Tuesday, April 28, 2015

I can arrange that

And then there is the issue of arranging existing pieces. A lot of composers make a special effort to go to a Polynesian restaurant just for the Pu-Pu Platter so that there is plenty of resonance when they pooh-pooh the notion of arranging arrangements. There is, after all, a cult within a cult within a cult within a cult of composition-by-buttstik in which the music and the ideas for the music flow from the nature of the instruments themselves. You know, you don't write open-string double stops for saxophone — am I right? Am I right? Ich hab' recht. Kein scheiß.

The other thing, of course is the spelling of pooh-pooh. If you poo-poo something, then literally it is scheiß, and if you pu-pu it, well, at least there's a lot of variety in cuisine, and it's largely bite-sized. But in the pooh-pooh spelling, are we setting up a Winnie-Winnie situation? Very small minds want to know. Which is why I'm glad I don't want to know.

Well, okay. Famously, lots of Bach's music is transcriptions of his other music. For you see, he was a cult within a cult within a cult, having never broken through to the fourth level. Beethoven orchestrated one of his piano sonata movements in order for it to serve as incidental music (thanks, Dalit). And how many of us would know Pictures at an Exhibition without Ravel? Hey, we had a whole pile of supermarket classical CDs in the house (bound together on metal rods and secured by flywheel screws) and, though we never listened to it in the house (Judy Collins and Bobby Vinton singing in Polish were on auto-repeat), I do remember seeing that there was a composer in the pile whose name was Moussorgsky-Ravel. A hyphenated name from the old country. And incidentally, I added a syllable in my mind: Mussogorsky, possibly a relative of Piatogorsky, who, at the time, I hadn't heard of. And the last two syllables? Pronounced exactly like the last two syllables of unravel. As in, at the time, Saint-Säëñs was the Un-Ravel.

In the fifteen minutes spent on copyright issues in grad school, you learn that arrangements are derivative works. If composer B arranges composer A's work for different forces, then composer A owns the copyright on composer B's arrangement. Composer B can fret and fume about non-payment for all his or her work, but since the underlying music belongs to Composer A, so do all the arrangements of it. To wit, when I was an undergrad, a colleague-in-undergradness wrote Bernstein's publisher to ask if there were a saxophone version of the clarinet sonata. The publisher wrote back saying no, but they'd give him $100 (or something like that) if he would arrange it. Which is a lot more than if he had taken the initiative to make the arrangement and then just sent it to the publisher. In which case, the publisher would have been within their rights to send him a MWA ha ha It's All Ours Now letter.

I first arranged something of mine way back in high school. I had written a pretty, auf-Persichetti piano piece that I would play whether or not anyone was within earshot. A clarinetist and a saxophonist from our church, thinking it cute that I was a composer now, asked if I'd write something for them to play together. Rather than revealing the truth that they both sucked as players, eew, I arranged the auf piece, and made sure I was never within earshot when they played it.

Then somehow through conservatory training, and the prevailing gestalt, I joined that cult within a cult within a cult within a cult. It was a lot of work to do that, since I had to learn four different secret handshakes. My handshakes brought all the boys to the yard, and that was just weird. That violin and piano piece I wrote for Ken Sugita? WOW, was it all about the violin and about the piano. It was serious, and full of thought. Thought oozed from every pore of it, and even though the "ugh" was silent, it was something experienced by all who looked at it. For it was one of those pulseless, highly syncopated things using lots of ink that, in 1979, were supposed to get awards.

Yes, ink. Not toner.

And then I got into Tanglewood.

On my, uh, seventh try. Each try was a different year, by the way. I didn't send in seven applications all in the same year. Because that would be silly. And expensive.

Good things come to them what waits.

Russell Hershow, Theodore Antoniou, T'wood premiere
And it was well known by me that a piece of mine would be played at Tanglewood by some of tomorrow's stars (tomorrow was only a day away, at the time), and by lots of them if I wanted. I wanted a performance of a big piece! Size mattered! But full orchestra was out of the question, and my one orchestra piece (the one I wrote in order to have an orchestra piece for grad school applications) sucked anyway. So, quickly and without much thought, I arranged the violin and piano piece for violin and a chamber orchestra of eighteen instruments. Why eighteen? Because I thought I could reuse it if I ever got into the Johnson (now Wellesley) Composers Conference, and I used pretty much the whole complement of instruments available. Greedy me. I was taking all the complementary angles I could.
Davy takes bow after premiere. 1982.

So of course the instrumental writing was full of overwriteyness, but it got played, and played very nicely. The soloist was but 18 at the time, and now he plays in the Chicago Symphony. And there were two or three nice things in my arrangement, including a breathing place where a D# seemed to resolve to E in an A-majorish atonal context.

But only eight minutes of music for those big forces? Was I crazy? (One word answer: ask again later. Yes, that's three words because I'm a heavy tipper). So I made up a story. This is the finale of a concerto. Yeah, that's the ticket. The finale of a concerto. They bought it!

And, oh, by the way. When I got back to graduate school after Tanglewood, I wrote two more movements to go in front of it, which became known as the first and second movements. And by the time I did go to the Composers Conference the next year, there were two movements for them to play. With Rolf Schulte as the soloist! For a while that recording was my big (literally) hit, and it was on cassette. Good things come to those whose big hits are on cassette.

Years later, CF Peters took the violin and piano piece for publication, it got engraved, and sold almost, oh, 37 copies. It's a big score. Since I signed over copyright, that meant they also owned the concerto — because it is a derivative work! At the time, when I was seeking resumé lines, it was cool, because two new published works turns out to be twice as many as one new published work. With STEM in place now, that ratio is under review.

And the issue of arranging? Assigning arrangements of piano pieces for various instrumental forces is the way I (and billions of others) teach orchestration. One fine February vacation when I only had a few blank working days to spare, I decided to orchestrate my Zipper Tango piano étude, possibly in the future to be a demo piece for Orchestration of How I Did It, See?. Which was immediately and unexpectedly weird, because I was hearing saxophone for the opening tune, and saxophone is an "extra" in the orchestra (they don't get tenure). Thus were gears shifted for me (in my head), and I arranged it for band instead. Even though the only band music I'd written to this point (other than in high school) was stuff with ten clarinets going apeshit all the time.

And then, dammit, that opening tune kept going higher and outside of the saxophone range. So I got to demonstrate, for myself, that handoff thing that I always talked about in Orchestration. Sax hands off the tune to clarinets, rolls right, and the clarinets gain 4 yards. The play is now under review. Then, metric modulation, oh baby. Because bands do metric modulations all the time, right? Or at least soon they would. Because, you know.

I sent it to Michael Colburn at The President's Own for his feedback. He said a 3-1/2 minute band piece doesn't have legs (and it would be weird if it literally did, and if it did, how many would there be?). If it's part of a set that's 10-15 minutes, well, then he said the band, and other bands, might give it a go. No, he didn't suddenly become British.

Moosehead Pond in Maine
And so that summer (we were vacationing on Moosehead Pond in Maine) I revisited the four existing so-called vernacular études — tango, bop, stride, rock and roll — and arranged them for band as best I could in the mornings, given the size of my brain. Of course, since Peters owned the rights to the piano études, thus did they also own the rights to the new derivative work. Woo hoo!

And the band premiered it/them at the Midwest Clinic that year. They sprung for a schmancy hotel room for me and Beff, and I got to introduce it, standing there as if I wore a suit regularly. At the event, I met Donald Hunsberger (woo hoo!) who went out of his way (he had to step around an oboist) to praise Ten of a Kind, and we were off.

Incidentally, I didn't hear a runthrough before the premiere because the Marine Band's plane was co-opted by a General who was certain he needed it more. Thus were they a day late to the festivities, arriving just in time for the sound check.

Years later, Michael recorded the piece for a whole CD of piano pieces arranged for band, and today the band posted the recordings on Yout' Oob. How good are they? When he sent me the second edits for commentary, my comment was We fall off the edge of the earth. He probably thought I was talking in code, and he was polite enough not to send a return e-mail containing only the text "????".

Here they are in all their glory: the band arrangement of each étude, followed by the original piano piece. So there. Thanks to the vagaries of Yout' Oob, it's possible to listen to both the arrangement and the original simultaneously, if being so inclined to do so is something you are right now.

Zipper Tango, tango-étude on grace notes. Originally written for Amy Briggs's tango project.

Bop It, bop étude. Geoff Burleson asked for it after I'd written a stride étude.

Strident, stride piano étude. Amy Briggs asked for it. (In the arrangement, I cop to harmon mute abuse and especially to vibraslap abuse)

Moody's Blues (suggested by Rick Moody), rock and roll étude, Jerry Lee Lewis style, on repeated chords.

And they all rolled over, and one fell out. I use it in Orchestration as an example of arranging piano music for band. Winnie-Winnie.

Post Scriptum. I was asked, but not in the passive voice, about orchestrating a piano glissando into band. Here's what I did. Thank goodness for the miracle of cut and paste in Finale.