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Small Ensembles

from Sunday, August5th of the year2012.

I’ve just spent two weeks working with the National Youth Orchestra. This is probably the most prolonged amount of time I’ve spent with people between the ages of 15 and 18 since I was myself that age, and it’s been, in a word, intense. The basic setup of this orchestra is that it’s 165 people, so we’re dealing with 7 or 8 of each woodwind, 10 horns, 8 trumpets, that sort of thing. Eleven (!) percussionists. The whole summer course is structured around a fortnight spent in barrack-like dorms at the University of Birmingham, in a sort of suburban utopian landscape just south of the city. There is an element of summer camp about it, but with twelve hours a day of music making, and that isn’t really an exaggeration. Every minute of these musicians’ days is scheduled rigorously, which I think is partially designed to keep them out of trouble and off the pole, presumably. I occupied a strange sort of space: I was not really faculty, or support team, or a student, so I kind of floated in and out of rehearsals and attempted to participate socially and musically as much as was appropriate. The first few days were a little bit awkward — they’d gone over the piece without the harps, who are kind of the motor behind the entire first section, and I think it rather terrified everybody that they had, in fact, commissioned some pointillistic and awful piece of abstract silence punctuated by an occasional pizzicato or clarinet gurgle.

There’s also a thing with English musicians of every age such that they cannot, under any circumstances, tell you that they like a piece of music you’ve written until you’ve had a drink together. I learned this a few years ago when I worked with an orchestra for a week and nobody said anything at all; one bass player muttered to me in the men’s room “it’s not bad, that piece,” which was as close as I got to a compliment or even an acknowledgement that I was present. Until the pub! Then it was a lovefest: mentions of favourite bars of music, actual conversations about the Koussevitsky concerto, promises to exchange scores and mp3’s. This time was no different; three of the musicians adorably and somewhat sheepishly invited me to their pub night, which is essentially ninety minutes of sanctioned drinking for the 18 year-olds. Girl. They were ordering shot upon shot (like, trays) of alarmingly sweet concoctions: triple sec and diet Red Bull, tequila suspended in what tasted of tanning lotion, and something else that I think must have been light rum and Jheri curl juice. The same musicians who had been brilliantly parsing Messiaen were straight up crunk. It was brilliant and wonderful, and I was particularly pleased because they felt empowered (?) to talk to me about the piece I’d written, and about other issues in music, and just life in general: it turns out that the age-old social lubricant always applies. To my horror, a bunch of them took pictures of me in which I look like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed the day they got him out of that hole.

There was also, I was pleased to see, a lovely resistance to my memories of how high school was organised: everybody was uniformly nice to one another and there didn’t seem to be any strange hierarchies of attractiveness or perceived ability. Dealing with young people always has, for me, a distant melancholic drone. Once I went to university and got busy, the years between 22 and, like, last week are kind of a blur of travel, intense work, exhaustion, sweating. The older members of this orchestra are about to jump into school, and this is their last moment, in a sense, to be this devoted to music. This is their last time to be beautiful with one another, to have the skin not ravaged by sun, claret, and jetlag, to have the sort of timelapse romances only possible at camp. I was heartened and bittersweetened to see a more flexible homosocial level of interaction almost in constant play: a hand on the shoulder, shared glances of genuine support and pride at a gesture well-played in rehearsal that would have been, I think, impossible when I was 18 without it being accompanied by a series of insinuations and counterreactions. At Snape, in the two lambent hours before the concert, the musicians roamed through the rushes in groups of two, three, four, ambling along the boardwalks and, by necessity, standing close enough together that the effect, viewed from the comfortable distance of the hill, was of elderly couples walking out together in some Italian piazza, a recollection from the distant past, the modern clothes and conversations obscured by the angle of the light and the susurration of the reeds. These small ensembles were heartbreaking: a harpist and a trumpet player, a group of three small boys who play the oboe, a solitary tubist, a cellist and a violist. It gave me a flash of the sort of piece I could have written: an amble, an aleatoric series of duets and trios walking in a comfortable, almost hand-holding unison.

It reminded me, in a poignant way, how solitary and strange the business of being a composer is. There’s one of me, and 165 of them. If you write for orchestra, you are dependent both physically and emotionally on the whims and abilities of strangers. I tried to learn everybody’s name but it’s impossible; there’s always a sense that the composer is never quite part of the team — there’s a structural opposition built-in to the relationship. I’d love to find ways to dismantle this; my strategies now are to always try, when possible, to sit in the orchestra and try to get a sense of how it feels to play the piece. This, however, is not always looked upon kindly by conductors, and some irritating halls have a setup such that there is an impermeability between the front of house and the stage. I’ve also found that I enjoy physically humbling myself before the players — sitting on the floor at their feet rather than trying to be an angry schoolmistress has, at times, defused awkward situations. I felt, in a sense, between worlds with the NYO kids: I’m old enough to be able to impart, however obliquely, sensible advice, and I can help them strategise playing music not only by me but by others. But the sort of teacherly mode is tempered by my own constant and obsessive desire to be liked by everybody, particularly musicians, and to register as a sort of desirable and sympathetic friend and colleague.

The really heartening thing for me was the NYO’s rehearsal discipline. They did a somewhat cultish thing wherein they obeyed two minutes of absolute silence before the conductor arrived on the podium. At first I thought that I had signed up for some kind of teen version of The Wicker Man and that I was going to be burned in some enormous effigy of a viola, but actually, what it did was insist that music arises out of silence, which is something so important to remember. There was very little talking during the crucial moment when the conductor has pulled over the piece to try to adjust things, and this is something I’m just going to say: a lot of professional orchestras are terrible at this, and it’s usually just a few individuals. With new music that’s not had the benefit of hundreds of years of performance practice to air out the closets of its notation, every second of rehearsal time is precious. I had a piece with a orchestra earlier this summer, and there was this completely irritating violinist who, immediately at the end of every rehearsal take, would grab the crossword puzzle and start talking to his stand partners, soliciting their opinion on the weather, etc., even when the conductor was addressing his section! It was horrible, and vexing, and distracting, and kind of soured me against the piece I’d written; if you can’t keep the attention of the people playing it, how can it possibly land on the ears of an audience? In my vision of paradise, that man would be frog-marched through town and made to listen to his own inane banter amplified on public loudspeakers. I love the idea that the people who are in the NYO are going to be the orchestral musicians of the future, who understand the importance not just of playing well but listening well, and supporting one another. I was moved by somebody who came up and said he liked the trombone solo — not a trombonist! It means that the ears are open, and working alongside the mouth and the hands and the feet, and it means that musicianship, and not just technique, is accumulating.

Anyway, there it is. This also marks the end of what has been almost constant travel for four months. I’m in the US of loosely A for over two months now, and I can’t wait to get back into the rhythms of New York. I’ve learned to exist comfortably on the road, but not in the way I can when surrounded by the dog, my man, my linens, and my own sense of the footprint of the day being the dominant one. The NYO were absolutely heaven to work with, and I’m so glad I carved out enough time to really be part of the construction of the piece. There’s a version of the trip where I could just swan in and make strange analogies accompanied by severe hand gestures and leave, but I am so happy for the extra time. I hope the musicians will all stay in touch — it is a gorgeous thing to have friends & allies scattered around the world’s orchestras.


  • Hi Nico,
    I’m the second tuba player in the Gait, alongside Chris, who I must say, played the tuba solo, wonderfully!
    I didn’t get to talk to you during the actual course, apart from a brief photo on the leavers night, where I was suitably beveraged from 2 bottles of white wine! (i was the one dancing like a moron)
    Just to say your piece was really great, and it was fantastic working with you, especially in full brass! congratulations on a epic work! and best luck for the future!


  • Hi Nico,

    Thanks for a great course! Over two years at NYO, I’ve had the chance to work with a few composers, none of whom have been nearly as involved with members of the orchestra as you were. I really enjoyed your piece, and I can’t wait to see it on the proms in a few weeks – as a trombonist sitting at the back of the orchestra, we quite often get a different, quite brass/percussion-heavy version of most pieces, so it’ll be nice to see the whole piece from an audience perspective! I didn’t get the chance to talk to you much during the course, (other than a brief question about whether or not the 3rd trombone part was muted at a certain point!) but it’s been a great experience working with you nonetheless!

    Thanks again,

  • “At first I thought that I had signed up for some kind of teen version of The Wicker Man and that I was going to be burned in some enormous effigy of a viola” Hahahahaha!

  • How exciting it is to be a composer (I hope no one expects you to remember their name–that’s a lot of people) to these young adults!! I know you are happy to be back home from doing your duty of “keeping kids out of trouble & off the pole!” 🙂 It’s funny how drinks seem to make people talk. Maybe they feel more comfy in that different setting. Congrats on all of your work.

  • This is such a beautiful post. You’ve captured how very special youth symphony can be. And you’ve made me realize how very vulnerable composers make themselves when they stand before an orchestra. As a violinist, I want to apologize for that idiot in rehearsal. And I want to just let you know that you’re one of my favorite writers, period. Enjoy some well-deserved rest (and I’m sure, hard work also) at home.

  • Your blog consistently makes me laugh and your music consistently makes me feel better about life. Thanks!

  • Dear Nico

    Thank you for all you’re insight at the Q and A session for young composers at the RCM (pre Gait performance). I really valued you’re advice and it honsetly helped me in writing a piece of music this week, along with the performance of Gait which was, of course, fabulous.

    That is so nice to hear, thank YOU very much for your kind words!

  • “It gave me a flash of the sort of piece I could have written: an amble, an aleatoric series of duets and trios walking in a comfortable, almost hand-holding unison.” PLEASE write that piece. It is already gorgeous. You bring great positivity my life. And clearly, to many others. THANK you.

  • Dear Nico,

    Congratulations on all of your well-deserved success! Your post is beautiful and expresses (much better than I could in words) the feelings that arise for a composer, particularly when faced with that moment of unmitigated nakedness before a new work is unveiled.

    I have been thrilled to follow your rising success since our days in Paris together and I look forward to continuous news of great success.

    Write on, write on, my friend!