Composers Forum is a daily web log that allows invited contemporary composers to share their thoughts and ideas on any topic that interests them--from the ethereal, like how new music gets created, music history, theory, performance, other composers, alive or dead, to the mundane, like getting works played and recorded and the joys of teaching. If you're a professional composer and would like to participate, send us an e-mail.

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Friday, February 24, 2006
The English Horn is Neither English Nor a Horn: Discuss

Actually, Samuel Adler addresses that very question in The Study of Orchestration Ė apparently itís a mistaken transliteration from the French ďcor angleĒ, which has also been retranslated into French as cor anglais. Adlerís text is pretty much the industry standard for Orchestration classes, and when I studied Orchestration, we used the then-brand-new new Third Edition (published in 2002). It is in many ways a great book, but it also has some critical gaps which I think deserve to be addressed, especially since textbooks tend to drive curricula, and these gaps ultimately remain open in orchestration classes.

1. Most obvious is the absence of a full section or sections on writing for voice. Chapter 16, "The Orchestra as Accompanist," does contain "Accompanying the Vocal Soloist, Ensemble, or Chorus," but doesn't go into very much depth -- certainly not the kind of depth that other instruments get. He spends a page giving ranges and making a few key points, but ultimately focuses on handing the relationship between the orchestra and the singers. He doesn't deal with any a cappella music, and doesn't address the use of the voice as part of the orchestral texture (think of John Adams's "Harmonium" or Steve Reich's "Drumming.") I recognize that the voice is not technically part of The Orchestra, but it still has to be handled with the same kinds of Orchestration principles he discusses so thoroughly for the standard instruments and instrument groups of The Orchestra; and it's not as if Adler doesn't know how to write for voice -- he has dozens of pieces for solo voice and for chorus. By contrast, Cecil Forsyth wrote an entire manual on ChoralOrchestration which is 84 pages long. (I am the proud owner of a copy discarded by NEC. It was published in 1920, and contains such gems as "Meanwhile, the man in the audience holds on to his chair and wonders why all this unmusical wickedness should be visited on him only at a choral performance. He does not complain -- Anglo-Saxon audiences never do, except by the practical method of staying away from the next concert. . .")

2. Adler also neglects to treat some other very common and very useful instruments not traditionally considered part of The Orchestra. To his credit, he does cover the saxophone, as well as guitar and banjo, but, only briefly. The Guitar entry is a page and a half long and says "We shall limit our discussion to the classical guitar, since it is the one used in the orchestra, when ever a guitar is asked for -- unless the composer specifies otherwise." No advice on electric guitar, or bass guitar, and precious little on classical guitar. The Banjo and Mandolin sections are even shorter. The saxophone entry is of a more respectable length, but of course he focuses on its use in orchestras and bands. In his otherwise helpful and thorough percussion section, he doesn't address writing for drum kit, which is becoming more and more a standard instrument, especially in chamber ensembles. And finally, he doesn't discuss the synthesizer in the keyboard instrument section -- certainly the technology is changing rapidly, so it might not make sense to talk about writing for specific synthesizers, but he could provide examples of the use of synthesizers in orchestras and chamber ensembles, mention the different kinds of synthesis and the use of sampling, and briefly discuss the different uses of common categories of sounds like pads, leads, and basses.

3. I would also like to see some discussion of amplification with some examples of pieces that employ it. It would be nice to offer standard microphone placements for each of the instruments, and briefly discuss the key technical aspects of mixing, effects, and sound systems. He could then discuss the key differences between how each instrument sounds and might be used when amplified as compared to its non-amplified state.

4. My final quibble is with Mr. Adler's choices of musical examples. The examples he offers are all fine -- it's important to understand how various pre-20th century composers used the instruments as well as how more contemporary ones do. The problem is that the examples of contemporary pieces are mostly, if not all, Uptown pieces. John Adams, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich are all absent from the Index, and certainly arenít with score excerpts. (Anton Reiche, however, was apparently one of many 17th, 18th and 19th century composers who wrote music for brass ensembles to be played from church towers as people left the service. Who knew?) But John Adams, for instance, has made masterful use of the orchestra and applies orchestrational techniques that are a lot different from the examples Adler offers. Steve Reich may be a mediocre orchestrator for full orchestra, but surely Music for 18 Musicians is a pretty important example of 20th century orchestration?

By now it probably sounds like I have it in for Samuel Adler, but I actually donít. The guy was born in 1928, and so I think can be forgiven for having different priorities than I have. Basically he wrote what he knows, and while itís missing some stuff that Iíd like to see, whatís there is excellent. I actually bring this up because, as I said at the beginning, I worry that the text drives the curriculum, so the gaps in Adlerís text donít get taught, and since Adler is the standard text an awful lot of students miss out on important information. Iím bothering to call attention to the holes in Adlerís book in the hope that the people who are teaching orchestration courses will find ways to add this important material into the course, and that somebody Ė maybe even the Sequenza21 community as a team Ė will create some supplemental materials that students and composers can refer to when Adler doesnít cover it. Of course, if anybody has any other subjects they think should be covered which usually are not, Iíll be curious to hear about them as well.

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