Is the standard orchestra a form of the past? Does the unchangeable arrangement of the instruments perpetrate its own convention ad infinitum? It seems that if the piece strays from what is expected, i.e. complicated, hypermarked music for a required set, it will never get read. We are faced with a conundrum: the more creative we are with the orchestra, the chances of the piece getting played get fewer to none. Also, the required know-how, i.e. how to get a melody/harmony to work within the standard array of instruments, pushes the music towards old tried and true recipes.

On occasion, some pieces stretch the envelope but they are rare and quickly dismissed. Once the S.E.M. Orchestra performed a 5 minute free improv conceptualized by a composer who names himself mr. dorgon (sic). On the other hand, even famous jazz improvisers write orchestral music that is strangely close to sounding like fifties serialism. The most creative event I have seen involving an orchestra was in 1996, a performance of Charles Ives’ Universe Symphony by the American Festival of Microtonal Music – with two conductors to render the simultaneous different tempos. I have heard about pieces with musicians walking around with their instruments… extreme minimalist scores with the orchestra staying on one note for a long time, and this not going over too well.

If orchestra presenters continue to perform classical repertoire that has been heard too many times, or so-called modern pieces from the early 20th century – nearly a hundred years ago – or more recent difficult pieces that turn the audiences off, there is not hope for the survival of the orchestra as the audiences will most certainly lose interest and turn to other forms of music. I believe it is very important that we write creative orchestral pieces – negotiating what is acceptable and what will never get played… so as to co-opt the old form for our own creative purposes and for the future of classical music. This is possibly the greatest challenge we are facing as 21st century composers.

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