Pas Mon Ami Pierrot

July 27, 2012

By Kyle Gann

Will Robin over at New Music Box had the inspired idea to write an homage to the Pierrot ensemble, since the centennial of Pierrot Lunaire is upon us. The flute/clarinet/violin/cello/piano combination took a few decades to take off, but it has conquered: we are awash in such ensembles, and no student achieves professional status until he or she has written his or her "Pierrot piece." It's the lingua franca of the (academic) new-music performance world. As I mentioned in a comment there, I'm not thrilled about the development. I wrote one piece for it (Hovenweep, 2000) and found it gummy to work with, though I think I succeeded in making into something; Da Capo has played the piece many times, and it's been done by the Seattle Chamber Players and St. Luke's Orchestra Players as well. It's on a New Albion CD.

Half of what I dislike about the instrumentation is a lot of little built-in tendencies. The strings don't really balance the winds. The winds provide a dollop of color, but nothing exotic. The piano fits like a table-top over the combined ranges of the other pairs of instruments. Everything's centered toward a homogenous middle, with few extremes of register or timbre. The symmetry is both oppressive and deceiving. Making the ensemble work is a problem, but doesn't seem like one because the instruments are so normal and speciously balanced. One's initial idea is to write for the strings and winds, leaving the piano to function as ornament, pointillistic percussion, or filler; or to basically write kind of a piano chamber concerto, though the wind/string quartet isn't really a strong balance for a virtuoso piano part. I watch my students struggle with it, thrashing between polyphony and homophony. My solution, which took much rewriting to arrive at, was to write almost in rhythmic unison for the entire ensemble at the beginning and end, while breaking the group up into smaller subsets in a middle section. It comes off well in performance, but the piece feels like an outlier in my output, because I had to bend to meet the instrumentation.

The other half of what I don't like are the ensemble's virtues, which are all academic. It teaches students to write, or, alternatively, proves they can write (because everyone has to prove that, don't they?), for both strings and winds. (No one feels bad if they graduate without brass experience.) It's kind of a mini-orchestra that gives a full sound without stretching the school budget. Get the winds to double on piccolo and bass clarinet, and the student gets a range of experience that stands in, in the professor's mind, for a much larger range that they might well never receive access to. In other words, it's a great compromise medium that doesn't challenge the imagination and makes modest institutional demands. (I think of Wolpe's Quartet for trumpet, tenor sax, piano, and percussion - an oddball grouping that makes originality mandatory.) And the more composers write for it, the more advantages there are in continuing to write for it because ensembles can make up a repertoire.

If somebody wanted to commission another Pierrot piece from me, I'd happily accept, because overcoming technical challenges is part of the fun. But I find it disappointing that this rather drab, difficult-to-spark medium has become the new standard chamber ensemble, and that compositional academia is committed to pushing it for perhaps decades to come. A great Pierrot piece is a great piece period, but many students will rein in their imaginations to fit the requirement, and fail to make anything special. The string quartet, the former universal chamber medium, was a more neutral canvas to work on, though admittedly it's become a difficult slog as well - partly because there are so many thousands of great string quartets to compete with, partly because the ensembles have their hands full with current repertoire. I've had a hard time getting my string quartets played, and my students do too. Sax quartet seems like an almost explosively fertile medium, or at least I've been impressed with most of the sax quartets I've heard; but I guess there aren't that many non-jazz sax players around. So I don't see any alternative. But neither have I ever believed in gamely pretending that the status quo is the best of all possible worlds.

Remember, Morton Feldman had a perennial challenge for his students: he'd buy dinner for whomever could come up with the worst orchestration. No one ever won, he said, because the more bizarre their orchestrations became, the more original and imaginative the music got. Last semester I made one of my students write a piece with accordion, melodica, harmonica, toy piano, mandolin, and other exotica - her result was amazing! But the Pierrot ensemble has become somebody's idea of a sane, reasonable, one-size-fits-all orchestration. I think Feldman owes Schoenberg dinner just for thinking of it.

UPDATE: Just had a happy thought. Replace Pierrot with the Herzgewachse ensemble: celesta, harp, harmonium. Lovely!


Isaac Schankler: Very thought-provoking post! It's funny though, I have completely different associations with the ensemble -- I like the heterogenous, ramshackle nature of the instruments, and with violin and clarinet in there together I sometimes feel like I'm working with a cabaret or klezmer or gypsy folk group more than a chamber ensemble. The pieces in Will Robin's article already prove to me that it doesn't have to be "gummy" -- Webern's crystalline arrangement of Schoenberg's goopy Chamber Symphony being a prime example. I've also never totally understood the complaint about it being weighted too much toward the mid-range, since that charge can be leveled against pretty much any standard chamber ensemble.
Maybe the Pierrot ensemble's oppressiveness for many simply comes from its status as the ubiquitous standard-bearer of new music. While your suggested "alternate" ensembles sound fun, I shudder to think of a world where they became the new standard. (See also the rise of the ukulele and glockenspiel in indie rock.)

Samuel Vriezen: In reply to Ian Stewart. OOOH the Harpsichord Concerto is a GREAT work Kyle, do find it!

Alex LaFollett: When I was finishing up my doctoral composition portfolio last year, my adviser recommended I add another mixed chamber work. As I already had a Pierrot ensemble piece, I decided to go out in left field: flute, horn, violin, viola, violoncello, and celesta. The seeming balance mismatch really forced me to be creative, and the end result had an absurd, mocking neo-classicism about it. Personally, I think it turned out to be the best thing I've written.
The aforementioned Pierrot piece I did ended up being kind of like an overripe banana-syrupy and melodramatic-and I've had a complicated relationship with it over the years. I think you hit the nail on the head with the problems of the ensemble. It's paradoxically too homogenous and not homogenous enough.

andrea: I often substitute accordion for piano, because I got sick of "we're playing in a venue that doesn't have a piano." It makes a nice timbral bridge between the winds and the strings.
KG replies: I love the accordion; I would love to write for accordion, but have never been given the opportunity; every time I see a nice accordion in a music store, I consider buying it and learning it. My mother played the instrument as a little girl.

Jim David: Totally agree. I've sometimes recommended Pierrot ensemble to my students in the past, and I may reconsider due to this post. Most end up simply flitting from one instrument to another and struggling to create any strong timbral identity. Plus, there are so many other 20th century chamber combinations that are more distinctive to me (L'histoire, Octandre, Ancient Voices of Children, Rothko Chapel, Le Marteau sans Maitre).
I do tend to like smaller combinations of the same instruments like violin, clarinet and piano; or flute, cello, and piano. However, the "eighth blackbird" variant with percussion seems to work better somehow.

Doug Skinner: I second the call for more low brass. I recently reconnected with a tuba player I hadn't seen for 30 years, and have been enjoying writing for those glorious bass notes. Fewer flutes and clarinets; more euphoniums, serpents, and cimbassos, please. If I were a composition teacher (which seems unlikely at this point), I would recommend those low brass to get the kids' heads out of the clouds.

Copyright 2012 by Kyle Gann

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