September 10, 2009
Can there be Yakety without Sax?
(Great. Now I have Yakety Sax in my head, and I bet you do, too. Sorry.)
Here’s the latest on the Trombone Concerto. I’ve finished writing the short score through the end of the second movement. The piece will be three movements total, roughly 16-18 minutes long, and I have two movements at roughly 12 minutes so far, so I think we’re in good shape. The piece is due in early November, and I am still just working on the short score (meaning a reduced score without all of the instruments mapped out, with a lot of generic piano and clarinet sounds where other instruments will eventually be). As I’ve been working on this slow movement, though, I’ve been giving a lot more thought to the instrumentation for the complete piece.
When I first agreed to write the piece (I say “agreed” as if there was every any question, which there wasn’t), I had the idea to score it not for standard full band, but for orchestral winds, brass, and percussion. It would basically be a piece for “band,” in that there would be no strings (except double bass), but there wouldn’t be any saxes or euphonium. Without those instruments, the piece could be programmed not just by professional and college bands, but also by orchestras.
Admittedly, this is probably just a pipe dream. As I’ve written before, it’s not exactly easy to get a performance with an orchestra. Redline Tango for orchestra: I think we’ll hit the 12th professional orchestra performance this season (thank you, Grand Rapids Symphony). Redline Tango for band: well over 200 performances by now.
Still, the thinking here is three-fold. First, I’ve written something like 10 back-to-back pieces for band, and the scoring is always the same, give or take the number of percussionists. I think it will be nice to work with a different color this time, and I’ve become pretty dependent on the sax section, so it’s good to mix things up. Second, the euphonium really sounds best in the same range where a tenor trombone sounds especially sweet, and I didn’t want to have any potential balance issues with that, so dropping the euphonium makes sense.
A huge reason to write the piece for “orchestral winds,” though, is the soloist. The person who will premiere the piece is Joseph Alessi, principal trombone for the New York Philharmonic. Joe solos and records with colleges and orchestras all over the world. If he has the opportunity to solo with an ensemble, whether it be a band or orchestra, I’d like this piece to be in the running when he (or any other soloist) considers repertoire.
I took an informal poll about the scoring over on Facebook the other day, and there was an awful lot of feedback. (At last count, there were over 30 responses — far more than any blog entry receives here on the site itself.) In a sort of fascinatingly meta moment, writer (and blogger) Pierre Ruhe blogged a good portion of the Facebook conversation — which I encourage you to read, especially if you missed the Facebook thread. It’s wild to have something semi-private like a Facebook thread (viewable only by my “friends”) blogged as a completely public conversation, but it’s an interesting window into the process.
If you read Pierre’s summary, you’ll see that by the end of the thread, I’d decided to commit to scoring the piece for orchestral winds, brass, and percussion. There are some real challenges with this, primarily in the slow movement, where I’d normally depend on the saxes to provide the most string-like sound available in the band. (I just love writing chords for the full sax section, sustained, and extremely quiet. Nothing else in the band blends like that.) But, as I also said on Facebook, I emailed one of the “big” orchestra conductors in the US, and told this person about the project, and that I was considering scoring it for orchestral winds — like the Stravinsky Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments. The response back, within minutes, was one of encouragement, expressing interest in the piece if that were the scoring.
The next step is to set up the score and actually start orchestrating what I’ve written. I need to figure out how many clarinets I can really safely have with an orchestra, and what types of clarinets. Again, the biggest issue is this slow movement. It’s tough to beat a contrabass clarinet in its bottom octave, slow and quiet. Yes, I’ll have a double bass, but I need that contrabass clarinet. How realistic is it to ask for one? Some college bands don’t even have one. Corigliano’s Symphony Number 1 has a contrabass clarinet part, but it’s optional. He cues it in tuba, but that wouldn’t sound nearly as great. Maybe that’s the solution — write a contrabass clarinet part, and just cue it elsewhere.
And how large of a wind section can I have? The Corigilano has 3 flutes, piccolo/flute 4, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 Bb clarinets, bass clarinet (doubling contrabass), 3 bassoons and contrabassoon. He even writes 4 trombone parts — 2 tenor, 2 bass — 6 (!) horn parts, 5 trumpet parts, and 2 tuba parts. Good lord, it’s a friggin’ concert band! Can I get away with scoring this large and ever hope for an orchestra to touch it? No. I don’t have an Oscar, a Pulitzer, and multiple Grammy awards, and my piece will be 18 minutes, not 45. Unless they’re putting Corigliano on the second half, an orchestra would have to hire extra personnel in order to play the concerto with scoring like that, and that would never happen. The trick is to find the happy medium, where the scoring is as large as I can find, but still with a realistic number of players.
If you’re curious to see a few pages of the short score, here is the PDF. It’s ugly, of course, but those are the notes. You’ll see a lot of things that are entirely for MIDI playback, like “patch 1,” “rip patch” (the patch that makes the trombone rip upwards into the next note), and a whole lot of measures where there appear to be as many as 4 notes in unison in the trombone line. (I do that to make the sound fuller in the MIDI.) Also, note that the tempo is a completely over-the-top quarter=196. You’ll see that the solo part is pretty high, with lots of high C’s. The slow movement manages to go up to a high D, sustained, and quiet. Ouch.
Now I need to figure out the instrumentation — that is, the specific number of wind and brass players. Feel free to weigh in here, or over on Facebook, where I’ll post the link for this entry…
Oh — pictures! I didn’t post a picture. In lieu of that, I’ll link. Last night on Top Chef: Las Vegas, the chefs cooked at Joel Robuchon’s restaurant in Vegas. AEJ and I had our wedding dinner there. It was the best meal ever, and I took a zillion pictures. If you’ve never seen this blog entry, check out the best food p*rn ever.