Thursday, October 18, 2007

Coming up for air

In between performances of kantele music, all of which went extremely well, endless shifts working on Bathseba, negotiating text setting rights and bemoaning the current state of politics in my homeland*, I've been thinking a lot about instrumentation lately . I'm now two-thirds of the way through the opera project and the end is in sight, praise be to Unnamed Deity. I'm relieved that I'm finally in a groove with it, having become more familiar with Pylkkänen's language and orchestration. The music is reminiscent of the big Cecil B. deMille-type film epics, lots of big gestures, brassy jolts and the like. Not all of it is memorable, but it meanders pleasantly between lyrical and rhapsodic, has some very nice tunes, and makes an undeniable dramatic impact.

A big stumbling block at first was the ensemble: 13 players with single winds, two horns, trumpet, single strings and percussion, with a small harp obligato that my wife will be covering on kannel. (The opera is set in Estonia, so the national instrument seemed like an appropriate choice. Also, how the hell do you replicate the sound of a harp with an orchestra? You don't, that's how.) I don't write for mixed ensembles very much. Actually, looking over my output, I don't ever, it seems. My single, only partly successful attempt in the genre was a small piece for flute, viola, vibraphone and harp, which I chose because there were areas of clear timbral convergence that I could work with.

Since my instrumental approach is mostly derived from the music-formerly-known-as-minimalism (tip of the hat to PostClassic there), I need groups of matched instruments to get the hazy, heterophonic effects I'm going for. I can handle a solo instrument or a solo-"accompaniment" texture, but anything smaller than a full symphony orchestra that combines more than two different timbres gives me the heebie-jeebies. In the States, where everybody and their dog wrote a Pierrot or Pierrot + percussion piece in grad school, the very idea terrified me. (I wrote a string quartet instead.) I've come to better terms with mixed ensembles in the last few years since discovering Spectralism in a big way. That kind of integral, timbre-based way of writing makes a lot of sense, but I think I'm still a long way off from writing an effective piece for such a group.

So working with a precariously balanced ensemble like this is daunting, to say the least. This kind of scoring has the potential to sound almost like a full orchestra, or just horribly overdone. Certain things, like Pylkkänen's tendency to always write matched winds in thirds, make things even tougher. "I'm using that clarinet to fill out a 4-horn chord, but that damn flute tune needs the third below it, and the oboe will just bury it in that register." "That violin tune needs to come out over the brass, but the winds are busy and I can't thin out that brass chord, because then it would stop being a dominant seventh/added sharp fourth/whatever chord." (My first music theory classes are coming back to me with a vengeance: "Drop the fifth, even the root, but not the seventh!")

Logistical problems like these, combined with constantly having to comb through the parts to find gestures that aren't in the vocal score, make for long days. But I'm excited to hear how it's going to sound, almost as much as if it were my own piece. I'm more at home writing for orchestra than with any other ensemble, except perhaps choir. I take great pride in my orchestration, and this has been an entirely new challenge, one I stand to learn a lot from. Few people get to write a full-blown opera for their first outing, and besides, I find it very hard to relate to grand opera as a genre. Realistically, if I ever get to write the 1-hourish, one-act opera I've had in mind and would like to do in the next five years, it will be for these instrumental forces, or something close thereto. Hearing how the layers and densities I've written interact, even in music that's pretty far from mine in every respect, will probably be invaluable. So fingers crossed, I head back into it, to be heard from no more, or at least till November.

*(Pop quiz: How, as a minority government that was elected with just over 30% of the popular vote, do you avoid ever having to compromise on your dubious agenda in Parliament? Answer: Make every proposal a confidence motion! That way, if the government is brought down, the opposition heads into an election with labels like "uncooperative" and "obstructionist" tied around their necks. Governance by schoolyard bullies.)

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