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Adanced Placement, Moving Players to Build Excitement

James Ripley | August 2009

    Midwest Clinic concerts are always special to attend, yet some performances particularly memorable. In 1986 a concert performed by Michigan State Univer­sity directed by Eugene Corporon in the Grand Ball­room of the Hilton had that effect. It began with the extraordinary work Fanfare and Fragments by Roger Vaughan, based on songs of the Big Ten universities. What made the event so memorable was the effect of seeing and hearing 38 brass players and percussionists perform the work while positioned surrounding the audience, some on stage and others placed around the balcony.
    For rehearsals and programs directors usually position instrumental groups to give listeners a uniform sound throughout a concert, based on several types of traditional placements that work for most band literature. Certain pieces, however, stretch the usual boundaries by creating truly unusual and memorable experiences for players and audiences alike. Com-posers do it by including special instructions in their scores for placing the performers.

Moving Players, Passing Sounds
    The most representative composition is Russell Peck’s Cave of the Winds (Galaxy), a work that requires performers to memorize the music so they can move to a variety of locations during the piece. Fisher Tull’s Studies in Motion (Southern) uses a traditional seating arrangement as the instrumentalists pass sounds from side to side of the ensemble in prescribed motions, conveying the idea of space.
    The first spatial works actually date from the late-16th century and include Gio­vanni Gabrieli’s Canzonas (Musica Rara). Some of the music from this time was played from bell towers for civic timekeeping or ceremonial purposes. A modern piece in this style is Richard Mohaupt’s Town Piper Music (G. Schirmer). Handel wrote his Concerti a due Cori (Barenreiter) to perform during the intermissions of his later oratorios.
    Typically, spatial works use one of three different kinds of placement: offstage, anti­phonal (horizontal), and vertical. Each has its own challenges and opportunities for performance, yet all are useful as a way to heighten the musical experiences of the audience.

A Carthage Concert

    A recent concert at Carthage Col­lege in Kenosha, Wisconsin in­cluded the following selections, performed without a pause and with the ensemble placed at various locations throughout the venue. Asterisks denote spatial placement pieces.

American Patrol (for three bands)* by Francis Mea­chem, arranged by Morton Gould (G. Schirmer).
Canzon a duodecimi toni a 8* by Giovanni Gabrieli, edited by Mark Scatterday (Warner Bros.).
Crug-Y-Bar from Household Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams (Oxford).
Bali* by Michael Colgrass (Carl Fischer).
“Finale” from Octet by Stravinsky (Boosey & Hawkes).
Fields* by James Syler (Ballerbach).
From the Steeples and Mountains* by Ives (Peer-Southern).
Xochipilli by Carlos Chavez (G. Schirmer).
“Allegro” from Saxophone Quartet by Elliot Del Borgo.
Praeludium (for five wind bands)* by David Bedford (Novello).

     Many 20th-century composers place musicians offstage in their works, with such examples as Holst’s The Planets (Boosey & Hawkes), Respighi’s Pines of Rome (Ricordi), and Mahler’s Sym­phony #3 (Schott). Other such works in­clude H. Owen Reed’s La Fiesta Mex­icana (Mills); Ingolf Dahl’s Sinfonietta (Broude); and Frank Ticheli’s Angels in the Archi­tecture, Pacific Fanfare, and American Elegy (Manhattan Beach).

Know the Score, Plan Ahead

     One aspect of staging works with offstage players is whether the musicians are needed onstage for the balance of the piece once the offstage portion is over. Optimally, the offstage performers should be additional players so the ranks of the ensemble are not diminished. Depending on the work, the performers may have to travel to their offstage position during lengthy rests in the piece. As the sound on the stage will likely be different from that in the hall, it is important to assess the balance of the band and offstage players from the audience’s perspective.
     Bali, a remarkably colorful work by Michael Colgrass, commemorates the musical spirit of the Balinese people. In the central section the scoring indicates three offstage oboes (optional clarinets) playing a lament that is particularly inspired and effective. Colgrass writes no other music for the oboes in this work, so the players should remain offstage for the entire work.
     Aside from the oboe soli, the position of the percussion and piano in Bali is also important; both have subdued and aggressive writing in the score. Here the orchestra bells and keyboard percussion should be to the side of the ensemble, preferably near the solo clarinet and saxophones be-cause these instruments share melodic material.

Exploiting Special Sounds
     Composers Henry Brandt and James Syler both understand – and exploit – the special sound characteristics that result from placing instruments in different ways in a performance area. Syler’s Storyville uses a soprano voice and saxophone solos offstage, with numerous sets of small wind groups on stage and a clarinet choir upstage.
     For On the Nature of Things Brandt has a clarinet choir on stage, with the remaining instruments situated throughout the concert hall, including a brass group centrally located on the main floor. Solo horn, glockenspiel, oboe, and flute are in the balcony; a woodwind trio is at the rear of the house; and a set of bass instruments are to the rear and under the balcony. Brandt is one of the few composers to position instruments vertically this way.
     Brandt and Syler have also composed pieces with antiphonal groups, such as American Debate (Carl Fischer) and Fields, that are technically easy to play. American De­bate uses the polymetric effect of one group playing in 6/8 meter while the other group answers by interjecting ideas in 2/4.
     Fields, a work of considerable depth and beauty, has two antiphonal groups on stage as well as a flugelhorn and percussion offstage. One of the most engaging aspects of the score is the harp and piano placed in be­tween the two wind groups. Alto flute, soprano saxophone, flugelhorn (on­stage as well as offstage), and piccolo trumpet provide additional color.

Colorful Ives
     Charles Ives based many works on his own experiences of hearing music played from various locations and in various keys around his native Dan­bury, Connecticut. While not explicit in the score, performances of The Unanswered Question (Peer), From the Steeples and Mountains, and Variations on Jerusalem the Golden (G. Schirmer) benefit from having a distinct space between groups of instruments.
     Keith Brion’s version of the Jerusalem the Golden variations gives the solo brass ensemble enough time to travel to a variety of locations in the auditorium to portray a competition between bands meeting at the town square. This work gives directors a perfect way to project spatial movement from onstage to offstage as well as to a vertical position using the balcony.
    I selected the three antiphonal works for the Carthage program to demonstrate a chronological progression of antiphonal music. Gabrieli’s Canzona was performed from balconies to the left and right of the audience, following the practice at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. Morton Gould’s arrangement of American Patrol uses three small bands of similar instruments (piccolo, two clarinets, trumpet, cornet, trombone, tuba, and percussion) positioned to the left, center, and right of the audience. Gould constructed the work to demonstrate the stereo recording technique for Doub­ling in Brass (RCA) in 1959. This recording is available now in a two-CD set, Brass and Percussion. The performance at Car­thage was the first public performance of the work, which was previously played only for the recording session. It has been available on rental for many years.

Quadraphonic Sound
    David Bedford’s Praeludium dates from the 1980s and takes a quadraphonic approach to spatial sound with four small wind groups of clarinets, trumpets, and horns positioned to the sides of a large wind band. Additional players are not required for Praeludium because the small wind groups are scored aside from the requirements for the large band.
    The time and effort to prepare a spatial work, whether it is antiphonal, in a vertical configuration, or used offstage, gives your players and audience an engaging musical experience. Certain performance spaces are more conducive to these types of pieces, yet almost any concert quickly becomes more distinctive and memorable when it includes a spatial composition.