20 May 2010


The acronym stands for "Consortium of Symphonic Transients." It refers to a large ensemble project I started last year to provide a more vital and sustainable medium for symphonic music than those which presently exist for those of us without a major orchestra gig or international composing career. Much to my surprise, the idea is proving mildly attractive to a few people besides myself. It's even gotten me my first grant, from the American Composers Forum nonetheless, which, more significantly, also marks the first recognition of my existence by anyone who writes the word "Composer" using a capital-C. Thanks to this modest sum of money, we're holding several rehearsals and two concerts in a wonderful performance space in St. Paul called Studio Z. In addition to a healthy dose of my music, I've incited 5 other players in the group to contribute music for us to play and interspersed it with my own to create a co-composed symphony of sorts which we will perform without pause as if it were a single work. I couldn't be more excited for this project, not least because it has led me to realize quite a bit about myself, my work, and what direction I want to go in, and as any good blogger would, I thought it might be worth sharing some of that with the wider world.

The general dearth of large ensembles in my musical circles, my inability to get meaningful performances or even readings of my large ensemble music, and self-awareness of my own artistic wants and needs all played a part in my decision to initiate a large ensemble project. However, it was an exchange with a student of mine which really lit a fire under me to pursue such a thing, an exchange which I would not initially have expected to have such a profound effect on my performing and composing lives, but of course, anyone who teaches knows that you frequently learn as much from your students as they do from you. I chronicled these events in this very space at the time, so I won't retell the whole story, but in a nutshell, this tuba student had come to me over the summer specifically to study jazz only to be told the ensuing fall by his band teacher that he wouldn't be allowed to play in the jazz band because, well...because tubas do not play in jazz bands.

For obvious reasons, that hit a nerve with me, resulting rather directly in the documents linked to above. However, it took a little longer for the larger epiphany to reveal itself: what if I put my money where my mouth is by writing music and starting a group where the instrumentation was flexible? This way, membership in the ensemble could be based more on musicianship and less on instrumentation. Contrast that with the orchestral world, where there are 20 violins and only one (maybe one) tuba player employed by each group. You could be the second best tuba player in town and not have shit to do. Or, consider the jazz world, where piano trios can get hired to play just about anywhere for anyone, but a sextet with 3 horns is too big, loud, rehearsal-intensive and costly to find its way into much of anything but the occasional club date. Rhythm section players have the horn players by the balls, since a rhythm section is a band unto itself and any horn players added to it are just extra mouths to feed and parts to extract.

In light of these sorts of considerations, it seemed to me that a large ensemble of flexible instrumentation could be a very powerful antidote to many unfortunate situations that I and many around me frequently find ourselves in. If someone is a good musician with something to offer the group, they should be in, and if not, they shouldn't. If they have a conflict with a gig, they don't play on that gig, and there are no hard feelings; no scrambling for subs at the last minute, no hiring subpar players because they are the only ones available on that instrument for that price, and no heightening jealousy when a band member becomes successful as part of another outfit and begins having scheduling conflicts. A group with open instrumentation can draw more loosely on a large pool of players rather than requiring every one of them to be present at each and every event, which mitigates the primary obstacle to maintaining a large ensemble project comprised mostly of freelancers.

These are the practical considerations, and they are very powerful. For many people, however, I suspect that the artistic considerations dictated by these practical considerations would serve as significant deterrents to such a project. For whatever reason, though, the more I began to ponder the artistic consequences of this sort of "transient" ensemble structure, the more I liked them. And if you're thinking this is going the direction of "I Can't Believe It's Not Music," graphic notation, prose scores and the like, think again. Indeed, that area is probably the more vital one as far as open instrumentation pieces go, and one day, I'll start a project to explore that territory; that day, however, has not yet arrived. I'm unashamed to state matter of factly that my aspirations for this project are not nearly that ambitious. It is symptomatic of just how bad things are around here that my less exciting alternative is actually quite exciting, to myself and others. I hope that one day it is rendered unspeakably boring by a plethora of similarly constituted ensembles covering much of the same ground with greater elegance and aplomb than I've managed, but until that happens, I reserve the right to inhabit this more conservative musical space without trepidation or shame.

The cornerstone of my overall concept for this group is to apply the chorus effect to heterogeneous groups of wind instruments. Once I had committed myself to pursuing the flexible instrumentation concept, I began writing pieces where each part was conceived for a general range and character of instrument rather than for a specific instrument. I created two templates for this approach, both for winds and percussion with optional string doubling of the wind parts. One is 8-part (7 horns, 1 percussion), the other 10-part (4 brass, 4 winds, basses, and drum set) with an optional second drum set/percussion part. They are given below:

I had years earlier begun composing untitled "series" of compositions to be played in any complete or partial order, all for solo tuba and some accompanying ensemble. I labeled these series with letters to correspond to the accompanying ensemble, as in The "A" Series for Tuba and Acoustic Jazz Trio, The "B" Series for Tuba and Brass Quartet, and The "C" Series for Tuba and Chamber Orchestra. Though the flexible instrumentation pieces would not be conceived to feature me as a soloist, I nonetheless had become attached to the idea of untitled movements which could be recombined in many different orders and wanted to apply it to this project, so I gave the new series the arbitrary letter names "D" and "F" respectively.

Obviously, a general division of labor between high, mid and low is still necessary; the instrumentation of these pieces is not truly "open" in the sense that any instrument can play any part in any octave, but it is tremendously flexible even so. This, of course, constitutes a near complete rejection of timbre as a compositional device, since I have no idea which instruments might actually end up playing the parts, or how much doubling there will be. I imagine this is an unthinkable compromise to many otherwise like-minded composers, but not for me. While the art and craft of orchestration is not entirely lost on me, my affinities for harmony, rhythm and counterpoint so outweigh those for the means with which they might be realized as to render timbre a moot point in much of my symphonic music. (Paradoxically, I feel less so about my chamber music, where the timbral palette is, by definition, smaller). I simply don't regard timbre with the preciousness or sentimentality it is typically accorded elsewhere, which means I'm not doing myself any favors by writing elaborately and specifically scored music that could only be performed by a professional symphony orchestra, and hence, which I'll probably never hear. I've written in that vein before, and I've got plenty of those pieces in me yet, but I'm quite content to write for unspecified forces as well; in fact, I'm finding it strangely gratifying and even liberating to do so.

In a traditional symphony orchestra, woodwind, brass and percussion parts are performed strictly by single players, as opposed to the string parts, which are performed strictly by groups of like string instruments playing in unison most of the time. Remove the strings entirely and add a very few doublings on instruments like clarinet and tuba and you have what is typically referred to as a "Wind Ensemble," essentially collection of wind soloists with a few strategic additions to assist with balance. It is only in the "Concert Band" or "Symphonic Band" that significant doubling of woodwind and brass parts is commonplace, and even then, this is done exclusively with like instruments; one does not normally hand the same part to the Bb clarinet, Bb trumpet and Bb soprano saxophone players, even though those parts are written in the same transposition and the instruments' ranges overlap substantially. Of course, the symphonic band paradigm is the predominant medium for K-12 instrumental music education in the U.S.; it's the one I came up in, and let's just say it left its mark. My first experience playing in a 120-piece symphonic band, with 8 tubas, 12 trumpets, countless clarinets, and so on, is something that will always be with me. Much as I grew impatient with it through compulsory participation, the further I get from those experiences, the fonder I become of them and the clearer their influence becomes.

My earliest compositions were written for 2-part and 4-part templates. Some time early in high school, I settled on an 8-part template not too terribly different from the D Series template above, and in fact, the similarities between them are not entirely coincidental. To this day, I suspect I wrote far more music in high school for that silly 8-part template than I have since written for any other instrumental configuration. It certainly was a medium which suited my technical and expressive needs exceptionally well at the time: I wrote nearly exclusively for it for several years, resulting in dozens of good-for-my-age pieces which I wouldn't necessarily want my name attached to now. What has become more apparent only recently is that despite its obvious limitations, this sort of thing still suits me rather well, and I've embarked on this project not only well aware of the similarities to my adolescent years, but in fact embracing those similarities in hopes of recapturing some of the naive excitement of that time of my life, which, as most anyone reading this probably knows, can be difficult for us "professionals" to hang on to.

I always envisioned the high school pieces as large ensemble music (i.e. for the school bands I was in), but the template was more an octet than a symphony. Each of the 8 parts was designated as a unique instrument with no multiples, and I gave little serious thought to the fact (which I was by then aware of) that a "real" band score would call for multiples of most of the instruments I had used. This is not to say, though, that I hadn't planned for certain possibilities, especially when it came to instruments I had altogether excluded; I envisioned horns, for example, doubling the alto sax part, and composed with this in mind even though "horn" was nowhere to be found at the left margin of my scores. In this way, there are further similarities with the current project, where parts are conceived to accommodate substantial doubling by any combination of 5-6 different instruments, and in a way, the practical considerations that led to this decision were also similar: my high school band had only one hornist and one trombonist, so writing full band scores with 4 unique horn parts and 3 unique trombone parts seemed foolish to me at the time. Similarly, I don't work with very many flute players these days, but Part 1 in the D Series can also be covered by clarinet, oboe, soprano sax, violin, guitar, and probably more I haven't thought of because necessity has not yet intervened, and so the group is able to function without a stalwart flutist even though I envision Part 1 most essentially as a flute part (indicated by "Flute" appearing at the top of the list of possible instruments for this part).

The large ensemble music I wrote late in college and immediately after college differs substantially from that which I wrote in high school in that (1) it is scored far more conventionally, (2) I'm not ashamed of all of it, and most importantly, (3) none of it has ever so much as sniffed a performance. The elaborate specialization of function among the instruments in a traditionally scored orchestra or band piece is a substantial obstacle to getting the piece performed, since you need access to an orchestra or band that is comprised of precisely those instruments in precisely those proportions. The 8-part pieces I wrote in high school were eminently more adaptable in that, while I had specific instruments in mind for each part, I knew that the ranges for the parts I had written closely resembled those of many instruments I hadn't, and had planned from the outset that the scarce instruments (should they miraculously appear) would simply double existing parts. Even so, their absence would not pose an insurmountable obstacle to performing the piece; that's the key ingredient that I've appropriated to C.o.S.T.

Ten years, hundreds of compositions and one college degree later, I find myself consciously emulating my high school self. In every other respect, you couldn't pay me enough to go back to being in high school, but perhaps I actually did stumble on something worthwhile back then without knowing it and have just now figured it out. It was inevitable at that time that I would outgrow the 8-part template and feel the need to explore a broader symphonic palette, but while those explorations have certainly been fruitful, in the end they've mostly helped me realize how content I actually can be with a more limited template where the specific instruments (timbres, that is) aren't specified. It is precisely because this approach so closely resembles that of not just my high school self but of many naive high school age composers that I'm just a tad insecure about putting it in front of capital-C Composers, who at first blush would be likely to see only arrested compositional development. Without being privy to the intervening 10 years or so of experimentation with more elaborate scoring and the subsequent realization that, while it's nice, it's not always absolutely necessary, it's not likely that anyone interested in upholding The Profession would find this approach compelling. However, as you've probably guessed from all this self-indulgent verbiage, I do. Don't take my word for it, though; better to hear for yourself.