Robert Howard’s PhD Thesis
Excerpts from Robert Howard’s PhD thesis on composing for amateur musicians
Composing for a Youth Orchestra
…Like Clockwork… was commissioned by the Knowsley Youth Orchestra and their conductor Simon Gay. Knowsley is a metropolitan borough on Merseyside that largely consists of the Liverpool overspill areas of Kirkby (Newtown), Huyton and Halewood ‘villages’ and the former Lancashire market town of Prescot. Therefore, the Youth Orchestra has a relatively small suburban and working-class catchment area. The fifty orchestral members are selected from schools and colleges within the Borough. However, there is no enforced age limit. Several members who have remained in the local area beyond their education are still playing in the orchestra into their twenties.
I received my initial musical education from the Knowsley Performing Arts Service. Violin and bassoon lessons were given to me free of charge from peripatetic music teachers. Indeed, the Knowsley Youth Orchestra was the first orchestra I ever played in. Having known the orchestra for 15 years, it seemed inevitable that I should fulfil an ambition and ‘repay’ that community by composing a work for them.
The orchestra’s rehearsal and concert schedule for the summer term in 2003 provided good conditions in which to learn and perform a new work. Weekly term-time rehearsals were followed by an intensive weekend course that featured extended sectional and full orchestral sessions. These immediately preceded a week of three concert performances in various venues, given before a combined audience of nearly 1,000 people.
The brief of the commission posed several challenges. A five-minute work was required; an overture-type piece to begin each performance. The concert series was part of a nationwide Music-Alive festival that showcased young musicians. Audiences largely consisted of parents, children and relatives who came along to support performers.
In reality, the orchestra did not wholly resemble a standard symphony orchestra in several respects. The ensemble was essentially an augmented wind or ‘concert’ band with a fairly small group of string players. Most wind parts were ‘doubled-up’. For example, two trumpeters played the first trumpet part rather than one. I was given a list of specific instrumentation that largely consisted of the conventional double woodwind and brass scoring. The only exceptions were a single oboe, bassoon and horn and the addition of alto and tenor saxophones. I was also made aware of two good percussionists who were keen to ‘multi-task’ by playing a wide range of tuned and untuned percussion instruments. Critically, an excellent keyboard player was available to play a specially written part on an electronic keyboard rather than an actual piano.
As had been previously encountered in amateur ensembles, the string section was slight in number, technique and volume. Also, there were no violas or double basses. The wind section was, in effect, the nucleus of the orchestra. Accordingly, I decided to make them the focus of my piece. However, I was determined to write structurally functional string parts that could be heard. My solution was to use the string section as a unit and usually in rhythmic unison.
As always, the ‘playable’ quality of each part was crucial to the success of the piece, each part having an easily identifiable role within the texture. However, given the extended rehearsal time the orchestra would have, I decided to write quite rhythmically challenging parts to sustain players’ interest. The standard of the orchestra averaged around Associated Board Grades 5 to 6.
The expression of place is a recurring theme in my music. …Like Clockwork… is a good example of this. The piece received its first performance in the Parish Church of my home town of Prescot. It seemed appropriate to try and convey that place musically. Prescot is most notable for its clock- and watch-making heritage. In turn, the depiction of ticking and other such mechanisms proved to be suitable inspiration in composing material for the piece. Likewise, the connection between the town, its clock-making history and the music would be obvious to audiences largely unaccustomed to new music.
Interestingly, some members of the orchestra did have considerable experience of playing new music in a related ensemble called Fast Forward (now disbanded). This group played various 20th-century works with a significant interest in ‘minimalist’ pieces by composers such as Glass, Adams and Fitkin. I decided to seize on this experience and used it as a stylistic starting-point in my own work. I found particular inspiration in the concert-opener Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams. This seemed particularly fitting in terms of the aforementioned minimalism and also in its pulsed, clock-like ticking led by the wood block. The opening of my piece alludes to this aspect before taking its own course according to my own harmonic style. Meanwhile, rhythmic phasing is explored throughout the work in a manner typical of minimalist music, within a tonal context.
…Like Clockwork… employs a structure consisting of distinct blocks or ‘panels’. This method had been successfully used in my earlier large-scale works for amateurs, such as Lines on a Walk. Clear musical signposts or landmarks have proved to be critical reference points for novice performers. Basically, …Like Clockwork… consists of two ideas that alternate throughout. The first idea builds in texture, harmony and volume. It is characterised by rhythmic phasing and displacement across a regular pulse. On reaching a climax (bar 35), this material is loosely inverted and then immediately cuts to the second idea (bar 51). The latter is characterised by homophonic added-note tonal harmonies underneath a pattern of syncopated repeated notes.
The piece is really an exercise in momentum. The remainder of the work consists of successive rhythmic diminution (by half) of the two ideas in alternation, re-texturalised and varied in orchestration. The final four bars of the piece form a short coda based solely on the single pitch that is the tonal centre of the piece, C.
The work’s orchestration is critical to its apparent success. There are no exposed passages or extended solos. Instead, the full orchestral sound is exploited throughout much of the piece. This is the result of literal doublings between string, woodwind and brass parts. Easy string parts are carefully balanced against the rest of the orchestra and are aurally discernible. These are often sustained background harmonies or repeated notes reinforced by the important keyboard part. The brass section are regularly employed at fairly restrained dynamics (due to their enthusiasm!), sometimes muted and often in a percussive rather than melodic capacity. The percussionists adopt a wide range of roles and instruments, usually colouring other orchestral parts and occasionally emerging as soloists. I have discovered that instruments that are naturally in tune, such as tuned percussion and keyboards, are an invaluable resource. In large ensembles they can be used to double instruments, often keeping intonation ‘in check’ rather than exposing discrepancies.
My experience in collaborating with and composing for a wide variety of musicians has been largely positive, challenging and rewarding. Primarily I have discovered that works must be carefully tailored according to the technical capabilities of players. My own philosophy has been to play to the strengths of any given ensemble, for example by assigning a concertante role to a particularly advanced player, as in Ghost. As a result, many works have virtually ‘written themselves’. After careful consideration of the standard of players involved in a proposed piece, certain textures and instrumental roles quickly become apparent.
Flexible scoring can be a very successful solution to the challenge of conceiving new works for amateurs, when appropriate. The main advantage is that such scoring is adaptable to reorchestration for a variety of ensembles. As a result, an abundance of performance opportunities can arise. However, all parts need to be covered and equally balanced. The traditional four-part flexible scoring is not appropriate for ensembles that do not have instruments covering the necessary ranges or have extreme peculiarities of balance. In this case, a new part-specific piece would be more appropriate.
Composing for amateurs has (ironically) had the effect of opening up my compositional technique, particularly with regard to alternative notations. My use of visual-art imagery has proved to be a valuable aid both to myself in instigating the compositional process and to performers and audiences in appreciating the background concept of a work.
I have discovered a very broad and sophisticated network of amateur music-making throughout the country. An abundance of organised amateur music groups regularly form. Experience with many such ensembles has afforded me continual constructive criticism from conductors, players and audiences. Likewise, I have encountered little prejudice concerning stylistic preference, particularly in new-music-specific groups. Such players have few preconceived notions about new music. There is simply an appreciation of that which is seemingly relevant and well written. Amateur players have a good sense of music that ‘works’, is effective and satisfies the fundamentals of musical composition, such as coherency and structural strength. Composing for amateurs can result in high-profile performances at national venues and general exposure on the contemporary music circuit. Amateur new music groups regularly perform at the South Bank’s annual State of the Nation weekend of emerging British composers and at other well-established festivals such as Bath, Huddersfield, Corsham and Spitalfields. Music in this genre is increasingly being published and recorded. There is even a distribution service for the genre in the form of the COMA Music Library that selects and promotes works.
In conclusion, the practical reality of composing in this field is that amateur performance standards are usually (though not always) considerably lower than those of professional musicians. However, with careful consideration of this as part of the compositional process, works can potentially be as effective, valid and relevant as new pieces for professionals.
I have attempted to cover as many aspects of amateur (and professional) new-music-making as reasonably possible. I have a personal preference for instrumental music over vocal or choral works, although the latter are represented. In many respects the amateur group specialising in new music have inevitably been of more interest to me than the average amateur string quartet or orchestra. Such new music groups do not need convincing about the importance and relevance of performing new works, as that is the reason for their existence. Most of the ensembles I have worked with have maintained an enlightened and progressive approach to new music. I have even encountered one semi-professional orchestra that aims to give a first performance of a new piece in each of their concerts.
I feel strongly that the enclosed works for both amateur and professional musicians are truly representative of my idiom. This experience has been very satisfying, with many performances and some commissions, publications and recordings. I have never felt compromised or obliged to ‘write down’ for certain performers. Each composition has been an intriguing and welcome challenge in itself. Far from harming one’s reputation, I feel enhanced by the experience. In retrospect I look back over this period of study and research almost as an apprenticeship. The amount I have learned and the impact upon the development of my compositional technique has been tremendous.
Robert Andrew Howard, 2003