Creating from the Muscle
A music lover who liked my orchestration for large ensembles asked how I do it: “Is there a way to combine instruments for particular effects?” Thinking it over, I realized my knowledge of orchestration is not intellectual and easily explained. It is stored in my muscles — my arms, shoulders, chest and viscera. That’s my trove of instrumental combinations that I absorbed in countless rehearsals and performances of orchestras and ensembles.
Music is a physical experience. I have not only heard, but physically lived just about every combination of instruments and instrumental groupings you can imagine when playing percussion for great conductors. After many years of sitting amidst works by great orchestrators like Debussy, Ravel, Berlioz, Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky, I think I can imagine nearly any combination of instruments and their emotional effect.
For me, that was the most effective way to learn orchestration. Learning to orchestrate as an intellectual exercise from books and theories seems like learning about sex from manuals. Of course, books on orchestration are needed to answer certain technical questions, since a completed score is also a complex intellectual exercise, but the core knowledge came to me directly through the muscle. Understanding and using instrumental combinations became intuitive.
I can easily recall the feeling of unusual combinations of instruments from works like Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; brass combinations from Hindemith’s Mathis der Mahler; solo voice blending with orchestra from Schoenberg’s Erwartung; unusual textures of Elliot Carter’s Double Concerto; and the colors and power of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, all of which I feel are programmed into my body.
My vast playing experience also included jazz bands, where I heard the great variety of mutes for the brass—the straight mute, the cup, bucket, plunger, Harmon (with and without stem), and ways of combining them with other instruments. I’ve devised what I call “invisible doublings” where you can’t tell if a combination of instruments is coming from a whisper-muted trumpet or a soft flute, a bucket-muted trombone or French horn, a cello or English horn. Violas playing near the bridge (ponticello) alternating with ‘stopped’ horns intrigues me. I love instrumental similarities that make me wonder which instruments are playing.
Odd as it sounds, I feel I can tap into my body for any of these sounds. When you think about it, that’s how we learn to speak and write—by listening to others and reading. We unconsciously memorize combinations of words, not to mention vocal inflections and subtleties of verbal rhythms. I do much the same by adding elements to the instrumental textures of great composers. I find it inspiring to know that composers stand on each others’ shoulders. It makes orchestration and creativity itself an organic process and less mysterious.