2016 | for symphony orchestra | 4’
With apologies to my extremely supportive parents, it is just barely an exaggeration to say that I was raised by the symphony orchestra. As a teenager, I spent my summers in orchestra camps, my weekends in youth orchestra rehearsals, and every minute of my free time checking out CD after CD at the local library of nothing but orchestral music. And when I first started imagining myself a serious composer, I assumed that my future, like my present, would be filled with symphonies.
As I soon learned, however, the orchestra can be a dangerous place for a contemporary composer to explore. It’s a delicate task to balance the availability of a nearly endless palette of timbres with the imperative to combine them in a way that supports the musical form and uses each instrument correctly. Moreover, the rarity of new music performance and recording opportunities with symphony orchestras often compels composers to save their most “important” ideas for these special occasions, yet the brevity of these reading sessions demands such clarity of notation and ease of execution that these mighty concepts are often lost.
With these challenges in mind, I approached Elementary by giving myself simple boundaries from the start. I divided the piece into four sections, each based on one of the four classical elements: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. From there, I listed characteristic sounds and ideas I associated with each element, eventually assigning each orchestral instrument to a “primary” section where its timbre would be featured most prominently. After translating these general characteristics into concrete musical ideas such as instruments, techniques, modes, and registral and dynamic contours, I wrote four main musical ideas for each section, combining and developing these four basic elements to create variety within each section. Finally, I unified the four sections with a common repeating harmonic progression and the addition of quotes from other sections during transitions; the piece culminates in a riotous combination of motives from all four sections that uses every member of the orchestra.
The ancients believed that the four elements, in different combinations, formed every known substance on Earth. Though long disproved from a scientific standpoint, this theory makes for a useful metaphor for the symphony orchestra. Just a few basic elements—woodwinds, strings, brass, and percussion—can combine in infinite ways. The individual instruments, like the elements, are intimately familiar to any composer, yet awe-inspiring and even dangerous when combined en masse. But through the right alchemic combination of these elements, we can learn to control the massive force of the symphony orchestra, and hopefully even forge something new.