Should composers still be writing symphonies in the 21st century?

Tim BradyFri 27th September 2013

The symphonic structure allows composers to deal with issues of time and memory

I am an accidental symphonist. I never intended to be sitting around in 2013, reading reviews of the recording of my Third Symphony whilst preparing parts and final corrections for Symphony No 4 and rehearsing for the premiere of Symphony No 5. It is quite unexpected, and it all began quite innocently, as these things often do.

In 2002 I premiered a large new work for electric guitar, sampler and 15-piece chamber ensemble. It was called Playing Guitar. It was not quite a concerto and, at 45 minutes, not quite the sort of little piece one slips unobtrusively into a programme. After the premiere a colleague came backstage and exclaimed: ‘This is nothing like a concerto, the ideas and the structure are much more symphonic’. After some reflection, I decided that he was right: the piece was rechristened Playing Guitar: Symphony No 1.

This year will witness the premiere of two new symphonies: The How and the Why of Memory: Symphony No 4 (an orchestral piece for Symphony Nova Scotia) and The Same River Twice: Symphony No 5 (for my electric guitar quartet Instruments of Happiness). So I’ve started to spend a fair bit of time thinking about what a symphony is, why am I doing this, and what this all means. How did I, once a suburban kid from Montreal, Canada playing jazz fusion guitar in his parents basement, end up in the same place as Beethoven, Brahms and Shostakovich? And what does it mean to ‘Compose Symphonies’ (add reverb and a deep James Earl Jones/Patrick Stewart voice-over for added gravitas) in 2013?

I use the term ‘symphony’ for three reasons. The first is as a simple cultural shorthand, a way of communicating efficiently what I am trying to create as a listening experience. Most people have some sort of accepted idea of what a ‘symphony’ is – it is a piece of music that you are supposed to listen to with some active attention. Symphonies generally emphasize seriousness, though pleasure is part of it. The word ‘symphony’ gives a much clearer cultural message than ‘a piece of music’. It has some good connotations, some bad, but the word does send a clear message.

To me, the word ‘symphony’ is much like ‘novel’. If a writer were to say, ‘I’m writing a long series of words that tell some sort of story’, it does not have the cultural resonance of ‘I’m writing a novel’. Every novel is, of course, very different, so it is impossible to actually say precisely what ‘a novel’ is. But it provides a very useful cultural meta-structure for a remarkably wide range of artistic activities. And I think this is useful for communication between the artist and their public.

Another reason I think I have fallen into this symphonic mode is that I am composing music in Canada, which has almost no symphonic tradition. German composers, in particular, must feel a tremendous weight of tradition if they call a piece a ‘symphony’, and I imagine this extends to most Europeans and even to Americans. A symphony is often viewed as music from the ‘old world’. Here in Canada, however, I see no problem in calling a 30-minute piece for four electric guitars a symphony. In symphonic terms, we Canadians are basically tabula rasa.

My ultimate reason for calling certain pieces symphonies has to do with how I, as a composer, want to deal with issues of time and memory. To me, time and memory are the most critical components of any piece of music. Harmony, melody, orchestration, texture, form – are all just different ways of expressing our own vision of the flow of time. Symphonic form allows a composer to deal with time both as the forward movement of human experience (‘you can’t go back in time’) and as a reflection of the unique human ability to reconstruct time through memory. This ability to ‘reconstruct’ time allows us to view a specific period (ie my life, the experiences of the past 57 years) as a single event, though, in fact, it is a sequence of discrete, often unrelated actions. The symphonic form, with its complex web of interrelated musical components, internal repetitions, variations and developments, has evolved into a powerful metaphor for the universal human experience. This is what fascinates me – the desire to create a work that somehow tries to encompass the present, the past and the future all in one, large-scale musical gesture.

Obviously, musical creativity is as varied as humanity, and no form can lay claim to having the power to express all things for all people. But I think the symphony still has something to offer composers. Composing a symphony does not impose a style, an orchestration, a musical language, a specific sonic universe or series of technical restraints. Composing a symphony means we are interested in confronting the essential dichotomy of time and grappling with it through musical means. This is not the only way to make great music, just one of many, but it does present a unique perspective on the act of composition, and, hopefully, a remarkably powerful listening experience.

Tim Brady’s Third Symphony, 'Atacama' is available to buy from Amazon. Brady’s Fourth Symphony will be performed on March 27, 2014, by Symphony Nova Scotia in Halifax, Canada, and the Fifth Symphony will be played on February 5, 2014, by Instruments of Happiness in Montréal, Canada (click here for further information).

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Tim Brady

Tim Brady is an electric guitar virtuoso who writes operas, plays concertos and feels as comfortable with a laptop electronic improvisation or jazz group as with a string quartet. His solo concerts concentrate on the multi-textured music he has been creating for solo guitar and electronics for the past 25 years. The guitar as orchestra - from intimate solos to massive multiple guitar loops and samples, the music is a highly personal synthesis of new music, jazz, rock and electronics.

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