Quartet arrangements

Lately, I’ve been looking at some of my scores to investigate the possibility of adapting them to brass and saxophone quartets. It’s far easier to sell such arrangements if they’re part of a collection or series.

Some are adapting easily but others require considerable rewriting. The tendency for small band parts to switch suddenly from a background to a foreground role can be tolerated up to a point and the lack of a rhythm section can be compensated by ingenuity in the writing. This may involve a vamp, rhythmic bass part, andante voicing with even note durations, or ‘oompah’ figures. I’ve used ‘bell’ effects (staggered entrances) occasionally. These, too, require faking a bit to compensate for the lack of voices in five or six part harmonies, but it can be done (it’s done by the best).

You can’t always write for a small band with a rhythm section and then take the rhythm section away. The whole thing often changes.

Players need to drop out for a rest occasionally and this has to be built in, whilst providing contrast and relief in the process. This is especially true of the trumpet/cornet part in the brass quartet. This instrument can’t be expected to play the lead part all night. There have been times when I’ve played one of my own arrangements with a band and only then have I realised what a strenuous part I’ve written. Pianist* arrangers take note. Slow arrangements with lots of sustained notes are the killers, not the percussive types, even if they are loud and high.

*Pianist/arrangers also need to bear in mind that trombone players need both hands, so please leave enough time for inserting mutes.

Players also have to breathe and circular breathers are still in the minority.

Open harmony quartet voicings can create a surprisingly big sound. Nevertheless, I’ve decided some of my compositions would sound weak without the scope of the large ensemble and they’ve been put back in the cupboard. I put one away believing it wouldn’t adapt but took it out again shortly afterwards. With some careful work and a little ingenuity it just might work.

Something else that has taken me by surprise, even after all these years, is the extent to which ideas change along with the lineup. More than once, when checking over an old score, I’ve found myself thinking ‘Oh no! Why did I do that?’ And then I realise that I was thinking orchestrally and now I’m thinking quartetwise. Unison countermelodies that stretch the rules to the limit and come dangerously close to interfering with the melody or clashing with the background will sometimes work in cases where a single instrument, lacking the ‘inertia’ of doubled-up parts, will sound wrong. (Difference in orchestral tone colour and volume also assist separation, along with contrast in the treatment of rhythms.) We only have one of each instrument in a quartet, which is the main reason small ‘front lines’ are so enjoyable for blowing musicians; every part really means something.

So these quartet adaptations are not as straightforward as I’d hoped.

A ‘short score’ sketch will suffice before producing the final score on computer and extracting the individual band parts. I’m working on six together, picking each one up in turn and doing a little more. This is another technique to guard against tricks of the mind, as things start to go stale. Score pages are being assembled two-up, one above the other, on an A4 sheet of paper (297mm x 210 mm)** so that two x four stave quartet scores, A5 size ‘landscape’, can be produced at a time. I also get two score covers out of each sheet of thin card I use for the covers and the plastic comb binders are also cut in half.

**In publishing, there was an understanding in many quarters that you put the depth first when stating dimensions but the growing use of computers, where some programs do it the other way round, has confused the issue.

One of the pieces in my embryo catalogue, a mini suite in 3 parts, has been especially composed for quartet. The other adaptations are concise, tuneful arrangements of around two and a half choruses plus intro, modulation and coda. The original full band versions were ideal for light entertainment in the park, not for setting the world on fire. They will all be playable by musicians of average ability.

I’ve written some brass quartets for Bb cornet, Eb tenor horn, euphonium and Eb tuba. The so called tenor horn is really an alto horn (which is what they call it in the USA). This is not the ‘regular’ brass quartet instrumentation, which tends to be two trumpets/cornets, trombone and euphonium, so I’m not making life easy for myself here. It’s just that the instrumentation I’ve chosen is very flexible and capable of providing a variety of textures.

Now it so happens that the brass quartet instrumentation is similar to the sax quartet of Bb soprano, Eb alto, Bb tenor and Eb baritone. Only in one case so far have I decided to change the key. This was because the alto sax finds it easier than the horn to go way above the stave and the soprano sax isn’t too happy on its lowest notes. In theory, the written parts for transposing instruments should always represent a similar level of difficulty. This doesn’t always work in practise. Eb horn players who can play around their written top C all night are rare and the instrument’s low register is best forgotten.

The computer changed the key automatically but it was necessary to correct some of the crazy accidentals the program came up with. (My latest notation program doesn’t have this problem.)

So, if you’ve written brass quartets, they can be changed very simply to sax quartets, or vice versa. I can’t believe I’ve only just realized the commercial potential of all this after so many years in the job. Obviously, quintet and sextet arrangements might be capable of similar adaptation, depending on the instrumentation.

Finally, check, check and check again. The current brass band test piece I’m rehearsing has so many errors it’s difficult to forgive, even on the ‘oh well, we’re only human’ basis. But more on that another time…


5 thoughts on “Quartet arrangements

  1. I don’t play any brass instruments, so it was really interesting to me to learn what must be kept in mind when arranging/composing for these instruments. Working from a timbral perspective, something I want to explore is what goes through an arranger’s head when trying to “recreate” a piece of music, particularly if the arranger was the original composer. I’d also be very interested to know your thoughts on this!


    1. Thanks again for your interest in my post.

      The quartet arrangements were based on compositions for the full brass band, although big band versions were written where the pieces adapted to the jazz idiom. The germ of an idea literally sprang to mind in most cases, which was then developed using my knowledge and experience but, during fallow periods, I have occasionally sat at the keyboard attempting to write an arresting chord sequence. On other occasions, the derivation of a distinct and memorable rhythm might be the spur. The conscious attempt to manipulate musical materials, such as the many unorthodox scales, with their own sets of diatonic* chords, might appear to some to be too cerebral but it’s a powerful way of ‘jetting’ ourselves out of the creative rut. As I point out in the book, we all possess a series of musical ‘complexes’ acquired during our early, impressionable years which we then re-present to the world in a modified form, calling them ‘original’. There is no doubt in my mind that the great composers of the past were as much ‘architect’ as ‘musician’ and could justify every detail in their work in the same way that the structure of a building has to conform to specifications. It’s surprising how much elbow room there is for creativity within this ‘straightjacket’, as the many beautiful buildings around us testify.

      Turning to your main theme of timbre, there’s little scope of course in such a small band of musicians but variations in texture can be achieved by mixing close and open harmony, contrary, oblique and parallel motion and in the use of counterpoint, where instruments may play individual lines or may be paired; two pairs playing harmonic intervals, two pairs each in unison (or octaves), one pair playing harmonic intervals over sustained notes from the other pair etc.

      Avant-garde performers use timbre a lot, especially sax players. Instruments can produce harmonic intervals and chords and players often delight in getting every available sound available to them, even the flapping of keypads. Brass instruments use flutter-tongue effects and mutes of various kinds and of course trombones (which were left out of my quartet arrangements) can use slide effects, which are generally called ‘glisses’ by trombonists. There are a number of articulations; heavy accents, staccato, soft (or ‘flat’) tonguing etc. etc. but nothing to equal the variety offered by the human voice as it articulates the language.

      When writing for such a small group, sheer feasibility will play a part. Five part chords, for example, will be played on the best-of-five basis which, in some cases, has to be chosen ‘by ear’. In a ninth chord, for example, the chord will require the third, seventh and ninth in order to produce a satisfactory sound but it is only by the support of the root that it can then be positively identified as a ninth chord.

      Other constraints involve difficulties where instruments have to switch abruptly from a featured role to a supportive one, because of the shortage of players, although this can sometimes be made to work.

      Hope this answers your query, speak soon, JM.

      * I always use the word ‘diatonic’ to refer to instances where melody and harmony conform to the chosen scale, not just the scales in common use.


  2. How very interesting. As a pianist I am deathly afraid to arrange/write for other instruments and when I do I strictly write with one of two “performers” in mind: myself using a sample player or my computer rendering a score. I would otherwise need friend musicians to test parts for reasonable playability. That said, my tendency is to go after a finished recorded product rather than participation and cooperation with other humans.

    I did one such recording where I was trying to immitate a lead guitar and was rather taken to task by more than one guitar player (I hesitate to say “guitarist”) that my song was impossible to play. I played the recording for a teacher friend and after a second listen she retuned two strings of her guitar out of context to the other four and was able to play it all rather handily.

    There are so very many things to balance. One’s own mindset and taste. The limitations of instruments, including the limitations of electronic renderings. And the limitations of performers. I have found my most difficult hurdle was to stop trying to impress myself, because what impresses me is what I cannot do. Challenge myself: yes. Impress myself: sadly no.


    1. Thanks for your response.

      When I began writing (in 1958) I was mainly interested in jazz and, at that time, there were no schools over here to help me and only two in the USA (I think). I therefore had to pull my techniques out of the Earth. (We have rain at present and the cunning sparrows know that there’ll be juicy worms around.)

      I used to read every available book and test fly my arrangements with one of the excellent big bands that still exist in Birmingham (England). After a while, I became proficient and my arrangements were well liked but I knew I was just a ‘palais band’ arranger, really.

      There began a long period of woodshedding during which I learned how to write within the constraints of classical four-part chorale writing, techniques which also find their way into jazz writing in certain cases. To cut a long story short, my career took off shortly afterwards and I’ve acquired a huge amount of experience and knowledge.

      Strangely, although I had to learn about instrumental characteristics, etc. etc. I rarely have to ask myself why I do anything. I suppose I’m lucky in that respect. We don’t study grammar to learn how to speak English and if we live in a home where everyone speaks it well, we will, too. Music is a kind of language.

      Anyway, thanks again and keep going, JM.


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