Adopt A Composer – December

On December 5th I was able to meet with the Jan Modelski Community Orchestra again. Despite a distinct lack of sleep the night before, things went very well! I was able to try out several different passages of music and ideas with the orchestra, getting a lot of sound effects and actual music (yes, there are real tunes in this piece already, they’ve got key signatures and everything).

Working with an orchestra with a slightly unconventional layout has enabled a lot of possibilities. The number of flutes and clarinets that we’ve got (on the 5th we had 5 flutes and 5 clarinets, plus a bass clarinet, S A and T saxes, and an oboe) means that several things are possible that wouldn’t be approachable with a usual woodwind-by-twos setup (or even woodwind-by-threes).

One example is the volume that we can get using key clicks. Normally, with only a maximum of 8 wind players and at least 25 string players, these don’t carry enough to be useful in an orchestra context, but with 15 wind players (and several brass and horns) the effect of everyone doing key clicks at once is kind of like a rainstorm, or rattling branches in a forest. And I was able to add gentle body taps (with the wood of the bow) from string players – again, in a normal sized orchestra this wouldn’t work the same way, as the string players would drown out the key clicks from the winds, but here they balance very nicely. The tuba’s valve rattle is rather more predominating, but I think there’s a place for that elsewhere.

I was also able to do a lot of varied textures with the upper winds, letting them play independently (e.g. everyone choose notes of the C major scale and play them staccato, quietly, to get a background that sounds a bit like loads of birds chirping – and then I could add a unison melody in the lower instruments for contrast).

We’re a little shorter on bass instruments than usual (no bassoons for example, and only one double bass) but I was able to get some interesting sounds from the lower instruments playing their lowest notes. The piece is going to be partly about wildlife, with a fair bit of inspiration from Chester Zoo (I was able to spend an hour there on Friday, and saw real elephants for, I think, the first time ever), and elephants are quite a big thing (as it were) for Chester. Elephants in the wild use calls at 4-5Hz (two octaves lower than the lowest sound human beings can hear). Of course no orchestral instrument can play that low, but that note is about the F or E two-and-a-bit octaves below the lowest A on the piano. Taking its upper harmonics and mashing them all together should, theoretically, produce a difference tone of 4-5Hz. I have no way of checking if it did, but a cluster of white notes from the low F of the double bass upwards definitely sounded interesting – quite intimidating, but a very useful effect! (The full set of notes – double bass low F, tuba low G, bass trombone low A, French horn low B – it’s just possible!, cello low C on their bottom string, and a bass clarinet on the D just above that – and then moving to E-F#-G#-B-C#-D# on the next chord).

I got a recording of the session, and hopefully I’ll be able to share bits of it here.

Not everything quite worked the way I thought it would – but that’s what’s great about this project, I have the freedom to try things without worrying about whether they’ll be exactly right first time.

(The rest of the weekend was fairly awful. My baby daughter threw up all over our hotel bed at 5am on Saturday morning, our train back was cancelled due to flooding, and we had to spend an unexpected and expensive extra night in York as the alternative was rail replacement bus which we weren’t even sure was running and would probably not have got us home until well after midnight. But the meeting with the orchestra was great!)

One Comment

  1. JMCO had a great session. Thank you Chris. Interesting to read about what we were doing! Looking forward to next workshop. So sorry you had such a horrendous time otherwise apart from the lovely elephants at the zoo. We will be practising!

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