Why is no-one vomiting in timpani any more?

The last two Tuesdays I have been mentoring composers as part of the Ku-Ring-Gai Philharmonic Orchestra’s Australian music program.  This is an excellent opportunity for emerging Australian composers to hear their orchestral pieces workshopped by a community orchestra.  It’s a long-standing commitment to Australian music by a community organization that understands the importance of nurturing an art form.

One of the composers, Solomon Frank, is a 2nd year student at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.  He wrote a piece in which the orchestra players are required to grunt, groan, slap their cheeks around + other assorted bodily sounds, in addition to playing their instruments in a ‘normal’ fashion.

It sounds a bit 1960s, right? But no-one is writing this type of music any more, at least, not in the orchestral world.

I remarked to Solly that it would be best if he didn’t write this sort of music when he inevitably moves to the professional orchestra sphere.  He immediately responded, “why not?”

Good question.  My thoughts were shaped by my own and my peers’ experiences as more established composers: that the orchestral players would absolutely crucify him, that he likely would never have another piece played by them in his lifetime, that he should try to master foundational concepts rather than going ‘wild’, and most importantly, that he wouldn’t be making use of the considerable expertise of the players in the orchestra – i.e. playing their instruments extremely well, rather than blowing raspberries.  It would be a wasted opportunity.

However, upon reflection, we live in an extremely conservative, risk-averse age. Yes, emerging composers have to pay off their iPhone like everyone else. And hence they perhaps shouldn’t aim to bite the hand that feeds.

But there must be more to life (and art) than money.

The best and most striking thing about Solly’s new piece is that it contained numerous sound worlds that I had never ever heard from an orchestra before.  That’s a very rare thing indeed.  The last time I felt like this was hearing the orchestration in Carl Vine’s Violin Concerto – in 2011 – a long time between drinks.

Solly took risks. I’m so pleased he did. He forced the orchestral players outside their comfort zones. And in this case, the risk paid off with entirely new sounds. It was totally worth it.

There are so few people taking risks these days, not least in the field of orchestral music.  We composers are more than aware of (1) the competition for few orchestral opportunities for composers, and (2) the cost of having an orchestra there, doing your bidding, and the subsequently responsibility: you’d better make the best use of it!

And yet, when the typical results are technically very competent but lack originality, we can’t help but be disappointed.  Why is it that middle-aged men such as myself and Paul Stanhope are amongst the youngest composers out there getting regular orchestral gigs? Where is the fire, the brimstone, the energy, the boldness, the extremism, the drama of orchestral possibilities from the younger generations? Where are the emerging composers out there making statements?  Taking things to the limits? If the young and emerging composers aren’t doing it, then who will.

A few years ago, the eminent music education guru Richard Gill lamented to me in conversation, “why is no-one vomiting in timpani any more?” Maybe it’s about time we started.

After all the 1960s were half a century ago.

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