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Topic: Sax in Orchestral Music

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  1. #1

    Sax in Orchestral Music

    I am aware of scores, and sample libraries, which include a single alto sax with more traditional orchestral instruments. I'm just wondering how it is used. The manual for JABB, obviously, is intended for big band charts and jazz combos.

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  2. #2
    Senior Member Frank D's Avatar
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    Re: Sax in Orchestral Music

    Hi EJR,

    When you say "orchestral music", exactly what do you mean? Classical? Pop? (a la Sinatra/Nelson Riddle, Mancini) Theatrical? (Porgy and Bess, Le Miz, etc.) Many great uses of sax(es) with reeds, brass, strings, perc ... don't know if I fully understand the question.

    Regards,

    Frank
    Frank D'Erasmo
    FABD Music - Arrangements-Orchestrations
    All Styles ... Specializing in Jazz, Theater, Latin & Pop

    Garritan JaBB, GPO, CoMB, World, GAS, Stradivari Violin & GigaStudio. Sonar X2 Producer, Pro Tools, Performer & Finale.

  3. #3

    Re: Sax in Orchestral Music

    I mean classical symphonic music, specifically in the 19th and early 20th century.

    John Melcher's Philharmonic seating chart in his recent thread about dividing strings brought this to mind. He has an alto sax chair in the woodwind section. I have read about using a single alto sax with an orchestra before, in orchestration books, but they don't go into a lot of detail about how, exactly, it might have been used.

    I can think of a few possibilities, but don't know quite how they were applied in scores. Solo work, of course. Or a substitute for a third trumpet (though, I think this is less likely). I suspect the alto sax may have been used like the other woodwinds. But it is also related to the brass, so I'm wondering if it is scored more like a French Horn (to help the woodwind section blend with the brass) -- although, with only one sax, I'm not sure how much help it could have been.

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  4. #4
    Senior Member Frank D's Avatar
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    Re: Sax in Orchestral Music

    Ahhh ... classical alto sax!

    That's such a pretty color, the "French school" sound. I can't really help in that genre specifically, but I think the general rules of saxophone orchestration are similar in all areas. Besides your examples, I always like Ravel's use in his Bolero (sopranino, soprano, and a tenor).

    In a classical orchestral setting, seems like it's almost always used as a solo color. It's such a dominate and unique color.

    Rule of thumb in other genres is that at an identical dynamic marking, saxes are going to be twice as loud as any flute/woodwind, and conversely, in loud passages, saxes are only half as strong as trumpets/trombones. It's a great blender in any kind of band music (concert or jazz), but you're not really doing that so much in a classical setting. Part of the problem of having them fill in voices in classical reed or brass voicings is that the color of the section will change, and seems most classical ears like the purity of sound from the various sections.

    Although it could effectively double a horn line, you would loose the gorgeous, glowing color that horns create. Also, the saxes have a very pointed, directional sound, whereas horns have such a mellow, diffused sound. I would think alto or sop sax would blend better with clarinets, and tenors and bari saxes with bass clarinets, bassoons, and celli.

    I've always thought the best use of saxes in orchestral music (like pop and musical theater pits) is when you can have an entire section of them (4-5 saxes in just about any combo: AATT, AATTB, ATTT, ATTTB, SATT, SATTB, etc.). Now you can use them just like any other family/section of brass or strings, where they become a fresh orchestral flavor.

    Hope this helps,

    Frank
    Frank D'Erasmo
    FABD Music - Arrangements-Orchestrations
    All Styles ... Specializing in Jazz, Theater, Latin & Pop

    Garritan JaBB, GPO, CoMB, World, GAS, Stradivari Violin & GigaStudio. Sonar X2 Producer, Pro Tools, Performer & Finale.

  5. #5

    Re: Sax in Orchestral Music

    Yes, it does help. Thanks.

    Another thought. Re-listening to some Sidney Bechet recordings recently. At times, I can't tell whether he is playing his clarinet or soprano sax. I don't know whether this is a result of the quality of the old recordings or what, but it seems to me that a soprano sax could be swapped for a clarinet when you need a little more punch. I'm also thinking that perhaps a soprano or alto sax would handle the area of the throat tones better than the clarinet.

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  6. #6
    Senior Member Frank D's Avatar
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    Re: Sax in Orchestral Music

    Hi EJR,

    Yes, I think a sop sax can give more punch than a clarinet, but two issues:

    1.- The clarinet sound is a lot more consistent between different players, but a sop sax (or any sax for that matter) can have an almost limitless variety of timbers. I agree on Bechet; hard to tell sometimes which he is playing. But the difference can be enormous, I.E. Paul Desmond (Brubeck's alto sax guy) had a dry, sweet sound compared to, say, Jimmy Dorsey who had a big, ripe, almost overblown sound on alto. I know you are talking classical clarinet and sax playing so the varience is a bit less.

    2.- In pits and studios, reed guys double on everything! In a classical orchestra, it's very rare (except within the family, like Bb clarinet doubling Bb bass clarinet, oboe doubling cor, etc.) So unless you are writing the part throughout, it's not like theater orchestrations where the reed II player may play Bb clarinet, Eb clarinet, Bb sop sax, and piccolo within the span of 32 measures.

    As far as the "dreaded break", if it's a classically trained clarinetist of even just average proficiency, it's not really an issue ... they navigate the 3-1/2 octaves just fine. If it is a less accomplished player, yes, since the sax overblows at the octave (not at the 12th like a clarinet), there is no real break to navigate. Bear in mind though that saxes (the lower the sax the more problematic) are more difficult to control the lowest 3-4 notes in softer passages. All clarinets are a piece of cake down to their lowest notes at any dynamic level (I play a little of both and I can vouche for that!)

    Frank
    Frank D'Erasmo
    FABD Music - Arrangements-Orchestrations
    All Styles ... Specializing in Jazz, Theater, Latin & Pop

    Garritan JaBB, GPO, CoMB, World, GAS, Stradivari Violin & GigaStudio. Sonar X2 Producer, Pro Tools, Performer & Finale.

  7. #7

    Re: Sax in Orchestral Music

    Bear in mind though that saxes (the lower the sax the more problematic) are more difficult to control the lowest 3-4 notes in softer passages. All clarinets are a piece of cake down to their lowest notes at any dynamic level.
    Frank is right on with this comment. I play both sax(alto, tenor and bari) and clarinet (Bb, Eb, A and bass) and have a masters in performance on clarinet. The lowest notes are really easy on clarinet and the proble of the break doesn't really exist for an accomplished performer. The lower 2 to 3 notes on sax can be a bit difficult especially if you want them played softly. It can be done but the larger the saxophone the less likely the lowest notes will speak softly (too much distance to fill the whole instrument and make the note speak without lots of air going through the sax).

    I have played the clarinets and alto sax in orchestral settings and was once even told by a profession F horn player that he thought a woodwind choir that I played alto sax on had a horn player playing until he realized that I was playing the part on alto. So, alto can and does blend well with the F horn.
    [Music is the Rhythm, Harmony and Breath of Life]
    "Music is music, and a note's a note" - Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong

    Rich

  8. #8

    Re: Sax in Orchestral Music

    Thanks for all the info. Regarding the clarinets, I would be more concerned about the quality of the throat tones than the break (because, as you say, pro players can be expected to have mastered navigating the break). Regarding the lowest notes on a sax, this was news to me, so I'm glad you mentioned it. As for blending with the horn, I have heard one or two saxes used as a substitute for the horn in Broadway shows, but didn't know if the sound was close enough for a sax and a horn in 2-part harmony to substitute for two horns.

    I am not using saxes in my score because I found them unnecessary, and also because when I tried them it made my music sound too contemporary (although saxes did exist and were used in the period in which my show is set). But I was curious about how to use them outside of the Jazz and Big Band style (which is also common to many Broadway shows).

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  9. #9

    Re: Sax in Orchestral Music

    I would be more concerned about the quality of the throat tones than the break
    I'm not sure that I understand what you mean by that statement. The throat tones (I assume you mean the 3 or 4 notes just prior to the break) are not hard to play. They can be a bit difficult to play in tune but most professionals will be accomplished enough to handle any intonation problems just as they can handle the break.
    [Music is the Rhythm, Harmony and Breath of Life]
    "Music is music, and a note's a note" - Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong

    Rich

  10. #10

    Re: Sax in Orchestral Music

    The notes described as throat tones in orchestration books supposedly sound a bit pale and weak, compared to the others. I have found this to be the case with my sample library (Westgate clarinets). So, I've been careful about how I use them.

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