BBCSO Embedded: Reflections & 2nd Workshop

April 22, 2013
10:00 amto5:00 pm

Those who have been following my blog know that Tom Coult, Ben Oliver, and I had our first workshop with the BBC Symphony Orchestra – as part of our residency through the Sound and Music Embedded Scheme – on 18th March.  I learned a huge amount in the 90 minutes I spent with the orchestra, and wanted to distill some of that information here.

Aaron works with the BBCSO violin sections during the first workshop

Working with the BBCSO violin sections during the first workshop

Alexandra Gardner has posted some helpful advice for composers preparing for orchestral readings at New Music Box, so I thought I would keep my own thoughts to a few more specific topics that I have been reflecting on after our workshop:

EDITSphoto1. Recordings are lies. Clarify!
Where does a composer learn to orchestrate today?  One of the issues present in my first draft – and indeed in a great deal of new orchestral music by young composers – was the need for greater clarity.

As I made many of these changes, I thought a lot about the fact that recordings, and in particular stereo recordings, make sound physically smaller.  You take thirty (or so) violins through some 2-12 microphones and pan them into a particular part of the stereo field (of course, there are reflections of the instruments captured by your room/AB/decca tree/etc…but this is how the main body of sound is treated).  No matter how loud or soft they are, there is now room in the recording around them where other details can be placed and brought out. This is (obviously) not the case in a live room.   Even when just the violin sections of an orchestra play softlythere are still some thirty players includedacross a very large physical space.

Conversely, most modern recordings will have an individual microphone for every player of the wind section, proportionally increasing the clarity and presence each of these players can have in the recording.  You can see from my correction markings on a single page of the first workshop score that I had made a lot of mistakes in this area.  I’ve now hung that phrase, written in large letters, on a paper hung above my drafting table: “What is this?! Clarify”

When I was in America, professional orchestral rehearsals weren’t really something I found many opportunities for, but this Embedded Scheme has already allowed me to attend more than two-dozen rehearsals with the BBCSO, and the LSO Soundhub Scheme allows even associate members to attend LSO rehearsals.  Student composers: becomes associate members and spend every day you can at LSO rehearsals!  Write to orchestral managers and ask if you can come to some rehearsals.  This is the time in your life when you have the hours available to dedicate to this and your technique will thank you.

2. In chamber music dynamics can be colours, in orchestral music dynamics are dynamics.
In much of my string writing for the first workshop, I was using dynamics to indicate the emotional rise and fall of the line, while in the wind parts I was often using dynamics to suggest the character or colour of the music.  In chamber music, though, the musicians have a much larger part of the whole, and so can be more active in balancing themselves correctly with the overall ensemble.  A piano ‘colour’ within an overall mezzo-forte makes a lot of sense in chamber music, and experienced musicians do this intuitively.

In the orchestra, the players play the dynamics and look elsewhere (accents, tempi, written indications in the music) for character.  So in orchestral music, treat dynamics as dynamics and be very careful to take time calculating the volume of sound you need well apart from the timbre you are after.

One other interesting thing that came out of the workshop was noticing that as the number of dynamics increases so does the overall volume.  This can be used to advantage, of course, but in my piece the detail in trying to mark every shift from p -> mp and back again was making everything far too overwrought.

3. [A little more of a niche point] Microtones: Notate in flats, and listen for ‘drift’ in chords.
Microtones are still far from standard practice – even in an orchestra as experienced with them at the BBCSO.  It is well worth thinking about which notation you use to indicate the note you are after.  In general, all of the wind players felt strongly that the microtones should be notated as lowered rather than raised pitches.  They also played much more accurately when they were/when they had re-notated the pitches in their parts:

this not thisThis suggests the players are thinking of microtones as an altered ‘normal’ note.  It is easier to achieve a E-three-quarters-flat than D-quarter-sharp because the player fingers E-flat and then alters the pitch using their embouchure.  While precise and exhaustive fingerings do exist, they are so far from standard (even within the same instrument) that it is unlikely every player will have them at their disposal in a workshop – or often even if the piece is performed (as our works will be, in November).

I also found that chords including microtones were far more likely to ‘drift’  – very slightly but continually -within a certain pitch range as opposed to the more stable feeling we are used to hearing in standard tuning.  I actually enjoyed this sensation and was pleased with the inner life and movement it brought to the  microtonal chords, but it is also – of course – frustrating when the microtones are intended not as alterations but as specific, exact pitches.    This is certainly still a difficult problem to work around in orchestras and I will be back with more thoughts on it after the second workshop (22nd April)!

I’m asking for permission to release a few of the music examples from the two workshops in a future post, which will discuss the finished piece. Until then, please do feel free to browse the 2nd workshop score below.

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