Posts Tagged “composing”

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?

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In one of my theory classes as an undergrad, my comp teacher noted that the prevalent interval classes had, for the most part, evolved along the path of the overtone series: chant (octaves), organum (fifths), common practice (thirds) early 20th century (seconds) later 20th century (microtones). So what was next, he asked with a smile.

I thought unison would be a dreadfully boring place to go, but then, Reich and Andriessen were doing things with imitation at the unison that was pretty exciting. There was also the idea of heterophony. While very common in non-western music, and even some western folk traditions, heterophony is only touched on occasionally by modern composers, and more as a decorative orchestration technique than a substantive idea in a piece.

One of my first successes with a more formal approach to heterophony is a movement from Taxonomy for flute and clarinet. The movement, Elaphe, evokes the genus of snakes it is named for by presenting patterns then blurring them (the main, if pitiful, defense ratsnakes have against predators). A pattern is presented in the clarinet, and the flute grabs on to certain notes, making it seem that the clarinet has left ghosts, or echoes, or is anticipated. While a bit more complex than doubling the melody with some ornamentation, it has a similar “thickening” effect that heterophony does in the music of Ireland or Thailand. One difference, however, is that in traditional heterophony the rhythmic edges are softened, whereas in this style they become more angular.

You can see the score and listen to the effect.

Betsy Bobenhouse, Flute; Christy Banks, clarinet.

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