Documenting Composer-Performer Collaborations on Orchestrational Problem Solving

Yuval Adler, Robert Hasegawa, and Joshua Rosner

Schulich School of Music – McGill University University, Canada
CIRMMT (Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology)



The CORE (Composer/Performer Orchestration Research Ensemble) project within the research partnership ACTOR (Analysis, Creation and Teaching of Orchestration) aims to investigate how student composers and performers solve orchestrational problems through a collaborative research-creation process and to document the creative process of contemporary musicians. At five universities across Canada and the United States, graduate-level composers and performers were organized into research ensembles, working together towards the creation of new pieces for an unusual fixed instrumentation. The selected ensemble of bass clarinet, trombone, vibraphone, and violin posed a unique challenge for composers striving to integrate the four instruments into a cohesive ensemble. The creation of twenty-two new works for this mixed quartet was carefully documented through the collection of sketches, scores, recordings of workshops and rehearsals, video interviews with composers and performers, and written texts. This presentation focuses on orchestrational analysis of three pieces, and the examination of communication of intention between composers and performers.

Through score and audio analysis using a perceptually based taxonomy of orchestrational effects developed by ACTOR project director Stephen McAdams, we studied three compositions written by McGill University graduate students in collaboration with the ensemble’s performers. Our analytical approach considered perceptual issues of auditory fusion, segregation, integration, and stratification, focusing largely on the strategies developed by each composer to achieve their desired textural effects. Alexander Blank’s composition, Flow, achieved timbral fusion by means of soft dynamics and registral proximity. Pedram Diba’s Reaching for the Unreachable Point of Desire fuses the four discrete instruments by means of cognitive overload. Diba takes advantage of the limits of human auditory processing by overloading the ear with different pitch and rhythmic information in each instrument, encouraging the perception of a single complex gesture. Quentin Lauvray’s …for narrow is the door… achieves textural cohesion through the use of similar articulations with immediate decay. By combining short violin pizzicati, dry vibraphone attacks, and staccato notes in the bass clarinet and trombone, Lauvray creates an integrated pointillistic landscape.

Aside from the different orchestration techniques used by each composer to achieve instrumental fusion, we also observed differences in how composer intentions were communicated to performers through the scores and rehearsal discussions. A high degree of notational specificity yielded varying results, sometimes clarifying the composers’ sonic goals but at other times causing informational overload for the performers and distracting them from listening to and coordinating with the rest of the group. Alternatively, a more “open” and less prescriptive approach to notation encouraged group interaction, but often required supplemental explanations from the composer in rehearsals. Examining the similarities and differences between these three composers’ strategies yields new insight into the problem-solving aspects of composition and orchestration. The materials that were collected are valuable pedagogical resources and offer significant insight into composers’ strategies of instrumental integration in an ecologically valid environment.

NOTE: This paper proposal is submitted as part of a three-paper panel including contributions from other ACTOR researchers working on the CORE project.

Keywords: performance studies, creative process in music, orchestration, collaboration


Yuval Adler is a researcher and composer currently completing his PhD studies at McGill University’s Music Perception and Cognition Laboratory. His main research focuses on the perception and cognition of timbre and orchestration in contemporary musical practice, focusing on the ways composers use extended instrumental and notational techniques to achieve blended ensemble sonorities. He actively maintains his development as a composer in parallel to his research. He was composer in residence at the Jerusalem Film Workshop in 2018, and participated in the Atlantic Music Festival and Domain Forget new music composition workshops in 2019.


Music theorist and composer Robert Hasegawa joined the faculty of the Schulich School of Music of McGill University in 2012. His research interests include spectral music, microtonality, psychoacoustics, and the history of music theory. Recent projects include studies of music by Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, an article on atonal theory for the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, a chapter on extended just intonation for the volume Théories de la composition musicale au XXe siècle, and applications of transformational theory to the analysis of microtonal music by Hans Zender and Georg Friedrich Haas.


An active composer, arranger, and guitarist, Joshua Rosner is currently pursuing a PhD in Music Theory at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University. His research is primarily concerned with how listeners structure sound over time and the role that attention plays in grouping and segmentation. More specifically, his research as a music theorist focuses on how listeners hear form in contemporary chamber music that focuses on non-default instrumental playing techniques. He is also the founder and former executive director of the contemporary music organization, The Syndicate for the New Arts based in Cleveland, OH.