Adventures In Orchestration: From Piano To Ensemble, Part 4

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In adapting piano works for ensemble performance, there are always instances of “pianistic” elements that are a challenge to make work for a collection of monophonic instrumentalists.  From my occasional study of this situation, however, I believe there are far more compromises which go into  making visions work for solo piano than for some practical ensemble.  This brings us back to, and reinforces, my point about focusing, not just on the piano version at hand, but on the one in the composer’s head which he compromised by publishing the piano version at hand.  In a way, this approach makes your job as an “adapter” both easier and more artistically ethical.

But there are the occasional idiosyncrasies with which we have to be ready to cope.  In most cases, you find yourself balancing the competing interests of fidelity (to the published and possibly familiar) and performability.  For instance, consider the opening of the movement, “Of Salamanders” (example 1.) 

A solo performer would have no problem getting started.  The grace-note nature implies freedom of execution, and getting to the downbeat is effortless.  However, coordinating an ensemble entrance on the downbeat is another story.  Two approaches come to mind, one more faithful to the printed version than the other:  cue the grace/pickup notes somehow for the other players or, more boldly, change the opening structure.

The former is a bit of a pain notationally and performance-wise, as it would put the emphasis on the pickup notes.  Consider instead adding a concrete pickup beat containing the grace notes as a tuplet of real notes, with notation to make the intent clear.  This moves the psychological focus to the downbeat (with or without a conductor) and will probably make for a more reliable entrance (see example 2.)  A structural change?  You bet.  Will the audience perceive the difference?  Not if you notate and perform it well. 

Another example of a challenging “piano-ism” can be found at the end of the movement, “Of Bre’er Rabbit” (see example 3.)

Here is standard-issue noodling in the right hand which looks to be a problem for your ensemble.  Using some ingenuity, and not thinking strictly like a piano composition, you can find a way to make it practical for disparate players.  The answer is in overlapping.  Stravinsky, while I’m sure not the exact patent-holder of the device, sure revealed it in both his Octet and his score to “The Devil and Daniel Webster.”  The trick is to break up something impractical (for any single player, due to range or complexity) into bite-sized chunks and make them playable by savvy execution.    What this means is to limit the info each player has to process, and relate their starting and ending points to something concrete in the beat structure.  Like downbeats.  Please see what I mean in example 4.

I know it’s complicated, but space does not permit putting in the broken-out score.  Try to follow each voice and see how playable it has become.  Try to imagine how much color variety is achieved, sort of like a chopped Cobb salad as opposed to the piano equivalent of mixed greens.  In most cases, the richer pallet of flavors is more stimulating to the ear than the bland diet of sameness you would get from a long monochromatic solo passage.      

There is also a fine line that you might heed which separates that which is challenging, engaging, and rewarding for the players and that which is just simply a pain in the keester.  Believe me, they know the difference.  Which do you think stands the greater chance of being programmed and performed? 

Next time:  compelling the version you “hear” by meticulous editing.


  • February 15, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

    Ron, I’ve been enjoying your articles, very practical and insightful. Quick questions- in ex.4 why did you change the key, and why the octave doubling in measure 4?

    Thanks again,
    Joshua Shneider

  • April 25, 2010 @ 11:41 am

    Excellent article i am sure that i will come back here soon

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