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Monthly Archives: June 2014

Composer Michael Markowski (b. 1986) claims that he is “fully qualified to watch movies and cartoons” on the basis of his bachelors degree in film from Arizona State University.  Despite this humility regarding his musical training, he is gaining attention as a composer of unique and sophisticated works for wind band and other media.  His works are being performed across the United States, leading to an ever-growing list of commissions for new works.

Turkey in the Straw came out of Markowski’s early association with Manhattan Beach Music after winning the first Frank Ticheli Composition Contest.  Publisher Bob Margolis introduces the piece in the score:

When we asked Frank Ticheli Composition Contest Winner Michael Markowski to create a concert band arrangement of the fiddle tune, Turkey in the Straw, we were figurin’ to get a ‘merican-soundin’ creation.  Square dance, anyone? No way.

Instead it was “Fire up the Markowski Phantasmagoricon!” and hold on tight.

Markowski has created, in effect, Turkeys Gone Loco — music for a wild cartoon, a crazy surrealist extravaganza, an eclectic, filmic frolic.  In a work overflowing with ideas, yet tightly wound and carefully crafted, Markowski has composed a Turkey in the Straw of today’s Zeitgeist.

Markowski himself follows that with a good, substantial program note:

We all know the melody, even if not by name.  But for me, Turkey in the Straw is nostalgic, beckoning back to a childhood where grandma and grandpa would sit me in front of their TV with a bowl of orange Jell-O (in a small room papered wall-to-wall with decorative clowns), to watch old-time cartoons on VHS.  From its early days in vaudeville to its silver-screen premiere in Disney’s cartoon, Steamboat Willie (1928), the tune has become a staple of Americana (and my favorite — cartoons).

Most arrangements stay true to the song’s Southern roots.  But for a contemporary ensemble such as the concert band, I wanted my arrangement to be what Ivesian, and, as colleagues have described it, closer to Quirky in the Straw.  Above all, I wanted this piece to resemble classic cartoon scoring.  Rather than simply arranging a brief melody in a handful of contrasting styles (as is typical of theme-and-variations), the form instead takes on an almost storytelling narrative or three act structure.

Each successive treatment of the melody increases the orchestration and contrapuntal complexity, starting with the simplest orchestration within the first 35 measures.  The melody quickly modulates, twists and turns, loses itself and finds itself in musical vignettes (already in development by measure 36).  Each new scene seems to bring its own musical plot, orchestrational characterization, and many a custard pie in the face.

Here is the piece as realized by the US Air Force Band of the Golden West:

The piece is published by Manhattan Beach Music, which links to a preview score with a recording that is even better than the one above.  Markowski links to an EVEN BETTER recording from his website.

There far too many versions of Turkey in the Straw to list here.  Here’s one played straight on the fiddle, which is how the tune first came into being:

Here’s another old version from a black and white movie, complete with comic hayseeds and questionable lyrics:

Here’s the Steamboat Willie that Markowski mentioned above.  Its treatment of Turkey in the Straw starts around the 4 minute mark:

Disney used it again in a later cartoon (and a personal favorite of mine as a kid) to great effect:

One final bonus video: Turkeys Gone Loco!!

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Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is one of the titans of American art music.  A native New Yorker, he went to France at age 21 and became the first American to study with the legendary Nadia Boulanger.  His Organ Symphony, written for Boulanger, provided his breakthrough into composition stardom.  After experimenting with many different styles, he became best known for his idiomatic treatment of Americana, leaving behind such chestnuts as The Tender Land (1954), Billy The Kid (1938), and Appalachian Spring (1944).  This last piece won Copland the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1945.  He was also an acclaimed conductor and writer.

Rodeo was originally a ballet choreographed by Agnes DeMille and scored by Copland in 1942 for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.  It premiered that year at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City with DeMille in the title role to great acclaim.  Copland converted the music into an orchestral suite, Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo, which was premiered by the Boston Pops in 1943.  This version, whose chief difference from the ballet music was the removal of one movement and the trimming of other sections, became one of Copland’s most popular and enduring works.  This is especially true of the first movement, Buckaroo Holiday, and the last, Hoedown.  Both of these have been arranged for band.

First, a snippet of the original ballet as performed by the American Ballet Theatre in 1973.  This clip includes an interview with Agnes DeMille and most of the opening Buckaroo Holiday scene:

Sadly, there is no good version of Buckaroo Holiday as arranged for band (very capably by Kenneth Megan) on the internet.  This adds to the heap of evidence that it is actually very difficult to play any of Copland’s music, despite the ease and accessibility of his sound.  I hope to be able to add a video of Columbia Summer Winds playing this movement once I conduct my two performances with them this July.

Here is Hoedown in its original version, in a zippy live performance:

Conductors, DO NOT hold your baton like that guy – his grip leaves him zero wrist flexibility!

Here is a good (if primitively recorded) rendition of Mark Rogers’s band transcription:

Of course, you can’t talk about Hoedown without mentioning the ad campaign that introduced those of us of a certain age to the piece in the early 1990s:

Finally, the completionists out there will enjoy both this full recording of the complete Four Dance Episodes:

Copland has a huge presence on the internet, thus this site will feature only the main portals into his work.  Please click far beyond the sites listed here for a complete idea of Copland’s footprint on the web.

Fanfare for Aaron Copland – a blog with information on the composer, extraordinarily useful links, and some downloadable versions of old LP recordings.  This is the place to explore the several links beyond the main site.

Aaron Copland Wikipedia Biography.

Quotes from Aaron Copland on Wikiquote.

New York Times archive of Copland-related material. Includes reviews of his music and books as well as several fascinating articles that he wrote.

Copland Centennial (from 2000) on NPR.

American composer Dana Wilson (b. 1946) has won numerous awards and grants for his work.  His music has been performed and recorded across the United States, Europe, and Asia.  He has been commissioned to write new works by organizations and prominent soloists around the world.  His output includes music for orchestras, chamber groups, choirs, and a wide-ranging repertoire for bands at all levels.  Educated at the Eastman School of Music (DMA, 1982), he is currently the Charles A. Dana Professor of Music in the School of Music at Ithaca College.  To read more about his distinguished career, visit his website, wikipedia, his Ithaca faculty page, or the American Composers Forum.  For an overview his music by one of the distinguished figures in our field, visit Tim Reynish’s website.

Speak to Me (2010) is the result of a commission from John F. Kennedy High School in La Palma, California.  Wilson’s program notes describe both inspiration for the piece and the way he uses its main idea:

There is a long tradition in jazz of instruments carrying on a conversation–either intricate, soloistic dialogues (often improvised) or the call and response of larger forces. Speak to Me is above all such a conversation, at first among soloists and then among more and more performers as they gradually join in. This piece begins with a simple tune that increasingly overlaps with–and is interrupted by–other ideas, generating enormous energy along the way.

Aside from its jazz elements, Speak to Me is also a study in the chromatic scale for almost every instrument in the band, with its main motive built on chromatic fragments that are gradually extended to cover more than two octaves at times.

CLICK HERE to listen to the University of North Texas Wind Symphony play Speak to Me.

I had a small part in bringing that recording into being, since I conducted rehearsals and a preliminary performance of it at the University of North Texas Conductor’s Collegium in the summer of 2014.

For some context on this piece, here is a clip of the type of jazz conversation that Wilson has in mind, in the form of a TEDx talk:

Here is another, less academic, example, with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie: