For those of you that don't know, I'm a composer. Currently I'm in the middle of arranging an early work of mine for a chamber ensemble comprised of clarinets.

This may seem likes its going to be boring as shit, but you musically inclined kids will get a kick out of this.

Project: Muse - A tone poem originally for piano and string quartet.

Goal: To arrange the piece for clarinet ensemble.

Instrumentation: The term instrumentation is traditionally used to describe, literally, what instruments are involved in an ensemble or what kinds of instruments a given composition is written for.

In this case, the instrumentation is oversimplified to compensate for a high-school-level ensemble's lack of exotic instrument availability. There are currently nine types of clarinets in regular use in orchestras around the world, but a high school player is usually only in possession of one (a Bb tenor clarinet) and the high school itself may only have one or two Bb bass clarinets. It is not unusual to come across a high school with a Eb contralto or a contrabass clarinet, but in the interest of overall marketability and simplicity of rehearsal I have elected to not specify any exact instruments.

Instead, I have simply called for Alto 1 and 2, Tenor 1 and 2, and Bass 1 and 2. These refer to the ranges of the parts, rather the types of the instruments. The Alto and Tenor parts will be manageable by your average Bb tenor clarinet, and the Bass parts will come in three versions: One in Bb for Bass Clarinet, one in Eb for Contralto, and one in Bb but written one octave below for Bb tenor.

Confused yet? The fun is just beginning.

Problem #1: The basic problem any arranger faces is the direct transfer of an idea from one musical medium to another without loss of clarity.

The first thing which I must consider in my arrangement is the piano part from the original. Muse is a tone poem; a tone poem (loosely defined) is a symphonic composition which builds upon a single idea, or motif. In Muse I chose to start off with just the single motif as a foundation; I built a harmonic/melodic structure on top of this single idea, and then deconstructed it. The piano part carries this motif throughout the piece, starting as the melody and then eventually becoming the harmonic foundation before it once again functions as the melody. It stays basically the same throughout the piece.

I'm sure I don't have to tell you, but a piano and a clarinet are two very different instruments; the main difference being that a clarinet cannot sound two notes at once. If you are schooled in music you may recognize that the piano part is mainly comprised of arpeggiations, or breakdowns of chords. These are not hard and fast arpeggiations because the third degree of the chord is left out, leaving only the first and fifth degrees (the notes A and D).

In non-arpeggiated form the first measure of the piano would resemble this if presented graphically with text:

A   |  A   |
D   |  D   |
A   |  A   |


The arpeggiated version would appear as such:

      
      A  |        A  |
   D     |    D      |
A        |A          |


In the original piano part, the first two notes (A and D, ascending) are sustained until the end of the measure, which incidentally is in 3/4 time. Because of this the harmonic idea is outlined to the ear:
A   |  A   |
D   |  D   |
A   |  A   |


But it is done in a more subtle fashion because the actual tones are staggered.

Earlier I mentioned that the third degree of each chord is usually left out in this composition, and there's a reason. I wanted the implied harmony to be ambiguous rather than strictly D major (which calls for the inclusion of F# at the third degree) or D minor (which would include F natural.) This frees me up from the key signature a little bit and allows me to take the harmony in interesting directions without disturbing the listener's ear. Had I initiated D major right away, the layman's ear would have trouble accepting the F major chord which occurs close to the resolution of the phrase because it does not fit into the D major key signature. The same case crops again with D minor but I'll spare you the details.

So, what the hell does all this have to do with arranging?

Well, because I have to get the message across that I am in fact implying harmonies and chords (even if they are incomplete). I can't simply have a single clarinet playing the arpeggio over and over underneath everything. The practised musical ear would be able to understand what I, the composer, am implying, but the majority of listeners and even most high school musicians would not. Hence, I must split the part between three clarinets, one for each note in the arpeggio, like so:

Tenor 1:      A--|      A--|

Tenor 2:   D-----|   D-----| 

Bass 1:  A-------| A-------|


After I drill this into the head of my listener a few times, he understands what's going on and I can continue on with my development.

With this solution, I have successfully transferred the idea of implied harmony which was so easy on the piano to the slightly more difficult medium of clarinet.

Problem #2: Having enough notes.

On the piano it is possible for one person to play ten notes simultaneously. With a string quartet, eight are reasonably acheivable with each player sounding two notes at once on his instrument.

With six clarinets, the most you get is 6. This, of course, presents a problem.

In the original, the entire first phrase is kept to the piano. The second phrase brings in the doublebass (a large cello) playing two octaves below the piano, which voices our first departure from the main theme and solidifies some harmonies. The third repetition features the introduction of the cello, doubling the doublebass part one octave below the piano. I have them play at the octave to beef up the bass part and reinforce it to the listener more than anything. With clarinets I can't really do this because of range considerations and it would most likely get boring.

Instead, I have what was the cello part come in at the second phrase being played by Bass 2. I avoid any doublings in the upper three parts (representing the piano) because this would most likely draw attention away from the new bass part by virtue that doubling makes things louder. I want the listener to pay attention to the Bass 2 part so I have that player play a little louder than the upper three parts which serves to even things out.

The third repetition of the phrase introduces us to the upper part of our structure, the harmonic and melodic roof, if you will. In the original the piano, cello, and double bass kept chugging along while the the top two voices (the viola and the violin) were available to play up to four notes at a time. This is unacceptable for our Alto 1 and 2 clarinettists as they can only play 2 notes at once, so I have to go through the strings part and pick out what is most important. This would be the melodic outline which can be clearly heard in the very high notes played by the viola and violin in the original.

This is where I presently stand in the arrangement process but I will let you in on my plan.

The very high notes are well within range of even a mediocre Bb clarinettist so the range isn't going to be a problem. However, the clarinet itself gets kind of shrill and piercing in this range so I will have to tell these players to back off on their volume (especially Alto 1) so the warmth and balance of the ensemble is not sacrificed.

Any composer will tell you that higher in pitch = louder. It isn't really louder but it is more easily discernable to the human ear so it will seem louder. Also, you can't have too much going on harmonically in the low registers because the clarity of the harmonic mechanism is often lost, meaning it will sound muddled to the ear, trained or no. So, overall, I must endeavor to keep the bass part low and singular, the main harmonic chunks (i.e. the piano part being played in Tenor 2, Tenor 1, and Bass 1) relatively close together, and the melodic outline displayed in the violin and viola parts (now being played by Alto 1 and 2) in their proper range but not too loud.

Conclusion:
With this sort of piece there shouldn't be anything piercing or striking, shocking or surprising. It should constantly ebb and swell and follow a long, long emotional arc from beginning to end. With careful voice leading (more on that later) and simple caution overall, the original message of the piece will not be lost and it will be transferred to a very pleasant medium.

You should not underestimate the power of the clarinet.

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