Musical Chairs
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Show Me The Music

It's long been known that people hear with their eyes as well as their ears.  Visual cues to an audience (and performers) will aid in their comprehension and appreciation of the music which can lead to deeper feelings about it.  A seating arrangement that visually illuminates aspects of a piece’s structure can be essential in establishing aural clarity and a deeper musical affect in a listener.  In an interview for Dr. Frederick Harris’s book, Conducting with Feeling, Stephen Massey of Foxboro, Massachusetts states this concept aptly: “Anything that we can do to change the way in which people also changes the way in which people feel, because they feel differently when they hear differently.”  The more elements of a composer’s artistic expression an audience perceives, the more engaged and inspired they will be.  As long as the musical affect is the motivating factor, there is no shame in rearranging your seating layout if it helps them to that end.

Trading Spaces

In an wind band transcription of J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue, I was able to create a situation which offers the opportunity for totally unorthodox seating arrangements while maintaining optimal conditions for conductor, performers and the audience.  As Bach’s last great collective work, The Art of Fugue represents a monumental achievement in the exploration of the principles of counterpoint.  The collection consists of fourteen fugues (called Contrapunctus) and four canons.  Since all of the fugues, with the exception of Contrapunctus VIII & XIII, are four-voice fugues, I decided to divide the band into four groups (plus 3 percussionists) to represent the four voices’soprano, alto, tenor and bass.  In order to give myself the greatest timbral palette while maintaining consistency through all the fugues, the assignments were made as follows:

These groupings represent the basis for most of the the doublings used in the transcription.  They are also reflected in the visual layout of the score(s) and has the benefit of instantly showing the conductor the predominant structure of the orchestration—which instruments share the same voice.  If, as I suggest in the performance notes,  the seating arrangement of the players also reflects this structure, cues and other visual communication with all the players of one particular contrapuntal line become much easier (There are some key moments where the instruments of the same contrapuntal voice split into counterpoint).

In a conventional concert band seating arrangement there would certainly be some joy from a  player, say a clarinetist, who is seated within the clarinet section and listening to the interplay of counterpoint occurring within that instrumental family.  Unfortunately, it would be easy for the individual player to lose sight of the stronger relationship they have with those doubling their line.  Furthermore, being placed in the middle of a contrapuntal whirlwind could make it even more difficult for them to consummate that relationship.  With the musicians seated next to players of the same line, they will be better able to hear and see each other and, therefore, be in a better position to match timbre, articulation, intonation and all the little nuances that give a particular line character.  The sense of interplay between the various lines, however, is not lost.  The strong visual image of “choirs” of musicians coupled with an enhanced quadraphonic clarity will reinforce the existence of the various contexts in which they must function.

The anticipation created while the musicians position themselves in a peculiar setup will focus and intensify the audience's attention.  This gives way for more attentive and concentrated listening.  Even though The Art of Fugue is not antiphonal music, arranging some physical separation between the groups will allow the audience to more easily see, hear, appreciate and enjoy the contrapuntal genius of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Boomboxed in

Breaking with the tradition of having all like instruments seated together is more difficult psychologically for a conductor than it is physically.  We must never assume that our regular ensemble setup is the best way to present every piece of music, nor should we let convenience and personal comfort influence our imagination and govern our decisions.  When the opportunity to more completely and uniquely realize something as abstract as music arises we should make every effort to do so.  Once a score is studied, our imagination should not be limited to the production of sound from one predetermined perspective.  As long as the compositional elements of the music are the guiding authority in any decisions, there will always be growth and value to our exploration.  An ensemble of musicians is not a prefabricated boombox or music box with fixed dimensions and acoustic properties.  We can make them more by thinking outside of the box.


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