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Category Archives: Original works for wind band

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. 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.

Mackey wrote The Frozen Cathedral in 2012.  Jake Wallace provides the official program notes:

The Koyukon call it “Denali,” meaning “the great one,” and it is great. It stands at more than twenty thousand feet above sea level, a towering mass over the Alaskan wilderness. Measured from its base to its peak, it is the tallest mountain on land in the world—a full two thousand feet taller than Mount Everest. It is Mount McKinley, and it is an awesome spectacle. And it is the inspiration behind John Mackey’s The Frozen Cathedral.

The piece was born of the collaboration between Mackey and John Locke, Director of Bands at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Locke asked Mackey if he would dedicate the piece to the memory of his late son, J.P., who had a particular fascination with Alaska and the scenery of Denali National Park. Mackey agreed—and immediately found himself grappling with two problems.

How does one write a concert closer, making it joyous and exciting and celebratory, while also acknowledging, at least to myself, that this piece is rooted in unimaginable loss: The death of a child?

The other challenge was connecting the piece to Alaska – a place I’d never seen in person. I kept thinking about all of this in literal terms, and I just wasn’t getting anywhere.  My wife, who titles all of my pieces, said I should focus on what it is that draws people to these places. People go to the mountains—these monumental, remote, ethereal and awesome parts of the world—as a kind of pilgrimage. It’s a search for the sublime, for transcendence. A great mountain is like a church. “Call it The Frozen Cathedral,” she said.

I clearly married up.

The most immediately distinct aural feature of the work is the quality (and geographic location) of intriguing instrumental colors. The stark, glacial opening is colored almost exclusively by a crystalline twinkling of metallic percussion that surrounds the audience. Although the percussion orchestration carries a number of traditional sounds, there are a host of unconventional timbres as well, such as crystal glasses, crotales on timpani, tam-tam resonated with superball mallets, and the waterphone, an instrument used by Mackey to great effect on his earlier work Turning. The initial sonic environment is an icy and alien one, a cold and distant landscape whose mystery is only heightened by a longing, modal solo for bass flute—made dissonant by a contrasting key, and more insistent by the eventual addition of alto flute, English horn, and bassoon. This collection expands to encompass more of the winds, slowly and surely, with their chorale building in intensity and rage. Just as it seems their wailing despair can drive no further, however, it shatters like glass, dissipating once again into the timbres of the introductory percussion.

The second half of the piece begins in a manner that sounds remarkably similar to the first. In reality, it has been transposed into a new key and this time, when the bass flute takes up the long solo again, it resonates with far more compatible consonance. The only momentary clash is a Lydian influence in the melody, which brings a brightness to the tune that will remain until the end. Now, instead of anger and bitter conflict, the melody projects an aura of warmth, nostalgia, and even joy. This bright spirit pervades the ensemble, and the twinkling colors of the metallic percussion inspire a similar percolation through the upper woodwinds as the remaining winds and brass present various fragmented motives based on the bass flute’s melody. This new chorale, led in particular by the trombones, is a statement of catharsis, at once banishing the earlier darkness in a moment of spiritual transcendence and celebrating the grandeur of the surroundings. A triumphant conclusion in E-flat major is made all the more jubilant by the ecstatic clattering of the antiphonal percussion, which ring into the silence like voices across the ice.

One feature that Wallace does not highlight but that is especially important to the overall impression of the piece is Mackey’s use of bimodal chords (both major and minor at the same time) and unprepared half step dissonances throughout the bigger sections of the work.  These add a shocking element to the grandeur and catharsis that Mackey portrays.  Also, Mackey added an organ part to the piece in 2013.  I was lucky enough to be in rehearsals and in the hall for the performance of this version with Arizona State University Wind Orchestra conducted by the amazing Gary Hill on March 4, 2014.

You can look at the score and hear a recording of the piece at Mackey’s website.  You can also read about the piece at the Wind Repertory Project.  Mackey also talks in some detail about the piece on his very candid blog.

Those too lazy to click a link can hear The Frozen Cathedral via YouTube here (it’s the same recording as above, without organ):

Belgian composer Benoît Chantry (b. 1975) writes music for wind bands, musical theatre, and more, with a penchant for mixing styles.  He started music study early at the Tournai (Doornik) Conservatory, where he is now a professor and director of the wind band.  He also teaches at the Belgian Royal Conservatory of Music in Brussels.  Read more about him at windmusic.orgTierolff publishing, and the European Contemporary Orchestra.  He also has a MySpace page where you can hear more of his music.

Chantry wrote Les Cités obscures in 2013 for the 20th anniversary of Hafabra Music (which published the piece) and its founder Louis Martinu.  The piece is based on a collection of graphic novels of the same name by the Belgian comic book artist François Schuiten and writer Benoît Peeters.  The series takes place on a counter-Earth in which individual city-states have developed independent civilizations and architectural styles.  Chantry’s piece attempts to depict the differences between these civilizations, obscured as they are from us and each other.

Listen to a partial recording of Les Cités obscures at Hafabra Music.  It is not on YouTube yet!

The graphic novel series was originally written in French, but translations are available in most Western European languages.  In English, early versions are called “Cities of the Fantastic” or “Stories of the Fantastic”, although more recently fans have started calling them “The Obscure Cities”, a closer (but still approximate) match to the original French.  New volumes are still appearing, since both creators are still very much active.  Read more on wikipedia or The Obscure Cities, a site run by the American publishers of the series.  For a more complete picture of the series, check out a Google Image Search!

California native Paul Dooley (b. 1983) has received many awards for his music, which has been performed by ensembles of all stripes around the US.  Early experience in percussion and improvisation led him to study composition with Frank Ticheli while at the University of Southern California (where he also received a math degree).  He is currently a lecturer in performing arts technology at the University of Michigan, where he is working towards a doctorate in composition, with Michael Daugherty among his teachers.

Dooley’s music tends to blend Western classical traditions with other world and contemporary musics, and Point Blank is no exception.  Dooley describes it well in his own program notes.  From his website:

Point Blank (2012) for band was commissioned by a consortium of wind bands organized by Gary D. Green and the University of Miami Frost Wind Ensemble.

Point Blank, is inspired by the sounds, rhythms and virtuosity of New York City-based new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound, who premiered a chamber version of the piece in 2010. Featuring synthetic sound worlds and tightly interlocking percussion ideas, the drum set, timpani and strings whirl the ensemble through an array of electronically inspired orchestrations, while the winds and brass shriek for dear life. Point Blank is a central processing unit of floating point tremelos, discrete pizzicatos, multi-threading scales and random access modulations.

In the score he adds:

Point Blank for wind ensemble is inspired by electronic music, in particular a style called Drum & Bass.  I explore the interaction between computer generated musical material and the human performer.  For the wind ensemble’s percussion battery, I transcribe tightly interlocking electronic rhythmic material.  The drum set, mallets and timpani whirl the ensemble through an array of electronically inspired orchestrations, while the winds and brass shriek for dear life!

Point Blank exists in versions for large chamber ensemble (the original, written in 2010), wind ensemble (2012) and full orchestra (2011).  Links are to each page on Dooley’s website, each of which contains a recording and score.  For those who prefer to SEE their performances, here is the Baylor University Wind Ensemble:

And the premier of the original version by Alarm Will Sound (notice a fair bit of difference, especially at the end):

And the orchestra version (please forgive the conductor view):

Finally, here is just one example of what Drum & Bass sounds like.  This is just one example, so please explore further for a better, fuller picture:

Paul Dooley has a website of his own and biographies at the Wind Repertory Project and the University of Michigan.

Carter Pann (b. 1972) is a celebrated composer and accomplished pianist who has written music from solo works to large orchestra and wind ensemble pieces.  His works have been performed around the world.  He is on the faculty of the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he continues to write distinctly original music.  He provides the following program note in the score of The Three Embraces:

The Three Embraces (2013) was commissioned by current and former students and dear friends in celebration of Allan McMurray‘s final concert after 35 years as Director of Bands at the University of Colorado.

In three movements, these pieces are songs for band. Within The Three Embraces I strived to explore completely new musical territory – different from that of my previous works for winds.

The first and second movements are titled “Antique, Calming” and “With Quiet Longing,” respectively, and are to sound like aural aromas. The players are given a long trail of the softest dynamics – full fortes are rare events in these pieces. Requesting the utmost dynamic restraint from wind and brass players is a risk I have learned to relish taking. The musical reward is so great and the timbral beauty so rich and ever so right to my ears. These first two movements also feature harp and celesta as the two prevailing colors suffusing the music, giving them what I hope to be an aura of ancient, inward elegance (Maurice Ravel lurks in the shadows of these two model Renaissance compositions).

The final movement is a celebration, beginning with three bold proclamations for saxophones and high brass. As the movement unfolds there are pastoral melodies juxtaposed over more modern, angular harmonies.

In describing this piece to Allan at the beginning of rehearsals I made a quip that I now find quite apt: A chance encounter between Schubert and Stravinsky on the Appalachian Trail. This is not the first work I have had the fortune to dedicate to my him, but it has become the dearest to me – a final expression for a colleague, mentor, and friend. Over the years I have come to learn of Allan’s path through music over time, the key mentors of his past, and his performing experiences around the world. I have even had the pleasure of meeting him in faraway places to share a gig. It is through this kind of time with him (and some very special time on his back deck overlooking much of the Boulder/Denver area) that I have learned this gentleman’s values, both in music and in life. His humor is magnetic and ever-present, his magnanimity so humble. I count myself a lucky one to have had a window of time on faculty with such an extraordinary musician and giving person as Allan McMurray.

Pann is often very specific in the instructions for the piece, insisting, for instance: “Please do not assign the PIANO part to a timid, furtive, frail player.”  This makes the score a colorful read beyond the notes.

Here is an unnamed ensemble playing a complete performance of The Three Embraces:

You can also listen on Soundcloud or Pann’s website for the piece.  Further exploration there will show you his full bio, a works list, and much more.  You can also read about him on Wikipedia, his faculty page at CU Boulder, and Theodore Presser.

Yasuhide Ito (b. 1960) is one of Japan’s premier composers of original music for wind band.  He is best known for his 1990 suite for wind band Gloriosawhich is performed frequently all over the world.  He has written several dozen other pieces for band and other media, including symphonies for band and at least one full opera, going back to his first band work, On the March, of 1978, written when he was in his third year of high school.  Ito is also a renowned pianist, conductor, lecturer, and translator.

Below are the program notes from the score of Ito’s 2012 Jalan-jalan di Singapura.  Note that I had to edit the rehearsal letters mentioned in the notes, since they seemed to point to the wrong places:

Singapore is a vibrant city.  Though modern buildings line its streets, cultures of Chinese, Indians, and Malays can still be found everywhere.

The cheerful march has been composed to capture this crosslink of cultures in Singapore.  The title Jalan-jalan di Singapura is in Malay and translates literally to “A Walk in Singapore”.  Singapura-ku, a melody from Singapore, can be heard at the end of the march at rehearsal letter [J].  A motif from Movement 2 of Sinfonia Singaporia (Singapore Symphony, composed [by Ito] in 2005) can also be heard from rehearsal letters [F] to [H].  With this short march, the composer aims to capture a variety of musical characteristics that are clearly unique and symbolic of Singapore.

This work is commissioned by and dedicated to the Band Directors’ Association, Singapore.  (BDAS) The premiere was performed on the 25th of July 2012 under the baton of the composer with the NYWO (Singapore Youth Wind Orchestra) during the Opening Ceremony gala of the concert of the 17th Conference of the Asia Pacific Band Directors’ Association held in Singapore at the SIA Theatre of Lasalle College of Arts.

Interestingly, Jalan-jalan di Singapura has no snare drum part, yet Ito indicates that “percussion can be substituted by players’ own idea”, leaving the door open to that and much more.

Here is the march itself, recorded by the NYWO in rehearsal:

Ito very clearly quotes his own Sinfonia Singapuriana in the middle of the march.  Below is the second movement:

Singapura-ku is a national folk song that is popular enough to have been performed in this spectacular context:

It is worth it to read up on the history of Singapore, a small and prosperous island city-state on the crossroads between Malaysia and Indonesia, to understand the cultural influences that led to the creation of this march.

More on the composer on wikipedia, Bravo Music, and his own (mostly Japanese language!) website.

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 non-musical training, he is gaining attention as a composer of unique and sophisticated works for wind band and other media.  City Trees was commissioned in 2012 by the Lesbian and Gay Band Association “to commemorate 30 years of Music, Visibility, and Pride.”  It was premiered on September 15 of that year in Dallas, Texas by the LGBA 30th Anniversary Band.  Markowski describes the origin of the piece:

I had just moved from Arizona to New York City when I began sketching the first fragments of City Trees. After being born, growing up, and living in the desert for 25 years of my life, moving to New York so suddenly was and continues to be one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. I think it has also been one of the bravest. I left my friends, my family, and my ridiculously cheap rent all without much planning.

Every time I walk down a street in New York, I notice the trees shackled by the sidewalk. Some have little fences around them, many have trash nestled up next to their exposed roots, and others have grown so big and become so strong that they have broken right through the concrete pavement. As I pass beneath them, they all seem to wave their leafy pom-poms in the wind, a thousand leaves applauding, cheering me on as if I had just returned from the moon.

These trees have learned how to brave the concrete jungle, and it gave me solace knowing that they had flourished in such a challenging environment. Over time, the impossibilities of the city have become familiar, and although I continue to learn new lessons everyday, I’ve slowly begun to assimilate, finding my way around, discovering new places, and making friends while still keeping close with those who aren’t close by. The music in City Trees began to take on a growing sense of perseverance, embodied by the expansive melodies that sweep over the pensive, rhythmic undercurrent.

For me, City Trees is a reflection of the bravery that it often takes to venture into new worlds, embrace other cultures, and lovingly encourage new ideas. I am deeply honored to dedicate this piece to the Lesbian and Gay Band Association. Although I may never completely understand the unique challenges my friends have faced and had to overcome, I am inspired by the overwhelming courage that has been so firmly planted for 30 years and that continues to grow, perhaps slowly, but always stronger.

Everything you’ll ever need to know about City Trees is on Markowski’s comprehensive website for the piece, which includes a recording, an interactive sample score (here’s the pdf version), a SoundCloud recording, an analysis by Dr. Marc R. Dickey, the program note I quoted above, and more.

Now, in case you didn’t already find it among the links above, here is City Trees on video:

Born in the Bronx, William Schuman (1910-1992) dropped out of business school to pursue composition after hearing the New York Philharmonic for the first time.  He became a central figure in New York’s cultural institutions, leaving his presidency of the Juilliard School to become the first director of Lincoln Center in 1962.  All the while he was active as a composer.  He received the inaugural Pulitzer Prize for music in 1943.  He shared a fondness for wind music with his Juilliard contemporaries Vincent Persichetti and Peter Mennin, from which came many classic works for wind band.

Schuman wrote George Washington Bridge in 1950.  It was premiered that summer at the Interlochen Music Camp in Michigan.  From the score:

There are few days in the year when I do not see George Washington Bridge.  I pass it on my way to work as I drive along the Henry Hudson Parkway on the New York shore.  Ever since my student days when I watched the progress of its construction, this bridge has had for me an almost human personality, and this personality is astonishingly varied, assuming different moods depending on the time of day or night, the weather, the traffic and, of course, my own mood as I pass by.

I have walked across it late at night when it was shrouded in fog, and during the brilliant sunshine hours of midday.  I have driven over it countless times and passed under it on boats.  Coming to New York City by air, sometimes I have been lucky enough to fly right over it.  It is difficult to imagine a more gracious welcome or dramatic entry to the great metropolis.

The Cincinnati Wind Symphony performs the piece:

The bridge itself is an iconic monument connecting New York City to Fort Lee, New Jersey.  For some facts about it, visit this website, run by the town of Fort Lee.

Read more on George Washington Bridge the piece at Music Sales Classical, WQXR, and the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra blog.  Schuman has bios on Wikipedia, his own official website, G. Schirmer, Theodore Presser, and Naxos.

Washington, D.C. native and legendary bandmaster John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) wrote a dozen operettas, six full-length operas, and over 100 marches, earning the title “March King”.  He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps at an early age and went on to become the conductor of the President’s Own United States Marine Band at age 26.  In 1892 he formed “Sousa and his Band”, which toured the United States and the world under his directorship for the next forty years to great acclaim.  Not only was Sousa’s band hugely popular, but it also exposed audiences all over the world to the latest, cutting-edge music, bringing excerpts of Wagner’s Parsifal to New York a decade before the Metropolitan Opera staged it, and introducing ragtime to Europe, helping to spark many a composer’s interest in American music.

Frederick Fennell’s program notes to his edition of The Black Horse Troop tell the whole story of the march from a personal perspective:

The Black Horse Troop was completed December 30, 1924, at Sousa’s Sands Point, Long Island estate.  It was played for the first time about ten months later on October 17, 1925, at a concert of the Sousa Band in the Public Auditorium, Cleveland, Ohio – and I was there.  I had not been to such an event as this one; I remember that as Sousa’s march was being played, Troop A rode the stage and stood behind the band to the tumultuous cheering of all.  The March King enjoyed a long relationship with the men and horses of Cleveland’s Ohio National Guard, known as Troop A.

Once again his special comprehension of the thrilling spectacle of regimental movement produced a compelling musical experience for both the player and the listener, commanding our particular awareness of his use of the trumpets and drums at various dynamic levels.

During the half-century of his career as the most successful bandmaster who ever lived, there was both reason and necessity for his creating these wonderful marches – and among them all The Black Horse Troop is a positive standout.

Read more about the Sousa Band and its history at naxosdirect.com. Click the link that says “Read more about this recording.”

Sousa shrine – including biography, complete works, and much more – at the Dallas Wind Symphony website.

John Philip Sousa on Wikipedia

The Black Horse Troop in a modern performance by the US Marine Band:

Viet Cuong (b. 1990) is a rising star in the music world.  At age 23 (as of this writing), his music for large ensembles and chamber groups has already been performed on four continents, and it has won him a litany of awards.  He was trained at the Peabody Conservatory (BM and MM) and Princeton (PhD in progress).  We can expect to see much more from him.

Sound and Smoke is Cuong’s first mature piece for wind band, written in 2011 while he was an undergraduate at Peabody.  It won him the Walter Beeler Memorial Prize for new wind band compositions in 2012.  He gives detailed program note in the score:

Both the title and concept of Sound and Smoke were derived from a line from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Faust, when Faust equates words to “mere sound and smoke” and declares that “feeling is everything.” Each of the two movements has been given an abstract, parenthetical title to further incorporate Goethe’s conjecture that words will never be able to fully express what feelings and, in this case, music can. Therefore, these titles serve merely as starting points for personal interpretation and should not interfere with the music itself.

The first movement, (feudal castle lights), blurs the many different timbres of the ensemble to create a resonant and slowly “smoldering” effect. Because reverb is essentially built into the orchestration, harmonies must shift using common tones and are always built upon the notes preceding them. The second and final movement, (avalanche of eyes), opens with an alternating unison-note brass fanfare that is then spun out into a fast-paced toccata. Suspense and excitement are created as the spotlight moves quickly between the various colors of the ensemble and the fanfare is transformed.

The original concept of “sound and smoke” unifies these two otherwise dissimilar movements; often times ideas are presented and then promptly left behind or transformed. Musical events therefore appear and dissipate as quickly as sound and smoke.

The Peabody Wind Ensemble performs Sound and Smoke:

Viet Cuong has an excellent website that has his bio, an up-to-date works list, and the latest news on his developing career.

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.

…and the mountains rising nowhere is the result of a commission from Donald Hunsberger and the Eastman Wind Ensemble with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1977.  It was premiered that year by Eastman at the CBDNA national conference in College Park, Maryland.  It is dedicated to the children’s author Carol Adler, whose poem arioso is excerpted in the score and which inspired the work:

arioso     bells
sepia
moon-beams
an afternoon sun blanked by rain
and the mountains rising nowhere
the sound returns
the sound and the silence   chimes

…and the mountains rising nowhere holds a very unique place in the repertoire for wind bands.  It is scored for an extended orchestral wind section: 6 flutes (4 doubling piccolo), 2 clarinets, 4 oboes (2 doubling English Horn), 4 bassoons, 4 trumpets, 4 horns, 4 trombones (the 4th being a bass), and tuba, plus string bass.  It also calls for a six percussion players who play 46 different instruments in the course of the piece.  The feature player is an amplified piano.  In addition to all of the effects that Schwantner achieves with his percussion menagerie and conventional piano and wind sounds, he calls for unusual techniques in the winds like singing, whistling, aleatoric effects, and even tuned glass crystals which the oboists play for more than half of the piece.  These combine to make a mystical soundscape unlike anything that has come before or since.

Structurally, …and the mountains rising nowhere is in three broad sections defined by its beginning around B, its middle move to A-flat, and its final return to B.  Within that framework, there are nine distinct sections plus an introduction and a coda.  Otherwise, the work is unified by its use of sevens: arioso has seven lines, the piece was written in 1977, it is loaded with seven-note chords and seventh leaps in the melody, it uses septuplets and other seven-note groupings, it uses seven groups of whistler, its main tonal centers are related by a diminished seventh, etc.  In addition, diatonic (seven-note) scales are contrasted with octatonic (eight-note) scales for much of the piece.  This is not to say that it is a tonal creation, but neither can it be considered purely atonal.  It does have strong pitch centers for most of the work, but not necessarily in a way that Bach or Mozart would recognize.  This ambiguity is a hallmark of Schwantner’s eclectic use of compositional techniques.  Listen to the result as played by the North Texas Wind Symphony:

More information about …mountains… is available from the Wind Repertory Project, Nikk Pilato‘s doctoral dissertation from 2007 (skip to page 20), the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra blog, two different papers (here and here) by Cynthia Folio, this LiveJournal, University of Texas program notes, a chapter by Scott Higbee, Ronald Montgomery‘s dissertation, and Jeffrey Renshaw‘s articles in The Instrumentalist and Teaching Music through Performance in Band.

Joseph Schwantner has a biography on Wikipedia and his own website.