16 June 2017

Creativity without the agony

Cello Fellow Ruben Palma reveals the fascinating process of arranging music


I began making arrangements as a 14 year old when I had just began to play the guitar, and have arranged music ever since. I have always found the process enjoyable. As the Tunisian guitarist Roland Dyens once said: you get to experience the creativity of the music, without your soul having to be agonised by the burden of having to actually compose it!

This year the members of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Fellowship were invited to self-program two concerts. I put up my hand to do this because I was intrigued by the challenge of arranging a work for our exact combination of instruments to allow everyone to be involved.

This program features selections from JS Bach’s The Art of Fugue, juxtaposed with CPE Bach’s first symphony. A fugue is a piece of music beginning with a theme that is later used across multiple voices. The Art of Fugue ends with an unfinished fugue because JS Bach died before he was able to complete it. Many pianists and musicologists have taken on the challenge of trying to complete this unfinished ending. The program I have put together represents an abstract ‘completion’, transitioning from The Art of Fugue to the first symphony, showing how JS Bach’s music lived on through his son.

The Art of Fugue is comprised of a set of 14 fugues and four canons, and was originally written in what is called ‘open score’, meaning that each fugal line was written on its own stave. However, part of the mystery around the work is that Bach didn’t specify any instrumentation for it. This led many musicians to adapt the music for their own purposes. Aside from the adaptations for keyboard instrument, nowadays it’s common to hear versions for string quartet and string orchestra.

Earlier this year I went to a talk at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music where the lecturer argued that the question of instrumentation in The Art of Fugue is completely irrelevant – according to him, back in JS Bach’s day they would’ve played it on whichever instrument happened to be at hand!

Based on this idea, I thought it could be interesting for the different instrumental families among the Fellows to each tackle a movement. So, I split up the Fellows in to a string quartet, woodwind quartet and brass trio. It was interesting to hear the music I had previously only imagined performed live for the first time. In the rehearsal it was satisfying to work with the other Fellows on the process of perfecting the arrangements, for example moving passages up or down an octave to suit the instrument ranges.

The process of arranging Bach has taught me a lot about working with wind and brass instruments and I’m very much looking forward to the public concert!

Hear the Fellows perform Ruben’s program Bach to Bach at St James’ Church (King St, Sydney) on Wednesday 21 June at 1.15pm-2pm. Entry by $5 donation.