Exploring Monochromatic Instrumentation

Rob Peate

My research centres on exploring ‘monochromatic instrumentation’ (ensembles made up of multiples of the same instrument). My compositional instincts have always pointed me in this direction, having always been attracted by the depth and richness of exploring shades of a single colours.

There are various (albeit often disparate) musical precedents to this approach, and I have been studying the approaches of composers such as Birtwistle (Moth Requiem - alto flute, three harps and twelve female voices), Boulez (Messagesquisse - solo ‘cello and six ‘cellos), Elliott Carter (Sound Fields - string orchestra, Wind Rose - wind ensemble), Henry Brant (a pioneer in this vein i.e. Orbits - eighty trombones, organ and soprano, Ghosts and Gargoyles - solo flute, eight flutes and jazz drummer) etc, as well as earlier composers such as Berlioz (A treatise upon modern instrumentation and orchestration) or Tallis (Spem in Allium).

Ensembles such as these are, perhaps, dogged by a reputation for novelty arrangements of orchestral classics (rather than for music written on the ensemble’s ‘own terms’), or seen superficial attempts to be unusual. There are cases where I feel original pieces written for such ensembles sometimes fail to be wholly ‘of’ the given ensemble, and by and large could be written for a broad range of ensembles without losing much in the process. However, there are also various ‘gems’ written in this vein (including the pieces listed above), and I believe there is still great potential for exploring new kinds of music through this ‘monochromatic’ approach.

'Juno in August'. Image Credit: Missing

Visual artists such as Klein, Klee, Rothko etc are also of great interest, as are features of architecture, scientific principles such as speciation, or even ideas of cultural identity/globalisation. I feel such characteristics are not unusual, but something we all encounter most of the time. Countless examples come to mind - the image of a tree or a fern, the depth of perspective and textural contours of a desert scene, of cloud formations, or of a field of long grass being shaped by a light breeze, the transformation of a landscape by a haw frost or a blizzard, ripples on water, the sound of a river, a forest or a motorway. There is something about the congruous homogeneity of this kind of en masse multiplication that I feel is fundamental and attractive to us, and as a composer working in this area, I feel such ‘restrictions’ (when compared to the variety of an orchestra for example) can breed creative and beautiful results, especially where individual layers of foreground/background can establish a kind of 'textural counterpoint' within one overall timbre.

My goal is to strip the novelty baggage away from such ensembles, to draw a completely individual piece from the nature of a single, multiplied instrument, and to find new levels of textural/timbral depth as well as exploring a different kind of symphonic unity. Recent projects include two ‘monochromatic symphonies’ (one for Horns, and another for Flutes), as well as slightly less ‘purist’ compositions such as ‘Two Souls’ - A musical narrative for four harps, choir, organ and two narrators based on the combined legends of Hypatia and St Katherine of Alexandria.

Audio and Video


If you would like to find out more about this project, please don't hesitate to get in touch:

Rob Peate

Sarah Callis (Supervisor)

Philip Cashian (Supervisor)