Why aren't I writing symphonies?

Some popular articles on NPRs Deceptive Cadence making the rounds are by Kevin Puts on "Why Write Symphonies?"; a Q&A with David Robertson centering on the question "Why Are American Orchestras Afraid of New Symphonies?"; a discussion with Mohammed Fairouz on "Creating American Symphonies To Tell A 'Distinctly American' Stories;" an article by Derek Bermel  "Why Aren't Composers Writing More Symphonies Today?"; and an entire series looking at American Symphonies--here's just one post on Mid-Century American Symphonies. All of these have interesting discussions.

Puts' article is personal, and breaks down his story of how he got into writing symphonies. Robertson has very practical views, from audiences being afraid of new (which depends 100% on the demographic you're working toward-- this is a mentality I dislike, and Michael Kaiser backs me up.) as well as the very practical issues of cost of performance. And remember, Robertson is one of the musical directors completely unafraid to break new ground and program new works. He's the good guy, fighting that first mentality of "scared audiences," though he still seems a bit beholden to the idea. 

Fairouz, like Puts, describes why he personally writes symphonies. You can listen to some of Fairouz's work on his website. As for Bermel, well, he seems to take a more semantic approach--young composers are still writing orchestral works, but aren't using the word symphony, and are often keeping the works smaller in scope. 

Now, I'll tell you my story, what I've seen, been told, and experienced from orchestras.

My first experiences with orchestral writing came in undergrad. I was studying trombone and composition with Jim Beckel. He's the principal trombonist for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and has written several orchestral works. He told me, straight up, how difficult it was to get orchestral works performed, even when he has the "in" of being a part of the orchestra. Well, I wrote a terrible little piece that semester, and it shall remain hidden for all time.

Next came while I was studying with Carlos Carrillo. I was the trombonist with the chamber orchestra, and we were preparing a West Coast tour. The director, Orcenith Smith, had chosen a Haydn symphony for our large piece...So I was stuck sitting in the back for 25 minutes or so. Obviously wracked by guilt, he decided to let me play a solo. Carlos jumped on this and said "YOU HAVE TO WRITE SOMETHING FOR THE GROUP! AND SOLO!" So, after talking to the Prof. Smith, he agreed, as long as I kept it short, was strings and MAYBE percussion, and could be learned in the abbreviated amount of time. So, I threw something together.

And the piece was quite popular on the tour, especially when we hit high schools. It was my first moment of "stardom" with 14-18 year olds asking me all sorts of questions. It was fun.

But I learned something else about new music and orchestras--they like short and easy to learn. Because, let's be honest, they're going to spend their time on the big piece. And, as a young composer, the likelihood of my piece being the big piece is low.

It's now been almost eight years since I wrote my last orchestral piece. And I have no intention of writing an orchestral piece in the near future. I've waxed poetic enough--time to be blunt.

  • When I think of writing an orchestral work, it's not a 10 minute intro piece. 
  • When orchestras look to premiere pieces, they're either "intro" pieces, specific commissions by highly experienced composers, or concertos brought in by the player (sometimes a member of the orchestra, some times not). 
  • The opportunities for me to get a large-scale orchestral piece performed at this point in my life are slim. Not to say impossible, but slim.
  • Readings are available, but even these stress pieces being in the 10 minute range.
  • Orchestras are looking for pieces they can put together in a short amount of time due to their rehearsal schedules. This is a practical consideration--when you only have a week or two to learn a piece, it becomes more difficult.
  • There are tons of opportunities for me to write and get chamber works performed. New music groups are sprouting up all over the place, and competitions are everywhere. Even choirs put out more open calls for pieces.
  • Even then, I don't write pieces for competitions. I either write them because I want to write them, or the more likely scenario, because I have a commission and/or performance lined up. Of my last ten or so works, only one was written with a clear performance lined up, and I was able to score 2 performances of it within six months of finishing the piece.
  • These days composers are pushed toward "entrepreneurship." How easy is it to get together an 80+ piece orchestra? It's not something a young composer, or even a collective of young composers can pull off without a large amount of assets available. 
  • This isn't to say there are no opportunities for readings, or working with orchestras. The American Composers Orchestra does readings every year, as well as workshops, and lots of programming of new works. There are other smaller orchestras doing the exact same thing around the country. 
  • Even large orchestras are joining the act. Pittsburgh has had a reading session for ten years or so. Milwaukee has started a composer institute.  Even Memphis put out an open call for a commissioning project. 
    • But let's be honest about Memphis. Will it go to a young composer? No, it'll more than likely go to an established composer. And this isn't a knock on Memphis at all, just the truth that in an open competition, it's going to be difficult as an emerging composer that's still working on craft to beat out, say, Chen Yi or Martin Bresnick. 
  • So, there ARE opportunities, if you write the "right" kind of music. And have some ins. And want to spend your time working nearly exclusively in that medium.
But, for me, the time isn't right, the support from major orchestras just isn't there for emerging composers, and I'm not willing to "play the game," run the circuit, and force myself into being "just" an orchestral composer. I still want it all.

And, when I think of writing an orchestral piece, it's like this: 

Remember, that's part one. The recording I have of this work runs over 30 minutes. And that's the sort of minimum I'd go for. John Luther Adams also pops to mind, though I run a bit more complex than he does...But that open, expensive, shifting idea. Something that moves and fits the orchestra.

And if I wrote that piece right now, I'd have 0 chance of performance. Even with the venues available, it'd be too long, too complicated, too taxing.

Now, this isn't to say I'll never write an orchestral piece. And, if I do, I may well title it "Symphony 1." I'm not so hung up on semantics as other composers, and don't particularly believe in programmatic works the same way others do.

And so much of this industry is "who you know." And I don't know that many orchestral conductors, composers sitting on panels for major orchestral commissions, or much associated with orchestras. If anything, I've probably pissed off at least three orchestras (if they read my blogs and/or posts elsewhere).

But, for now, there aren't opportunities to do what I want to do. Maybe, someday, there will be.

For now, I'll keep writing chamber works, chamber operas, and electroacoustic pieces. And, who knows, maybe I'll get the chance to write a symphony someday. Just as long as they give me a two year heads up, because I bet it'll take me that long to write one!


I've already had some great conversations with people about this post! It's really great that this blog can start active discussions in the music community. After one conversation, I wanted to make a few points clear.

1) No one has flat out told me "Don't write symphonic works." If I made it sound that way, I didn't mean to. I have been cautioned at every step how incredibly difficult it is to get them performed.

2) It's really about opportunities to do what I want. I'm not "giving up" on orchestral music. Nor am I "selling out" my music by writing a certain way. What I would love to do with an orchestra is write a 60-90 minute gigantic piece, possibly with electronics and video. That'd take me well over two years to do, and unless I have a chance at a performance, I'm just not sure dedicating two+ years of my life to a single piece are worthwhile.

And, yes, I've dedicated large amounts of time to pieces before without a guarantee of performance and it worked out...but they weren't nearly this large. I spent a year on Cake, 8 months of which I didn't have any sort of venue for it. And I spent 6 months writing Dance of Disillusionment, then revising it, before that piece got a break as well. Those experiences have me wary, especially when I do have some groups eager to play my pieces.

So, I'm not sacrificing some dream for a practical matter, I'm just making a choice, the kind of choice we all make, all the time: do I want to do this or that more? For me, I'd rather work intimately with a wider group of musicians with more pieces right now than dedicate that much time to a symphony.

And all this is said as I'm working on another opera, which at the moment doesn't have a venue. But, unlike with symphonies, I have CONTACTS in the chamber opera world...so I'm a bit more confident I can put something together with it.

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