Orchestration – Deriving Texture from Instrument-Driven Development

Thematic development which is driven by the character of the instruments should determine the nature of the accompanying orchestral texture.

For the past three days, I’ve examined the role of instrumental color in determining the shape of phrasing and the development of themes, empowered by obeying the basic rules of linguistic communication. Today, I’m going to discuss the full implications of this approach – these elements are what decide, more than any other factor, the progression of orchestral texture.

It’s rather like painting. The theme is like a painting’s subject, and the orchestral texture is like the landscape. A flaw that I see in many beginning orchestral efforts is that they’re all landscape, no subject. Of course, there are great landscape painters, and there’s a parallel here with film composers, but in both cases the strongest efforts of either always have at least the germ of a subject or theme – a part that shines very brightly in the center of the image, that guides the eye or the ear.

Another problem I’m seeing is the imposition of a texture onto a theme that may not fit. The orchestrator has a terrific textural idea, but it wasn’t arrived at by suggestion of theme – rather by imitation or extension of another idea. But the effort has not been expended to find continuity through musical function, i.e. the natural outcome of thematic development. This means that the melodic content can feel pasted on. Or, in order to fit certain parameters of the accompanying texture, the melodic content ends up not really sounding natural on the instrument to which its assigned.

I personally feel that the process should be organic. The shaping of orchestral themes opens the door on new horizons of texture and coloration, and the way in which these two elements interact leads to the simultaneous, organic development of both. I rarely start with a textural idea to which a theme must be added – but when I do, that theme seems to leap logically and expressively out of the landscape, determining its essence, and dictating its evolution over time.

The following 2-page excerpt from my harp concerto is a huge, sweeping texture composed of the following elements:

  • a descending bass line in low strings, bass clarinet, and bass trombone
  • widely-spaced upper string harmonies
  • arcing phrases of winds playing in stacks of 4ths
  • cymbal splashes and swooshes
  • swooshing timpani and snare drum underpinning the harp phrases
  • arcing phrases of harp punctuating the winds
  • a high flute pattern that connects the upper strings to the texture
  • and last, most important, a horn chorale right in the middle of everything

Orchestration - Deriving Texture from Instrument-Driven DevelopmentOrchestration - Deriving Texture from Instrument-Driven Development 02

This entire, intricate construction derives directly from the horns. I wrote the chorale first, as a release to the building tension of the previous section. Then I added the bass line and upper strings, with the flutes breaking up the overtones, yet helping to keep the upper strings secure. That was the boat, the sky, and the sense of being. Finally I painted the waves – percussive gestures accompanying winds and harp in overlapping pulses.

So the harp actually came last of all in my conception, even though it’s in some ways the most prominent part; and the horns are what gives this section both its meaning and the foundation of its warm, engulfing color.

Thomas Goss is a professional composer and orchestrator with an international roster of clients. He has worked with such talents as Billy Ocean, Melanie C, Sharon Corr, and Nikki Yanofsky. His compositions, orchestrations, and crossover arrangements have been performed by such ensembles as Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony Chamber Ensemble.

Thomas lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand, with his wife Erica and son Charlie, and one very unappreciative cat.

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