Brass Tacks

Brass Tacks

Brian Wise

For some 20 years, composer Gunther Schuller could be heard bemoaning the fact that concert bands and wind ensembles were languishing, becoming ever more isolated from the mainstream classical music establishment. As he saw it, band directors were not cultivating relationships with top-ranking composers. Nor were they being aggressive enough in pursuing important critics, concert presenters, managers, benefactors, and other tastemakers.

Schuller is famous for his blunt statements, but this one was hard to shrug off. He has written nearly a dozen band pieces over a fifty-year career and has long sought to break down the barriers between musical genres. In a 1991 article for Winds magazine titled “Storm the Establishment,” he concluded, “only by commissioning and performing music by the best composers in the world can you eliminate the…notion that wind band music is music of a lesser stripe, composed by lesser composers, and thus performed by lesser musicians.”

Lately, it seems that the band world has begun to heed Schuller’s arguments. A number of prominent composers are either writing or awaiting premieres of new band works, including John Corigliano (from the University of Texas), Christopher Rouse (University of Florida), Richard Danielpour (College Band Director’s National Association), and Bright Sheng and Michael Daugherty (both University of Michigan). Still others are enjoying successive performances of recent works, notably David Del Tredici, Michael Torke, Augusta Read Thomas, Joseph Schwantner, and Joan Tower, among others.

Many music professionals believe that bands and wind ensembles offer composers distinct advantages over orchestras, like vast amounts of rehearsal time, the potential for multiple performances (thanks to a well-connected network of university band directors), opportunities to reach new audiences, and sometimes significant financial incentives. But there are also questions about the character and quality of new band music. Can bands inspire composers to write their most innovative, complex, or demanding work? Is the influx of “name-brand” composers helping to put the band field on the path towards mainstream acceptance?

“This is one of the most composer-friendly communities that exists,” says Todd Vunderink, director of the publishing firm Peermusic Classical. “That makes sense, since the conductors at the major universities, who have large budgets, are consciously trying to build the repertoire. It’s a great contrast to the orchestra world, which is much more beholden to earlier centuries.”

The band world has long been dogged by an identity crisis; for every Holst Suite or Hindemith Symphony in B-flat, there are associations with parades, football halftime shows, and military services. But according to Frank Korach, a band specialist at Boosey & Hawkes, over 1,000 concert band pieces are written annually, and band programs are bigger and stronger than orchestral programs at U.S. educational institutions. “Bands are more liberal than orchestras. They’ll accept more than orchestras,” he says. “The college band world’s audience is more open to new things and non-standard repertoire.”

Any appraisal of contemporary band repertoire begins by looking at how new band pieces are cultivated. Increasingly at universities, and to a lesser extent, high schools and the military, commissioning consortia are favored, allowing each institution to contribute to the composer’s fee and then having their turn in the first round of performances. This offers a win-win solution: repertoire-starved bands get their name attached to a new piece at a small cost, and a composer gets multiple performances of a new work.

Birth of a Band Piece

John Mackey‘s Red Line Tango is one telling example. In February 2003, this nine-minute orchestral curtain-raiser was premiered by the Brooklyn Philharmonic. A couple of promising reviews followed, but interest from other orchestras was muted. When Mackey brought a CD of the piece to the 2003 Conference of the College Band Director’s National Association (CBDNA) in Minneapolis, however, word began to spread.

“Within a few weeks I heard from one of the band directors whom I gave a CD to and he wanted to commission a band version,” recalls Mackey. “I thought that was a horrible idea because it’s really, really hard, and even professional orchestras think it’s rough. I had no idea how good bands could be and I thought, well, there’s no way they’re going to be able to play that. But they totally can.”

The commission for a band version of Red Line Tango came from a consortium of eight college bands spearheaded by Emory University and Lamar University, the former of which gave its first performance last February. This season alone a dozen major bands—including the University of Michigan, Arizona State University, Eastman, USC, Florida State, the University of Connecticut, Ohio State, and the University of Kansas—are slated to perform it. In February it will be heard at the CBDNA conference in New York City, in what is being touted by organizers as a major showcase for the band world.

Mackey says that the skill levels of college-age instrumentalists may be below those of professionals, but a new piece will often receive a month or more of rehearsals, compared to one or two rehearsals by a professional orchestra. As a result, musicians will move beyond simply playing the notes and into interpretation. This has also allowed him to make improvements on the score. “There were some notation things that looked really cool on paper, but they were holding the piece back,” he says. After attending several band rehearsals, “there are no more 12/16 bars, it’s always just 3/4.”

Other composers report similar experiences. They find that band directors are often more adept than orchestra conductors in preparing new music, and philosophically, universities view commissioning as central to their school’s research and development mission. And as competition has raised the bar among students entering conservatories over the last two decades, the technical proficiency of bands has increased.

“The distribution of skills is much more equalized nowadays across the country,” says John Harbison, who has three band works to his credit including Music for 18 Winds written in 1984—a piece once considered nearly unplayable but which now is performed on a regular basis. Harbison adds that bands return to his pieces years after they were first performed, a practice that is less common in the orchestra world.

While Harbison came to band music through a side door—writing a piece for an orchestra’s wind section—other composers target bands as they seek new, possibly lucrative markets. “I was told that bands really need new pieces—they want new music, they commission music, and they pay well,” says Michael Torke, whose latest band work, Four Wheel Drive, features two drum sets, placed stage right and left, with a wind ensemble in the center.

Lucrative as the band market can be, naturally it is hard to lure top-tier composers without proper funding. Schools like the University of Michigan and New England Conservatory have endowed commissioning funds, the former of which gives Director of Bands Michael Haithcock $10,000 annually to commission new works. H. Robert Reynolds, the retired director of bands at the University of Michigan, says there is no standard fee. “Commissions can be anything,” he said. “Some I have done have been as little as $1,000, including parts, or as high as $35,000. It really depends on the fame of the person and who is commissioning.”

One composer who is receiving top dollar by any standard is John Corigliano, whose forthcoming Circus Maximus (subtitled Symphony No. 3) brought him $150,000 from the University of Texas School of Music. The 35- to 40-minute work features a large contingent of off-stage winds and will be premiered—after 27 hours of scheduled rehearsals—by the UT Wind Ensemble in February, first in Austin and then in New York at the CBDNA conference.

Jerry Junkin, director of bands at UT, says, “It started first and foremost with an anonymous donor who I really had not had much contact with but approached me out of the blue and said ‘I want to give you some money for a project and you can spend it however you want.’ This year Corigliano is holding an endowed chair and they were able to complete the fee.”

Bigger Names, New Challenges

The University of Texas is one of the leading schools to aggressively enlist high profile composers. In 2003, the university led a consortium of five college wind ensembles to commission David Del Tredici’s In Wartime, the composer’s first wind band piece. The work received attention outside of the band field for at least two reasons. First, there is its topicality. A response to America’s involvement in Iraq, it features hymns, battle marches, and a symbolic clash between the Persian national anthem and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. There is also Del Tredici’s approach to sonorities. His use of saxophones and brass has been likened to Milhaud‘s La Création du Monde and he also uses auxiliary percussion sounds like the ratchet, siren, and wind machine.

Other composers have found novel ways to utilize band resources, relishing the opportunity to write for eight trumpets or six saxophones. Still, many band directors complain that composers frequently fail to tap the medium’s expressive potential, resulting in a glut of blandly similar works. Frank Battisti is the retired director of bands at the New England Conservatory and a strong advocate of new music. He says that when some composers write their first band work, they often abandon their own voice in the name of traditions.

“Band directors still give scores to study for composers who have never written for the band,” he explains. “In doing this they are asking them to model their pieces after those they give them to review. Joan Tower’s band piece is not good because she tried to write a band piece. She should have been told to write the piece in the way she wanted to write it. This is the only way to get literature that offers new viewpoints on the potential of the wind ensemble as a viable expressive medium.”

To Junkin these challenges are not exclusive to bands. “This affects our medium no differently than a guitar concerto would for a composer who has never written for guitar, or any such circumstance,” he says. “Kevin Puts wrote a terrific piece for us last year, Chorus of Light, his first wind ensemble piece. He looked at a number of scores, but again, his orchestration is fresh and doesn’t fall into any clichés.

Not every composer has found satisfaction in the band world. Michael Torke has composed several band works including Bliss, Variations on an Unchanging Rhythm, a 2003 commission by the CBDNA. While the piece received numerous performances, he found that musicians consistently failed to grasp its nuances. “Bands have a very difficult time with anything that is too unfamiliar,” he says. “It’s a weird, funky, wild piece. There’s nothing avant-garde about it. It just takes a certain out-of-the-box thinking to make it work. [But] the general level of musicianship in the band world is lower. You require a basic level of musicianship for a piece to come alive. There’s a band tradition and it has to relate to that for them.”

In his 2002 book, Winds of Change, Battisti surveys contemporary band music and presents a decidedly mixed picture. On one hand, he notes that since the 1950s, band concert programs have included fewer transcriptions and more original compositions. There are more commercial recordings than ever before and commissioning is widespread. At the same time, no composition for wind band has ever been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music or the Grawemeyer Award and major composers—including Elliott Carter, Tan Dun, Steve Reich, and Thea Musgrave—continue to be overlooked by bands.

Towards the Musical Mainstream

Of course, bands have not always struggled for the respect of the concert-going public. In the early 20th century, they were the popular music of the day, bringing marches, waltzes, and foxtrots to parks and town squares. After World War II, bands retreated into academia, and professional ensembles nearly disappeared in the United States (a few professional bands remain, including the Goldman Band of New York, the Detroit Concert Band, and the Long Beach Municipal Band. With rare exceptions, these bands often program transcriptions of light classics, arrangements of opera music, selections from Broadway shows, marches, etc.)

“Unfortunately in this country it isn’t possible for many professional bands to exist right now,” says Gary Hill, president of the CBDNA and director of bands at Arizona State University. “In certain ways the band world has been in an existential crisis. We’ve been trying to find out where we fit in beyond academe.”

Part of the challenge may be geographic in nature. Presently, the band world is centered in the Midwest and the South. New York City has scarcely a single band program in its public schools, and major conservatories like the Juilliard School, Manhattan School of Music, Curtis Institute, and the San Francisco Conservatory do not have full-time wind bands.

Hill believes audiences for band music are not much different than those who attend orchestra concerts. For that reason it would be plausible for symphony orchestra wind sections to take up band pieces (and not just a Mozart Serenade or Stravinsky‘s Symphonies of Wind Instruments) on a periodic basis and audiences and critics would follow. If orchestral works by composers like Harbison, Daugherty, or Corigliano are being programmed by orchestras, there’s no reason that band pieces shouldn’t enter the repertory as well.

Some predict that if Corigliano’s Circus Maximus is a success, band music will receive newfound attention from presenters, critics, and other composers. “If you see that Corigliano has a band piece, it’s hard to say, ‘Well, that’s below me,’ ” notes Mackey.

“The band world has missed out on some composers who could have written spectacular band pieces simply because either we didn’t ask or we waited until too late to ask,” says Junkin. He added that when composer approached the medium for the first time, conductors often “dropped the ball” and failed to follow up afterwards to encourage further efforts. “There’s a sense from a lot of people that we don’t want to let that happen again.”


Brian Wise is a producer at WNYC radio and frequently writes about music for a variety of publications including the New York Times, Time Out New York, and Newsday.

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