Orchestral Composition

Story by Marcus Jackson

New Zealand School of Music, 2017

More Than Mozart

The orchestra has long been the monarch of the world of Western composition: the unbridled power of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, the mysterious delight of Debussy’s music, the impassioned strains of Verdi’s Requiem. And still, composers continue exploring the rich sonic possibilities of the orchestra.

“I think the evocative nature of sound has always been a thing in my life,” says Michael Norris, programme director for Composition at Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music (NZSM).

This attitude towards sound describes a particular focus of a lot of composers of orchestral works in Wellington, the desire to think about sound in new ways, especially in a medium that offers an often overwhelming wealth of sounds.

Lilburn's Legacy

Norris' piece Claro was commissioned by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra to be performed in 2015 alongside another New Zealand composer’s work: Douglas Lilburn’s Symphony No.2.

Lilburn was, and remains, an important figure both in the history of NZSM, and in the wider New Zealand music culture. His work centered on the search for a New Zealand musical language, and his creative exploration lead him to work in both acoustic and electronic media.

Norris's work continued the creative legacy set up by Lilburn, moving towards a more standard approach to the sounds used, while experimenting with new ways of configuring harmony.

This is what he sees as his role at the School: to continue to encourage young composers to become articulate in the language of sound, both acoustic and electronic.

Value in Experience

Kenneth Young, frequent conductor of the NZSO and composer lecturing at NZSM, cut his teeth as a young tuba player in the NZSO, a post he held for 25 years.

“There is simply no substitute for experiencing individual instruments and full ensembles in a live situation in order to learn how things fit together,” he says.

Young's focus is on orchestration, the process of taking ideas and motifs for a piece and writing them for specific instruments in different ways to maximise the effectiveness of the idea: making sure it is heard when it needs to be, or blends in when it should.

Orchestration is one of the key considerations when writing a work for orchestra, and it requires an in-depth knowledge of the instruments you are writing for.

Composition students at NZSM are lucky to be able to work with the NZSM Orchestra, an orchestra made largely of current Performance students.

Doctor of Musical Arts student Sarah Ballard recently had her work street : noise : graffiti performed by the Orchestra, a performance she credits with having been able to work directly, one-on-one with performers to attain the exact sounds she was after.

Ongoing Legacy

The ability to experiment, to interact with, and be surrounded by orchestral musicians is a huge benefit to student composers. These opportunities allow them to continue the legacy of avant-garde music, and to get familiar with the sonic forces that come together to create the passionate, mysterious, and powerful music of past, present and future.


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