Orchestrational thinking and composer-performer relationships in the context of a collaborative creation process

Justine Maillard1, Caroline Traube1, Lindsey Reymore2, Stephen McAdams2

1Music Faculty, University of Montréal, Canada
2Schulich School of Music, McGill University, Canada


The Composer-performer Orchestration Research Ensembles (CORE) is a project realized in the context of the Analysis, Creation and Teaching of ORchestration (ACTOR) research partnership, in five participating universities. These ensembles include graduate students in composition and performance who collaborate interactively to design and solve problems related to the orchestration of the ensemble, a process that will be repeated biannually throughout the duration of the ACTOR partnership. All ensembles had the same heterogeneous instrumentation: violin, bass clarinet, trombone and vibraphone plus small percussion. During the course of the project, directed interviews with the CORE performers and composers oriented toward the participants’ conceptions of timbre and orchestration with this instrumentation were recorded, transcribed and archived for subsequent analysis. This paper discusses preliminary analyses of the data collected during the initiation phase in the Fall of 2019 at McGill University and the University of Montreal. Verbatim extracts from the interviews were manually coded on the basis of a qualitative research method inspired by grounded theory. The analyst assigns a “code” to each verbatim segment, thus attributing a significant evocative attribute to each portion of the verbal data. This process divides data into manageable segments and provides quick access to relevant information. Categories and subcategories that emerge can then be linked, integrated and modeled to develop theory directly from the data.

The coding process was performed with the qualitative analysis software NVivo. The resulting coding tree is organized into two main categories: (1) sound and music parameters, (2) vision of the project. In the first category, the themes most frequently addressed by composers and performers are timbre, extended techniques, timbral territories, blend and spectral continuity. In the second, the challenges, the novelty, the relationship between composer and performer and the creative process were often discussed. In order to observe patterns and recurrent thematic associations in the data, the NVivo feature called Matrix coding queries was used to extract coding intersections between different lists of items. This analysis revealed that the trombone is frequently mentioned together with imbalances in sound intensity and register, and the vibraphone is mentioned along with spectral continuity, blend and timbral homogeneity. Extended techniques are often combined with timbral territories, blend, spectral continuity and contrast.

Concerning the vision of the project, the data reveal that the composer-performer relationship is often approached with a negative attitude: although composers benefit from the collaboration by the input of the performers and their immediate feedback, performers expressed a certain skepticism about the idea that such a collaborative project could dissolve the hierarchical dynamics between the two parties. This reveals the necessity to support and develop collaborative creation processes that take the performers’ view into account and value their creativity and contribution to the work and to orchestration-related problem solving, while ensuring that playing techniques are properly and efficiently notated on the score. Further analyses of the interviews will examine the evolution of orchestrational thinking from the perspectives of both composers and performers and analyze in more depth their collaborative dynamics in a problem-solving situation.

Keywords: Text analysis, Composer-performer relationship, orchestration


Justine Maillard began her studies at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal in clarinet interpretation where she received many prestigious prizes and scholarships, including first prize in the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal Orchestra’s concerto competition. Justine then went on to complete a Bachelor’s degree in Cognitive Neuroscience with a specialization in Neurocognition of Music at the Université de Montréal where she was able to work in several research laboratories, including BRAMS (International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research). Recipient of the OICRM (Observatoire Interdisciplinaire de Création et de Recherche en Musique) Master’s Excellence Scholarship, Justine is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in musicology at the Université de Montréal under the direction of Caroline Traube. Justine is currently a member of the ACTOR (Analysis, Creation and Teaching of Orchestration) and CIRMMT (Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology) partnership.


Caroline Traube (Associate Professor, Université de Montréal) works at the intersection of acoustics and performance studies, drawing on fields as diverse as musical acoustics, psychoacoustics, and music technology. She leads the Laboratoire informatique acoustique et musique and the Laboratoire de recherche sur le geste musicien, a research centre for the study of musician’s gestures from biomechanical, acoustic, and perceptual perspectives. Her research interests include the timbre of musical instruments and the relationships between the physical characteristics of the instrument, the parameters of instrumental gesture, and the perceptual attributes of instrumental sounds, including the way musicians express the perceptions in language. She is an active member of three music-related research centers based in Montréal— OICRM, CIRMMT and BRAMS. She has also been involved in the development of programs in the field of digital musics and composition for screen at the Université de Montréal.


Stephen McAdams is a major figure in timbre research and the first to bring psychoacoustics and cognitive psychology to bear on the complex issue of orchestration analysis with the long-term aim of developing a theory of orchestration in collaboration with composers, theorists, and acousticians. He has a long track record of leading large research teams on collaborative team grants in Canada. He is the Director of the Music Perception and Cognition Lab and the ACTOR Partnership. His theoretical contributions emphasize the study of real-world music listening in ecologically valid contexts, including a theory of form-bearing dimensions in music. His empirical work has focused on auditory scene analysis, timbre perception, the perception of formal functions in music, and the cognitive dynamics of music listening. McAdams’s research teams have made significant contributions at an international level to the literature on musical timbre perception and auditory grouping and their application to orchestration perception.