Experience suggests that conventionally trained symphony orchestra and symphonic band musicians (especially we non-pros) probably don’t think all that much about the physical arrangement of their performance spaces, once certain fundamentals are settled to their satisfaction: section leadership and playing room. The former speaks both to skill ranking, certain norms about sound production, and ease of play (in some large string sections, anyway), while the latter is just good sense (no one wants to jab their stand partner in the head with a bow or accidentally vent a spit valve on a friend).
The current “traditional” arrangement for symphony orchestras in the US (for much of which we can thank Leopold Stokowski) — strings front, winds back, fiddles stage right, lower-voiced strings stage left, oboe middling, etc. — isn’t actually that old, and is supposed to accomplish quite specific things relative to sound projection and blend. It is also a practical business for very large ensembles (the kind that require a conductor); once you’ve got more than 50 noisemakers on stage, the physics of sound (never mind the social mechanics of wrangling that many players) practically demand a conductor to herd the musical cats and use visual cues to keep the people in the wilderness at the back in the same time as the folks closer to front and center. It’s nearly impossible to accomplish good playing purely by listening and counting in a group that large (some concert hall acoustics make it fully, actually, entirely impossible). While one may joke about conductors,* they serve an absolutely necessary function for the increasingly hefty symphonic ensembles that started to become the norm in the 19th C. There’s a grand effect to it all when a really big symphony orchestra plays, a wall of well-mixed sound, and that only happens when someone’s there to guide the players well.
One of the charms of listening to a smaller ensemble, however — a group of no more than 15 or 20 — is that it becomes possible to move players and parts around in ways that reveal something more of what a composer might be after, leaving parts more nakedly present for the kinds of antiphonal play common to composers who built their music back when smaller, differently arranged ensembles were the norm. Hearing Mozart played by a massive group is quite different from hearing it played on a smaller scale, for example; everything nifty about it is there, laid out plainly in parts traded among players and sections, dancing across the ensemble in the form of a giddy musical conversation. It’s stereo before stereo, the kind of delicacy of effect that recording and mixing engineers have to work very hard to create in their preferred venue.
This weekend, I had the chance to be reminded of all of this when I attended a really lovely performance by the Shattered Glass Ensemble, a conductorless group that actively de-centralizes musical authority and order in its play, its stage layout, and its programming.
I will admit to not being entirely sure I would enjoy the music, although I knew I would be impressed by the players — I have a fussy little old lady’s taste in orchestral music (leaning pretty firmly toward the more melodic bits of the repertoire), and there was a fair bit of Shostakovich on their Psycho program (both his Two Pieces for String Octet and the ensemble’s own, expanded arrangement of String Quartet No. 3). I am not a huge Shostakovich fan, having both listened to his stuff and played it in a larger orchestral setting; I expected to like the selections from Philip Glass (from his Company score) on the program better.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, especially in the ensemble’s arrangement of the Shostakovich string quartet for a slightly bigger group, the de-centered assembly revealed things about that piece that I hadn’t quite understood before. Sitting in the dark, I found myself scribbling the following on my program: “Who knew Shostakovich was so goddamn clever?”** I cannot understate how much the choices made with regard to who-plays-what and who-stands-where in the ensemble’s performance of their arrangement changed my perception of the piece. It’s the sort of thing that gives the lie to any lazy claim that the piece is identical to the score, revealing a complicated relationship among composers, players, and the spaces and numbers in which they do their work.
If you get the chance to hear Shattered Glass play sometime, you should definitely go!
*There are many conductor jokes. One of the more popular examples:
Q: What’s the difference between a bull and a symphony orchestra?
A: The bull has horns in front and an asshole in the back.
**Yes, yes, I know. The rest of you who’ve moved on to the 20th C. and beyond and who like the old boy’s stuff knew this already. Don’t be smug. Technically, I knew it already. This time, though, I really appreciated it for a change, which I think speaks very highly of the players and their arrangement.