23 February 2021
Insight: Opal - Double Concerto for Horns
May Lyon writes about her new double horn concerto for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. More Insight articles by the AMC's represented artists.
On 25-27 March the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra premieres my commissioned composition Opal, in three performances conducted by Ben Northey, featuring horn soloists Nicolas Fleury and Rachel Shaw. The work is inspired by the mineraloid opal: its glimmering appearance, its creation over millennia, and the human industry that mines the precious gem. It is our national gemstone, as most of the world's opal comes from Australia, specifically Lightning Ridge and Coober Pedy. However, it was the way light refracts within the stone, and the combination of water and silica to create one beautiful gem that inspired the shimmering harmonies of the two horns.
To write a work for two horns and orchestra required not only research of the instrument, but careful consideration of how the two might interact together and balance with the orchestra. The horn has a natural ability to blend, lending itself beautifully to ensemble writing, both small and large. With its bell facing backward it avoids overpowering the more dulcet instruments in quiet moments, but still has the power to shine and call to arms, as traditionally intended. Quick research also uncovers the complexity of the modern instrument which combines both an F horn and Bb horn, allowing a player to potentially reach a range of nearly four octaves, with some notes having half a dozen different ways of playing them. The combination, in my opinion, also creates a beautiful instrument.
Through research into Douglas Hill's fascinating book Extended Techniques for the Horn, I found some amazing techniques that I would have loved to use. While this volume explained everything, from standard to the quite extreme, I realised that even those techniques I wanted didn't have their place in this particular piece. While I am always interested in the limits and possibilities of an instrument, I also believe that just because an instrument can do something, it doesn't mean it should. There must be a reason for doing so. For instance, while I have explored quite a large range of the horn in Opal, it's certainly not to the instrument's most extreme limits.
With the nature of the horn to blend and the backward-facing bell, all moments of orchestration to accompany the horns would have to be very carefully balanced, as any largesse in the orchestra could easily drown out the horns. While a traditional concerto lends itself to long solo passages, with perhaps 30 minutes to play with, a 12-minute work allows very little time for this. So, unless I practically ignored the orchestra for half of the work, it came down to orchestration. Also, and most importantly, this work was for two horns and I believed the focus should be on what they were capable of together, not only the soloistic capabilities of the instrument.
Opal is the combination of two elements to create one beautiful gemstone. For this piece, I wanted to create a single instrument from the two horns, one that shimmered like opal, or that flowed as water in shallow creekbeds, carrying the silica particles into cracks in the earth. It was about creating longer melodies, harmonies, and shorter phrases, workshopping them, and seeing how I could manipulate the material so that, in my mind, the music best reflected the aspects I was focusing on.
The initial creation of material was inspired by the underwater dancing of Julia Gautier in the short film AMA. During 2020, when I was working with the pre-professional year dancers for the Sydney Dance Company as part of my involvement in the Sydney Conservatorium's Composing Women program, I found that I was particularly inspired by dance. The second work, Processional, was composed while watching solo excerpts of the dancers and developing the material that came from that. When starting Opal, I watched quite a few online contemporary dance routines, including many duets, but each contained movements that seemed too fast or jerky and didn't seem to lend themselves to the horn. In contrast, the underwater movements in AMA are slower but still graceful and strong. Most importantly I could 'hear' the horn line while watching the routine, and it was easy to sketch out a few minutes of material that could be workshopped. It wasn't just about how Gautier moved, but also about how the water moved around her, making me think about how the orchestra would move around the soloists. This consideration directly led to the orchestration used for the slower third movement.
The workshopping process was probably one of the most important stages, as the horn is nuanced and, in my opinion, easy to write poorly for. While I have composed for the horn several times, writing for two brilliant performers who would be standing in front of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra added a little more pressure to get it as right as I could. As a composer, you can do all the research in the world, but sitting down with someone who has specialised on the one instrument for decades is priceless. Through a horn-playing friend I discovered that writing a section in (concerto pitch) A would mean the players associated it with the heroic concertos, that changing it to Bb would make it 'glassier', but that any higher could mean pitch issues if the two horns are playing the same note in the upper octave. This was extremely important for creating the stillness of the fourth movement. The same issue with pitch in the upper register came from faster passages, but this could be fixed by having one alternating two notes while the other played the run, and then swapping. I also had the harmonic series of the F and Bb horn, plus the 'easier' keys permanently on a sticky note next to the computer. While I wasn't aiming for an easy piece, it's good to consider what might make a beautiful passage harder to execute.
This assistance meant that when I workshopped the material with Nico and Rachel, nothing I handed them was downright impossible, and we could focus on what worked for them individually as well as for the two horns combined. Hearing excerpts and longer sections live, and getting the players' opinions of certain phrases was immeasurably beneficial in developing the work. How the instruments sounded together, where they naturally took a phrase, and discussing alternatives to what wasn't working, all contributed to the piece being stronger. As well as more in-depth musical considerations, basics such as testing out a tempo and ensuring the soloists were happy with it meant I could compose knowing they would neither derail mid-performance due to the notes simply being too fast to execute, or nearly pass out from lack of oxygen. Another consideration for the horn is stamina (a whole subsection in Barry Tuckwell's book Horn) and I checked to see how much time was needed so that each player could perform to their best, which subsequently allowed more challenging sections to be written.
The work itself divides into five movements: 'SiO2H2O'; 'Cut from rock'; 'Water: ancient streams, flow through sandstone'; 'Precious opal: play of colour'; and 'Cut from rock'. The opening introduces the horns in a slow, alternating undulation, while the orchestra sans strings creates a shimmering stillness. Considering balance to this section meant no brass or woodwind had an entry at the same time as the horns, except for once, and all had faded to piano or pianissimo when the duo plays.
The third movement allows each player a chance for a quiet solo moment, with accompaniment by the other. The horn has the ability to sing a melody like the most velvety contralto, and I felt this suited the nearly silky movement of water over shallow creek beds. At times, the orchestra is a feathery whisper and, at other times, little cascading phrases that fall between the horns' melodic lines. The fourth movement is born purely from the beauty of the upper register of the horn and the incredible frequencies that can be heard through close harmonies. Shimmering fluctuations when the instruments are a minor or major second apart move to the slower pulses from thirds and fourths. Hearing sections of this during our workshops, I sometimes found myself holding my breath. The accompaniment is minimal with the most dominant instruments being the harp, tubular bells and bowed glockenspiel. While it is a slow and simply written movement in triple time, it has a held stillness for the listener while being one of the most challenging to play for the soloists.
The second and fifth movements represent the human industry that extracts opal from the earth. The orchestra is bold, mechanical, and harsh, using the full limits of range and dynamic. Within this, the horns shimmer through close harmonies, timbral shifts, alternating patterns, leading to fast flowing runs and dramatic flourishes. The orchestra gives way to the horns, only once gradually overpowering as the horns retreat. However, the orchestra never attacks the horns, in the same way a miner wouldn't attack the opal: it moves around it, methodically chipping away at the rock to expose the brilliance within.
© Australian Music Centre (2021) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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