The #TwtrSymphony–An orchestral concept that came about among the community of classical/new music musicians on twitter–is launching their debut recording July 6th. Composer Chip Michael was the one that rose to the occasion and organized the project–He even set up a webpage for it. The piece they are working on is his Symphony #2 “Birds of a Feather”.
Chip had some time to discuss the story behind the orchestra.
CM: How did you come about the idea for the TwtrSymphony? Is it like another take on the YouTube Orchestra?
Chip: TwtrSymphony was born in a conversation over twitter one evening when I casually mentioned to some friends I was looking for an orchestra to play my music. That comment sparked something because they continued to discuss the problem for several hours after I’d headed to bed. By the time I woke up the next day, there was a whole series of ideas as to how to create ‘our own’ symphony just with our friends on Twitter. They outlined a number of ideas and rather left the discussion open. I took their suggestion, created TwtrSymphony and put out the word. By the end of the 3rd day we had over 150 musicians wanting to join and I started working on auditions.
We’re similar to the YouTube Symphony in that musicians auditioned from all over the world. musomap.com/TwtrSymphony shows how far our musicians are spread. Many of them are from the US, but then Twitter has a large concentration in the US and I speak English. So, while we have musicians whose first language isn’t English, most of the musicians are primarily English speakers and come from the USA and Europe.
While both orchestras have musicians from around the world, that is pretty much where the similarities stop. YouTube Symphony pulls the musicians together for a live performance. TwtrSymphony allows the musicians to record their part in their own locale, maintaining their jobs, lives, schedules, while still participating in our orchestra. Many of our musicians play in symphony orchestras where they live. Playing with TwtrSymphony only asks that the musicians manage their time. If they can keep up with the demands of their daily life and still find time to rehearse and record the music for TwtrSymphony, they can participate. It really is extending what musicians can do with their talents, giving them another outlet for their ability.
We’re also working with entirely new music, written specifically for the musicians we have. During the audition process, we had guitarists, saxophonists and a recorder player want to participate. Everyone was welcome to audition. The final orchestra has both an electric guitar and a classical guitar, a full range of saxophones as well as the standard compliment of orchestral instruments. The music we’re playing reflects those unique instruments as part of the full ensemble.
Rather than playing pieces from the existing repertoire, we chose to play original pieces limited to 140 seconds in a nod to the 140 character limit Twitter imposes. Twitter is conversation encapsulated, distilled to it’s core elements. The music of TwtrSymphony has to do the same thing. Each movement of our symphony “Birds of a Feather” is complete in the details you’d expect from the traditional four movements: the first movement is Sonata-Allegro form, the second movement is slow, the third movement is ostensibly a minuet and trio and the final movement is a theme and variation. The music captures the essence of the classical forms we know and presents them in less than 2 minutes and 20 seconds.
This is also just the beginning of TwtrSymphony. While our musicians don’t actually play together, there is no reason we couldn’t eventually perform in a concert hall. There is no plan to do so at the present, but the enthusiasm of our musicians can take us anywhere. The goal of TwtrSymphony was to re-conceive what it means to play in an orchestra –to show it’s possible for musicians from around the world to make classical music together and to find a way for people who had met over Twitter to expand that relationship in a musical manner. In a way, TwtrSymphony is freeing up the idea of what it means to play in a classical music ensemble.
CM: How did they learn their parts?
Chip: Each player is given their part and a click track to establish and maintain the tempo. They then record themselves playing the music to the click track. The recordings are returned, put together and engineered into an orchestra sound. The concept is simple, but the irregular rhythms of my music makes it imperative for the musicians to be extremely accurate with their playing.
Along the way we’ve discovered some hiccups and had to change the process slightly. For the 3rd and 4th movements the musicians were given a midi realization of the entire orchestra so they could ‘play in’ with their part. The point of this was to allow the musicians to gain a sense of the feel of the music–not something they had in the early process. When you’re just playing your part opposite a click track, it’s hard to imagine just how it fits with anything. Many of the musicians also chatted over Twitter about phrasing and articulation. We have a pair of musicians who are blind and were given assistance getting the nuances of the written music by other members in the orchestra. We’re not yet a ‘family’ of musicians, but in many respects we are very close, forging a bond across thousands of miles with the idea of a unified goal.
CM: Can you talk about the piece itself? The first movement is titled “The Hawk Goes Hunting”.
Chip: Twitter’s logo is a small blue bird, and we have taken on that avian theme for the first music. “The Hawk Goes Hunting” strives to give each musician in the orchestra a chance to shine. With just over 2 minutes of music and a full orchestra, it isn’t possible to give everyone a solo moment, so I relied on creating moments where the horn section could shine, and then allow the clarinets to do the same…and so on. I also wanted the piece to keep with classical form, so it is in Sonata-Allegro form (albeit a very short version). There are two themes in the exposition, a development section, a recapitulation and even a coda.
I felt the music of TwtrSymphony needed to be unique, with a style all it’s own. I very much like irregular rhythms. While it starts in 9/8, it quickly moves into 13/8, then 11/8. I throw some 10/8 and 15/8 just to keep it interesting. The pulse of the eighth note is too fast to actually count. What you end up with is a pulse made up of two and three eighth notes. So, for example, the 9/8 is 3,2,2,2 which can also feel like 5 then 4. The 13/8 has a variety of different forms, from 3,2,3,3,2 to 3,2,3,2,3 to 3,3,3,2,2. Moving the pulse around like this gives the music a very different sense of rhythm and yet, still feels almost dance-able. In Tremulando Danca, the 3rd movement, the ‘minuet’ is a modified rumba rhythm, with the ‘trio’ is a modified Latin waltz. It feels like it should you should be able to dance to it and yet have the same kind of odd meters as “Hawk.”
Music video for The Hawk Goes Hunting
The musicians are eager to do more than I can possibly compose and compile. Part of the learning process was understanding that musicians all keep very different schedules. Some musicians would get their parts, start rehearsing and have a recording back to me in a matter of days. While others were off touring and in the midst of a very busy series of performances with their home orchestra. Each musician needed to sort out for themselves when they could get their recording done. This also means I need to allow for a fair amount of time for the musicians to accomplish the task. Those that get the recording done early are usually eager to get started on the next piece. I can’t give out more parts without making the busy musicians feel overwhelmed and possibly drop out (feeling as though they have let me down), so it is a balancing act. Each movement has taken longer than I thought to get parts back and put together, and yet it has all happened in a matter of weeks.
In order to keep enthusiasm high, and to encourage our most eager players, we’ve started to create chamber ensembles and open up the composing of chamber music to other composers who are members of the orchestra. I feel those who have committed themselves to this project should get the benefits of getting to hear their own music played. However, this is on a very limited basis right now, as we’re still working out bugs in the process.
There is a lot of work to be done to prepare a piece, get the parts ready, create click tracks in such a way that we get a successful recording out of it. Plus, that’s just part of the battle. We have to put all the recordings together when the musicians are done. As I am a composer, I don’t want to get lost in becoming a sound engineer. While I like the work, it’s not my first love. So, the composers who are participating are being expected to do much of the work to get the recordings lined up for the sound engineer.
When we’ve released the 4 movements of the symphony, we’ll start releasing the chamber works, which should take us well into August. We should have a good idea just how successful this project is by that point with an idea as to how much more we can do, what the musicians would like to do and what kind of interest the public has in our orchestra.
CM: Will there be more TwtrSymphony projects?
Chip: We have lots of options, for now, it’s just one step at a time. TwtrSymphony was born from a conversation on Twitter and those conversations are continuing. You can follow along or join the conversation yourself by connecting with us @TwtrSymphony.