Advent Calendar: 4

The carol is done! Well, there’s more I could do on the accompaniment, and I’m pretty sure the recording of me singing it (not quite complete as of typing this up) leaves a teensy-weensy something to be desired, but basically it’s done. Merry Christmas all, Fa la la la la, etc.


I’ve been thinking today (and for a few days now) about how best to tackle the two large-scale pieces on my list. I have vague ideas for starting-points for both of them – the orchestral piece is going to be a piece I’ve been thinking about for a few years now, called Fear of Falling, and the large ensemble piece at least has a starting texture – the flute/clarinet trills I plan to steal from the Elliott Carter piece I heard on Sunday night – but my problem is that for both of these we are required to prepare a short-score before beginning to orchestrate the pieces for the specified ensembles.

I’ve never worked in short-score before although I’ve tried without much joy. And our teachers haven’t really given us any guidance as to how to start. True, we’ve had exercises in Orchestration – Medium in reducing existing scores to a piano score, needing to ‘rationalise’ the material down into a more compact form (are these quarter-tones vital information, or are they merely decoration? Does this note contribute to the overall harmony here or is it additional?) which has been helpful in terms of how to think about this, but I’m a little at sea as to how to adapt my usual technique which consists of working directly with Finale’s approximations of instrument sounds, so that I always have that aural balance in my ears while I’m writing.

Lately I’ve been working more with sketches, so that I’ll put in a melodic line and make a note to thicken the texture around it, because I tend to work with lines not chords. It seems to me that this way of working is not really compatible with creating a short-score. The musical material is always bound up in what instrument will be playing it, and if I can’t hear it on that instrument, it’s hard for me to tell whether that line is too short or too long, if it needs to swap to another instrument or be reworked. Obviously, this is a deficiency of mine that I need to work on, but with such a tight deadline, it’s rather a big ask!

I can see the purpose of working in short-score for these. As it was described to us in Orchestration – Large the other day, if you were painting a mural on a wall, you wouldn’t just start on the left, painting in a detailed house, then decide to do a cow, then a barn and so on until you reached the end, you’d plan it all out in advance so you knew that everything would fit. This makes a certain amount of sense (if you ignore the fact that it’s a lot easier to go back over a piece of music and add or delete stuff in the middle than it is to delete a chunk of mural!) and I’m all in favour of giving it a go, but I’m at a bit of a loss as to how. The questions I’m facing are:

How do I record the textural effect I want to use in the strings at the start on a piano score? I want it to be a free texture of descending glissandi, where all players are going at their own pace.
How do I build the piece without hearing what it’ll really sound like?
If I’m working on the piece in Finale, which is my usual tool for most of my composing work, and the fastest way for me to work, what sound should I use for playback to give me the best idea about what I’m writing? I’ve tried converting works-in-progress into piano scores in the past and what sounds great on instruments (and has proved to work in rehearsal on real instruments) sounds a hideous jumbled mess with a piano sound.

So these are the questions I need to tackle, and probably this week if I’m to have a hope of getting this done. I really don’t want to have to cheat, write the orchestral score then reduce because that would defeat the purpose of the exercise! But with the time constraint, I’m a little at a loss.

One idea I’ve had is to use 1 line per instrument family – so 1 for strings, 1 for ww, 1 for brass, maybe 2 for percussion to allow for harp/piano/whatever. This would allow me to assign a default inst to that stave, preferably something tonally in the middle of the family – maybe clarinet for ww, trombone for brass, etc. So far this seems the most feasible solution to me.

Thoughts? Suggestions?

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