What Is Your Problem?

Image source:  Biography.com

 

There’s a painfully funny short film on the internet now in which a man/woman couple are having a conversation.  She keeps complaining about a terrible pain in her head.  The camera pulls back to reveal she has a nail stuck in her forehead.

 

Each time the man tries to point out that she might feel better if they removed the nail, she interrupts him.  “Why are you trying to fix me?” she says.  “It’s not about the nail!”

 

Anyone that’s every been in a relationship will get this conversation.  Perhaps the dialogue doesn’t really describe differences between genders, but rather describes different perceptions about solutions.  For the man, pulling out the nail might have solved the woman’s problem, but he was really trying to solve his own problem of having to listen to her complain!

 

That was the point.  As dire as her situation seems to be from the outside, she is asking to be heard, not to be cured.  It takes an enormous amount of patience and compassion to listen to someone rather than solve what we perceive to be their problem.

 

I may be forgiven for not always having that patience and compassion, but if I don’t listen, I end up going after the wrong problem.  However efficient I think I am being, in the end I don’t even solve the problem I thought I solved.  Even worse, I miss the real issue that needs dealing with.

 

One of my hobbies is the study of how to write for an orchestra.  One of the great orchestrators of all time is Richard Strauss, and for all the years I’ve studied him I’ve found myself unable to understand how exactly he writes for the orchestra.  For me, studying him has always been like trying to look through a wall with a picture on it…all I see is the stupid picture!

 

Finally, last week, I noticed something, not about the way he writes for the orchestra, but the way he writes the music itself.  Instead of the music bouncing along like a waltz where you can always hear the beat, his music floats, so you never know where the beat is.  That allows his orchestration to float as well, and when he creates his effects, the punch is extra powerful because he can manipulate your sense of time.

 

If you are lost by my technical explanation, just focus on this:  For years I have been focused on solving the wrong problem:  How does Strauss use the orchestra?  Really, he doesn’t use it as differently from Brahms, Tchaickovsky, Debussy as I thought.

 

Because I am now focused on solving the right problem, “How does Strauss create a sense of timelessness with his music,” I understand one important reason why his orchestration sounds so unique.  My fervent desire to solve a problem was keeping me in the dark.  Now that I’m investigating the right question, I’ve not only begun to address the thing about his orchestration that’s been bothering me all these years, but I’ve learned something new about writing music that I’ve missed for decades.

 

Solving the right problem (if solving is the correct approach) requires patient listening and thinking.  It may also require a sense of failure so that we “give up” and are open to things we hadn’t thought of.  So what’s your problem?

7 comments

  • Darcy

    Darcy

    It's interesting to hear someone say that Strauss, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Debussy don't use the orchestra all that differently. The horn parts in those pieces are extremely different!! ;)

    It's interesting to hear someone say that Strauss, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Debussy don't use the orchestra all that differently. The horn parts in those pieces are extremely different!! wink

  • Adam Cole

    Adam Cole

    I still have a lot to learn about orchestration! It may be that I am underestimating the difference. I'd find your thoughts on the differences between composers for your instrument to be very helpful. I think, though, that the differences may come about as a result of the way the composers thought about music as much or more than because they were trying to write differently for the instruments.

    I still have a lot to learn about orchestration! It may be that I am underestimating the difference. I'd find your thoughts on the differences between composers for your instrument to be very helpful. I think, though, that the differences may come about as a result of the way the composers thought about music as much or more than because they were trying to write differently for the instruments.

  • Chris

    Chris

    It's not about the nail, but it is about how we react to the nail. Pretending the nail isn't there is the first delusion that must be released. It goes like this... "Honey?" "Yes." "There's a nail stuck in your forehead." "That's just like you, turn this back on me." [gets mirror] "See." "Oh. Go away now."

    It's not about the nail, but it is about how we react to the nail. Pretending the nail isn't there is the first delusion that must be released. It goes like this...

    "Honey?"

    "Yes."

    "There's a nail stuck in your forehead."

    "That's just like you, turn this back on me."

    [gets mirror]

    "See."

    "Oh. Go away now."

  • Darcy

    Darcy

    Oh, I am no expert on orchestration. I've never even formally studied it. All I can tell you is what I've observed and heard from the back row as a horn player who has to be able to play it all. Even just between Brahms and Debussy, there seems to be a huge difference in sound concepts, density (opaque and rich vs. transparent and shimmery) and texture (clean and focused vs. thick and lush). Throw Richard Strauss into the mix and you've got a heavily Germanic dude whose dad was a horn player, who loved writing insanely difficult and squirrelly passages for the horns the likes of which had never been written before. Go to imslp.org and check out the horn parts to Heldenleben compared to, say, the horn parts to Debussy's La Mer. Radically different!!! So fascinating. I'm still learning about it all and trying to shift back and forth between wearing the thin/focused/light/transparent hat (Mozart, Haydn, Ravel) and the big/thick/opaque/strong hat (R. Strauss, Bruckner, Mahler, Tchaikovsky). :)

    Oh, I am no expert on orchestration. I've never even formally studied it. All I can tell you is what I've observed and heard from the back row as a horn player who has to be able to play it all. Even just between Brahms and Debussy, there seems to be a huge difference in sound concepts, density (opaque and rich vs. transparent and shimmery) and texture (clean and focused vs. thick and lush). Throw Richard Strauss into the mix and you've got a heavily Germanic dude whose dad was a horn player, who loved writing insanely difficult and squirrelly passages for the horns the likes of which had never been written before. Go to imslp.org and check out the horn parts to Heldenleben compared to, say, the horn parts to Debussy's La Mer. Radically different!!! So fascinating. I'm still learning about it all and trying to shift back and forth between wearing the thin/focused/light/transparent hat (Mozart, Haydn, Ravel) and the big/thick/opaque/strong hat (R. Strauss, Bruckner, Mahler, Tchaikovsky). smile

  • Adam Cole

    Adam Cole

    I've been studying orchestration as seriously as I can for 20 years and there are still so many things you know that I'll never know! I would love to have had all that time in the orchestra like you have. I think the point of what I meant wasn't so much that Strauss' orchestration is just like Debussy's. Clearly they organize the instruments very differently and place different demands upon them as a result. What I think surprised me was that I was flummoxed by Strauss' orchestration in spite of what I knew about how to write for instruments. I couldn't get my head around how different it sounded. I spent a long time pondering what he was doing orchestrationally that was different from other composers. But it wasn't until I really understood how he floated above a sense of meter (at least in the early famous tone poems) that I could see why his particular way of writing for the orchestra was so baffling. The answer wasn't in his writing for the instruments...as remarkable as it is, that's mostly a mechanical thing, and many other composers employ many of the same methods - horns in a group, groups in contrast, effective doubling at key moments, and most importantly intelligent use of horn register and key for solos - the way it SOUNDS, Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" theme and the Don Juan theme aren't that far apart (though playing them is undoubtedly different!) By fixating on that, I was solving the wrong problem. Looking at the question of a composer's orchestration from the compositional side, at least in Strauss' case, made answering those questions so much easier for me.

    I've been studying orchestration as seriously as I can for 20 years and there are still so many things you know that I'll never know! I would love to have had all that time in the orchestra like you have. I think the point of what I meant wasn't so much that Strauss' orchestration is just like Debussy's. Clearly they organize the instruments very differently and place different demands upon them as a result. What I think surprised me was that I was flummoxed by Strauss' orchestration in spite of what I knew about how to write for instruments. I couldn't get my head around how different it sounded. I spent a long time pondering what he was doing orchestrationally that was different from other composers. But it wasn't until I really understood how he floated above a sense of meter (at least in the early famous tone poems) that I could see why his particular way of writing for the orchestra was so baffling. The answer wasn't in his writing for the instruments...as remarkable as it is, that's mostly a mechanical thing, and many other composers employ many of the same methods - horns in a group, groups in contrast, effective doubling at key moments, and most importantly intelligent use of horn register and key for solos - the way it SOUNDS, Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" theme and the Don Juan theme aren't that far apart (though playing them is undoubtedly different!) By fixating on that, I was solving the wrong problem. Looking at the question of a composer's orchestration from the compositional side, at least in Strauss' case, made answering those questions so much easier for me.

  • Darcy

    Darcy

    I just love that you're asking these excellent questions and coming up with such interesting answers. :) I definitely see what you're saying and certainly do not claim to have ANY kind of knowledge of the compositional mechanics of orchestration. It's quite possible that it sounds much more homogeneous out in the hall than it does in the thick of it onstage, too. I'm sure there are a lot more similarities between the compositional styles of the romantic composers, just as you mentioned, that I'm just not aware of. It's hard to see the forest for the trees when you're a tree. ;) LOL

    I just love that you're asking these excellent questions and coming up with such interesting answers. smile I definitely see what you're saying and certainly do not claim to have ANY kind of knowledge of the compositional mechanics of orchestration. It's quite possible that it sounds much more homogeneous out in the hall than it does in the thick of it onstage, too. I'm sure there are a lot more similarities between the compositional styles of the romantic composers, just as you mentioned, that I'm just not aware of. It's hard to see the forest for the trees when you're a tree. wink LOL

  • Michael Colgrass

    Michael Colgrass

    I have never studied orchestration, nor have I studied the scores of the great orchestrators. My learning about orchestration has come to me by sitting in the midst of orchestras and bands, etc. while great conductors dissected the scores instrument by instrument and section by section. I always listened avidly during these rehearsals and absorbed the orchestrational combinations 'through the muscle,' so to speak where they are stored and available for retrieval at any time. I think orchestration is a matter of having a feel for texture and that feeling must be in your body to work really effectively in your writing. Your feel for the orchestra is what gives your orchestration its voice. Getting inside the composer's mind is the only way I know how to understand his orchestration, and to do that you need to exchange bodies with him. Regarding communication between genders my wife tacked up on our kitchen bulletin board a cartoon which shows a mind reader looking into a crystal ball while her client looks on. The psychic says, "I have good news and bad news—your husband is present with us in the room right now, but he's still not listening to you."

    I have never studied orchestration, nor have I studied the scores of the great orchestrators. My learning about orchestration has come to me by sitting in the midst of orchestras and bands, etc. while great conductors dissected the scores instrument by instrument and section by section. I always listened avidly during these rehearsals and absorbed the orchestrational combinations 'through the muscle,' so to speak where they are stored and available for retrieval at any time. I think orchestration is a matter of having a feel for texture and that feeling must be in your body to work really effectively in your writing. Your feel for the orchestra is what gives your orchestration its voice. Getting inside the composer's mind is the only way I know how to understand his orchestration, and to do that you need to exchange bodies with him.
    Regarding communication between genders my wife tacked up on our kitchen bulletin board a cartoon which shows a mind reader looking into a crystal ball while her client looks on. The psychic says, "I have good news and bad news—your husband is present with us in the room right now, but he's still not listening to you."

Add comment