Workshop day is often described as the culmination of the LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme, but really its a stop on the road to finalising a new piece. Joe Bates tells us all about what he learnt in his workshop in March 2021, and how he's been revising his piece since then.
'I recently had the pleasure of hearing my piece Muted the Night performed as part of the LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme workshops. I’m enormously grateful for the rare opportunity to write for orchestra. This is a detailed look at what I’ve learnt from the workshop, which is best enjoyed in tandem with the recording of the final workshop performance of my piece (starting at 9:58).
A piece for a workshop is not a finished concert work. A successful workshop piece ought to include moments of planned failure. A workshop is the only time you’ll get to test ideas that you expect not to work: a concert is too high-stakes, a rehearsal too goal-oriented. This is the joy of a scheme like LSO Panufnik Composers – it gives you a safe space to produce unpolished work.
It was in this spirit that I stuffed Muted the Night full of orchestral effects that I knew were on the edge of plausibility. In retrospect, I was guilty of over-stuffing. The workshop flew by before I had time to zoom in on every detail I wanted to investigate. But in the days since, I’ve had time to comb through the recording and think carefully about how I want to revise the piece.
My central reflection on hearing the piece for the first time was that it was over-worked. I had doubled too many lines and added too many effects. This resulted in hazy textures, where the melody couldn’t find its way through, and in trouble tuning the microtones. The piece was quite simple in conception, as the piano reduction reveals – it rarely uses more than three ideas in counterpoint. As such, both the piece’s conductor, Jack Sheen, and my PhD supervisor, Martin Suckling, suggested that the work would benefit from reduced forces, which would help clarify the sound.
I’ve taken this advice, stripping the orchestra back dramatically. I’ve reduced the woodwinds from twelve to eight players and removed all their auxiliary instruments barring the piccolo. I’ve also cut the tuba, the piano and the second percussion player.
One immediate advantage of the smaller orchestra, I hope, is that it is easier for players to find their way aurally through the thicket of quartertones. The dramatic reduction in percussion may also help this. A fair bit of clarity, I think, was lost in the dense percussion and piano writing, which mainly acted as accompaniment.
Listen to the moment at 11:24 (Figure D) in the video above for a good illustration of this problem. I wanted to create a moment of swirling lightness above a chorale-like tune. The piano reduction reveals three key ideas: a reverse-swing line in the high woodwinds, a triplet line in the harp and flutes, and a chorale-like melody in the brass and strings.
But in an attempt to create some twinkling, swirling sounds in the top register, I’ve over-saturated this moment. The piano and glockenspiel add complications to the flute and harp line, while the harpist’s left hand adds a rhythmic counterpoint. Each of these ideas is nice enough, but in concert they drown out the fine detail. In my edited version, I’ve cut the piano and glockenspiel, and introduced the harp left-hand figuration later, when the texture is thinner.
Having two instruments play the same line is a classic trick of orchestration. While each instrument’s sound may be well known, the composites one creates can be new and thrilling. But they have to be well chosen. In some places in my piece, the differing timbres of doubling instruments created aural confusion, as in the harp-horn doublings at 11:00 (Figure C). I’ve replaced this with a clearer clarinet-harp doubling.
In other places, there were tuning issues. When using quartertones, one must be aware that different instruments produce them in different ways, which can result in subtle differences in tuning. This is fine in some contexts: we have more aural tolerance for slightly-off octaves than detuned unisons. My new version of the piece strips almost all unison doublings of quartertones.
One technique that I wanted to try out in this context was using simultaneous detunings to create an organ-like beating effect. I had hoped this would lend a pulsing drive to the melody.
I don’t think it worked well. You can hear the idea at 12:30. Here, the quartertones in the melody get swamped by the detunings elsewhere, reducing the clarity of the melodic line. It is challenging enough to play quartertones, playing them on a slightly detuned instrument makes them very hard to pitch.
The F-quarter-sharp in bar 45, for example, is produced in four ways:
- By an oboist, probably altering the pitch with their lip.
- By a bassoonist, altering the pitch with their lip on an already detuned instrument.
- By a trumpet, tuned a quartertone flat.
- By a trombonist, adjusting the pitch with their slide
A score showing the woodwinds and brass at bar 45
The reduced version of bar 45
I still think the detuning idea can work well, but I think it needs to be applied to a bolder, simpler melody amidst a clearer texture. One day I will write a big detuned-unison tune for oboes and bassoons, but this is not the right piece.
The percussion are crucial for driving the work onwards. They play an underlying rhythmic pattern that structures the melodic ideas. But too often, the balance of these instruments was out. In the opening section (10:00), the combination of cowbells, cymbal and triangle doesn’t blend well. The cymbal gets lost, while the triangle and cowbell stand out too much from the surrounding texture. I’ve replaced all of these with the softer cousin of the cowbell, the tuned almglocken. I hope that these, played with soft sticks, can produce the blurred groove I’m after.
Edits at the beginning
Revised version of the beginning.
In later sections, I was surprised at the imbalance between the timpani and the tenor drums, due perhaps to the higher pitch of the tenor drums. In the section at 12:03 (Figure G), the intended rhythmic interplay doesn’t come through. The timpani’s more absorbent sound and lower pitch mean it is drowned out. I’ve reduced the number of notes in the timpani and put it up the octave to ensure that the balance is better. To take a belts-and-braces approach, I’ve also added an instruction to the two players that they should consciously balance with one another.
Having pruned and cut my way towards a clearer work, I now want to spend some time expanding it. There are many moments of the piece that feel a little too ephemeral to me. I’d like the opening melody to be built up over time rather than arrive fully cloaked in orchestration. The closing section could also be somewhat longer, with more fully sustained chords and longer gaps in between.
These decisions are also, to an extent, pragmatic. A three-minute work for large orchestra is a hard ask for programmers. A five-minute work for standard orchestra is a much better bet, and I hope to find somebody interested in taking on this revised version.
I’m proud of the bones of this piece and feel very lucky that the LSO gave me the space to find new ways to flesh it out.'
Joe Bates' Muted the Night was workshopped by the Orchestra in March 2021. You can watch a film from the workshop day, featuring interviews with the composers and their mentors, on our YouTube channel now.
The LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme was devised by the Orchestra in association with Lady Panufnik, in memory of her late husband, the composer Sir Andrzej Panufnik, and is generously supported by Lady Hamlyn and The Helen Hamlyn Trust.