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Category Archives: Composers

John Mackey (b. 1973) once famously compared the band and the orchestra to the kind of girl a composer might meet at a party. The orchestra seems like she ought to be your ideal woman, but she clearly feels superior to you and talks a lot about her exes (like Dvorak and Beethoven). The band, meanwhile, is loud and brash, but loves everything you do and can’t wait to play your stuff, the newer, the better! (I’ve rather poorly paraphrased Mackey – it’s best understood in his original blog post on the subject).

With this attitude and his prodigious talent, John Mackey has become a superstar composer among band directors. He has even eclipsed his former teacher, John Corigliano, by putting out more than a dozen new band works, including a symphony, since 2005. All are challenging, and all are innovative. Mackey’s works for wind ensemble and orchestra have been performed around the world, and have won numerous composition prizes. His Redline Tango, originally for orchestra and then transcribed by the composer for band, won him the American Bandmasters Assocation/Ostwald Award in 2005, making him, then 32, the youngest composer ever to recieve that prize.  He won again in 2009 with Aurora Awakes.  His compositional style is fresh and original. I once heard him state that he counted the band Tool among his musical influences.

John Mackey publishes his own music through Osti Music.  The website for this company doubles as his personal website and his blog, which is very informative for anyone looking for a composer’s perspective on new music (and pictures of food). He is featured on wikipedia and the Wind Repertory Project.  He is also on Twitter 20 or so times a day.  And he has a Facebook composer page.

Sheltering Sky came into being in 2012, and was premiered on April 21 of that year.  It was a commission from two junior high school bands: Traughber (Rachel Maxwell, director) and Thompson (Daniel Harrison, director), both in Oswego, Illinois.  Mackey thus wrote the piece for players of junior high school ability, ending up somewhere around grade 3.  Somehow, it retains the usual Mackey-isms (functional harmony colored by diatonic clusters, unforced expressive lyricism, occasional unprepared sharp dissonances, harmonies that bloom from a single pitch) without asking too much from individual players.  Jake Wallace provides the usual excellent program note, featured both in the score and on Mackey’s website (links added by me):

The wind band medium has, in the twenty-first century, a host of disparate styles that dominate its texture. At the core of its contemporary development exist a group of composers who dazzle with scintillating and frightening virtuosity. As such, at first listening one might experience John Mackey’s Sheltering Sky as a striking departure. Its serene and simple presentation is a throwback of sorts – a nostalgic portrait of time suspended.

The work itself has a folksong-like quality – intended by the composer – and through this an immediate sense of familiarity emerges. Certainly the repertoire has a long and proud tradition of weaving folk songs into its identity, from the days of Holst and Vaughan Williams to modern treatments by such figures as Donald Grantham and Frank Ticheli. Whereas these composers incorporated extant melodies into their works, however, Mackey takes a play from Percy Grainger. Grainger’s Colonial Song seemingly sets a beautiful folksong melody in an enchanting way (so enchanting, in fact, that he reworked the tune into two other pieces: Australian Up-Country Tune and The Gum-Suckers March). In reality, however, Grainger’s melody was entirely original – his own concoction to express how he felt about his native Australia. Likewise, although the melodies of Sheltering Sky have a recognizable quality (hints of the contours and colors of Danny Boy and Shenandoah are perceptible), the tunes themselves are original to the work, imparting a sense of hazy distance as though they were from a half-remembered dream.

The work unfolds in a sweeping arch structure, with cascading phrases that elide effortlessly. The introduction presents softly articulated harmonies stacking through a surrounding placidity. From there emerge statements of each of the two folksong-like melodies – the call as a sighing descent in solo oboe, and its answer as a hopeful rising line in trumpet. Though the composer’s trademark virtuosity is absent, his harmonic language remains. Mackey avoids traditional triadic sonorities almost exclusively, instead choosing more indistinct chords with diatonic extensions (particularly seventh and ninth chords) that facilitate the hazy sonic world that the piece inhabits. Near cadences, chromatic dissonances fill the narrow spaces in these harmonies, creating an even greater pull toward wistful nostalgia. Each new phrase begins over the resolution of the previous one, creating a sense of motion that never completely stops. The melodies themselves unfold and eventually dissipate until at last the serene introductory material returns – the opening chords finally coming to rest.

The official recording, played by the Texas State University Wind Symphony conducted by Caroline Beatty:

You can read more about Sheltering Sky on Mackey’s website and this question and answer session with the composer.  I also highly recommend reading the glowing comments about the piece on its Soundcloud page.

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Michael Colgrass (b. 1932) has distinguished himself as an innovative composer and a dedicated teacher of the creative process of composition.  He started his career as a jazz drummer in Chicago and New York, studying composition all along.  Composition is where he has made his mark, with commissions from prestigious ensembles all over the English-speaking world and a Pulitzer Prize among many other awards under his belt.  He currently lives in Toronto when he is not touring the world teaching middle- and high-school teachers and their students how to compose.  To see deeper into Colgrass’s fascinating life, check out the blog related to his autobiography, or visit his website, or watch the Emmy-winning documentary that his son made about his music.  Or, for extra kicks, see his Wikipedia biography.

1985’s Winds of Nagual (subtitled: A Musical Fable for Wind Ensemble on the Writings of Carlos Castaneda) is one of Colgrass’s most fascinating pieces, and perhaps the greatest major work to be written for wind band in the 1980s, and even the entire last quarter of the 20th century.  its instrumentation, sound pallets, creative conception, and approach to its program are all strikingly original.  Colgrass chose an unusual ensemble for this tale of peyote-fueled spiritual exploration in the desert.  Among its unique features are 2 alto flutes, no oboes, contra-alto AND contrabass clarinets, contrabassoon without regular bassoons, soprano and alto saxophone only, a standalone flugelhorn, celeste, harp, and all of the percussion instruments one can possibly dream of.  The score comes with the following program note (to which I have added hyperlinks):

Winds of Nagual is based on the writings of Carlos Castaneda about his 14-year apprenticeship with don Juan Matis, a Yaqui Indian sorcerer from Northwestern Mexico.  Castaneda met don Juan while researching hallucinogenic plants for his master’s thesis in Anthropology at UCLA.  Juan became Castaneda’s mentor and trained him in pre-Colombian techniques of sorcery, the overall purpose of which is to find the creative self–what Juan calls the nagual.

Each of the characters has a musical theme: Juan’s is a dark and ominous, yet gentle and kind; Carlos’ is open, direct and naïve.  We hear Carlos’ theme throughout the piece from constantly changing perspectives, as Juan submits him to long desert marches, encounters with terrifying powers and altered states of reality.  A comic aspect is added to the piece by don Genaro, a sorcerer friend of Juan’s who frightens Carlos with fantastic tricks like disappearing and re-appearing at will.

The score is laced with programmatic indications such as “Juan entrances Carlos with a stare,” “a horrible creature leaps at Carlos,” “He feels a deep calm and joy,” etc.  The listener need not have read Castaneda’s books to enjoy the work, and I don’t expect anyone to follow any exact scenario.  My object is to capture the mood and atmosphere created by the books and to convey a feeling of the relationship that develops as a man of ancient wisdom tries to cultivate hear in an analytical young man of the technological age.

Winds of Nagual was commissioned by the New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble and is respectfully dedicated to its director, Frank Battisti.

Listen.  Then listen again.  And again.  This is a piece that I have never gotten tired of – every hearing leaves me wanting more!  This is the Baylor University Wind Ensemble in live performance, which I chose despite its recording quality for its close attention to ensemble precision and especially balance, not to mention the wonderful interpretive touches by the individual players and the ensemble.

To enhance your listening experience, here is the full list of programmatic text in the piece, with the timing to match the recording above.  Follow along, if you so choose.  Movement titles are in bold.  Text in the final movement is somewhat interpolated from parenthetic indications.

The Desert 0:04

Don Juan emerges from the Mountains 1:07

Carlos approaches Don Juan 3:08

Carlos unsure of himself 3:33

Don Juan shows Carlos a new concept of himself 3:50

Don Genaro appears 4:36

Genaro clowns for Carlos 4:46

Genaro satirizes Carlos 5:14

Genaro laughing 6:10

Genaro leaps to a mountain top 6:23

Genaro disappears 6:33

Carlos Stares at the River and Becomes a Bubble 6:41

Carlos stares at the water 6:41

…is transfixed by the ripples on the water 7:00

Carlos is mesmerized by the bubbles 7:15

…and becomes a bubble… 7:33

…and travels with the river… 7:37

Carlos tumbling in cascades of water 8:34

Juan jolts Carlos awake with a shrill voice 8:47

Carlos feels euphoric 8:56

…climbs out of the water 9:11

Gait of Power 9:29

Don Juan shows Carlos how to leap between boulders in the dark 9:29

Carlos tries it 9:42

Something moves in the dark 10:01

A terrifying creature leaps at Carlos 10:44

Carlos runs 10:47

It chases Carlos 10:49

It grabs his throat 10:51

Carlos exerts his will 11:01

Asking Twilight for Calmness and Power 11:34

Carlos calls to the desert from a hilltop 11:34

Carlos dances 11:45

Carlos meditates 12:56

Carlos moves again 14:48

He feels a deep calm and joy 15:57

Nightfall 16:54

Mist rolls in and the moon rises 17:11

Juan Clowns for Carlos 17:32

Last Conversation and Farewell 20:05

Juan speaks 20:05

Carlos speaks 20:21

Juan speaks 20:32

Carlos speaks 20:46

Juan speaks 21:10

Carlos speaks 21:18

Juan speaks 21:28

Carlos speaks 21:33

Juan speaks 21:45

Carlos speaks 21:49

Juan speaks 21:54

Carlos speaks 21:59

Juan speaks 22:07

Carlos speaks 22:15

Juan speaks 22:20

[Carlos understands everything] 22:36

Carlos leaps into the abyss 23:03

…and explodes into a thousand views of the world 23:12

You can read more about this magnificent piece on Wikipedia (it has its own entry!), the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra Blog, the Wind Repertory Project, and this dissertation about instrumentation.  Also, read up on Castaneda’s original work on Wikipedia.

Morton Gould (1913-1996) was an American conductor, composer, and pianist.  He was recognized as a child prodigy very early in his life, and as a result he published his first composition before his seventh birthday.  His talents led him to become the staff pianist for Radio City Music Hall when it opened in 1932.  He went on to compose movie soundtracks, Broadway musicals, and instrumental pieces for orchestra and band while also cultivating an international career as a conductor.  Among the honors he received were the 1995 Pulitzer Prize, the 1994 Kennedy Center Honor, a 1983 Gold Baton Award, and a 1966 Grammy Award.  By the time of his death in 1996 he was widely revered as an icon of American classical music.

Gould wrote Ballad for Band in 1946 on commission from Edwin Franko Goldman and his Goldman Band.  They premiered it on June 12 of that year in New York City. It is constructed from original melodies (as opposed to using existing folk material as Gould often did) based on his impressions of African-American spirituals.  He elaborates:

I have always been sensitive to and stimulated by the sounds that I would call our “American vernacular”—jazz, ragtime, gospel, spirituals, hillbilly. The spirituals have always been the essence, in many ways, of our musical art, our musical spirit. The spiritual is an emotional, rhythmic expression. The spiritual has a universal feeling; it comes from the soul, from the gut. People all over the world react to them … I am not aware of the first time I heard them. It was undoubtedly a sound I heard as a child; maybe at a revival.

Ballad is cast in a broad ABA form, with each slow A section unfolding at a leisurely, unhurried pace.  The central B section is lively and rhythmic, but seems only like a brief episode interrupting the reverie of the outer sections.  Gould again had something to say about this structure:

Ballad for Band is basically an introverted piece that starts slowly, is linear, and has a quiet lyricism; it is not big band in the sense that there is little razzle-dazzle. A discerning listener who is programmed to appreciate the nuances and subtlety of a contemporary piece would respond favorably to this, but others merely find it from relatively pleasant to slightly boring. Only certain listeners respond to what this piece represents musically.

The President’s Own United States Marine Band plays Ballad:

To see where Gould got his inspiration from, here is a choral version of the famous spiritual, “Oh Freedom”:

Read more about Ballad at SUNY Potsdam, GIA Publications, WindBand.org, the US Marine Band, and the Wind Repertory Project.

There are several short biographies of Gould on the Internet.  Each one is more glowing than the last:

Wikipedia – concise biography and list of works.

G. Schirmer – Gould’s publisher gives a much more eloquent account of the composer’s life (which wikipedia seems to have stolen and mangled).

Kennedy Center – Heaps yet more praise on the composer.

There is even an entire book dedicated to the biography of Morton Gould, by Peter W. Goodman.  It is called American Salute.

Google books preview of the book here.

Review of said book here.

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) was a Czech composer who was helped to prominence in Europe by such luminaries as Johannes Brahms and the critic Eduard Hanslick.  These two men were among the panelists who awarded Dvořák the Austrian State Prize for Composition in 1874 (and again in 1876 and 1877).  Dvořák wrote music in a nationalistic character for much of his career, mostly focused on his native Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic).  He is also famous for having traveled to America in the 1890s, where he directed the National Conservatory and wrote his most famous work, Symphony no. 9 “From the New World.”  He now has a detailed biography on Wikipedia, an extensive website dedicated to him in both Czech and English, and an ongoing Society in his name that is dedicated to Czech and Slovak classical music.

The Serenade, op. 44, came about in 1878, emerging in a seemingly spontaneous rush during two weeks that January.  It came immediately before the Slavonic Rhapsodies (op. 45) and the first set of Slavonic Dances (op. 46), and as such it reflects some of their style and the direction Dvořák was to take with his music.  It also came immediately after the tragic loss of his three young children, so it likely represents a new beginning in both his life and career.  Its most unusual feature is its instrumentation: 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (and optional contrabassoon), 3 French horns, cello, and bass.  This very closely resembles the harmonie band that was popular at the end of the 18th century, and may be a nod specifically to Mozart’s most famous serenade, the Gran Partita in B-flat from the early 1780s (a comparison of both pieces’ third movements strengthens this impression).  It was to be the only time that Dvořák used this instrumentation, and only one of two serenades that he would write (the other being for strings).

The instrumentation matches what would have been used in a serenade in the classical era.  Such pieces were intended to be played outdoors, often by musicians on the move, a function to which wind instruments were particularly well-suited.  However, Dvořák uses a more traditional symphonic structure for this work, which ends up in four movements with the middle two flipped from their usual placement.  The first movement is a stately, Baroque-sounding march.  In somewhat of a twist, the second is a triple-meter dance approximating the Czech dance sousedská (despite the title “Minuetto”), with a Furiant thrown in in place of the usual trio.  The third movement is slow, and sounds strongly like Mozart’s “adagio” from the Gran Partita.  The final movement races to its finish, but not before bringing back the entire A section of the first movement in a uniquely 19th-century move.  The whole thing sounds strongly like Dvořák, reflecting both his knack for accessible writing and fervor for his native Czech music.

As much as it pains me to admit this, the best performances of this piece that are on YouTube all come from unconducted ensembles.  Conductors, I challenge you to learn this piece and create compelling performances of it so that we may retain an indispensable role in this piece in the future!  For now, here is a joint British-Russian group delivering quite a performance:

Read more about the Serenade at the Dvořák archive, on this website from 1999, at the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra blog, on Musicweb International, at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, at Chicago Chamber Musicians, and on Wikipedia.  Also, full sheet music for two different public domain editions of this piece is available on IMSLP.

Eric Whitacre (b. 1970) is one of the most-performed composers of his generation.  He studied composition at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the Juilliard School with notable composers including John Corigliano and David Diamond.  His choral works and band works have rapidly become accepted in the repertoire due to their strong appeal to audiences and players alike.  In addition to composing, Whitacre tours the world as a conductor of his own works, both choral (often with his Eric Whitacre Singers) and instrumental, and those of others.  He has also organized a series of groundbreaking Virtual Choirs.

Whitacre is quite web-savvy, with presence on Facebook (the ever changing profile picture is particularly entertaining), WikiMusicGuide (better than Wikipedia in this case), and his very own website at EricWhitacre.com.

Equus first came into being as a wind band piece, finished in 2000 and premiered that same year by the University of Miami Wind Ensemble under Gary Green.  Its difficulty lies in the overlay of several different rhythms, many of which defy the piece’s metric structure.  Whitacre tells its origin story as follows (from his website and the piece’s score):

At the Midwest Band and Orchestra convention in 1996, Gary Green approached me about a possible commission for his wind ensemble at the University of Miami. I accepted, and the commission formally began July 1st, 1997. Two years later I still couldn’t show him a single note.

That’s not to say I hadn’t written anything. On the contrary, I had about 100 pages of material for three different pieces, but I wanted to give Gary something very special and just couldn’t find that perfect spark.

Around this time my great friend and fellow Juilliard composer Steven Bryant was visiting me in Los Angeles, and as I had just bought a new computer I was throwing out old sequencer files, most of them sketches and improvisational ideas. As I played one section Steve dashed into the room and the following conversation ensued:

Steve: “What the hell was that!?!”
Me: “Just an old idea I’m about to trash.”
Steve: “Mark my words, If you don’t use that I’m stealing it.”

The gauntlet had been thrown.

That was the spark, but it took me a full eight months to write the piece. There are a LOT of notes, and I put every one on paper (with pencil). I wanted to write a moto perpetuo, a piece that starts running and never stops (‘equus’ is the Latin word for horse) and would also be a virtuosic show piece for winds. The final result is something that I call “dynamic minimalism,” which basically means that I love to employ repetitive patterns as long as they don’t get boring. We finally premiered the piece in March 2000, nearly three years after the original commission date, and the University of Miami Wind Ensemble played the bejeezus out of it.

Equus is dedicated to my friend Gary Green, the most passionate and patient conductor I know.

Here it is in its original version:

Whitacre later (2014) added choral parts to go with the band version, in addition to creating an orchestra transcription (2011).  Below is the band and choir version (see his website for more details):

You’ll find everything else you’ve ever wanted to know about Equus in this dissertation from the University of Miami.

Stephen Sondheim (b. 1935) is a New York native and one of the most celebrated composers of musical theatre.  He began his career under the mentorship of Oscar Hammerstein II, one of the great names of 20th century Broadway.  Sondheim got an early career break writing the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story in 1957.  He has since had a distinguished career that has encompassed almost two dozen musicals, many of which have been made into films, including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), and Into the Woods (1986).  He has won more Tony Awards (8) than any other composer.

Into the Woods, with music by Sondheim and book and lyrics by James Lapine, debuted on Broadway in 1987.  It tells the story of a childless Baker and the Baker’s Wife, who are cursed by an evil Witch.  Their adventures intersect several fairy tale stories by the Brothers Grimm, including Rapunzel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk.  The original production won Tony Awards for Best Original Score, Best Book, and Best Actress in a Musical (Joanna Gleason). The musical has been revived several times around the world.  In 2014, it was released as a movie version by the Walt Disney company.

Stephen Bulla’s band arrangement of Selections from Into the Woods covers four of the numbers from the musical, including “Into the Woods,” “No One Is Alone,” “I Know Things Now,” and “Children Will Listen.”  Here it is in live performance:

To give you an idea of the visuals, here is a preview reel from the Public Theater‘s production in 2012.  This also includes a substantial portion of the song “Into the Woods” that opens the medley:

Here is “No One Is Alone” from a 1989 PBS special that filmed the original Broadway production:

Next, “I Know Things Now” from the 2014 Disney movie version:

Finally, “Children Will Listen” sung in concert by Bernadette Peters, one of the great Sondheim interpreters and Into the Woods‘s original Broadway Witch:

Bonus: my personal favorite song from the musical, which did not make the Selections: “Agony!”

Read more about Into the Woods on Wikipedia and IMDB.  Sondheim has tributes everywhere and then some, but a look at his Wikipedia page will give you plenty of insight into the man and the artist.

New York City native Paul Richards (b. 1969) is an award winning composer who presently teaches composition at the University of Florida.  He has received commissions from organizations around the United States.  His works run the gamut from solo and chamber works to large ensemble and theatre works, including a dozen works for wind band to date.

If You Could Only See the Frog was written in 2008 on a commission from the Saint Mary’s University Concert Band, directed by Dr. Janet Heukeshoven, director, with support from the Sam & Helen Kaplan Foundation.  It was the winner of the 2014 Columbia Summer Winds Outdoor Composition Contest.  Richards explains it on his website:

“Si Veriash a la Rana” (“If You Could Only See the Frog”) is the title of a children’s song from Bulgaria sung by exiled Jews in the Spanish-Jewish dialect of Ladino:

If you could only see the little frog sitting on the oven, frying her fritas and sharing with her sisters!
If you could only see the little mouse sitting in the corner, shelling walnuts and sharing with her sisters!
If you could only see the little camel sitting on the dough-board, rolling out filo thinner than hair!

The deceptively simple and playful tune stems from a wide range of cultural influences, combining typically Ladino melodic figurations with a traditional Bulgarian metric construction, punctuated by a curious refrain in Turkish that simply means, “I love you so much”.
This concert band piece is a percussion-driven exploration of this infectious and time-tested melody.

The University of Florida Wind Ensemble gives a rousing performance:

To really get into the sound world that this melody came from, you should listen to the extra videos below.  Here is a folky version of the original tune:

And a more pop version:

And another folk version with a more instrumental emphasis:

Steven Bryant (b. 1972) is an acclaimed, award-winning composer whose works often straddle different media.  He is a three-time recipient of the National Band Association’s William D. Revelli Composition Award (2007, 2008, 2010). His first orchestral work, Loose Id for Orchestra, was “orchestrated like a virtuoso” according to celebrated composer Samuel Adler.  His unique works for wind band and electronics have received more performances than any other pieces of their kind.  His other work includes pieces for wind band (some with added electronics), orchestra, chamber ensembles, and electronic music.  He studied composition at The Juilliard School with John Corigliano, at the University of North Texas with Cindy McTee, and at Ouachita University with W. Francis McBeth.

Ecstatic Fanfare was extracted in 2012 from a larger work, Ecstatic Waters (2008).  The fanfare uses some of the tutti material from the larger work’s opening movement.  In Bryant’s words, “Unlike that work, this one does NOT require electronics, water glasses, a Celesta, or a Mahler Hammer. ;)”

Listen to the original band version of Ecstatic Fanfare as played by the US Army Band:

It also exists in a version for orchestra:

See more about Ecstatic Fanfare, including another recording and a perusal score, on Bryant’s website.

Bryant likes and is comfortable in electronic media.  He has a YouTube account, a Twitter handle, and a Facebook fan page.  He has a fantastic website with a blog attached.  He also numbers the revisions of his music like computer software: for instance, his latest version of Dusk is version 1.4.  In his words, “The old version (1.2) is NOT compatible” with the new.  He also writes dedicated electronic music.  My favorite, which I heard when I sat in at his session at the Ball State University Conducting Workshop in 2012, is called Hummingbrrd.  Click the link to listen, and prepare to be amazed!

Steven Bryant (b. 1972) is an acclaimed, award-winning composer whose works often straddle different media.  He is a three-time recipient of the National Band Association’s William D. Revelli Composition Award (2007, 2008, 2010). His first orchestral work, Loose Id for Orchestra, was “orchestrated like a virtuoso” according to celebrated composer Samuel Adler.  His unique works for wind band and electronics have received more performances than any other pieces of their kind.  His other work includes pieces for wind band (some with added electronics), orchestra, chamber ensembles, and electronic music.  He studied composition at The Juilliard School with John Corigliano, at the University of North Texas with Cindy McTee, and at Ouachita University with W. Francis McBeth.

Bryant wrote Ecstatic Waters, for wind band and electronics, in 2008 for a consortium of 15 college and high school wind ensembles.  It has been a sensation since its premiere in that same year, receiving dozens of performances.  As I write this, it is about to receive its orchestral premiere with the Minnesota Orchestra under the baton of Bryant’s old school chum, Eric Whitacre.  It has also spawned Ecstatic Fanfare, a short excerpt of the fanfare bits for wind band without electronics.  Bryant’s website really says everything there is to say about the piece, so I will quote him at length here (with some links added):

Ecstatic Waters is music of dialectical tension – a juxtaposition of contradictory or opposing musical and extra-musical elements and an attempt to resolve them. The five connected movements hint at a narrative that touches upon naiveté, divination, fanaticism, post-human possibilities, anarchy, order, and the Jungian collective unconscious. Or, as I have described it more colloquially: W.B. Yeats meets Ray Kurzweil in the Matrix.

The overall title, as well as “Ceremony of Innocence” and “Spiritus Mundi” are taken from poetry of Yeats (“News for the Delphic Oracle,” and “The Second Coming“), and his personal, idiosyncratic mythology and symbolism of spiraling chaos and looming apocalypse figured prominently in the genesis of the work. Yet in a nod to the piece’s structural reality – as a hybrid of electronics and living players – Ecstatic Waters also references the confrontation of unruly humanity with the order of the machine, as well as the potential of a post-human synthesis, in ways inspired by Kurzweil.

The first movement, Ceremony of Innocence, begins as a pure expression of exuberant joy in unapologetic Bb Major in the Celesta and Vibraphone. The movement grows in momentum, becoming perhaps too exuberant – the initial simplicity evolves into a full-throated brashness bordering on dangerous arrogance and naiveté, though it retreats from the brink and ends by returning to the opening innocence.

In Mvt. II, Augurs, the unsustainable nature of the previous Ceremony becomes apparent, as the relentless tonic of Bb in the crystal water glasses slowly diffuses into a microtonal cluster, aided and abetted by the trumpets. Chorale–like fragments appear, foretelling the wrathful self-righteousness of Mvt. III. The movement grows inexorably, spiraling wider and wider, like Yeat’s gyre, until “the center cannot hold,” and it erupts with supreme force into The Generous Wrath of Simple Men.

Mvt. III is deceptive, musically contradicting what one might expect of its title. While it erupts at the outset with overwhelming wrath, it quickly collapses into a relentless rhythm of simmering 16th notes. Lyric lines and pyramids unfold around this, interrupted briefly by the forceful anger of a chorale, almost as if trying to drown out and deny anything but its own existence. A moment of delicate lucidity arrives amidst this back-and-forth struggle, but the chorale ultimately dominates, subsuming everything, spiraling out of control, and exploding.

The Loving Machinery of Justice brings machine-like clarity and judgment. Subtle, internal gyrations between atonality and tonality underpin the dialogue between lyric melody (solo Clarinet and Oboe) and mechanized accompaniment (Bassoons). An emphatic resolution in Ab minor concludes the movement, floating seamlessly into the epilogue, Spiritus Mundi. Reprising music from Mvt. I, this short meditative movement reconciles and releases the earlier excesses.

Here is the US Marine Band in a live performance:

And here is Bryant’s series of “How-to” videos, explaining how the whole thing works with electronics, etc.:

Bryant likes and is comfortable in electronic media.  He has a YouTube account, a Twitter handle, and a Facebook fan page.  He has a fantastic website with a blog attached.  He also numbers the revisions of his music like computer software: for instance, his latest version of Dusk is version 1.4.  In his words, “The old version (1.2) is NOT compatible” with the new.  He also writes dedicated electronic music.  My favorite, which I heard when I sat in at his session at the Ball State University Conducting Workshop in 2012, is called Hummingbrrd.  Click the link to listen, and prepare to be amazed!

Joseph Schwantner (b. 1943) is an American composer and teacher.  He grew up in Chicago playing guitar and tuba.  He had early success at composition, winning the National Band Camp Award in 1959 when he was just 16.  He went on to undergraduate studies at the American Conservatory in Chicago, then masters and doctoral work at Northwestern University, which he finished in 1968.  He has served on the faculties of the Eastman School, the Juilliard School, and Yale.  His compositions have won him the Pulitzer Prize (1979), several Grammy nominations, and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  He is known for his eclectic combination of compositional techniques and his mystical orchestrations.  His important wind band works include …and the mountains rising nowhere (1977), From a Dark Millennium (1980), and In Evening’s Stillness (1996).

His Percussion Concerto first came into being as the Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra in 1994.  It was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for their 150th anniversary, and written with the percussionist Christopher Lamb as its intended soloist.  Lamb and the Philharmonic premiered the piece at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City on January 5, 1995.  It has subsequently been transcribed twice: once for two pianos and percussion, making it accessible to the recital repertoire, and again (by Andrew Boysen) for wind ensemble and percussion.  In both cases, the solo part is unaltered from the original.  The soloist uses an entire world of equipment in two different setups (behind the ensemble in the first and third movements, and dramatically in front in the second).  The three movements are motivically unified, making the piece a long development of a small amount of material.

Here is the wind band version by the University of Michigan Symphony Band (in three parts):

And the orchestral version, with Lamb as soloist:

Finally, here is the two piano version, with Bryan Hummel as soloist.  I had the privilege of conducting Bryan and the Arizona State University Symphony Orchestra in the first movement of the orchestra version on February 4, 2015.  He’s a pro, and it shows here!

Bonus: the composer and percussionist Evelyn Glennie discuss the piece, with some performance and rehearsal footage:

To learn more about the concerto itself, visit the Schott page, read the LA Philharmonic’s program notes, read Shawn Michael Hart’s dissertation about it, or see what the Boston Conservatory has to say.  Joseph Schwantner has a biography on Wikipedia and his own website.