One on a part

 Fantasia in C major (Johann Sebastian Bach) – brass ensemble sheet music available by clicking here
Performance by the Boulder Brass from Dorian 93204 – Bolder Baroque

A friend just sent me a note on an earlier post, and he mentioned that he is writing a lot for brass band. I love the sound of a brass band, and I’ve wanted to find my mojo to write for that ensemble. But I can’t, and it got me to thinking about why.

I was fortunate to have done my undergraduate study at the University of Denver. I was one of only two tuba players in the program which meant a lot of chop time. DU does not have a football program so there was no marching band, and there was no symphonic or concert band. Instead, there was a top notch orchestra, and an excellent wind ensemble comprising mostly graduate students, under the expert direction of Joe Docksey. A musical purist, he loved the idea of a one on a part wind ensemble, and this ideology became deeply ingrained. It’s also where I fell in love with Grainger’s music – a subject for another day.

Starting out writing mostly quintet charts, by the time I had written 20 or 30 of them, I had gotten pretty good at making the necessary compromises to make a quintet sing. So the first time I wrote something for brass ensemble, I remember feeling overwhelmed with the thought “what in the hell are you supposed to do with all of these brass players?” Being one to turn challenges into opportunities, it occurred to me that not everyone needed to play all the time (a habit learned from my quintet pedigree), and that writing for brass ensemble opened up possibilities for nearly endless color combinations (duh).

I used to watch a few shows on Food Network – Alton Brown is a favorite. AB likes to say “don’t add anything that doesn’t bring some flavor” or something like that. He was referring to adding water vs. some other liquid to a recipe.

So I rarely write unisons. When I do, it’s even more rare for it to be the same instrument (e.g. 2 tenor trombones or 2 B flat trumpets) – to me, that’s an opportunity missed to color a sound in a slightly different way. Horn and trombone in unison have a different color than 2 tenor trombones – even mixing the sound of a bass trombone with tenor trombone changes the color.  That’s not to say that it never happens in my charts, but it’s never just because. It has to serve either a balance or color concern, or solve a voice leading problem.

Other than that, it’s pretty much one on a part.

July 18, 2017 – Mike Allen

2 thoughts on “One on a part

  1. I, too, generally prefer one on a part. That said, those moments in the opera & symphony literature when an entire section plays in unison provide a depth and power that are awesome to behold. (The storm scene in Scheherazade and numerous Wagner excerpts come quickly to mind.)

    I like Robert King’s approach: one on a part is a brass ensemble, multiple players on a part are a brass choir; and playing his transcription of Bach’s Contrapunctus I — or even the first Ewald Quintet! — as a brass choir is almost transcendent.

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