What is the ideal ensemble for playing contemporary music?

What does the typical contemporary music ensemble look like? I haven’t been able to find an answer to this question, so I decided to make my own enquiry.

There seems to be three categories: Larger ensembles, typically in the format of sinfoniettas. Ensembles in traditional formats, ie. string quartets, wind quintets, etc. And then: ecclectic, new, experimental formats. I have noticed, that when there are call for scores, it seems as if the formats available are most often within the 3rd category.

I decided to make a small investigation into the question, narrowing my research, so I looked for ensembles within the 3rd category, with these conditions:

  • the ensemble must be active now, 2022
  • they must be playing composed music (not excluding ensembles also doing other formats)
  • consisting of from 3 to 10 players
  • playing acoustic instruments, although ensembles also including electronics were also ok

I gathered info in a google sheet, and here is the result:

  1. I found (sofar) 18 ensembles
  2. They are based in Argentina Australia Denmark Finland France Germany Irland Italy Serbia UK USA
  3. They have between 8 and 3 members

What instruments are they playing?

All in all, these instruments were used: Voice Recorder Flute Obo Saxophone Clarinet Bassoon Trumpet Trombone Guitar Harp Accordeon Piano Percussion Violin Viola Cello Double Bass Electronics

What is the most frequently used instruments?

10Double Bass21%
The piano was part of 79% of the ensembles.

Since the average size of these ensembles were 6 players, I found it useful to look at the six most frequently used instruments, marked in bold above, and these are: Piano, Clarinet, Flute, Cello, Violin, Percussion.

What my mini-research has shown, so far, is that the typical ensemble playing contemporary music is a sextet with the so-called Pierrot ensemble with an added percussion player.

Here is the list of ensembles:

Uuisinta Ensemblehttp://www.uusintaensemble.fi/about.htmlFinland
Da capohttps://www.dacapochamberplayers.org/the-musiciansUSA
Dynamis Ensemblehttps://www.dynamisensemble.it/page1.htmlItaly
Eighth Blacbirdhttps://www.eighthblackbird.org/sextetmusiciansUSA
Ensemble KapariloArgentina
Ensemble RechercheGermany
Ensemble Sortisatiohttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ensemble_SortisatioGermany
Ensemble Studio6http://www.studio6.st/ensemble.htmlSerbia
The New York New Music Ensemblehttps://www.nynme.org/homeUSA
Sentieri selvaggihttp://sentieriselvaggi.org/il-progetto/Italy
Three of these ensembles are consisting of exactly the six most typical instruments, marked in bold. Two ensembles included the six instruments, while adding 1 or 2 others.


I based my search mostly in this “List of contemporary classical ensembles” (wikipedia). It is of course rather incomplete, and many of the listed ensembles are historical. What I find curious is that I had such a hard time finding information on these things online. It is really difficult for me to find updated databases on the current ensembles, and for that matter, festivals, calls for scores, and so on. In short: Information about the contemporary music scene seems to be really scarce.

This leads of course to my typical last words: Help! If you have information about good, updated ressources for contemporary music, composers, festivals, musicians and so on. If you know about more ensembles to include in my enquiry. And, of course, if you know about real, maybe even academic, enquiries into these questions: Help!

What does the typical contemporary music ensemble look like? Read about the results of my mini-enquiry - And give a hand finding out more:-)
“The confused composer”
Segar, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Improvisation, nature, philosophy…

Composition and Improvisation

Climate Change has made it quite evident that we can no longer take anything for granted.  Many pillars of our existence have been revealed as stages or facets of much broader processes.  We are finding that even such things as the Gulf Stream and the Greenland Ice Sheet turn out to be fragile.

When I first started to assemble this album, I meant to focus on those special things whose fleeting or tenuous existence seemed so delicate as to be improbable. But as I thought about the subject, I asked myself, “What is it that makes something seem ‘fragile?’” The answer seemed to be vulnerability, a set of narrow environmental tolerances, and a short life span. This could be summed up by the term “impermanence,” which is a term that could be applied to just about anything.

To me, the world moves forward through the forces of creativity, on one…

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How (not) to compose music

Apparently using her imaginary iphone

I made a profile in wikihow.com, and by chance, I saw this article:

How to Compose Music

The people who have written it out have really done a lot of effort, including pedagogical graphics like this one:

She looks friendly
YOUR composition teacher

Unfortunately, the text is a tour de force through all the typical misconceptions you would meet in any presentation about music and composition in education. It seems futile to start and edit the article, – after all it is conform to the most widespread ideas about the subject, so my only reasonable option was to give this comment in the discussion:

“This article is a brilliant example of how to confuse people and block their musical creativity. It stems from the misunderstanding that the analysis of existing music, underlying what we call music theory, IS in fact music

However, music does not come from nowhere, it is embedded in a CONTEXT.
Explaining people how to compose by showing them scales, chords and instruments is like explaining someone how to communicate with another human being by giving them an alphabet and asking them to know the sequence of the letters by heart.

This musical autism is lamentably very widespread, and it is reproduced in education all the way to the conservatories. Being at a higher level of studies does not bring clarification but simply adds complexity to the same confusion.

Using sound as a means of expression MIGHT involve instruments, chords, scales, tones etc, but basically the capacity of composing is rooted in our everyday lives. Composing is something that we humans do all the time. As a collective we build a common world, an assemblage, and one of the most fundamental means we possess to that end is our ability to use language.

In language, we are capable of expressing and perceiving the most minuscule nuances in our interactions through sound.

THIS should be the message to someone asking how to compose music, that you are doing it already, and you can depart from this activity and prolong and extend it into sequences of sound. Use all kinds of existing music and sounds around you, choose according to your intuition, be a whole human being, use your voice and body as impulse giver. Remix, reuse, hack your way into existing technologies – digital as well as acoustic instruments, and build forms in sound inspired by everyday life events, social scripts and narratives.”

Thanks for a very intersting text! And well written. Your debugging of the musicotechnophilia is indeed very important.

In musical education in Scandinavia, you have a trend for the moment I would call ipadialisation, where technoenthousiasts praise the possibilities in a software like Garageband. It simply, – this is their claim – enables the kids to express themselves musically in a natural way.

This is where your criticism about the inbaked bias of the technologies hits bulls eye: no technology has ever been or will ever be value free or neutral.

This is also why, by the way, that it is not a big surprise that the tools are eurocentric. Actually they SHOULD be centered in the culture in which they exist. If exported to other cultures, each local culture should then reinvent the technologies or make new ones according to their context. The REAL problem is that the tools are not eurocentric enough.

The current technologies are build on abstractions like scales, chords, metrum, notes etc., this being reinforced by techniques like autotune, quantization etc. These abstractions come from an analysis of what we used to call music.
They are based on music theory, which is to say that they are focused on an end product, viewed through certain filters, and that they completely overlook 1) the embeddedness in real life materials, – the resistance of musical instruments, of the human voice, of space and of context in general, and 2) the potential generation of new elements to be included in what we might consider as musical, ie noise, gesture etc. and not least 3) the non-conformity of actual musical practices with what musicologists and others have zipped into these abstractions, basically driven by a logico-deductive approach, – probably in an attempt to legitimize the field of study called musicology.

Real eurocentric digital technologies would
A) take the technologies themselves seriously, and use the new media in their own right, while allowing them to combine with existing technologies.
B) be sensitive to humanness, be tweakable for to the user, be open for him/her to express the nuances of everyday life.
C) be open to context, be combinable, pluridimensional.

Matthew Thibeault

I was delighted to be invited to respond to John Kratus’ talk at the CIC/New Directions conference today at Michigan State University.

My response focuses on the importance of a critical perspective and pragmatic approach to technology in music education. To assist those who might like to follow up on some of the ideas, I’ve posted my response, with additional footnotes and references, right here:
Thibeault CIC 2011 Response.pdf

And here’s the picture from the Ellnora Guitar Festival sing-along from my slides:

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