Composer-performer orchestration research ensembles

Stephen McAdams1, Eliot Briton2, Keith Hamel3, Roger Reynolds4, Caroline Traube5

1Schulich School of Music, McGill University, Canada
2School of Music, University of Toronto, Canada
3School of Music University of British Columbia, Canada
4Department of Music, University of California, USA
5music faculty, Montréal university, Canada



Within the Analysis, Creation, and Teaching of Orchestration (ACTOR) international partnership, five graduate-level Composer-performer Orchestration Research Ensembles (CORE) groups were formed in Canadian and U.S. universities (McGill, UBC, UCSD, UMontreal, UToronto) to promote and document collaborative orchestration problem-solving between performers and composers. In the first round in 2018-20, 22 short pieces or études for a quartet of violin, bass clarinet, trombone and vibraphone plus small percussion were composed. This unconventional instrumentation was selected for posing unusual challenges in achieving blended sounds and smooth transitions between instruments, thus bringing collective orchestration decision-making between performers and composers to the fore. Using the same instrumentation at all institutions and identical recording protocols developed by Martha de Francisco of McGill i collaboration with UCSD colleagues allowed for direct comparison of evidence from each institution’s activities, forming a basis for more elaborate analysis and experimentation (as well as sharing pieces between institutions). Concerts and readings were held at UBC and UToronto and recordings were made at UBC and UCSD. Although the pandemic halted final concerts and exchanges of pieces across four of the universities, which will be resumed in 2021, the project nonetheless has already given rise to a plethora of material for analysis. One primary aim of the current project is to analyze these materials from the perspectives mentioned above to better understand the conception and realization of orchestration in young musicians in a researchcreation setting.

Throughout the CORE project, the creative processes of exploration, orchestrational problemsolving, and the realization of new music were recorded, documented, and archived for consideration. Sketches and scores, recordings of workshop sessions, rehearsals with transcriptions of performer-conductor-composer dialogues, and concert or studio recordings are being examined alongside transcriptions of video interviews with performers and composers and texts written by them. We have three analytical aims in mind: 1) to combine score and aural analysis of recordings according to taxonomies of perceptual effects, orchestration techniques, and planal analysis, 2) to examine the evolution of orchestrational thinking in young composers through sketch studies, interview analyses, and the terminologies for orchestration techniques, perceptual processes and timbre perception that arise in discussing orchestration, and 3) to analyze verbal interactions between performers, composers and conductors in a problem-solving situation. For example, how do different types of orchestration affect the experience of interpretation and performance? Is the sense of “musicality” affected, restrained or renewed by a given approach to orchestration? Text and discourse analysis of interview transcriptions and written texts are also being conducted using computer-based tools such as Nvivo. This presentation will describe the project’s goals, aims and methodological approaches at the five partner institutions, certain facets of which will be detailed in other presentations.

Keywords: orchestration, composer-performer interactions, musical timbre



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.


Eliot Britton integrates electronic, audiovisual and instrumental music through an energetic and colourful personal language. His award-winning creative output reflects an eclectic musical experience, from gramophones to videogames, drum machines to orchestras. Currently Britton is cross appointed between Music Technology and Composition at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. There he is working on the opening of a new research centre for brain, performance and music creation as well as the renovation and re-launching of the UofT’s historic Electronic Music Studio (UTEMS). Recent awards include a Connaught Emerging Researcher Award, Canadian Foundation for Innovation grant and two consecutive DORA awards for best composition and sound design.


Keith Hamel is a composer and software designer. His music consists of orchestral, chamber, solo, and vocal music, often focussing on live electronics and interactivity between acoustic instruments and the computer. He has been awarded many prizes in acoustic and electroacoustic media. He is an Associate Researcher at the Institute for Computing, Information and Cognitive Systems, a Researcher at the Media Graphics Interdisciplinary Centre, and Director of the UBC Computer Music Studio. His works have been commissioned and performed by many of the finest soloists and ensembles in Canada and abroad. Some recent compositions focus on interaction between live performers and computer-controlled electronics. Hamel is recognized as one of the foremost authorities on music notation software. He is author of the NoteAbilityPro software program which is used around the world for professional music engraving and publishing, and he has developed interactive environments for live performer and computer interaction.


Roger Reynolds is known for his integration of diverse ideas and resources, and for seamlessly blending traditional musical sounds and those now enabled by technology. At UC San Diego, Reynolds helped establish its Music Department as a destination program. He won early recognition with Fulbright, Guggenheim, and National Institute of Arts and Letters Awards, as well as grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, and a Fellowship from the Institute for Current World Affairs. In 1989, he won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for the string orchestra composition, Whispers Out of Time. He is author of books and articles, some resulting from collaborations with American, Canadian, and French scientists. Reynolds was the first artist to be appointed University Professor in the University of California. The Library of Congress established a Special Collection of his work, and his scores and correspondence are in the Paul Sacher Collection in Basel.


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.