PeteJ wrote: ↑
Sun Jun 25, 2017 9:12 am
.... Do you have any thoughts on writing for guitar orchestra? I was thinking of having a go.
Well, it all depends on many things. Most important question, are you writing for a specific ensemble of players you know, or in general?
Next it depends on where you are coming from as player and as composer. And is this as part of training an ensemble, are you in charge as MD? Are extended range instruments available?
One important tip, mostly applicable to writing small ensembles but also relevant here, is to write a solo piece and then expand it out to your chosen forces. So rather than writing in abstract onto the screen or onto ms paper, let your fingers guide you and allow ideas to flow by noodling and then keeping what works. The obvious limitation here is that solo pieces tend to have restrictions on what works, and so the thing is to bear that in mind and perhaps note places where something else would be possible. Notably, solo pieces never have extremely busy bass and treble parts more than a couple of octaves apart, but that's easy with an ensemble.
Other things semi at random; think of the pitfalls of the sound of a guitar orchestra - and avoid them! Obvious here includes a very muddy low-mid register sound, monotony of sonority and texture.
After that, well, how long have we got!?
Certainly the basic tenets of good writing will apply, and one often finds that tendencies that affect a solo instrument will still exist, but writ large. So in general it is important to keep some space between the bass and tenor parts (thinking of SATB).
Plan as much as you can in advance what the piece will do. In general, starting at the beginning with no idea of where to go, will get one nowhere worth getting to! This more so with an ensemble than with a solo piece.
At all times remember that just because you are writing for lots of people, doesn't mean to say it is necessarily
'better' than writing for one. Ideally, we should make even greater efforts to make sure what we are writing is worth gathering all those people there.
The default tends to be just to write SATB-like parts and keep them that way throughout. Partly then the question is, what makes this for orchestra rather than just a quartet? And while some quartets translate well up to, say, 4 per part, many do not.
Compared with a string quartet, where there are three different instruments with slightly different sonorities and of course different ranges present, a quartet of 4 standard guitars (or multiples of each on each part) does not on the face of it mean that the parts should remain as stratified in terms of pitch and level of activity aka 'importance'. But there is a strong tendency to maintain a hierachy where Gtr 1 gets the high and difficult stuff, Gtr 2 less so, Gtr 3 the easiest stuff and Gtr 4 the bass and slightly harder than Gtr 3. This works well and reliably in terms of the spread of competence many large ensembles have, but with all standard guitars is obviously artificial and can end up predictable and is not actually using the resources fully.
One useful trick is to group each main part, let's say 4 basically SATB, into choirs, e.g. Gtrs 1a, 1b, & 1c, sim for other parts. You can then give them all the same thing for a fuller sonority, or easily thin them out, or automatically give a solo, individual part to a particular player.
Certainly, the thing that makes it an orchestral piece rather than just a quartet, would be that the sonority can be controlled in that way, and that Gtrs 1 can be assigned different strands in places, brought back together, etc.
Depending on the relative strengths of the players, one question is how democratic to make the distribution of important ideas. The temptation, and the reliable thing, is to only give important bits to the stronger players. I distinctly recall that Gtr 3 members used to - very understandably - complain that their parts were boring, they never got to play tunes, etc. So one occasion we organised a piece where Gtr 3 got some tune, and we rehearsed them thoroughly, and they played it just fine in rehearsal, they were perfectly capable of doing it. Then when the figurative spotlight landed on them in performance, they collapsed - that whole section with their tune was just the accompanying ideas in the other parts, while Gtr 3 sat and looked very embarrassed. But that then merges into the Personnel Management part of running an orchestra (not my strong point it has to be said).
I think in the Solstice piece there is a place where Gtr 3 get some tune while its in a low position, and Gtr 1 take over when it goes up. In the slow bit.
Another thought, the tendencies writ large thing; the sustain of higher notes is always going to be shorter, so it can be ineffective to give say Gtr 1 long high notes, especially if lower parts have quicker notes that will cover up the sustain of the high notes. At least, it needs careful handling. Conversely we can have very nice sustaining bass-string notes, including and usefully, high on string 4.
Which leads to the question of fingering; most gtr orch parts have no fingering, which is often understandable, but for the composer, at least guiding some fingering can be useful. For example, if we stay on string 1, shifting if need be, we tend to keep the sound strong and forward (its not called the chanterelle for nothing); conversely, avoiding it, especially avoiding the open E for an inner part, can keep it recessed and avoid it grabbing attention its not meant to have.
If then we have a Gtr 3 part which ideally we want to finger up high on string 4, we may feel that some of those players will not cope. We can then say, OK then finger it low down, or if using a Choir of Gtrs 3a, b, c, we could finge 3a up high and leave the others unfingered. In general it is better to have everybody on a part play the same fingering, but that can be too much for some. Indeed, in the right place it can be interesting for sonority to ask for different fingerings in the way conventional orchestration might blend e.g. a flute and a clarinet on the same pitch for an amalgamated sound.
Oh dear, I've rambled on - and that's just a small starter-off. Good luck and let us know how it goes! Final fing - keep it simple first time, you can always re-write and change things later.