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El Dorado

A Composer Discovers the World of Winds

Written for the National Band Association Journal, published Dec. 2004

El Do • ra • do
n : an imaginary place of great wealth and opportunity; sought in South America by 16th-century explorers
(Source: WordNet ® 1.6, © 1997 Princeton University)

Today’s composer, like Cortez and the Spaniards of hundreds of years ago, are in search of a fabled land — our own City of Gold, that music community where composers are respected and admired, sought after, and considered worth hiring. In our El Dorado the riches take the form of opportunity. Opportunity for performances of our music, opportunity for commissions, and opportunity to get our music disseminated to as many ears as possible. The rest is up to us and our skills. We composers, this intrepid ensemble of explorers, if I may extend the metaphor, have over the centuries found several routes to our mythical destination: court patronage (Haydn), performing (Liszt, or Mahler and Bernstein as conductors), and now, overwhelmingly, a career in academia (almost anyone now belongs in this last category, but for a typical example let’s use the great Vincent Persichetti). Some have been forced onto sidetracks like insurance (Ives) and cab-driving (famously, Philip Glass and Steve Reich). No matter what path, we all desire the riches of performance opportunity. Frankly, the “wealth” part would be nice too, but I’m pretty sure that most concert composers don’t pursue writing music for the wealth opportunities.

Somewhere along my particular conquest of the New World, I met a composer who pointed me in the general direction of the fabled City of Gold by introducing me to the community of winds and educational music. It was at The Juilliard School, where my fellow-student Eric Whitacre first suggested that a chamber piece of mine he had recently heard (OK Feel Good — written for the contemporary ensemble in residence at the Aspen Music Festival) would work great for winds. I was reticent at first—my particular educational background had not really prepared me for entrée into this community. Wind ensembles were not really active in Boston and New York, and except for the rare performance of “The Juilliard Wind Ensemble” (which exists, I believe, for one concert a year) I had had no exposure to large-scale wind groups since high school in my hometown in Northeastern PA, where I played trombone in the marching, concert, and jazz bands (and loved every minute of it). Directly following putting down my trombone for the last time I determined that I was going to be a “serious” composer, and went on to college, poring over Schönberg scores, experimenting with all the extended techniques thrown out onto the compositional table in the last 60 years, and generally being taught the merits of composing music written to be as difficult to play as possible.

Eric’s experience intrigued me however. Here was a composer who spoke in hushed tones of a community of conductors and ensembles who actually liked composers, sought out new music with vigorous fervor, and treated The Composer with respect and professionalism by paying for his or her music with actual green money. The dichotomy with the musical world in which I was immersed was fairly pointed: getting music played outside of school was a formidable challenge—orchestral conductors, who have the best musical intentions to play new music, find themselves inundated with scores, and with only limited programming slots for new music and even more limited funding, often end up playing the most established of today’s composers. Repeat performances of a work are almost unheard of. This situation often leads composers onto an academic path. At Juilliard, however, where professionalism was the order of the local society, the attitude was slightly different; my peers would refer to their colleagues not as “receiving a lot of performances” or “acclaim”, but rather would say, “s/he’s getting a lot of work”. It was that semantic difference which really brought home my sense of today’s musical marketplace, so I was already starting to think of myself as a “working” composer in search of performances and gigs, and less like a composer fated to nothing but teaching German augmented 6 chords to unhappy sophomores.

OK Feel Good for wind orchestra was a terrific experience for me (It’s so loud! I had 5 percussionists!) so I turned my attention to other possible wind projects. I found promise in sketches for an unfinished choral work, and started in—uncommissioned, and unsure of where or how I would get the results performed. Once again, Whitacre stepped in, offering to conduct whatever I finished at his next residency gig. And so Moon by Night for band and optional chorus enjoyed it’s first performance in Sterling, IL, in an outdoor band shell at sunset, and a whole lot of people who would never have heard my music before were starting to do just that.

Moon by Night has generated more interest than any other piece of mine, culminating in the honor of receiving the NBA/Merrill Jones Memorial Composition Award, and the subsequent publication of the work with Wingert-Jones. I’ve been very flattered with how well Moon has fared so far, and I feel like it’s less about my notes, and more about the music as a direct result of the beautiful psalm text on which it is based. In fact, so much of the form of the piece came from the structure of the text, I remember feeling while composing it like I was cheating. Moon uses the King James translation of Psalm 121, and the title is an image directly quoted from the psalm. The theme of the work is not sacred, however—it’s more like a hymn-like tone poem; a simple chorale with long unending lines, where the words serve only to create an evocative mood. While writing it, I found myself thinking of several other psalm settings, especially Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, the influence of which is probably made most manifest in the climax of the piece at rehearsal D, with the tritone-relationship in the cadence between B-flat and e minor. While basically rooted in a fairly straightforward tonality (E-flat major), I was also playing with what I consider very “french” harmonies, V7+9sus4 for instance, which I’ve always drooled over while playing Ravel on the piano, but never seriously incorporated into a piece of my own in a traditionally-tonal context.

As a composer with a complete lack of exposure to the commonly-played works on today’s wind ensemble programs, I never really learned how one is supposed to write for wind band (flutes and trumpets in octaves! saxes double horns!) — a situation which I actually consider an advantage. I sit down to write music, no matter what the ensemble, avoiding composing what is often called, for lack of a better description, “band music”. If I’m writing a wind ensemble piece, it should have just as much “music” (that is, creativity in harmony, rhythm, structure etc.) in it as if I’m writing a string quartet. From my limited experience over the last few years listening to the oft-formulaic works played on wind programs, that quality seems to be frequently missing from the band and educational music repertoire. Just because it’s educational music doesn’t mean it can’t be musical, or creative, or stretch the ears of the players and listeners. Admittedly, this tends to make music that’s often more challenging for the players and directors—harmonically, rhythmically, and balance-wise due to its sometimes irregular scoring, but I, and many directors with whom I’ve worked, consider the extra effort to be well worth it.

And I have colleagues who agree. Sharing my infatuation with the wind community are three other composers: Eric Whitacre (of course), Steven Bryant, and Jim Bonney. The four of us, all with various experience writing for winds, saw a need, and as the composer-consortium BCM International have sought to create a body of work for winds which defies categorization and avoids bland formulas. As BCM, we promote our music together—expanding awareness of our music, hopefully bringing exciting and interesting musical experiences to students, and ideally changing the status quo in the world of band ever so slightly. We believe a music community which does not evolve and stretch beyond its known-qualities is doomed to stagnation.

To that end, I’ve gone out of my way to make every piece I’ve written for wind ensemble both very different from each other, and very much in my own musical voice. The results are often not what bands are used to playing: OK Feel Good employs rhythmic gymnastics and challenging mixed meters with Stravinskian colors…Uncle Sid sets the folk dance Hava Nagila like it was drug party, complete with aleatoric noise and wrong notes…and most recently I’ve written a homage to 70′s funk called Chunk , a bi-tonal tone poem entitled As the scent of spring rain…, and an Anglican hymn fantasia called 1861, written for high-school level bands. The diversity of the above list pleases me.

This composer/explorer looks forward to continuing the quest for opportunity, from wherever in the music community I might find it. Maybe it’s me, but that glittering city twinkling in the distance looks a lot like a wind ensemble…

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