Finished reading Kondrashin’s book on conducting (in simplified Chinese) and Bai’s book on Kunqu. Watched a kunqu performance. Watched a 1967 Russian film of Anna Karenina. Read vocal score of Lady Macbeth. The most striking are those orchestral interludes. As is always, the high clarinet sound, the xylophone, the timpani, the snare drum, the William-Tell rhythm and the chorus singing nervous “ha ha ha” contributes to Shostakovich’s black humour.
Sight-reading Villa-Lobo’s “Prole do Bebe”, a wonderful piano piece, not much Brazilian, but quite Ravel-sound, delicate and naive. Caesar Franck’s Prelude, Aria and Final and Prelude, Choral and Fugue, quite touching.
Finished re-reading Samuel Adler, finally gone through all examples one by one, though only briefly. It is not possible for me to digest it completely, every time I read it I discover something new, something that I didn’t notice before.
Stages of orchestration:
1. The very first step is to get familiar with the instruments and their roughly range. Although that’s just “instrumentation”, not yet orchestration.
2. The 2nd step is to know their most effective use and how to combine them in ensemble. Well, but if you just follow those textbooks, what you usally get is just a “correct” answer, but not necessarily an interesting one. And most probably, one may try to double the cello with the double bass 8ve below, and use the brass only when it is loud, which are actually not the only way to use the instruments. This is where orchestration lesson ends. Textbooks and teachers can only introduce student to this preliminary stage.
3. The 3rd step is to write idiomatically for every instrument, knowing how to use the bowing of strings effectively, knowing what patterns are effective for a pipa to play, etc. Unlike harmony that has a lot of guidelines (or rules) that one can follow, orchestration is much about experience. One can only judge whether the orchestration is successful from the outcome of an performance and improve the skill from trial and error. And this is one of the weakest point of most local composer here, because not many of them are veteran instrumentalist, and not many of them have a lot of orchestral experiences, and there are few chances to perform the new compositions or arrangements too. Even if a new piece is played, by some amateur groups, the limitation of performing standard and lack of rehearsals often makes the composers hesitate for writing difficult passages.
4. The last step to do is to establish an individual style. What makes Ravel a Ravel sound? That’s the goal.
There are lots of books about “orchestration”, but there are very few book about “piano writing”, perhaps because composers are supposed to be pianist, so people don’t think it is necessary to write a book about that. Or maybe it is indeed difficult to know how to write for piano unless a person has learnt the piano for years. But there are quite a number of composers who are not pianists too, Berlioz is one of the examples.
So what is the necessary conditions for the growth of a composer?
1. A composer is better to know at least a “chordal” instrument, whether it is piano, organ, or guitar, any tools that s/he can try out the sound of chords, the spacing.
2. A composer is better to know at least one “melodic” or “bass-line” instrument and has many experiences in an orchestra and chamber ensemble, which helps them to think more about voice-leading, and polyphonic writing.
3. A composer is better to know at least one “rhythmic” instrument, any percussions that helps him to get the sense of rhythm in heart.
4. A composer is better to have the experience of conducting, to understand a score from an executor’s perspective.
5. A composer is better to have an excellent aural skill, that he can transcribe a piece by ear.
6. A composer is better to have a good inner hearing, that everything on a score can be realized from imagination, without a computer playback, without a piano.
Thinking retrospectively, I know that there’s a lot I lack, but I’m not young any more.