20 lessons concerning the orchestra from the perspective of a jazz composer
1. Strauss said “what sounds good at a slow tempo will sound good at a fast tempo.”
2. A true pianissimo is hard to achieve.
3. Don’t over use percussion to drive rhythm. This over use of percussion derives from a jazz mentality where the drums are charged (perhaps too often) with driving drama.
4. Anthony Davis: “make the orchestra your band.”
5. Woodwinds are the most difficult section to deal with. They are all different, and can easily be subsumed by other families. Jazz composers don’t deal with them as much as they deal with brass, perc., and strings.
6. Transitions are a challenge. You can be a very good composer and still have faulty transitions.
7. Beware of over-use of unisons
8. Clear away instruments to allow your core idea to shine through.
9. Fast 16th note passages, esp. unisons, should be used very sparingly. They don’t provide nearly the excitement you might expect.
10. Strings are your friend! Use them as the core of the piece as often as possible, including as rhythmic drivers.
11. Subtlety and nuance are achieved through the sophistication of your orchestral choices. What we jazz composers know well is melody, rhythm, and harmony. But innovative orchestration is a high art, learned through experience.
12. Rhythm is our strong point, but you must be judicious in how you designate your rhythms into the orchestra so as to achieve the drive/ funk/ syncopation you desire. Things get muddy, blurry, cumbersome fast. Question previous strategies!
13. All the sections do NOT need to share the same dynamic. Consider foreground/ background, crossfades in sections.
14. Embellish repeating rhythms, consider shape.
15. Color comes from what you don’t do.
16. Energy can come from dissonance, harmony as much as a fortissimo.
17. Avoid too much block sound- use counterpoint.
18. Use space, let things sit, use pauses to prevent the feeling of things bumping into each other. It’s like a truck making a wide turn as opposed to a sports car.
19. Orchestration defines space and shape.
20. Think in 3 dimensions. An orchestra’s hall is not a small jazz club.
What are ways that you, as a composer, neglect orchestration as a primary tool?
Thanks to the great experience that the JCOI afforded me!