Archive for the “Band Music” Category

Last week at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theater and Dance saw a visit from renowned band composer John Mackey. Accurately described as a young hotshot, Mackey’s transformation from an unknown dance-music composer in New York to a wildly successful creator of band music began with the 2004 wind ensemble arrangement of his orchestral work, Redline Tango. Since then he has received countless performances from high school, college and professional groups and has earned stunning national popularity best illustrated by his estimable total of 5,000 Facebook friends.  Though he came to Michigan for the October 1 performance of his trombone concerto, Harvest, Mackey’s interaction with the composition department took place over three evenings, starting with a casual outing to a local Ann Arbor bar on Wednesday, September 29.

I was immediately struck by Mackey’s affability, which exceeded any estimate I could have made prior to meeting him. As the night wore on, I realized – via Mackey’s own admissions – that appearing “cool” to the young people who so often perform his music is a critical part of his image as a professional musician. Armed with an electrifying personality, Mackey knows how to fill a room and endear himself to strangers. He is self-deprecating and open, and these qualities were probably the mot valuable elements I drew from his visit, given how closely they tie into his marketing success.

Mackey’s business sense is truly admirable. He takes advantage of social networking and other online resources to get his name out into the market and self-publishes his works, which yields allows him to control the distribution of his intellectual property and pursue copyright infringements when necessary. For these reasons, I think Mackey epitomizes much of what the modern composer should be. Instead of submitting to the esoteric proclivities of our profession, he has found a way to update the social potential of composers within a given network. While I have met other composers with strong local presences, I have not met one with a following as strong and widespread as Mackey’s.

Of course, Mackey’s music is at the center of his success, and it serves him excellently given the market he targets. Highly rhythmic, laden with percussion and infused with progressive rock and other popular influences, his compositions are ideally suited for collegiate bands who are attracted to strong grooves and loud dynamics. In our composition seminar on Thursday, he explained that his non-band compositions sound the same, so it would seem wind ensemble is a perfect setting for the kind of music that comes easily to him. Interestingly, the night before this Mackey admitted he is a poor composition teacher, and the next day he told our seminar that he usually does not write without a commission. Thus, I did not find Mackey’s visit to Michigan a very informative experience on an artistic level. Nevertheless, hisprestige is undeniable seeing that his expansive popularity makes him a critical connection between thousands of musicians and the world of American contemporary music.

As I mentioned before, Mackey’s residency culminated in the Michigan Symphony Band’s performance on his trombone concerto, Harvest. Unfortunately for us composers, the previous day’s seminar included the most recent recording of Harvest, which had been played by at the University of Texas with New York Philharmonic Principal Trombonist Joseph Alessi only a few days earlier. I call this “unfortunate” because Alessi’s performance was super human, and it made the Symphony Band’s delivery on Friday underwhelming. David Jackson, Friday’s soloist, played valiantly, but the score was stacked against him. At moments when Alessi’s power penetrated clearly on the recording, Jackson was buried by the supporting sound. Perhaps further spoiled by the recording, I found the texture static and dull, and I yearned for a moment when the trombone would have acoustic space in which to saunter, liberated from the weight of the backing ensemble. In spite of these factors, the Symphony Band’s performance was definitely a success, and I left Hill Auditorium entranced by all the works I heard. The rest of the program featured an arrangement of Leornard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide (1956), Vittorio Gianni’s haunting Variations and Fugue (1964), Ricardo Lorenz’s El Muro (2008) and Florent Schmitt’s Dionysiaques (1913).

Both Mackey’s music and presence left me with the impression that wind ensemble and band music is the music of the future, and these other compositions did not change my mind. Capable of high energy and subtle sensuality, wind ensembles are a perfect platform for the diversity and dynamism of contemporary music, as consummated by his works from Harvest to Asphalt Cocktail. Moreover, while orchestral genres came of age at the pen of European masters, writing for wind ensemble gives living composer a direct conduit to oft-forgotten American stalwarts such as Vincent Persechetti and William Schuman.

Above everything else, Mackey was very matter-of-fact during his visit to Michigan, and in no other area was he clearer than in describing the advantages of writing for band. In a world where composers struggle to get any attention from orchestral conductors, band directors receive contemporary works for wind ensemble with great enthusiasm and often perform the pieces more than once.  Mackey’s personal success is emblematic of how much bands and wind ensembles can afford composers both in terms of finances and notoriety. As refreshing as it was to experience his humorous, sociable and pragmatic qualities, I was equally awed by the momentum of his cultural relevance. If nothing else, I learned from him the value of self-promotion and generating enthusiasm for your musical product. Regardless how much I integrate these concepts into my career, my standard bearer for how a composer should be his own advocate and spokesperson will always be John Mackey.

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[Ed. note -- Our long-time contributor Steve Hicken is usually to be found helping out in the CD review section of S21. But a recent shipment of a number of band music CDs prompted Steve to group them together as a larger essay, and we thought it should end up here on the main page.  Recordings discussed in this essay: BARNES: Symphonic Overture; Fantasy Variations on a Theme by Nicolo Paganini; GERSHWIN: Rhapsody in Blue (Hunsberger, arr.); Overture on Themes from Porgy and Bess (Barnes, arr.); REED: Ballade. Raimonds Petrauskis, p; Oskars Petrauskis, a sax; RIGA Professional Symphonic Band/Andris Poga. PPOR-CD002  -- GRAINGER: Band Music. Dallas Wind Symphony/Jerry Junkin. Reference 117 -- GRAINGER: Transcriptions for Wind Orchestra. Ivan Hovorun, p; Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra/Clark Rundell. Chandos 10455 -- CORIGLIANO: Circus Maximus; Gazebo Dances. University of Texas Wind Ensemble/Jerry Junkin. Naxos 8.559601]

Tragic but true: when the smoke had cleared, the new music wars had been won not by towners up or down or coasters east or left, but by a rear guard of trained symphonic band composers from big state universities in the middle of the country. — Daniel Wolf

According to the American Bandmasters Association (ABA), there are some 40,000 bands in the United States.1 Almost every high school, most junior high or middle schools, and many elementary schools have at least one band. On the college level, the situation is one of even more abundance—just about every college has more than one band, and the big public institutions have a handful or more. In addition, many municipalities have amateur bands, and some larger cities have professional wind orchestras.

Given these numbers and the exceptional quality of USA wind and percussion playing, you would expect that bands would be at the center of concert music in America. In reality, band music runs on a parallel track to the rest of concert music, and it has for a long time.2 There are stars in the world of band music, just as there are in the rest of concert music. These stars tend to be the conductors of the top bands at the big public universities of the Big 10, Texas, the west coast, and a few places in the Southeast, and composers at most of the same institutions, as well as a handful of composers making a living as freelancers. More about these composers later.

The music played by these bands falls into three very broad categories:

Marches! — To a very great extent, the wind band began as a military unit, designed to play music for armies to march to. There is evidence of ensembles consisting of what we call brass instruments and drums playing martial music in ancient civilizations in both the east and the west. Much of the music played by these groups was in reality signals, such as “charge”, “reveille”, etc. By the seventeenth century the instrumentation of what we now consider the standard military band had begun to settle, with the development of the position of the “drum major” whose function was to keep the soldiers marching in time.

As the instrumentation became fairly standard, more and more music was written for these bands to play. And most of this music was for marching. Tempos are within a certain range (mostly quick), phrases are clear, melodies stirring and carried, for the most part, by the flutes and clarinets. The march tradition is so deeply ingrained in the band world that many band directors wouldn’t dream of beginning a concert program with anything but a march.

Transcriptions or arrangements — A transcription is a note-for-note translation of a piece from one kind of instrumentation to another. In the case of band transcriptions, the vast majority of these are orchestra-to-band transcriptions. In these pieces, flutes, clarinets, and sometimes oboes, substitute for violins, and lower woodwinds for the lower strings. Solo instruments from these same choirs take the same roles as their orchestral counterparts, and the brass and percussion tend to have the same roles as they do in the original compositions.

A sizable number of orchestral works that have been transcribed for bands comes from the late Romantic period through the early part of the 20th century. From Dvorak to Shostakovich, symphonies and other orchestral works have provided grist for the transcriber’s mill. An important reason for this is that the winds in the original works (like Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony) had important roles and recasting this music for winds is not as radical a change as it would be in most, for example, Beethoven. Arrangements consist in taking pre-existing pieces of music (usually popular or Broadway tunes) and orchestrating them for the available forces (in this case, a band), usually as a medley, with newly-composed connecting material. There isn’t a rigorous line between transcriptions and arrangements, but it seems to me that the adding of this connecting material is a crucial distinction.

The third large category is that of original compositions.3 Igor Stravinsky, Gustav Holst, Arnold Schoenberg, and Paul Hindemith were among the many major early 20th-century composers who wrote music for band. As the century progressed, however, band composition came to be a specialty — people that wrote band music tended to write little else, and people who were not band composers never touched the medium.

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