As students back in the late twentieth century, my artistic colleagues and I would sit around drinking beer and making the usual complaint that symphony orchestras weren’t finding our doors and beating them down to beg for a new piece.  No matter though, chamber music is the future, we’d say.  Composition in the next century is to be lean, mean, efficient and economical.  But admittedly, the idea of writing for large forces is appealing.

Then someone would say, “yeah, too bad band music is so cheesy.”

Everyone would nod in agreement and several quintessential band composers would be harshly critiqued for the trite commercial schlock they’ve provided the world.

Then someone else would add–very thoughtfully–that band needn’t be cheesy at all.  In fact, wind ensembles should be a better vehicle for modern composers.  The variety of timbres, general inclination towards rhythmic precision, and availability of band programs in nearly every school, make the symphonic wind ensemble full of potential for the living composer.

Everyone would look off into the distance, nod, and take another sip.

Then someone would add, “Yeah, a lot of wasted potential.”  Slaps to the back would accompany peals of laughter.

Since then, a lot of new music has been written for winds and percussion and much of it quite good.  It’s entirely possible that we might look back on the Wind Ensemble as the most important large-forces vehicle for composers alive in the early 21st century.  Directors are certainly hungry for new rep and not particularly snobbish to styles.  Tonal?  Fine.  Atonal?  Great.  Controlled Aleatory?  Happens all the time.

Last year, I decided to write a piece for wind ensemble if I could find at least four directors who would commit to programming it.  Four directors did commit and I wrote “Cahaba” for wind ensemble.  James Saker at University of Nebraska-Omaha gave the work its premiere in March 2010.  It will be performed at the University of Montevallo under the baton of Joe Ardovino on October, 21, and Dan Heslink conducts it at Millersville University, December 1st.

Since posting an excerpt of the UNO recording on Facebook, four other conductors have asked asked about performing “Cahaba.”  I am also writing another work for UNO’s symphonic band.

There has even been an increase of interest from orchestra conductors because of this recording.  Commissioning a work for orchestra is a risky proposition, and having samples that show you can organize large forces does a lot to gain a conductor’s confidence.

Do you write for band?  Are you a band director who performs new works?  Who are some composers writing interesting stuff for winds and percussion right now?

2 Responses to “With the band…”
  1. Jake Wallace says:

    John Corigliano has made frequent comment in the past several years since the premiere of his Circus Maximus that he feels the wind band is the large ensemble of the future, because its proponents are more flexible with what they will and won’t do, they’ll schedule far more rehearsal time, and the composer will get more performances (and hence, more money). It’s just in general more friendly to the artist.

    In fact, he started a small consortium of interested parties (including, I believe, William Bolcom) to petition to ASCAP and BMI that performances by collegiate wind ensembles be considered at the same level for royalties as professional orchestras because they perform at an approximately similar level (in his opinion).

    I’m not someone who throws around the notion (as others do) that the symphony orchestra is doomed, but the vast majority of young composers who people talk about are writing for band and less frequently (or not at all) for orchestra. And in line with that, the wind band conductors of the world are seducing them into their corner. You may find in 20-30 years that there aren’t as many new pieces of high quality being written for orchestra because all the good composers are taking the artistic satisfaction of writing primarily for the wind ensemble.

    John Mackey’s blog ( talks about this concept a lot – good reading for anyone who wants to read more on it (and see pretty pictures of food).

  2. Rusty Banks says:

    Yeah, the royalty thing is interesting. It’s not like it’s easier to write band music, and in terms of all the technical work (instrumentation, part generation, transpositions, notation) it’s actually more work. Is it really a difference in band vs orchestra though? Or is it venue (academic vs. non academic)? I’ve always noticed that I receive much lower royalties from performances at universities. I assumed their licenses were cheaper, which I’m not against, but I don’t know.

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