Over the course of the past year, I have undertaken a huge project. After completing the initial phase of my website, bandestration.com and the first volume of my comprehensive textbook on band orchestration, I set out to put theory to practice. As such, I am in the final stages of composing my massive second symphony “The Forest of Dreams.” In this piece, I put together every technique I’ve written about over the course of the past five years.
The genesis of this project was nearly 20 years ago. When I first knew I wanted to be a composer, my thoughts were immediately drawn to the form of the symphony. To me, the symphony is the pinnacle of serious music composition. As Mahler once said, “The symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.”
As Mahler as my guide, I’ve begun and ultimately abandoned at least six symphonies. Each time, I got further along the goal, and each time I realized I didn’t know enough and wasn’t skilled enough to complete the task. To that effect, I began studying. I delved deeper into scores. I scoured history books. I combed through instrument manuals. In the end, I realized the only way forward was by breaking down everything that I knew.
After years of searching, it dawned on me that the way forward was through writing for the wind band. It was the medium I grew up in and the medium that offers the modern composer the most opportunity for performance. There was an underlying problem, and that is the wind band itself, I found to be a deeply flawed medium. I had to go back to the basics. What is a wind band?
The simplest definition is a performing group made up of woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments. If I went on this definition alone, and knew nothing else about how to construct a band, would I come up with something akin to the existing ensemble? The answer is most assuredly, no. I began with the premise that all instruments were created equal, each has their own unique talents and part to play.
I first went back to an old text by Percy Grainger who stated that wind bands work best when individual instruments types are thought of in choirs representing soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voices. If each timbre can be represented this way, think of what possibilities exist!
I started with the flute family. I wanted as diverse a flute ensemble as I could have without bringing in instruments that ultimately proved useless in a large ensemble setting. To this effect, I chose to use 2 Piccolos, 2 C Flutes, 2 Alto Flutes, and a single Tenor Flute – the old Bass Flute renamed to better suite its true nature. These seven voices proved to be most adequate. Unlike many composers, I do not treat the Alto Flutes as delicate flowers to be scored for with utmost care. Instead, they play integral parts serving often as 3rd and 4th C Flutes. Late in the scoring, I realized that there is a deficit in the high range of the band. Namely, there is no one instrument that can match the ethereal quality of the Violins’ high E string. That is, until I started to take a look at an obscure member of the flute family, the G Treble Flute. I decided to have the 2nd Piccolo player double on this obscure member of the family. As such, I now have a high delicate sound in the band without the piercing quality of the Piccolo. I also have an instrument suited for light solos and melodies in a way neither the C Flute nor the Piccolo could ever accomplish.
Next, we move to the Oboes. Here, I have an ensemble made of six players: 2 Oboes, Mezzo-Soprano Oboe (i.e. Oboe d’Amore), Alto Oboe (i.e. English Horn), and Tenor Oboe (i.e. Bass Oboe). At one time, I included a part for a Baritone Oboe (Lupophone, but I eventually decided against its inclusion. You will immediately notice a confusing nomenclature. Like the Tenor Flute, I choose to use more logical names for the members of the oboe family. Having nearly four full octaves available from the oboe family means a powerful sound can be had from what is traditionally the weakest section in the ensemble. Special note should be given to the Mezzo-Soprano Oboe who alone in the band has a hugely important role: offstage soloist. In the finale of the work, the Mezzo-Soprano Oboe should be played offstage and sounding as if from everywhere and nowhere at once.
The clarinets are traditionally the heart of the band, however, they are generally relegated to having only three or four different species present in the ensemble. Considering that that clarinet has more sizes available that provide more distinct tone colors than just about any other instrument, it is a shame that these instruments are never seen in the band world. To this effect, I have created one of the most diverse clarinet palettes ever used. It is scored for 1 E-flat, 1 C, 2 B-flats, 1 A, 2 F Altos, 2 E-flat Tenors, 2 Basses, 1 Contra-Alto, and 1 Contrabass. The use of the 2 Altos and 2 Tenors makes a wholly unusual characteristic for the entire work. The bulk of the clarinet writing lies in these middle voices. In essence, they act as “woodwind Horns.” A full bass section of four members ensures that the whole band has a firm foundation. Up high, the E-flat, C, B-flats, and A Clarinets are all used in different ways depending on the character of the passage.
The saxophone section uses 8 members from Sopranino to Bass. The most unusual member is perhaps the C Tenor, which provides a lighter sound than does the B-flat Tenor.
The bassoon section requires 5 members with an optional 6th. The main ensemble includes a Tenor Bassoon, 3 Bassoons, and a Contrabassoon. The Tenor Bassoon, while important, will be provided with an alternative part for normal Bassoon should the Tenor not be available. The 6th member of the ensemble is a Subcontrabassoon. While this instrument is still being developed, I have high hopes for its use in the future. Its part only appears in the finale.
The brass parts are somewhat more straightforward. Here, we have 6 Horns. Alongside them are 2 E-flat Alto Horns and 2 B-flat Baritone Horns. These two instruments, most commonly seen in brass bands, are here used as a special sound in the brass – not unlike how Wagner used the Tuben in his Ring cycle. Next, we have 6 trumpet parts. Each of these trumpet parts is designed for a specific pitch of trumpet, and it is imperative that they only use those instruments. From top to bottom we have a B-flat Piccolo Trumpet, an E-flat Trumpet, 2 C Trumpets, a B-flat Trumpet, and a Bass Trumpet. Next,is we have 5 trombones: 1 Alto, 2 Tenors, 1 Bass, and 1 Contrabass. Finally, in the brass, we have 6 tubas: 2 Flügelhorns, 2 Tenor Tubas, 1 Bass Tuba, and 1 Contrabass Tuba.
The percussion section requires 9 players including Timpani. Two players play exclusively mallets (Vibraphones, Glockenspiel, Marimba, Chimes, and Xylophone), while the other six mostly play the unpitched percussion. However, in the finale, many of these unpitched players move over to pitched instruments. The exact arsenal of percussion instruments used includes the common Snare and Bass Drum, Cymbals and Suspended Cymbal, Tambourine, Triangle, and Sleighbells, but also the more unusual Thunder Sheet, Wind Machine, and Hammer.
Finally, the ensemble is rounded off with a player on Piano and Celesta, a Harp, and an Organ, which only makes its appearance in the finale.
So why is the ensemble so large? It terms of numbers, it’s actually smaller than any large-scale orchestral work. There are only about 78 performers, whereas a large orchestral work could have 100 to 120. That said, the biggest reason for such a large and diverse ensemble is not for power as one might think, but for delicacy. The larger and more diverse the ensemble, the more delicate the music must become. Throughout the work, there are only a handful of moments when the entire ensemble plays together. In these rare moments, the induvial colors cease to have any meaning. Yet another reason is to ensure a properly balanced ensemble. Most wind bands lack proper division of the parts, especially in the woodwinds. The emphasis is on the high-pitched instruments leaving the lower and middle-pitched instruments left out. Here, I have tried to divide the voices evenly and thus, have created, what I consider, one of the most well-balanced wind ensembles ever created.