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Tag Archives: Grade 6

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.

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.

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.

German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was a true Wunderkind, with over 100 compositions to his name by the age of 18.  The vast majority of these were juvenilia, but some them, like his Serenade for Winds, written when he was 17 and given opus 7, sound like mature pieces and remain in the repertoire.  Strauss’s early career was distinguished by his tone poems, including Don JuanDon QuixoteSinfonia DomesticaEin HeldenlebenTill Eulenspiegel, and others.  Through his deft handling of the orchestra in works like these, Strauss is alleged to have claimed that he could depict a knife and fork (and other such mundane objects) through music.  His later career involved writing some of the most shockingly modern of early 20th century operas, including Salome and Elektra, a later gradual return to a more conservative, tonal style, a brief period of questionable association with the Nazi party (from which he was later absolved), and a final distinguished resurgence.  He was writing up to his death: some of his last compositions are marked as “opus posthumous,” despite being premiered during his lifetime.

Strauss’s contributions to the wind band are substantial, beginning with the aforementioned Serenade and extending to the two multi-movement sonatinas written in the last years of his life, with some fanfares and a Suite in between.  The Happy Workshop is one of the two sonatinas from the 1940s (written in 1944-1945, to be precise).  Its original title was Sontatina no. 2 “Fröhliche Werkstatt”.  This was changed to Symphonie für Bläser “Fröhliche Werkstatt”  by Strauss’s publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, and that title has stuck.  B&H had their reasons for the change: the work is in four movements in a traditional symphonic plan, and it is nearly 50 minutes long in total.  It was premiered in 1946 in Switzerland with the very living Strauss in attendance, and yet it still contains the designation “opus posthumous,” as noted above.

This is not a piece to be trifled with.  Aside from its length and the concentration required to stay engaged for so long, it is technically challenging for each player and full of ensemble traps.  (To put it in the words of one of Arizona State’s wind faculty, who played on a recent performance of this, “pick a key and stick to it for more than a bar!!”)  Also, it requires some unusual instruments.  There are parts for clarinet in C and basset horn, as well as a bass clarinet part written in bass clef!  I made alternative versions of some of these while doing TA work at ASU:

Here it is, played by the Netherland Wind Ensemble (unfortunately in four chunks):

For more on Strauss (and this just scratches the surface), see his Wikipedia bio, his Encyclopedia Brittanica entry, this profile on mfiles, this profile on a website about music and the Holocaust, an essay about him in the New York Review of Books, and the official website dedicated to him and run by his family.

The Happy Workshop is no stranger to recording or writing.  Find out more about it at Presto Classical,, and this blog.  It is also on IMSLP, though it is not in the public domain in the US just yet.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was a child prodigy born in Salzburg, Austria who toured Europe as a boy, playing keyboards and violin for nobility and the general public.  He began composing at age 4, amassing an impressive output of over 600 pieces by the time of his untimely death at age 35.  His compositions encompassed solo keyboard works, symphonies, operas, string quartets, concertos, chamber music of all stripes, and religious works.  He famously died while composing his Requiem, K. 626.  It is possible that he believed himself to be writing his own funeral music, but it is unlikely that he was poisoned by the composer Antonio Salieri, as is asserted in the film Amadeus.  In life, he had a reputation as a prankster, which shone through in his music at times (witness the 4-voice canons Difficile lectu and O du eselhafter Peierl).  He is remembered today as perhaps one of the greatest composers who ever lived.

The Serenade K 361 (370a) has long been known by its more famous nickname, Gran Partita.  This was not Mozart’s invention: his manuscript for the piece originally had no heading, but some unknown hand scribbled the nickname on it, and it has stuck.  It means, essentially, “big wind symphony,” which is not inaccurate: the Gran Partita uses an unusually large ensemble (13 players) for the era, as well as a seven-movement form that is larger than either a four-movement symphony or the more conventional six-movement serenade or divertimento that formed the core of the wind repertoire at the time.  In addition to the usual harmonie ensemble of two oboes, two clarinets, two horns, and two bassoons, the Gran Partita adds two more horns, a pair of basset horns, and a string bass.  The seven movements consist of a sonata-allegro with an adagio introduction, a minuet and double trio, an adagio, another minuet and double trio featuring an obvious ländlera tripartite Romance, a theme and variations with a curious interruption, and a spritely finale, totaling nearly an hour of music.  Its composition date remains in dispute: it could have been as early as 1780, although it was not performed in any form until March 23, 1784, when it was presented at a benefit concert put on by famous clarinetist Anton Stadler.  This is the only known performance during Mozart’s lifetime, and it only included four of the movements!  Thankfully, the manuscript has survived in complete form to the present day, and it has become a cornerstone of the repertoire for chamber winds.

There are many performances of the Gran Partita out there, and no two will interpret it the same way.  Answers to the questions of eingangen (little cadenzas), double dotting, ornamentation, grace notes, tempos, and more can only be guessed at, since we have no concrete and specific style guide from the period, let alone any recordings.  I chose the recording below because of the fabulous assortment of period instruments they used (despite the fact that there is no conductor).  Each movement is a distinct video, so you can start anywhere.  Listen, but also watch!

I. Largo – Molto allegro

II. Menuetto I

III. Adagio

IV. Menuetto II

V. Romance

VI. Tema con variazioni

VII. Finale

Now for the links I promised.  The Gran Partita has its own pages at Wikipedia and You can get certain versions of the score for free at the International Music Score Library Project.  It is also featured in program notes from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, as well as this article by Roger Hellyer, who tries to get a fix on the elusive composition date.

As for Mozart himself, see Wikipedia, The Mozart Project, Studio-Mozart, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra kids site for something a little more interactive.  All of this only scratches the surface.

I couldn’t write about Mozart without including a scene from Amadeus.  Here, the fictional Salieri recounts his feelings on first hearing the adagio from the Gran Partita, which aptly serves to demonstrate the young Mozart’s genius:

Willem van Otterloo (1907-1978) is best remembered as a conductor of international stature.  He began his career in his native Netherlands, conducting the Utrecht Municipal Orchestra in the 1930s and 40s.  From 1949-1973 he was the chief conductor of the Residentie Orkest in The Hague.  From this post he built an international career, conducting orchestras around the world and landing other music director positions in Australia, first in Melbourne, then in Sydney.  What compositions he left behind largely come from the period before 1945, when he was still firmly based in the Netherlands and had not yet taken off as a conductor.

The Symphonietta for sixteen winds is among those early compositions, dating from 1943.  This was a dark time in The Netherlands, which was under the occupation of Nazi Germany with no end in sight.  This darkness is reflected in the Symphonietta, especially in its first movement, which alternates between abject despair and pleading desperation.  The mood lightens considerably in the second movement, an octatonic scherzo in sonata form.  A solo cadenza connects these two movements, as it does the second and the third.  Movement three is a quiet, reflective song anchored by D-flat.  The fourth and final movement continues after the slightest pause, again lightening the mood with running sixteenth notes on an octatonic scale.  It is currently available from Floricor Editions.  Here is a good, recent performance of the whole thing:

Born in Russia, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was on track to become a lawyer until he began composition studies with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.  He started his career in Paris with three ballets written for choreographer Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, the last of which is legendary for causing a riot at its premiere.   The Rite especially was a model of neo-primitivism, in which Stravinsky used very small cells of notes to create orchestral textures that often featured intense, driving rhythms.  In the 1920s he largely abandoned his primitivist tendencies and began writing consciously Neoclassical music, which at first baffled his contemporaries, although not as much as his turn to serialism in the 1950s.  Still, his music remained popular, and he was consistently seen as a bold and hugely influential composer, perhaps one of the most important of the 20th century.  His reputation endures today, with hundreds if not thousands of performances of his works happening every year.  He died an American citizen, having moved to California in 1939.

It was from this perch in sunny Hollywood that Stravinsky wrote his Ebony Concerto in 1945.  In it, he distilled American jazz through his own compositional lens.  The score (untouched since its first edition in 1946) has this to say about its origin and inspiration:

Ebony Concerto was written by Igor Stravinsky for Woody Herman and his Orchestra.  It was introduced by that orchestra in a memorable concerto at Carnegie Hall, New York, on March 25, 1946, to the acclaim of public and critics alike.

Igor Stravinsky is one of the greatest and most representative figures in modern-day music.  His music has shocked, delighted, amazed, and irritated, but never bored people.  Stravinsky’s revolutionary musical precepts, his constant search for the new, for the true mirror of our changing world, find expression in music that is based on sound musicianship and great genius.  That is why his Firebird SuiteRite of Spring, and Petrouchka, to name only a few of his major works, are modern classics.

That is why Stravinsky was so impressed by the Woody Herman Orchestra and by their recordings of Bijou, Goosey Gander, and Caldonia.  His creativeness, invention, and deep sense of the modern, matched the characteristics of the Herman Orchestra.  A few months after Stravinsky had met Woody Herman, he presented the popular bandleader with Ebony Concerto… a composition that marks an epochal collaboration between the “jazz” and the “modern” schools of thought.

In truth, this origin story is somewhat romanticized.  Another account (see the Chicago Tribune link below) has it that a member of Herman’s band boasted of a meeting with Stravinsky which never actually happened, leading their mutual publisher to arrange the commission for the cash-strapped composer.  Regardless, Stravinsky did possess enough affinity for jazz that he did not hesitate in completing the project.

Listen to the original recording, and notice the delicious clash of styles happening:

Now listen to another recording that Stravinsky conducted, this time with Benny Goodman as the soloist:

The astute listener in possession of a score will have noticed that in both recordings, Stravinsky does not take his own printed tempos.  The interpretations on these recordings have now become standard.

The tunes mentioned in the program notes give great context to what inspired Stravinsky.  Here is Bijou:

And here is Caldonia:

For further reading on the Ebony Concerto, visit the Center for Jazz Arts, the Chicago Tribune, New York City Ballet, and Boosey & Hawkes.  Get a partial look at the score here.

Stravinsky has biographies on Wikipedia, IMDb, and Boosey & Hawkes, as well as a Foundation in his name with an Internet presence.  So much has been written about him in print that the Internet hardly does him justice.  But here are some articles from humanitiesweb and Cal Tech (on his religious works), and some quotes from him, just to whet your appetite.

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.

California native John Cage (1912-1992) pushed the boundaries of what was considered music throughout his distinguished career.  Among his most iconic creations was 1952’s 4’33”, presented here in its version for band:

It also exists in versions for orchestra:



And Death Metal combo:

To name a few.  Read more about it here.  Happy April Fools!

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 epic work for wind band and electronics, Ecstatic Waters, has received more performances than any other piece of its 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.

Concerto for Wind Ensemble is a virtuosic showpiece for winds: each player is a soloist with a completely independent part.  Bryant has extensively documented his inspiration and his compositional process on his website.  First, his program note:

My Concerto for Wind Ensemble came into existence in two stages, separated by three years. The first movement came about in 2006, when Commander Donald Schofield (then director of the USAF Band of Mid-America) requested a new work that would showcase the band’s considerable skill and viscerally demonstrate their commitment to excellence as representatives of the United States Air Force. From the outset, I decided against an outright depiction of flight, instead opting to create a work that requires, and celebrates, virtuosity. Initial discussions with Cdr. Schofield centered on a concerto grosso concept, and from this, the idea evolved into one of surrounding the audience with three groups of players, as if the concertino group had expanded to encompass the audience. These three antiphonal groups, along with the onstage ensemble, form the shape of a diamond, which, not coincidentally, is a core formation for the USAF Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron. As a further analog, I’ve placed Trumpet 5 and Clarinet 5 in the back of the hall, serving as an ‘inversion’ of the ensemble onstage, which mirrors the role of the No. 5 pilot who spends the majority of the show flying inverted. The musical material consists of a five-note ascending scale-wise motive and a repeated chord progression (first introduced in the Vibraphone about 2’30” into the work). The rhythm of this chord progression (inspired by a Radiohead song) informs the rhythmic makeup of the remainder of the movement.

As the piece took shape, I realized I wanted to write much more than the “five to seven minutes” specified in the original commission, so I intentionally left the end of the work “open,” knowing I would someday expand it when the opportunity presented itself. That chance came in 2009, thanks to Jerry Junkin: shortly after his fantastic 2009 performance of Ecstatic Waters at the College Band Directors National Association conference in Austin, we discussed my desire to write more movements, and he graciously agreed to lead a consortium to commission the project.

In expanding the work, I planned to reuse the same few musical elements across all five movements. Economy of materials is a guiding principle of my approach to composing, and I set out to tie this work together as tightly as possible. The original ascending five-note motive from movement I returns often (in fact, the number 5 insinuates itself into both the melodic and rhythmic fabric of the entire work).

In Movement II, this scalar passage is stretched vertically, so that its total interval now covers a minor seventh instead of a perfect fifth. The F# Phrygian harmony eventually resolves upward to G major, acting as five-minute expansion of the F#-G trills introduced in the Clarinets at the beginning of Movement I. The second movement exploits the antiphonal instruments for formal purposes, as the music gradually moves from the stage to the surrounding instruments. Extended flute solos permeate the movement.

Movement III is bright, rhythmically incessant, and veers toward jazz in a manner that surprised me as it unfolded. The accompaniment patterns revisit the Vibraphone rhythm from movement I, which various scalar threads swirl around the ensemble. The melodic material for this movement comes from a trumpet solo my father played years ago, and which I transcribed in 2006, while composing the first movement. I knew from the beginning that this would end up in the work, though my original plan was to set it in toto in the fourth movement. Instead, it wound up in the much brighter third movement, and led the music into a completely unexpected direction.

Movement IV’s weighty character, then, comes from that initial plan to set my father’s solo, however, I realized it wasn’t going to sound as I had anticipated – I had envisioned something similar to IvesThe Unanswered Question, but it simply wasn’t working. Once I let go of the solo and focused on the surrounding sonic landscape, the music formed quickly, recalling various fragments from earlier in the piece. The movement also pays homage to Webern‘s Six Pieces for Orchestra (elements of which appear in other movements), and Corigliano‘s score to the film Altered States. Both of these have been early, powerful, lasting influences on my compositional choices.

Movement V returns to the opening motive of the entire work, this time with a simmering vitality that burns inexorably to a no-holds-barred climax. Where the first four movements of the work only occasionally coalesce into tutti ensemble passages, here, the entire band is finally unleashed.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Jerry Junkin and the consortium members for allowing me the opportunity to create this work – all 54,210 notes of it.

Concerto for Wind Ensemble is a true one-on-a-part wind ensemble work. Exact instrumentation is listed here.

Read more about Concerto for Wind Ensemble, including a look at the score, at Steven Bryant’s website and his blog.  Read up on Bryant himself at Wikipedia.

Here is the piece in performance by the University of Texas and Jerry Junkin:

Bryant also kept a video diary from the composition process:

He talks about several influences in his program notes.  The Radiohead song he refers to is Pyramid Songwhich is based on a symmetrical but uneven rhythm:

Movement IV references both Anton Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra:

And Bryant’s teacher John Corigliano’s Altered States:

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!