Hearing Your Music Live: Young Composer Problems

Recently, I was watching a video promoting the “Panufnik Young Composers Scheme” with the London Symphony Orchestra. It was interesting to hear Lady Camilla Panufnik talk about her husband and her desire to give young composers the opportunity to play with a real, professional symphony orchestra. The participants also spoke about how exciting it was to work with a symphony orchestra. The emphasis really seemed to be on working with the orchestra.

As an orchestral composer today, it can be easy to hear your work performed through software but almost impossible to hear your work from real instruments, live. The software gets better and better every year, so that full compositions can sound as though they are played by real instruments. However, there is no human expression, even with ‘human playback’ tools and it never sounds truly real.

At university, for the first time I have got to hear most of my compositions performed live. This has been a wonderful experience. And not just because it sounds better (because often it doesn’t, with human error!). Through hearing my pieces with live instruments, I learn a lot more. By working with the instrumentalists, I can discover what works in a practical setting and what doesn’t. I can see the limitations of the instruments. I can find out what would be difficult for a beginner vs a professional performer. I can hear combinations of sounds in real life, learning more about balance, timbre and colour than I ever would from a computer version. All of these things are incredibly important for an instrumental composer, to understand the true realisation of their piece and to create the music that they really want.