In the documentary series “Glenn Gould Plays Bach,” the virtuoso pianist discusses the appropriateness of performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s music on the modern grand piano, an instrument that technically didn’t exist in the composer’s time. To Gould, the notion that Bach’s keyboard music must necessarily be performed on a harpsichord or a clavichord is absurd; he argues Bach was far more concerned with an inward exploration of process and formal structure in his music, and much less interested in achieving specific timbres or tone colors.
This focus on form and process actually lends Bach’s music a transcribable quality; his compositions are regularly performed on instruments and in ensembles far beyond his initial intentions. Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor was originally written for organ but has been arranged for symphonic band (by Donald Hunsberger) and for symphony orchestra (by Leopold Stokowski and Ottorino Respighi, among others). The keyboard preludes and fugues of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” have been orchestrated for many chamber ensembles: brass quintets, saxophone quartet, trombone trios, woodwind quintets and so on. As a soloist, I have frequently “borrowed” Bach’s repertoire for solo string or woodwind instruments — particularly the Cello Suites and Flute Partita in A Minor — to perform on tuba.
This isn’t to suggest that timbre and sound quality don’t matter; when the instrumentation of a musical composition is altered, the listener perceives a clear change. Imagine you are sitting in The Capitol Theatre right now; a YSO concert is about to begin and the orchestra is tuning. You first hear an oboe play a concert A, then the other instruments in the woodwind section chime in, followed by the brass and the strings. As different instruments enter, you notice the “color” or “flavor” of the sound change, owing to the different acoustic properties of each instrument. To put it another way, if we imagine the perspective of someone with synesthesia (who can see sound as color) that tuning pitch may look “blue,” but the specific shade of blue will change depending upon the instrument(s) playing.
This principle applies to harmonies and melodies as well; distinctions in instrument choice are effective tools for composers and arrangers to achieve musical variety and expression. The same chord or melody can take on a dramatically different character depending upon the instrumental forces that present it. Consider a simple composition like “Happy Birthday.” This piece sounds completely different when sung a cappella versus being played on a grand piano. A string quartet or orchestra iteration will have a more vibrant, warm, expressive quality. A brass ensemble rendition will demand the listener’s attention with a brilliant, ringing sound.
One way to understand the flavor and color of music is through a medium we all know and love: food. Much as composers and arrangers sometimes reinterpret music for new ensembles and performers, you decide how to interpret a recipe when preparing a meal. If you’re missing onions and add shallots instead, the dish might take on a subtler flavor. If you have a soft spot in your heart for cayenne and think every dish needs a little kick, your final product might have a brighter, stronger presence than the original.
In music and in cooking, substitutions can be made to alter the color or flavor without fundamentally changing the piece/dish. These alterations can make the old seemingly new again, enticing audiences and keeping them coming back for more.
• David McLemore is principal tuba for the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. He and other symphony members write this weekly column for SCENE. Learn more about the YSO at www.ysomusic.org.