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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.

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!

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.

Dr. Edward Green is an award-winning composer and music educator, as well as a prolific scholar in the field of music history.  He currently sits on the faculties of both the Manhattan School of Music and the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.  He has received numerous awards for his work.

He provides his own extensive notes, plus some additional biography, for his 1999 orchestral suite, Music for Shakespeare:

This orchestral suite was composed in 1999 and premiered by the Minnesota Sinfonia early in 2000. In 2013, Andy Pease gave it a parallel form for concert winds.

This suite grew out of incidental music Dr. Green had originally written to accompany Shakespearian productions by the Aesthetic Realism Theater Company—and throughout the writing of this music, he explained, he was inspired by this principle of Aesthetic Realism, which he learned from the great American philosopher Eli Siegel:  “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

A key pair of opposites is old and new; in this music, the composer has said, he wanted to be true to both the Elizabethan spirit and the music of our own times.  With melody always in the forefront, the suite evokes the dances of Shakespeare’s day, and the rhythms of our own. As a result, the style is both heartfelt and surprising: serious, yet filled with warmth, charm, humor.

“Love Music” is the title to the opening movement, and its long-arched melody is in the bright tonality of E Lydian. “When I wrote this melody,” the composer has said, “I had in mind Shakespeare’s heroines and also my wife, the actress Carrie Wilson.  In fact, I wrote this melody immediately after seeing her in the role of Desdemona with the Aesthetic Realism Theater Company.”

The second movement is in five parts: a complete “Dance Suite” unto itself. It begins with an Elizabethan “Gigue”—only written not in the traditional 12/8 meter, but in a modernistic 11/8—which gives it delightful irregularity. It is followed by an “Air,” and then three dances which flow into each other: a “Galliard”—depicting some of Shakespeare’s more comic (and slightly drunken) characters, such as Sir Toby Belch—a “Pavane,” and then a “Rigadoon,” which is written in rousing five-bar phrases.

Music for Shakespeare is perhaps Edward Green’s most frequently performed orchestral work. But hardly his only one—for orchestras across the US and also in England, Russia, Argentina, Australia, the Czech Republic and several other countries have also performed such works as his Piano, Trumpet and Saxophone concertos, all three of which have appeared on commercial CDs. He has also written much chamber and choral music, and a Symphony for Band, which was jointly commissioned by a consortium of thirteen of America’s leading concert wind ensembles.  He is currently at work on a ballet based on Milton’s Paradise Lost, and on a symphony commissioned by the Catskill Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to his creative activities—which likewise includes work as a film composer in collaboration with the Emmy Award-winning director Ken Kimmelman—Edward Green is also an active music educator.  He teaches at Manhattan School of Music, where he is a professor in the departments of Composition, Music History, and Jazz, and also at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation. Trained in Ohio (Oberlin Conservatory) and New York (NYU), he has appeared as a guest composer and lecturer throughout Europe and both North and South America.  He is editor of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Duke Ellington, and was editor of China and the West: The Birth of a New Music (Shanghai Conservatory Press).

Among his many professional honors is the Zoltan Kodaly Composers’ Award, and a 2009 Grammy nomination for his Piano Concertino (Best Contemporary Classical Composition). He also was the recipient, in 2004, of the highly sought-after Music Alive! Award from the American Symphony Orchestra League.

In putting together the wind band version of Music for Shakespeare, I retained the opening “Love Music” as a separate movement and split the second “Dance Suite” movement into its five component dances: “Gigue”, “Air”, “Galliard”, “Pavane”, and “Rigadoon”, of which the last three run together attacca.  I made several key adjustments, so that the “Love Music” is now in E-flat rather than E, and the final four movements are down a whole step from where they began, putting them in more wind-friendly keys.  I also rebarred the “Gigue” from 11/8 to a mix of 5/8 and 6/8, making it easier for players (and hopefully conductors) to interpret the length of each beat.  At every step, I was in contact with Dr. Green, who approved all of the changes and endorsed the final product.

Listen to a MIDI mock-up below.  Feel free, also, to read along in the score (.pdf):

Here is the Arizona State University Concert Band performing the first movement, “Love Music”, on March 1, 2014.  Please excuse the trumpet-heavy mix, owing to the camera placement:

As Green said, the orchestral version has been performed around the world.  The band version will have its first partial airing by the Arizona State University Concert Band on Saturday, March 1 on the ASU campus.  Anyone else who is interested performing it should contact me: misterpease “at” gmail.com.

Dr. Green has an extensive website that includes his full biography.  I recommend exploring the site a good deal.  His scholarly articles are probing and very accessible.  The site also has mp3s of several of his compositions, including this recording of the orchestral Music for Shakespeare (scroll to the bottom to find it).  These are very much worth a listen as window into his style.

Dr. Green’s faculty page at the Manhattan School of Music.

His faculty page at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.

Dutch composer Johan de Meij (b. 1953) studied trombone and conducting at the Royal Conservatory of Music in The Hague.  He now resides in suburban New Jersey. He rose to international fame as a composer with his Symphony no. 1 “The Lord of the Rings”.  Written between 1984 and 1987, it was premiered in Brussels, Belgium in 1988.  It went on to win first prize in the Sudler International Wind Band Composition Competition in 1989, and a Dutch Composers Fund award in 1990, and has since become a cornerstone of the repertoire for high-level bands worldwide.

The Symphony is based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy of fantasy novels by the same name, which has recently also been immortalized in director Peter Jackson’s film trilogy.  Each of the symphony’s five movements illustrates an important character or event from the Lord of the Rings story: “Gandalf”, the wizard; “Lothlorien”, home of the Elves; “Gollum”, the pitiful former keeper of the ring; “Journey in the Dark”, a chronicle of an expedition through abandoned Dwarf mines; and “Hobbits”.  Says De Meij of each movement:

I) GANDALF (The Wizard)

The first movement is a musical portrait of the wizard Gandalf, one of the principal characters of the trilogy. His wise and noble personality is expressed by a stately motif which is used in different forms in movements IV and V. The sudden opening of the Allegro vivace is indicative of the unpredictability of the grey wizard, followed by a wild ride on his beautiful horse “Shadowfax”.

II) LOTHLORIEN (The Elvenwood)

The second movement is an impression of Lothlorien, the elvenwood with its beautiful trees, plants, exotic birds, expressed through woodwind solos. The meeting of the Hobbit Frodo with the Lady Galadriel is embodied in a charming Allegretto; in the Mirror of Galadriel, a silver basin in the wood, Frodo glimpses three visions, the last of which, a large ominous Eye, greatly upsets him.

III) GOLLUM (Smeagol)

The third movement describes the monstrous creature Gollum, a slimy, shy being represented by the soprano saxophone. It mumbles and talks to itself, hisses and lisps, whines and snickers, is alternately pitiful and malicious, is continually fleeing and looking for his cherished treasure, the Ring.

IV) JOURNEY IN THE DARK

The fourth movement describes the laborious journey of the Fellowship of the Ring, headed by the wizard Gandalf, through the dark tunnels of the Mines of Moria. The slow walking cadenza and the fear are clearly audible in the monotonous rhythm of the low brass, piano and percussion. After a wild pursuit by hostile creatures, the Orks, Gandalf is engaged in a battle with a horrible monster, the Balrog, and crashes from the subterranean bridge of Khazad-Dum in a fathomless abyss.

V) HOBBITS
The fifth movement expresses the carefree and optimistic character of the Hobbits in a happy folk dance; the hymn that follows emanates the determination and noblesse of the hobbit folk.  The symphony does not end on an exuberant note, but is concluded peacefully and resigned, in keeping with the symbolic mood of the last chapter “The Grey Havens” in which Frodo and Gandalf sail away in a white ship and disappear slowly beyond the horizon.
The symphony in its entirety is quite substantial, so the movements are often performed individually.  “Gandalf” and “Hobbits” are the most frequently performed movements.

Website for Johan de Meij and his publishing company. Includes an extensive bio and works list, as well as a link to program notes of the symphony.

Review of a CD containing the symphony and de Meij’s trombone concerto.

One more program note on Symphony no. 1, from everything2.com.

Now some videos.  Notice, it’s largely different bands for each movement.  They’re not easy!

Gandalf, by the Amsterdam Winds.  I’m pretty sure they used cellos to beef up the low brass/bassoon solos that pepper the movement.

Lothlorien, by the TMK Bad Wimsbach Neydharting:

Gollum LIVE.  Watch this monstrous soprano sax player!

Journey in the Dark by a nameless ensemble (orchestra version).

Finally, Hobbits by an accomplished Dutch band.

Now some Lord of the Rings background for the uninitiated.  The various internet sources below can tell its story much more succinctly and completely than I can.  Suffice it to say that The Lord of the Rings laid the foundation for modern fantasy writing and has inspired countless tributes and adaptations to other media, including notably Peter Jackson’s film trilogy.

Lord of the Rings on wikipedia.

The official movie trilogy site.

Lord of the Rings Fanatics site, for true fans only.

National Geographic’s Beyond the Movie feature on Lord of the Rings.

J. R. R. Tolkien on wikipedia.

Video of the opening scenes of the movie (complete with Chinese subtitles).  Pretty much gives the context for the whole story.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.  Please go forth and find more on your own!