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Atonal (or postonal) orchestral composition

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Hi everybody.

I think that "classic" atonalism (Schönberg's school) was not very fond of big orchestra. Other postonal styles yes (impressionism, Richard Straus for example).

Well, in a context like Schönberg's music, how would you approach orchestral composition? I mean, the harmonic balance here is as important as in tonal music. When writing tonal music is not as hard for me writing straight for the orchestra. But with atonal settings I think it would be better to write a sketch first using the piano.

How would you do it, or how do you do it?

I would like to try something in this direction.

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Yes, Luis, I always do some sort of sketch first and usually try atonal things on the piano. It has its problems because the characteristics of piano sound don't match the sustained character of orchestral "melody" instruments but at least you can check how things seem to harmonise (in the loosest sense). Now we have daws we can try things out more realistically so my initial sketches are usually pretty scruffy. 

I found (for my own stuff at least) that generally the thinner the texture, the more comprehensible the music is to an unsuspecting victim listener. Whether that's about the greater intimacy of an ensemble to an audience I don't know. So it's often about melodic threads punctuated here and there by vertical harmony/chords or light accompaniment. I felt more comfortable working with an ensemble (of, let's say up to 15 players) than the orchestra though it should be possible to translate the former to the latter. 

As for approach, I usually hear something in my mind - nothing great: maybe an instrumental fragment, then as I sketch, some of the instrumentation becomes apparent / evolves. It can work the other way - sitting at the piano, some idea crops up and I think ok, that would be nice for a particular instrument. Definitely, with my atonal pieces I'm far more aware of the instruments as I go along rather than tonal things where I end up with a piano score that has to be arranged (for an orchestra or whatever). One reason why I don't use notation software is that at the sketching stage I don't want to be encumbered with bar lines and time signatures. I don't know if I'm alone in this or not!  

Schönberg freaked out anyway, writing those vast pieces like Gurre Lieder so along with his new 'system' he thinned out a lot. However, others like Stockhausen, Nono, Ligetti, Maderna were happy enough with an orchestra.

Anyway, I'll be most interested to follow your (and others') thoughts on this.

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I'm hardly an expert here and probably only barely qualify as a post-tonal composer. Here are my two bits, in case you're interested.

I compose almost exclusively at the piano. First I determine what scales I'll be using, then I'll spend a few hours playing chords based on those scales. Eventually, a sketch or fragment begins to formulate; I run with it, see where it takes me. I record myself playing that sketch and listen to it over the next few days to "tattoo" it into my intuition, since post-tonal melodies aren't my native musical language. As @Quinn said, I typically don't bother with notation software until I've formulated a good chunk of material. Then seeing it on "paper" helps me pick out patterns my intuition thought up, and I can expand on those for the rest of the piece.

True, the piano doesn't sustain like orchestral instruments, but I've found that establishing a "tonal center" with the listener really eases the dissonance one can encounter in these altered scales. Thus, it really doesn't matter how it sounds on the piano; I know that the notes will blend together since the ear is already expecting to hear those notes.

That's my process, at least. Time will tell how much it changes in the future.

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  • 3 years later...

I used to write very Schoenberg-like harmonies in a bizarre mixture with modal counterpoint, you can listen to the only work I've not deleted that is still on the forum of that early phase of me. It's a Mixed Quintet called Cloud Works.

The way I wrote these kinds of melodies is by feeling where the melody should go and adding a chromatic inflection or subverting it so that new notes are produced constantly with minimal recycling. The way the harmonies were produced was by a set of more or less strict contrapuntal rules and a preference for harmonic variety that mirrors the variety in pitch. Whether you use or avoid triads is up to you but I'd always prefer to go for a quartal chord or simmilar than a plain/naked major triad.

You sort of learn to replace intervals like: a perfect interval can become a mayor second or ninth.

Berg and Dallapiccola certainly wrote for huge orchestras, I think their approach was a classical mixture of known chords and progressions formed through counterpoint and its devices.


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On 3/7/2020 at 4:10 AM, Luis Hernández said:

How would you do it, or how do you do it?

I would start with a piano sketch.

I would then compose as if I didn't know anything about music; no idea what any of the keys did. I would put myself in the role of a random person off the street who can't play piano and doesn't know what a scale or chord is, or perhaps a cat surprising itself by walking across the keys. I might in fact find such a person, or maybe a cat, and then video record them just pressing the keys as they see fit. I would later transcribe this performance and assign it to various orchestral instruments.

BAM! Instant atonalism indistinguishable from the pros.


Friends don't let friends do atonalism, you're too good for atonalism Luis

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  • 2 weeks later...

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