Is Band Really Better? Libby Larsen



Libby Larsen

I’m fascinated by wind ensemble and compose for it often. For me, composing for symphonic wind ensemble is quite different than composing for orchestra. At the heart of the wind ensemble is breath. The ensemble cannot sound if the performers cannot breathe. Because the ensemble is fundamentally dependent on breath, my approach to musical construction assumes certain breath-dependent gestures. Once these gestures are fixed, my process involves working with color and rhythm to create the piece.


Listen to Fanfare: Strum


I’ve found that both color and rhythm in wind ensemble writing challenge my naturally orchestral ear. Concerning rhythm, in the training of wind ensemble performers, rhythm is approached first as precise subdivision of beat. The literature of wind ensemble is replete with whole, half, quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes defined as rhythm. I think of beat and subdivision of beat as “beat” while rhythm is what happens through feeling around the beat. This poses interesting investigative possibilities to me in each new work for wind ensemble.

When a composer asks for advice as to how to compose for wind ensemble, people often suggest that the composer think of the flutes and clarinets as the “string section”. I’ve found this to be untrue! If I were to design my own wind ensemble for orchestral color, I would design an ensemble that has a much larger saxophone section than is typical. Then, you could create the transparent quality of a string section, allowing for two things: a full range of color within a full range of dynamic variation and carefully designed staggered breathing to accommodate lines extending beyond normal breath length.