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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.