The one thing a band can’t do.

I’m in the process of writing my 2nd Symphony right now.  It’s going surprisingly well.  What I’ve discovered is that I wrote many of the sections some years ago, but for a different medium.  There are two parts in particular.  The entire finale of the symphony and the end of the 1st part (I hesitate to call it the 1st movement, as the whole symphony is one long, continuous work).  What I’m basically doing is cannibalizing two earlier works (Hy Brasil and my Symphonic Poem for Tenor Bassoon and Orchestra).

Herein lies the problem.  Both of these works have extensive parts for strings.  Hy Brasil, in particular, has over 10 minutes of etherial, floating undulations in the upper strings.  At a pianississimo dynamic, this is almost impossible to transcribe for winds.

Almost.

Here’s where the mega-ensemble comes into play.  I’ll walk you through some of my thoughts on how to do it.  There are only a few instruments capable of playing the notes I wanted: flutes, oboes, upper clarinets, and upper saxes.  Oboes and saxes are out.  Their strident tone cannot give the needed effect.  Clarinets might work, but their sound is too pure.  I need complex overtones.  Here’s where having 8 flutes is handy.  I’m able to divide the four string parts (Violin 1, Violin 2, Viola, and Cello) among the 8 flutes, one on a part, but alternating between the players so that only 4 musicians are playing at any one time.  By trading off, I can also have the musicians switch instruments to give them the most comfortable playing register and to change up the sound.  Flutes 1 and 2 go between C Flute and Piccolo frequently.  Flutes 5 and 6 go between C Flute and Alto Flutes with the same regularity.  The trading off also gives the players a few measures of rest to regain their breath.

In addition to the 8 flutes, I also have 4 recorders doubling the parts at pitch.  The four players are using Sopranino, Soprano, Alto, and Tenor Recorders.  With only four players, I cannot give them the same breath pauses that the flutes get.  However, I have personally played through all the parts and can manage them with ease on the specified instruments.

The combined effect of 8 flutes and 4 recorders gives a more complex tone than just the flutes alone.  It won’t have the complexity of an entire string section, but the similarities are there.

To give more complexity to the sound, I then added 4 saxophones (E-flat Alto, C Tenor, B-flat Tenor, and Baritone) playing the chordal structure of the flute/recorder parts.  The saxophones are all playing in their upper most (non-altissimo) register.  The saxophone sound will give the complex overtone series of the stings.  Because they are in their highest register, their sound can be more easily controlled at the pianississimo dynamic.

For these passages, all other parts are exactly like in their orchestral counterpart.  So what is simple in an orchestra, takes 8 flutes, 4 recorders, and 4 saxophones, to approximate with the same sense of feeling in a wind group.  For me, light delicate, ethereal textures are the absolute hardest thing a wind band can play.  However, if done properly, their effect is magical.

Vibraphone

The Vibraphone is a curious instrument.  It is essentially a large metal Marimba.  The key difference between the Vibraphone and the Marimba are the rotating fans places in each of the Vibraphone’s resonators.  These fans, controlled by a variable speed motor, produce a vibrato effect not heard on any other percussion instrument.  This instrument was immediately popular in jazz.  In classical music, it had a cooler entry.

The Vibrato

The curious thing about the Vibraphone is that most times the characteristic vibrato is turned off in concert works.  In fact, many of the Vibraphones I’ve worked with before have had their motors disabled.  When writing for the Vibraphone, use of the motor must always be indicated.  As most Vibraphones will have a variable speed motor, it is also important to request the speed of the motor – slow, medium, fast.  I once wrote a piece where I indicated two separate Vibraphones.  One has the motor on the highest speed while the second had the motor turned down one notch from high.  This would produce a cross-vibrato effect where the instruments are slightly out of sync.  Another thing to think of here, Vibraphones from different manufacturers will have motors that rotate at different speeds.  The motor can be changed and turned on or off during a performance.  The best instruments will have a silent motor.

The Range

Traditionally, the range of the Vibraphone has only been 3 octaves from F3 to F6, but increasingly, makers are now making instruments with a four octave range from C3 to C7.  I find it odd that it took so long for the Vibraphone to have its range extended when the Marimba constantly undergoes range extensions.  I prefer the 4 octave instrument.  The extra bass notes really add a new sound to the instrument.

The Bow

An interesting effect is to take a cello or bass bow and actually bow the edge of the bar instead of striking it with a mallet.  This is a very slow technique.  Changing from the top row to the bottom row (black keys to white keys) take a considerable amount of movement.  In the piece I mentioned above, I had one of the Vibraphone players play only the top row while the other only played the bottom row to lessen the movement of the players.

The Ring and the Pedal

Because the instrument’s bars are metal, they will have a very long ring after they are sounded.  The larger bars will ring longer than the smaller ones.  Because of this, the Vibraphone is equipped with a pedal exactly like the sustain pedal on a Piano.  Pedal markings should be included in parts for exact clarity.  Otherwise, the performer will pedal the part at their discretion.  If the pedal is not depressed, the Vibraphone will have a dry staccato sound.

Mallet technique

Vibraphones will use either two or four mallets.  Two-mallet passages will generally be single lines while four-mallet passages will contain chords.  In chords it is best to keep notes spacing to about an octave between mallets held in one hand.  Check with a competent player for limitations of four-mallet technique.  Six-mallet technique is known, but extremely rare.

Pitch bending

A rarely used technique involves bending the pitch.  This is done by sticking the bar with one mallet and then dragging a second mallet across the bar.  See video below for how technique is done.

Vibraphone technique

4-octave Vibraphone playing a Bach Cello Suite (no vibrato)

4-octave Vibraphone playing Debussy’s Sunken Cathedral (no vibrato)

Gary Burton talking about the Vibraphone.  Watch the whole series of videos here!

A piece for bowed Vibraphone.  Note, it takes four players on one instrument to play this piece.

Pitch bending technique