Monday, December 12, 2011

Band it, don't break it

My department switched things up on me a bit. I designed, and have taught three times, an orchestration class at Brandeis, which is pretty impressive given the size of the department. It has always had the number 193, as in, MUS 193 in the catalogue and on the registrar's page.

Next year I'm on the hook to teach MUS 175 in the fall, a number that formerly did not exist for our department. I couldn't wait to access the catalogue to see what I would be teaching. Instrumentation and Orchestration, it says. Ah, I see. It's an even-numbered year in the fall, which means there's been a complete retooling of some aspect of the curriculum. And renumbering, it turns out.

So I'll be teaching Orchestration with a reduced number. If there's a joke here, I can't find it.

Since it's just a semester-long course, and in it I have to cover writing for each of the orchestral instruments, and for subsets of the orchestra small and large (not to mention explain harp pedaling a minimum of seven times), and eventually for orchestra — normally the weekly assignments are to arrange piano music of a wide stylistic and textural variety for said subsets and all. It'd be a little cumbersome to require composition on top of what is really a technique-building course.

Luckily, we have the examples of composers such as Ravel and Debussy — and even Beethoven — who left behind examples of their own piano music reimagined for orchestra. Not to mention other composers whose piano music we know better in the orchestral versions (Pictures at an Exhibition, anyone?). There is little from their teacher's own oeuvre, though, to demonstrate that hey, at least the guy lording it over you can do it, too.

But there was a time when that was about not to be the case. In February of 2004, our composition faculty got the graduate admissions finished earlier than is usual, and there I was during the February break with four available working days I hadn't counted on. I didn't have any piano étude ideas, and all the pieces on the back burner were big pieces. So it didn't make sense to try and begin one of those, since I wouldn't be able to get back to them for several months, at which time I'd essentially have to start again, anyway.

So I decided to arrange a piano piece of mine for orchestra. That's four days work, right?

I took out the score to Zipper Tango, which a year earlier had given me such fits to write (I just barely made the six-day limit imposed by he who is me), and started.

And stopped.

And started.

And stopped.

Crap, I said to myself, without using quotes at all. Carp!

The beginning unaccompanied melody doesn't fit gracefully in the register of any instrument that I'd want to use for it — or even sound right. Whoa. I'm starting to think it's a saxophone tune.


Okay, it's a saxophone tune. I'm doing a band arrangement. I can do band, right? I'm the guy that wrote Ten of a Kind, and I can just take the notes out of the Finale files and put new ones it. Okay. Okay.


So I did my arrangement in the available four days, and boy did I make some weird choices (transcribing into band instead of writing into it was a little weird — not unlike trying to write poetry in a language I barely spoke, where the rhymes were all rather awkward). But when it was done, it seemed, at a safe distance, like it wouldn't suck too much. I sent a copy to Michael at the Marine Band (they played Ten of a Kind, and they have the Finale files, too) and he said you're sending me a 3-minute band piece? Who's going to do a three-minute band piece? Arrange two or three more! Then you've got a set.

Michael speaks in Italics in the winter months, and boy I know what that's like.

So that summer while Beff and I did a summer rental in Maine, I took out three more so-called style études (or vernacular études, as all the kids are calling them now), my laptop and a mouse, and arranged them for band, too. Mostly at a kitchen table, in the mornings between about 7:30 and 10 am. before we went out to do vacationy frolic. Beff, meanwhile, was about 3 feet away, at the same kitchen table, facing me, using her laptop, and writing something as well. It was practically dueling composers.

And there was a duck that kept approaching our cabin for handouts. We complied to the extent that was possible.

We also entertained Eddie and Hayes and Susan and Denny and Liz and Geoffy and Maria and Ken and Hillary while in the rental. But still we got our morning work done. Amazeness.

When it was done, I officially notified Michael, who graciously accepted the score and parts and then shared a beer with me. We were in Vermont. It was morning.

That December the Marines were talking about reprising Ten of a Kind at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic, but the stage for the concert on which they were to program it was too small. So they programmed the arrangements — now called Sibling Revelry, a title that was much less original than we thought — and I got to hear these arrangements sooner than I'd thought feasible.


The Marines brought Beff and me to Midwest, and due to various snafus with airplane travel, I didn't get to hear more than a few minutes of my piece before its premiere. Yet I was charged with speaking into a microphone about it, twice, before two audiences averaging 2000 people. Thus did I introduce the piano stylings of the Marine Band!

And, you know, caldamerda piano writing transcribed for band is kind of ... goofy. Now that those performances have made it to Spotify (which you have to have to go further), I get to prove it to you. Plus, I get to embed some videos, and that is something devoutly to be wished.

So Zipper Tango for piano pretty much goes like

while its band manifestation sounds like this.

My oh-so-cool stride piece, meanwhile, was written this way

and sounds like this for band.

The hardest one to bandstrate was the bop piece, which is supposed to sound like

And was bandstrated into some pretty durn hard band licks. For the walking bass part near the end, I needed a bebop drum set sound, which I pretty much stole from an old Charlie Parker album I had in iTunes on my laptop. It sounds like this.

And finally, my Jerry Lee Lewis piece, which had yet to be performed, should sound like

And sounded like this in the band version. Oddly, the premiere of the band version predated the premiere of the piano version by more than two years.

My personal preference among those arrangements is Moody's Blues and Zipper Tango. The other two are GBB (Goofy Beyond Belief).

Best experience of these performances at Midwest? Meeting Donald Hunsberger, who introduced himself to me before the first concert, and professed admiration for Ten of a Kind. I liked that. Least good experience? My introduction to a well-known second tier band composer, who looked at my name tag and walked away without saying anything.

That was fun.