I find that a lot of new composers who are interested in writing for live performers get frustrated because they end up having to do a lot of what I call “back-composition” in order to get a piece to performance. In most cases, this happens because they use a digital medium – a DAW or notation software – to create a work intended for performance by live musicians, but don’t spend enough time at the beginning of the process thinking about the individuals and ensembles who will ultimately perform the piece.
In my process, I like to put the musicians who will perform what I’m writing on the stage of my imagination and hear and record what comes out of them. Most of the time, this is a generic set of performers – a “Grade 3 Concert Band,” a “chamber orchestra,” etc., and I’m working within the generally-known timbres/capabilities/limitations of that set of performers. If I’m lucky, it’s a group of specific individuals I know well, and I’m working from personal knowledge of them.
Either way, I need to have a lot of information about the people sitting on my internal stage before I begin imagining new music for them – or else I’m going to end up having to re-imagine a lot of material just when I think I’m finished! For that reason, I think that the first, most important question a composer needs to ask herself before beginning a new work is, “Who’s ultimately going to perform it?” As I see it, there are three general answers to this question.
If you’re creating new music that will be performed by no one – a digital sound file, in other words – then you don’t have to worry about conforming your compositional imagination to the capabilities of human performers and their instruments/voices. This is one of the reasons that composers have been interested in the idea of “musical machines” for centuries – it’s the closest they can get to a pure expression of the musical ideas they have inside their own heads. You imagine the music, you perfect it in the DAW, you create the sound file – bingo.
If you’re creating new music that will be performed by you, and you alone, then you’re only concerned about your limitations as a performer, and the limitations of the thing(s) you’re going to perform your new music with, and you should know those pretty well already. If you’re a singer/guitarist creating something for you and you alone to perform, then you can’t expect to perform a work with notes higher than you can sing, or faster than you can play on guitar, or a really prominent English horn line, etc.
If you’re creating new music that will be performed by someone else, then you do have to worry about the capabilities of those others as performers, and the capabilities of the things they’re going to perform with, and you should be thinking about and working within those capabilities from the beginning of your process, or else you’re going to be confronted with them irritatingly at what you think should be the end of your process!
If you’re going to create music for someone else to perform on instrument X, then you should have at least a basic understanding of instrument X’s limitations – how high/low can it go? How loud/ soft can it go? etc., preferably before you begin your process. If you’re going to create music for a whole bunch of people to perform on a whole bunch of instruments or voices (orchestra, band, chorus, etc.), then you need to have a basic understanding of the capabilities of ALL those instruments or voices, and a basic understanding of how they all relate to one another in that particular ensemble, preferably before you begin your process.
I still refer to orchestration books often to touch base with all this information. One of the two best pieces of compositional advice I ever got came from the band composer Robert Jager, who said “Buy an orchestration book, and don’t be afraid to look in it!” The other came from my composition teacher Eugene Kurtz, who told me “Own more than one orchestration book, and don’t be afraid to look in all of them!”
In closing, I’ll say that, while I’ve found this idea of “performed by no one/performed by me/ performed by others” helpful for thinking about what I need to know before my process begins, I find it really useful for thinking about how I need to communicate my compositional intentions to others when they’re the ones converting my ideas into sound waves – in other words, for digging into the entire issue of notation, notation software, etc. That’s coming!