When is an Orchestra not an Orchestra?

Redgate, Roger. 2019. When is an Orchestra not an Orchestra? Principles of Music Composing, 19, pp. 9-21. ISSN 2351-5155 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

The orchestra is a medium in a constant state of evolution. From the classical period through to the modern symphony orchestra, the advent of new instruments such as the clarinet in the 1800s, through to extensions of instrumental families, the contrabass/Eb clarinet, bass oboe, bass trumpet, soprano trombone and cimbasso, Wagner tubas, saxophones, significant extensions of the percussion section, and additions of various keyboard instruments, all had an impact on concepts of orchestration and orchestral colour from Beethoven through to Stravinsky, Debussy and Ligeti.

Further, from the mid the 20th Century, the standard orchestra was frequently reinvented to accommodate new forms and compositional techniques. In Gruppen (1955-57), Karlheinz Stockhausen divided an orchestra of 109 musicians into three ‘orchestras’ (requiring three conductors), to accommodate the temporal structure of its 174 formal units. Similarly in Mixtur (1964) the orchestra was divided into four spatially separated timbral groups, to articulate moment form. In 1976 Elliott Carter wrote a Symphony of Three Orchestras to map out a complex network of interlocking materials on different temporal levels, and more recently, Brian Ferneyhough’s Plötzlichkeit (2006), partitioned the orchestra into 111 sub-groups, changing every few bars, as a pre-compositional structure, to explore aspects of linear discontinuity.

The cultural and social status of the orchestra, as a cultural icon, has also lead to new conceptual approaches, from a different perspective, aimed to undermine and subvert the conventional notion of the orchestra. Helmut Lachenmann challenged the politics of musical production and inherited notions of what is beautiful, reinventing the orchestral palette. Richard Barrett, in relation to his work No (2004), describes the orchestra as ‘one of the most conservative of cultural institutions’, and speaks of composing ‘against’ rather than ‘for’ the orchestra, thinking more in terms of ‘the meaningful participation of musically-engaged people in a large group.’ Perhaps some of the more unusual manifestations would be the Scratch Orchestra, formed in 1969 by the composer Cornelius Cardew, which contained no standard musical instruments at all, and defined as ‘a large number of enthusiasts pooling their resources and assembling for action.’ Further the Nublu Orchestra, influenced by Butch Morris’s techniques of conduction, has little or no notated material, but does use a conductor to control structured improvisations. The technique also gave rise to similar orchestras, such as the London Improvisers Orchestra.

This paper will examine some of these developments and changes in orchestral design in the context of new compositional techniques, and how in some cases socio-political views have also lead to challenge the concept of writing for the orchestra.

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© Lietuvos muzikos ir teatro akademija, 2019


formal structure, moment form, notation, orchestration, pan-intervallic music, serialism, tempo, Richard Barrett, Elliott Carter, Brian Ferneyhough, Karlheinz Stockhausen

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31 January 2019Published

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Date Deposited:

17 Jan 2022 13:08

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17 Jan 2022 13:10

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.



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