New Arrangements for Living Language

As we get set to embark on our first run of our Living Language program, I was asked to talk about the program that was chosen, and more specifically, the process that I went through to arrange the music surrounding Dan Visconti’s concerto. While our bassist Eric Snoza was tasked with condensing Dan’s full orchestra score for Living Language down to Fifth House instrumentation, it was my job to arrange the rest of the pieces on the program to fit our needs.

Before I get too in the weeds with the arranging process, I did want to speak to what a treat it has been to work as an arranger for Fifth House. I received both of my degrees in horn performance and only had basic arranging practice for my own pet projects (arranging pieces for horn and piano mostly). When I joined the group and expressed an interest in arranging, Dan immediately began suggesting I try my hand at it for the group. My first project for Fifth House was an arrangement of Sleigh Ride for the 2016 Christmas concert, North by North Pole, entitled Slay Ride that also peppered in various horror movie themes and tropes. This was a great project for me as it allowed me to familiarize myself with the notation software Finale and how to get the best results from it. When I was asked to arrange music for Living Language, I was thrilled and couldn’t wait to get started.

As we were talking about how to craft this program, lots of pieces came to mind. Obviously, Fifth House doesn’t have a guitar player readily available to us so this was an opportunity to explore some repertoire that we otherwise would be unable to perform. This is where pieces such as the Schubert quartet come from, but there were also 5 pieces that were chosen that would need arranging, those being: Metheny’s Antonia, Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood, Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, Mudarra’s Pavana e Fantasia, and the Epitaph of Seikilos. I’ll break down the process for each piece below and outline some research I did to gain insight on how to best use Fifth House musicians.

Pat Metheny – Antonia:

Most people have heard of Pat Metheny as a guitarist but not as many are familiar with his compositions. As leader of the Pat Metheny group, he has released several albums of original work. Jason Vieaux, our guitarist for Living Language, beat us to the punch on this one and has already released an album of him playing 5 of Metheny’s works in a suite, Antonia being one of them. As an arranger, this made my job significantly easier as I was able to hear exactly the style in which our soloist would be playing the piece. While this was of course useful, I also referenced Metheny’s original recording, which to my surprise was entirely synthesized. I also found that the original recording had an introduction that was not recorded by Jason. As this is a guitar solo, I decided to keep the introduction in my arrangement and score the piece for woodwind quintet plus guitar. The principal lines are more often than not lead by the oboe, as it was the sound I heard matching the electronic original recording. The arrangement focuses a lot on the back and forth between the quintet and the soloist which by the end, melds into the joining of the two voices.

Duke Ellington – In a Sentimental Mood:

This chart is extremely well known in it’s own right, but I was also fortunate that our soloist had already recorded this piece as well. I wanted to keep the jazz elements as pure as possible in this arrangement and only scored Jason alongside piano and bass. This piece took me by far the most amount of time to plan, and in the end, I wrote the least amount of content for it. The thing about this piece and Jason’s interpretation of it that is so great is it’s emphasis on improvisation. In that way, I decided to simply make a lead sheet for the piano and bass to follow the musical inflection of the guitar. I can remember sitting at my desk for hours, trying to discern rhythms for the accompaniment to play that didn’t sound forced or hokey. This was a perfect example of me being able to trust the musicians that will play this piece. Rather than dictate their every move, I knew that their musicianship would yield far more authentic results of this classic jazz chart than I could ever hope to notate.

Bela Bartok – Romanian Folk Dances:

By far the easiest of the pieces I arranged (surprisingly) was Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances. This will be performed by Jason and our violinist Charlene, and I was able to work off of existing arrangements for Flute and Guitar to craft this for Violin and Guitar. Perhaps the greatest challenge here is for Charlene to learn what is a fairly standard piece for violin and piano in new keys, at least for two movements.

Alonso Mudarra – Pavana y Fantasia:

Being from a much earlier time period than (almost) everything else on the program, I wanted to maintain the simplicity of this pair of works. Originally for solo guitar, I decided to pair Jason with our cellist Herine and have the cello emphasize the bass line much like a drone. These two timbres work well with each other, specifically the difference between the melodic plucked sound in the guitar and a bowed bass line in the cello.

Epitaph of Seikilos:

The last of the pieces I arranged for Living Language stems from the origins of music itself. Just as the concerto spans a variety of time periods in which the guitar was present, we wanted the program to do the same. I couldn’t think of any better fit for the “beginning” of music, than using the Epitaph of Seikilos. Found on Grecian tombs, this song is the earliest example of notated music that we can still discern and replicate today. When arranging this piece for Fifth House, I wanted to focus on old and natural sounds, or things that may have been possible to create in the time of the work’s composition. For this reason, I chose to write this for horn and string quartet (violin, viola, cello, and bass). These instruments are the most capable of making sound in the simplest ways. For instance, the piece starts with the horn removing a slide to make a shofar-like sound. The string players are often playing open-string perfect fifths and do not have to manipulate very much aside from the sounds their instruments create naturally.

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