The ability to shape a phrase orchestrally should be one of the primary concerns of a developing orchestrator, not just thinking vertically.
Something I’ve observed in many early orchestrational efforts is the concept that orchestration is mostly about combinations of sound and color. Developing orchestrators tend to think about the big picture a lot, and so many times their early sketches are like big, empty landscapes with only a tiny thread of actual function trickling through. Conversely, I’ll see a score which is almost all about function, with little development of texture – but that function is often arbitrary: ideas that don’t necessarily fit the instruments very well, and don’t lead them in different directions.
As I’ve been working on my orchestration video series script, and outlining everything the strings can do, it’s bringing home to me just how strong an orchestra can be. What I really want to say to orchestrators is:
“Know your instruments for what they can do horizontally, how they can really express something over the space of time. What are an instrument’s sweet spots, and how may they be approached for the maximum impact? How does its range of expression open the possibilities for you as a composer – not just an arranger? Have you composed any chamber music that allows you to explore the instruments more individually, more intimately?”
It all comes down to phrasing. “A phrase is a musical thought or sentence,” says a little kid’s piano course book – but that has such deep implications. Once I saw a comic impersonator do impressions of David Duchovny doing classic quotes from plays and films – all in his very controlled monotone. And that’s what I feel is happening in some scores, even some professional ones. The wrong actor is being asked to say the wrong sentence – and sometimes that sentence has iffy grammar, awkward choice of words, and unclear thoughts.
So set aside the grand ideas for sweeping vistas of sound, and think from the inside for a change. Take the time to compose a phrase with a lot of impact, and build that phrase over the shape of a specific instrument. Make the inflections and expressive arcs of that phrase say something about the way the instrument is played, and give the player a chance to inject their spirit into the proceedings.
Ravel was a consummate master of phrasing – his ideas work so well, and make so much sense on the instruments, that they’re often key audition excerpts, as they reveal the artistry of the player immediately. In the excerpt below, the Prelude from Le Tombeau de Couperin, the oboe plays the piano line verbatim. It fits the instrument perfectly, though it’s incredibly hard to play. Not just the speed – also managing a softer dynamic on the lowest notes. I recommend score-reading this whole movement, and really looking at how the phrasing fits all the instruments, and how that phrasing is supported by the orchestral texture.