The problem with orchestral music is that it comes from a long tradition, and using orchestration techniques that ‘work’ often influences the composer towards, if not conservatism, not the most adventurous pieces. However, classic minimalists like Philip Glass and Steve Reich have managed to use a traditional orchestra to their own ends – but not without some complaints from the musicians of the duress playing repetitive patterns. Robert Ashley made a daring, hyper-minimalist attempt on the ACO. Whether it was well-received is not for me to say.

Deconstructing the orchestra is not a new idea. Charles Ives, in his Universe Symphony, had already imagined dividing the orchestra to have separate pulses simultaneously. John Cage was uncomfortable with the idea of a conductor, uncool by definition – even Boulez admitted once that the role of the conductor is that of a ‘traffic cop’. In Etcetera 2/4 Orchestras, the 1986 expansion upon his 1973 original Etcetera, the orchestra is divided into four smaller ensembles, each with its own conductor. The effect is of a ‘décousu’, a disconnect, with a great deal of pauses and no continuous beat whatsoever. It succeeds in sounding just like a piece that doesn’t have a conductor. .. Eve Beglarian had a piece where the orchestra is divided in several groups. Divide to conquer…

Other composers defy the musicians’ role and make them do things that they would not expect, such as free improvisation, or standing and walking with their instruments. Lisa Bielawa and Johnny Reinhard have used these devices to make the orchestra come alive, so to speak. Those are exciting but unfortunately rare occasions, and most of the scores that would suggest such nonsense are automatically rejected.

The greatest challenge in writing orchestral music is to find a balance between a radical disruption of the orchestral gestalt – which does not always yield the expected results – and a way to reuse and recycle the orchestral behemoth. The taming of the orchestra is not just a matter of music – it is political. The conductor is the impersonation of patriarchal power. The social model of the orchestra is the army. Discipline is necessary in order to coordinate large groups, but alternative models are needed. How about a matriarchal, nurturing model, for instance?

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