Saturday, June 20, 2009

Brant on Orchestration

Very good news: the late Henry Brant's handbook for orchestrators, begun in the 1940's and completed in 2005, Textures and Timbres, has finally been released. Music Books Plus lists the book already, Amazon, SheetMusicPlus, and should have it soon.

Brant had a unique career, not only orchestrating his own extraordinary works — most famous for their use of physical space as a compositional element —, but also working in commercial music for Broadway, radio, and in Hollywood films (his longstanding collaboration with Alex North is best known, but his credited and uncredited work for film was much more extensive.)  Several of his students have described Brant's approach to scoring as uniquly empirical, practical, and rule-of-thumb systematic, but always imaginative.

[I frequently get asked to recommend orchestration textbooks. My first recommendation is to get some hands-on experience with each of the orchestral instruments, for example through an instrumental music education course. Then, go to the books: Andrew Stiller's Handbook of Instrumentation is essential (it's now available in cd format; I think of it as the successor to Forsythe's Orchestration, an underrated book with a lot of good practical information), as well as a good introduction to the physics and psychophysics of music (there are several good choices) and William Sethares Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale places timbre within a larger context. (Likewise for Robert Erickson's Sound Structure in Music). Then a good history of orchestration (Adam Carse will do) and Berlioz's classic treatise. If you have any conducting ambitions, Hermann Scherchen's Handbuch des Dirigierens is an elegant and cultivated book but it is also very useful for orchestrators. Have a look — but not too long — at Rimsky-Korsakov, Widor, Koechlin, and Piston for some distinct aesthetic approaches (Riemann's Katechismus der Orchestrierung, too, if you can read the German in Fraktur type). The most-used contemporary university-level textbooks (Blatter, Adler, Kennan), are certainly useful as one-stop-shop references, but I find none of them as good as Stiller for basic questions of instrumentation, nor do any of them offer particulary distinctive aesthetic approaches.

There is nothing in English quite like Hans Kunitz's 13 volume series, Die Instrumentation, which treats individual instruments in detail, but the last 30 years have given us many books which advise on contemporary techniques for individual instruments, including Turetsky for contrabass, Dempster for trombone, Rehfeld for clarinet, Strange for violin, Artaud or Dick or for flute, Van Cleve or Veale/Mahnkopf for oboe, and Solomon or Schick for percussion. Several books have treated contemporary techniques more comprehensively; the book I grew up with was Gardner Read's Contemporary Instrumental Techniques, but it surely ought to be updated or succeeded.]


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