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Reflections on orchestral writing

University of Melbourne Orchestr, conducted by Ben Northey

Recently I was privileged to work with the University of Melbourne Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Northey.  “Natural Light Below” was performed at the Melbourne Recital Centre and the City Recital Hall in Sydney, alongside scenes from Carmen, Liszt Piano Concerto 1 and Stravinsky’s Firebird.  It was a phenomenal experience, I was extremely happy with how the piece was performed, and I take a lot of confidence from the reception it received.

However, as always, I also realised some aspects of orchestration I should think more about. Perhaps the most striking experience was hearing the orchestra rehearse Firebird, then my piece.  The masterful orchestration of Firebird left me quite aware of where my piece was lacking (in no way due to the performers!) and the need to reflect and evaluate the weaknesses in my technique.

  •  Power of a full string section, dominance of the 1st violins, feature lower strings, variation in bowing techniques

This was the first time I’d composed for a large string section.  In fact, previously I had only written for 9 strings; this time I had 12 1st vln, 10 2nd vln, 8 vla, 6 vlc, 5 db.  I really didn’t appreciate the strength of a full section, especially when trying to use woodwind colours in conjunction with loud full strings.  I also feel like I overused the 1st violins, giving them lots of melody, tutti arco, rather than explore the viola or cello sections.  That would’ve given me a bit more contrast in the piece too.  I also think I should try a wider varitey of bowing techniques and sounds – try to get more out of the large section.

  • Under-use of brass – give them melody too!

Whilst I was happy with what I wrote for the brass section, I feel like I could’ve used them twice as much!  Strange considering I play trumpet… but I think to my favourite orchestral pieces and the brass are far more present than in my work.  Also, I tended to shy away from giving the brass a lot of long melodic phrases, even in climactic moments.

  • Huge difference between mallet percussion projection

In the piece I used xylophone, glockenspiel and vibraphone, and have written for marimba in chamber music previously.  It is only after this project I appreciate the large difference in how the instruments can cut through the orchestra or be washed out, how much difference mallets can make, and how carefully I should describe the sound to the players so they can choose the right mallets.

  • Stretch sections further – especially consider the weight of densely orchestrated sections

Allow more time for large, strong sections to dissipate.  I think leading up to a climax it was paced fairly well, but the retreat was rushed, and not probably could’ve stayed longer at the peaks.

  • Use the woodwind, brass and percussion choirs more – don’t mix everything with strings all the time! Gives greater contrast

This comes back to how I use a full string section.  Leaving strings out completely, or using solos to colour other sections would be a good way to get more contrast out of the orchestra.

  • Dynamics are hard to gauge – think about the dynamic of the section, then the dynamic of each instrumentalist

Dynamic markings keep me up at night.  Perhaps I should think on multiple levels – what dynamic do I want the audience to hear, how thick is the orchestration; then what dynamic does each player need to get that effect, and what part needs to be at the foreground.  But also, what is the shape of the larger section, where is it going, where has it come from? Then address each phrase, each instrument.

  • The middle and end of notes are important too

Especially regarding long bowed notes: should they sustain, cresc, dim, or swell? How much and when to add vibrato or non vibrato? Adding other colour? Just because you start one note one way doesn’t mean it should finish the same way?

  • Really enjoy each new colour – don’t more on too quickly.  Go deeper into the sound world, explore and commit to it as much as possible

While I was very happy with the overall sound world, sometimes I felt it could’ve been even deeper explored.  Each new sound could perhaps be extended that little bit further, given a little more time, before adding a new sound or contrasting it against another sound.  With so many options it’s easy to find the next one, but less satisfying for the piece itself.

2015 plans

2015 is already looking busy busy busy!

In January, I took part in a week-long conducting workshop at the Melbourne Youth Music Summer Camp.  Directed by the outstanding Australian conductor Luke Dollman, 12 young conductors had the chance to conduct an orchestra every morning, covering repertoire from Mozart, Wagner, Stravinsky, Strauss and Sculthorpe.  I learnt a huge amount and grew much more confident on the podium each day, and is something I would recommend to anyone interested in taking on a baton.

2015 will also see me travel to the USA to work with Brad Linde at the Washington DC Jazz Festival.  We will be putting on a concert of my big band music, featuring some incredible musicians from New York, Washington and Canada.  Currently we are looking to book some other shows in New York City and Baltimore too.

Compositionally, this year will be busy with orchestral and chamber music commissions as I finish up my Masters degree at the University of Melbourne.  First, I’m writing a piece for the University of Melbourne Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Northey, to be premiered in October and performed in both Sydney and Melbourne.

Following that, I’ll be writing a piece for trombone choir to be performed in Hong Kong, at the 2015 ‘SliderAsia’ brass festival.  The brass students at Melbourne Uni will be performing this one!

Finally, I’ve been asked to write a new work for Ensemble Three – for trumpet, trombone and guitar, also featuring electronics.  Don Immel, Joel Brennan and Ken Murray make up Ensemble Three, and I can’t wait to work closely with them in creating this work.  Also I’ve been given free rein to use electronics and MaxMSP, something I really enjoy.

While that should take me through to at least half-way through the year, the rest is still up in the air.  I’d like to write an extended work for string quartet or piano trio/quartet, and perhaps form an ensemble in Melbourne to perform my big band stuff.  Exciting times ahead in 2015  😀

– Elliott.

 

 

Solo percussion piece

I recently finished a composition for Solo percussionist, another opportunity to arise from my 2014 travels to the USA.  Colleen Bernstein, a percussion student at the Eastman School of Music, asked me to write a high-energy work for unpitched percussion instruments.  The result is “Trying to Sit Still on the Ark”, a reference to my choice of instruments being in two’s (two bongos, two tom-toms etc.).  I hope to be able to share a recording of it here soon!

Underdogs, with regrets – for bass trombone and electronics

Melbourne bass trombonist Benjamin Anderson invited me to compose a new piece for his 2014 Masters recital.  I chose to include live interactive electronics and four-speaker setup, capturing the trombone sound live then manipulating and replaying it in different ways throughout the piece.  Musically I took inspiration from the music of jazz great Charles Mingus, taking various elements of his compositions and casting them through my own compositional ideas.  The piece ended up with a bluesy influence amongst some ethereal atmospheric sounds, transitioning to more dense textures and lyrical passages.  Hopefully I’ll have some audio or video to share soon!

Ben is also performing this piece in New York at the New School, alongside the other outstanding new Australian works he commissioned for his recital.

Jobs!

I’ve been quite fortunate of late in securing some regular work.  Aside from my conducting role with the Monash Jazz Orchestra, I’ve been tutoring orchestration at Melbourne University, and recently taken up a position at Maribyrnong Secondary College as an instrumental brass tutor.  I’ve really enjoyed teaching again, and also enjoyed being paid…$$$$$$

Gigs in New York, Baltimore, Washington DC

Jazz-gallery-picAfter attending the Atlantic Music Festival in Maine, I travelled south to Washington DC, where I met with saxophonist and excellent human Brad Linde.  There he let me attack his big band, the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra, with a set of my music.  It was a very special occasion, being the first time I had seen Brad since we met at the Banff Centre in 2013.  He also invited our fellow Banffers Erika Dohi (piano), Tara Kannangara (trumpet), Julian Anderson-Bowes (bass) and Jonathan Taylor (drums) to sit in with the band.

We then travelled to New York City, taking the Banffers with us, to perform the music under the guise of the Brad Linde Expanded Ensemble.  Making up the rest of the band were some of New Yorks finest musicians, each phenominal soloists in there own right and members of some internationally acclaimed bands led by stars Dave Douglas, Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue.  Needless to say, it was terrifying.  We made it to the rehearsal barely with minutes to spare thanks to the New York traffic, picking up a bass on the way, and taping parts together in the car.  However once inside the venue, the famed Jazz Gallery, everything calmed down and the rehearsal ran very smoothly.  The concert itself was one of the best I’ve been part of, the musicians completely dedicated themselves to the music and performing with an amazing energy.

The next night, we travelled to Baltimore to play a final concert together.  This band was made up of musicians from the DC area alongside the Banffers.  While the audience was slightly disappointing, it was excellent fun and great to play and hang out with the musicians.

None of this would’ve happened with the energy of Brad Linde.  He managed to simultaneously be a saxophonist, band leader, taxi driver, hostel manager, and countless other roles, taking everything in his stride and somehow making it all work.  I can’t thank him enough and look forward to working alongside him again in 2015.

Below is an excerpt from the gig at the Jazz Gallery, performing a piano feature of mine called ‘Unprotected and Exposed’.

 

Combined Band Lists (BCJO, BLEE NYC and BLEE Baltimore)

Woodwinds: Jon Irabagon, Oran Etkin, Brad Linde, Billy Wolfe, Gina Izzo, Leigh Pilzer, Marty, Nate.

French Horn: Amy Amie, Bert Hill, Heidi Brown.

Trumpets: Seneca Black, Joe Herrera, Tara Kannangara, Bags Davis, Griffith Kazmierczak, Chris.

Trombones: Ryan Keberle, Jeff Nelson, Steve Shaw, Chris Buckley, Shannon Gunn, Harry Watters.

Rhythm sections: Aaron Quinn, Erika Dohi, Julian Anderson-Bowes, Jonathan Taylor, Josh Walker.

Atlantic Music Festival

In July 2014, I attended the Atlantic Music Festival in the beautiful state of Maine, USA.  I was a participant in the composition program, working with chamber ensembles, the AMF orchestra, and the electroacoustic music faculty.  The range of musical styles, opinions and ideas was incredibly broad, with a rotating composition faculty of some of America’s leading composers.  These included:

  • Rob Patterson
  • Ken Ueno
  • David Ludwig
  • Michael Harrison
  • George Tsontakis
  • Nils Vigeland
  • Eric Ewazen
  • Sheridan Seyfried
  • Stephen Cabell

Some highlights included electroacoustic music sessions with Mari Kimura (Juilliard School), Jean-Baptistse Barriere (IRCAM), and Tom Zicarelli (Berklee/Cycling 74); mostly about interactive electronics and how best to incorporate them into performance without hindering the musicians ability to concentrate on the music itself.

I was also very fortunate to meet and work with many great young musicians, including premiering and recording a new work entitled “Dust and a Strong Economy”.  The orchestra read through and workshopped “After Ivy”, and I began work on a solo cello piece.  A very productive, very rewarding, very thought-provoking month!

This project was supported by an Australia Council for the Arts development grant, something I am very grateful for!

Here is the recording from the festival, recorded my Vicente Alexim (clarinets) and Andy Miller (percussion).

WAYJO Composer-in-Residence 2014: ‘For Greener Grass’

‘For Greener Grass’ was the result of the 2014 West Australian Youth Jazz Orchestra Composer-in-Residence program.  This 25 minute, five-movement composition was premiered at the 2014 Perth International Jazz Festival, and here is a little snippet from the last movement.  The WAYJO musicians gave a fantastic and dedicated performance of what turned out to be very difficult music (apologies musicians!).  I also had the pleasure of conducting two premieres from Tim Newhouse, the 2014 Associate Composer-in-Residence.

 

 

Metropolis New Music Festival – Syzygy perform ‘Arcs and Sevens’

In April 2014 I was honoured to have a piece premiered at the Metropolis New Music Festival, at the Melbourne Recital Centre.  The brilliant Syzygy Ensemble performed ‘Arcs and Sevens’ (for quintet), as part of their ‘Logic’ program.  It was an absolute treat to work with the group, who fully embraced the piece and gave an electric performance.  Check out this great video of the piece! (filmed and edited by Agatha Yim)