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.
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.