I think the answer to this is simple (although it’s not always possible to maintain the distinction). When you have the opportunity to experiment and to try things out which may not work, it is a workshop. Here, the priority isn’t to practice, or perfect, but to simply get a sense of whether it will work eventually. It is definitely a luxury for a composer to workshop ideas as there is no pressure for any of the results to make their way into the finished product (which makes it a bit of a risk for the performers who have put aside their time for you). The only down-side is that, in preparing for a workshop, you have to work in a different (less free) way – a bit like preparing for teaching a lesson at school (yes: I have taught in schools and survived) – where you have to whittle down, identify and present the concept quickly and succinctly in order to ‘sell’ the idea to the players. Preparing for a workshop can feel like an interruption to the writing process but it’s a good way of focusing and pinning down some of the fundamental material. Timing is everything: if you want to try out a lot of stuff in forty minutes, you have to be organised and know exactly what you want to get out of the session. You also need to be flexible enough to respond to feedback, and try things out in different ways, which can mean not getting through everything you hoped to as a result. It’s a bit like composing ‘live’, or painting with sound, and it’s great if you’re in the right mood and the players are open to it.
I have recently had the opportunity to workshop initial ideas with members of the Endcliffe Orchestra – an amateur orchestra in Sheffield – as part of the development process for a piece I’m writing for them (first performance – June 28th 2014). The finished piece will be for piano six hands and orchestra but, at this initial stage, I have been more concerned with discovering the way that the orchestra works and identifying their strengths (and weaknesses). The piano will come later!
Here’s a taster of what we produced. It’s pretty menacing!:
In the first workshop I worked with strings and harp. I am fairly happy with what strings can do so some of the time was spent introducing the players to the different types of notation that I might use and some techniques that, perhaps, they have not been called upon to perform previously (like bowing behind the bridge, scratch tone, snap pizz and col legno battuto). We also tried out a scored section which I described as pulling back on a bit of elastic until it snapped. This worked very well and the harpist seemed happy to have discovered, and to perform, a half-pedal buzz (something she hadn’t done before). In the second workshop I worked with woodwind, strings and brass, where we explored instrumental techniques for the winds and brass such as flutter tonguing, pitch bending, key clicks and mouthpiece popping, as well as speaking into the mouthpiece, and I presented them with sheets containing boxed material of mostly flexibly-notated gestures which we experimented with in various combinations. The gestures were reinforced by mood or character descriptions to aid interpretation.
One element I hope to incorporate into the piece is a live panning effect, so that sounds pass from left to right of the auditorium, for instance. This will add an interesting visual aspect to the musical performance and also enhance the listening experience as the audiences’ perception of perspective is challenged. I think it will produce a sense of movement and theatre and will tie in nicely with the theatre of having three performers at the piano. Anyway…. experiments in this area have been successful, mostly, and this really was something I could’t try at home! It was great to be able to work on the practical aspects of making this work (it seemed fine once we established that it was like a Mexican Wave!) and in establishing/ questioning the role of the conductor.
What I discovered overall was that the players are very much ‘up for it’ and were encouraging, enthusiastic and engaged, even when the results were muddy, ugly and overloaded (not that there’s anything wrong with that, in the right place!). It’s great to have the players ‘on side’ and to have a supportive (and also ‘up for it’!) conductor when you’re finding your feet, and – considering they have no sense of how the finished product will sound – it’s a real leap of faith for them. Workshopping ideas is, in some ways, harder than presenting the finished piece: you assume that what you’re presenting is being judged as good or bad and so, when it doesn’t work, all you can do is be honest and tell them that, and thank them for trying it out. I have found myself feeling vulnerable, apologetic and embarrassed but, luckily, as I’ve said, this orchestra is supportive and keen. This is a great place to be starting from!