amount of cover most of the time, moments of exposure for their instrument, and some technical challenges which they would have to work to achieve but which were within their ability.

This seems to me the real way to write for an amateur orchestra – imagine the material and structure while thinking of the players and their ability to play the material, and to forget the notion of hearing sounds and them expecting the players to play them some how. It is necessary to leave behind the ivory tower of the composer’s individual imagination, and instead to treat the people in the orchestra as collaborations in the piece.

The piece consists of 5 miniatures. Each features a different trio of solo instruments in the chamber music (concertino) sections, which are all slow and expressive – very exposed, but not technically challenging. Also, only the leaders of the string sections play in the concertino passages, and the less confident players do not have to play.

The orchestra is then divided into 4 lines, plus separate piano and percussion parts, for the tutti sections. These are more technically challenging since they are faster, and because the time signature changes every bar, and include complex time signatures such as 7/8. However, since every player will be doubling several others, there is plenty of cover.

I will find out what the orchestra thinks when they workshop it on June 25th, and give me their comments. The piece will be performed on October 8th – details on my Web Site.

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