I’m from the school of thought that if you arrive on time, you’re late, which means I find myself showing up early to all manner of events. This is how I discovered what I’ve decided is one of my favourite musical sounds ever: the unscripted, unplanned, impossible‑to‑replicate sound of an orchestra setting up for a session.
When we listen to orchestral music, we are listening to music that comes from precision, organisation and intent; there is literally a conductor to make sure everyone is in sync. Each group of instruments has a specific role and improvisation isn’t a frequent occurrence except in rare circumstances, like if a friendly pup were to wander on to stage (true story, caught on video, and on the Internet for all to see). And even then the musicians don’t stop playing!
I was listening to this large ensemble of instruments in a way I had never heard before...
My arriving early and getting to hear the players setting up meant I was listening to this large ensemble of instruments in a way I had never heard before. It started softly: a clarinet practising a scale run, the violinist warming up with an arpeggio, the call of a flute trill, met by a spontaneous response from the pianist. There was no predetermined key or time signature to be followed; this was a group of musicians, on the same stage but in their own headspaces, getting ready for the main event. And yet, the piece of music that was building felt like a symphony, with movements and space and highs and lows. The cellist drew a long, low, bowed note — just one — and stopped; suddenly there was anticipation for the next note. The violins were in staccato mode now, and the timpani ratcheted up the energy. When the cello returned it played an expressive tremolo, the gravitas of its earlier single note left behind. The music soared as more instruments joined in, some playing hints of melody, some simply trying to get in tune while some players laughed with each other as their hands continued to play what was second nature to them.
The only reason I remember all of these moments is because I preserved them in a recording on my phone — nothing pristine, just a rough recording with handling noise and all. At some point, though, I stopped recording and just listened. I wanted to be fully present and listen to this unexpected addition to the set list. Since then I’ve had the pleasure of listening to more Orchestra Setting Up compositions — and not just because I’m the slightly odd audience member who shows up early to a show. My work as a sound professional means I’m around musicians a fair bit. Sometimes those musicians have been in orchestras, and even though the music they play when setting up for a show can never be replicated, it has been beautiful every single time. I’m glad I accidentally discovered that I should listen for it.