Q & A with Curtis Vander Hyden, arranger and horn player


1. When did you decide to start arranging film scores for wind quintet? Did you start with standard 'classical' repertoire?

The creative process has always been a driving force in my life. My earliest career goal, when I was in elementary school, was to be an author ─ I had an urge to create, to build something new. It is of no surprise that this manifested strongly in my musical interests. When I was fifteen and had been playing horn for only a few years, this meant arranging horn and saxophone duets of carols for myself and my brother to perform for my grandmother when she was sick over Christmas holidays. A few years later it meant arranging my favourite church hymns and mass setting into a suite for orchestral brass ensemble. In 2010, I was consumed with an arranging project in which I was creating an album’s length of Christmas music for various sizes of horn ensemble.

All this is to say that when I joined the Blythwood Winds in 2012 there wasn’t a specific moment where I decided to start arranging music. It was something that was born organically out of my own inherent interest. As soon as I joined the group, I was already beginning to think about how my favourite music could be adapted to be successfully performed by a wind quintet and getting excited at the possibilities.

In the spring of 2013, an opportunity presented itself when the resident arranger left the group and I took it upon myself to take the plunge and commit pen to paper. I indeed did start with arranging ‘classical’ repertoire. My ‘test drive’ arrangement, where I learned the ropes of writing for wind quintet, was Holst’s The Planets. Thought it remains unperformed to this day, I learned a lot tackling such an ambitious project so early on.

Going back to the beginning of my love affair with orchestral music, it was film music that was my gateway drug to the orchestra and then ultimately classical music. In the late 90’s, while other kids were using Napster to download pop and alternative music, I was downloading the music of John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Basil Poledouris and Hans Zimmer ─ scouring the internet for any movie theme that was memorable to me. I listened to that music, along with the ‘Star Wars Trilogy’ album that I had received as a birthday gift in grade 6, over and over again. They paved the way to me falling in love with horn, orchestral, and then classical music.

I was never all that interested in creating arrangements of popular or very well known classical pieces. It just seemed too well-trodden a path without much room to stand out, nor would it have been scratching any kind of itch for me.

In arranging music for the Blythwood Winds, in creating music for us to play, I was far more fascinated by the opportunity to be able to become intimately acquainted with and to perform the music I had always loved, the music of film scores. Reconnecting with the nostalgia of music from my youth, which was connected with films that I loved, was and still is a tremendously powerful experience. Moreover, at the time this music was not being actively performed by any ensembles (this is beginning to change with the rising popularity of live orchestral film score performances), so focusing on film music presented an opportunity to create something unique in the classical music space. Finally, there is something special to me about combining my creative drive with the exploration, discovery and recreation of something that I love and already have an intense emotional connection with.

So, for all those reasons, once I’d completed arranging The Planets as my proof of concept, I immediately transitioned to arranging primarily film scores.

2. What is the biggest challenge for bringing a full orchestral score down to just five players?

The orchestra has a vast spectrum of possible sounds. This includes things like dynamics (loud/soft), pitch (low/high), tone colours and textures. Entire families of instruments are available for use at extremes of any of those characteristics. In essence, the orchestra has such a wide palette that it is possible to have incredible amounts of sophistication even when focusing on music that lives within a sound quality extreme.

Because such varied sounds are possible, I find that one of the biggest challenges is that to capture the essence of the piece I’m arranging, I need to find a way to emulate all of these sound qualities with only five instruments. And even more so, if the particular sound quality I’m trying to capture exists outside capabilities of some of the instruments in the wind quintet, then perhaps I have to do the same using even less.

Over the years I’ve had to be creative at times when I don’t have the resources to fully capture all the palette colours and palette shifts that exist within music.

Besides that, the biggest challenge when reducing thirty-odd parts down to five is finding rests for all the players!

3. Do you usually work straight from sheet music, or do you simply listen to the music (ie. take it down by ear)?

I’ve done it both ways in the past. It really depends on if I can get my hands on the sheet music. Sometimes you have to utilize creative strategies to do this as for the most part full and unreduced film music scores are not publicly available.

That being said, both methods have their advantages and disadvantages.

Arranging from sheet music is definitely easier and faster. Especially for music like that written by John Williams, which features sophisticated textures, orchestration and harmonic language. Additionally, sometimes on recordings you can’t hear all the details in the music as clearly as needed to be able to transcribe it accurately. Sometimes you can only hear what the music ‘feels’ like, but can’t make out the individual components that produce the sound. Trying to replicate something like this can be frustrating. This can be especially true of fast moving accompaniment or inner voices.

However, the danger when arranging from a score is that you can get lost the details that don’t really matter. Arranging by ear ensures that you are always capturing how the finished product sounds to the listener.

4. Who is your favourite composer to arrange?

My favourites pieces to arrange are the ones that I love. There is something special for me that occurs when I’m able to combine my creative drive with the exploration, discovery and recreation of something that I have an intense emotional connection with.

Any piece, regardless of composer, that meets this criteria is going to be one that enjoy arranging.

Though it’s true that some composers have more of these pieces for me than others!

5. Also, who is your favourite composer!?

My favourite classical composer is Tchaikovsky. I love the way he writes for brass and there is just something about the harmonic language he uses that just speaks to my soul and gives me feels.

For film music, it has to be John Williams. It was primarily his music that inspired me to pursue music as a vocation. As I’ve grown older, my appreciation for his genius, especially how his music is somehow brilliantly and spellbindingly simple while being at the same time masterful and richly sophisticated, has only grown.

And lately, I’ve been really impressed and enthralled with film composer John Powell. I will watch his career with great interest.