Mileage May Vary

I’m sure that few composers would quibble with the assertion that premiere performances, while daunting enough to secure, are still vastly easier to line up than repeat performances. From the composer’s perspective, premieres usually represent a culmination of mutual composer/performer involvement and are also the performance in which the composer has had most direct involvement. But repeat performances are more of a crapshoot, especially since the composer—clearly a huge motivating force behind the premiere—often has comparatively little involvement in subsequent performances, and little or no say in securing said performances.

So while we composers rarely have the ability to directly influence the performance fates of our works, we can attempt to get the most mileage possible out of our compositions by making them available to the widest range of performers. To this end, I’ve found that arranging some of my works for slightly different performing forces was one of the best investments I have ever made.

Of course there are some pieces of music that revolve around a specific ensemble, or others that for musical reasons would never translate to another set of instruments, and there’s no point in making one’s music more available if it ceases to be music in the process! I once had a solo viola piece that I decided to make available in a version for cello as well, and I’ve been happy with both the new version and the additional performances the arrangement made possible; however in a moment of overzealous arranging I gave in to a seemingly irresistible request to arrange the same piece for a friend’s series of violin recitals. I already had reservations that the piece’s tessitura was wrong for violin and that many of the barriolage effects would change too drastically with the introduction of the violin’s tinny-sounding E string. After the violinist sent me a recording that only confirmed these reservations, I decided to pull the violin version despite the allure of further performances.

It was an instructive experience. While it didn’t scare me away from creating other versions of my pieces, it did teach me to be a lot more discerning in arranging habits. Since then I have added a bass to a string quartet, and reduced a large orchestra piece down to a more portable size—in these cases, arrangements that in some ways improved on the originals or revealed some aspect of the compositions that had I previously glossed over. All in all, I’ve been about as happy with these arrangements made for good musical reasons as I’ve been unhappy with those earlier arrangements that apparently valued the possibility of wider dissemination over the quality of the resulting piece. However, I’m glad that these unhappy experiences didn’t scare me away from arranging my own pieces entirely. When I’ve done so for the right reasons there’s absolutely nothing better than hearing a piece I thought was dead on arrival get a new lease on life.

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