Adventures in Orchestration: From Piano to Ensemble, Part 1

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I’ve received more than a few inquiries about the topic of exploring orchestration through its most basic application: a completely-detailed music sketch which is essentially devoid of color indications. In short, a piano piece. In the past, I’ve suggested a woodwind quintet as a good vehicle. To reiterate: as a vehicle, it’s agile, color-rich, tuning-reliable, sightreading-capable, possessing a wide pitch range, and usually available (and grateful!) Plus, a small ensemble forces you to make some difficult (but oh-so-enlightening) choices in going from 10 fingers to 5 monophonic instruments that a much larger one won’t. For these reasons (and from the standpoint of getting a reliable reading sometime this decade,) this ensemble can be a rookie orchestrator’s best friend.

Example 1 shows pitch-range options available from the usual ensemble suspects:

Consider also the wealth of colors available. String and brass groups are consorts (homogeneous collections of instruments from the same family) and are thus limited in their capacity for tonal variety. The woodwind quintet, by contrast, combines a whistle mechanism, 2 double-reeds, one single reed, and a brass instrument, all combined in a mix which is already familiar to the western ear.

Several years ago, I was commissioned by the Calico Winds (an award-winning woodwind quintet based in Los Angeles) to adapt Edward MacDowell’s “Fireside Tales” suite of piano pieces into a workable vehicle for an upcoming recording. It had been attempted before by others, but without success. Step one in deciding to tackle the assignment was simply to look at the piano score to evaluate range extremes (and the compromises they will require) and any possible devices not reproducible by monophonic instruments. Imagine two 5-note clusters, four octaves apart and tremelo’d between the two hands and you’ll see what I mean. Step two was to try and get into the head of the composer to find what he was imagining when he settled for a piano performance. This is critical, as failure to connect with the music preexisting the composer’s first stab at dressing it up for the world (even for piano) will make any subsequent orchestration on your part mechanical and unconvincing. Please reread “To Orchestrate Or Not To Orchestrate: What Is The Question?” (May 6, 2008) for a fuller discussion of this concept.

My approach to evaluating “what lies beneath” is not simply to dredge up several recordings by different pianists. All that would do is to spoon-feed me the visions of others, possibly tainted by their identities and imaginative horizons as pianists. As the advent of music videos took away a whole generation’s ability and need to let the songs and the recordings spark the imagination of each listener, why let your search within be bound by the latest practitioners of one manifestation of it? What does often work for me is to take the sometimes onerous effort of actually inputting as much of the piano score into a notation program as is necessary, and then triggering the playback functions repeatedly, often with contrasting sounds assigned (all piano, then all strings, then all organ, then all mallets, etc.) What I derive from this experience is a remarkably blank dramatic slate, allowing my imagination to wander into the unexplored territory to let me see the possibilities that perhaps others who were bound by the published version have not. These moments of discovery often prove to be the most exciting part of the gig, as frequently the execution of an orchestration, once you’ve dreamed it through, is mostly craft.

When these analyses are complete at some level, you will have a much clearer understanding as to whether the enterprise is doable and how much creative reward you will derive from the effort. Heed the warning not to take a gig you don’t personally believe in (unless you’re broke.) In my case, I did, even though I wasn’t, as I could sense the possibilities lighting up like a Christmas tree. This was going to be fun. Next time: getting underway.