BCM International
Banding Together: BCM International

Banding Together: BCM International

BCM International

BCM International

Monday, October 18, 2004—2:00-4:00 p.m.

BCM International is: Jim Bonney, Steve Bryant, Jonathan Newman, and Eric Whitacre.

Conducted and Transcribed by Frank J. Oteri
Videotaped by Randy Nordschow

The world of symphonic wind bands is so huge that taking one person and using him or her as the definitive representative of this community would be intellectually dishonest. Sure, there are conductors like Frederick Fennell and H. Robert Reynolds, eminences grises within the field, whose advocacy for new music trumps the activities of most conductors of American orchestras, and conversations with either one of them about their decades-long careers and thoughts about the future would have been extremely interesting and thought-provoking.

However, we thought it was most important to emphasize first and foremost the opportunity that this community offers to emerging composers, so instead we chose to speak with the four members of the collective BCM International—Eric Whitacre, Steven Bryant, Jonathan Newman and Jim Bonney—who have each successfully transitioned into being full-time composers as a result of their wind band compositions.

It took quite a bit of strategizing to pull this conversation off—Eric is based in L.A. and Jim is in Chicago—but when we all were finally able to assemble together and talk shop for a couple of hours, it proved to be a very inspirational conversation. I hope after reading this, you’ll seek out the music of these four very different composers (each has a personal web site offering lots to listen to) and then probe further by tapping into the whole universe of new music which has somehow escaped the notice of much of the new music community. -FJO

So what is BCM anyway?

FJO: I went on the Web to find BCM International and I found Bible Centered Ministries.

Steve: There are a lot of BCMs.

Jim: There’s also a music store in Bombay…

Steve: …and the British Chess Magazine…We have far reaching influence. But we haven’t exposed that publicly yet…

Eric: BCM started as a joke. We were looking for the most innocuous sounding corporate knock-off we could find and BCM International stuck. When we became more established it somehow took on a life of its own. And people often mistake us for corporate entities which we find hysterical.

Jonathan: BCM doesn’t exist; it’s just a name. There’s no money. There’s no corporation.

FJO: There are two of you in New York, one in Chicago and one in L.A. I know in America we have a World Series, but your group is hardly international.

Steve: It makes us sound even bigger. We have some performances internationally. We’d like to have a lot more of those. So maybe it’s more of a hopeful title than descriptive.

Jonathan: In the same way that there’s the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport which has daily mail runs to Canada…

FJO: OK, so it’s all a joke, but seriously now, what made you decide to form a collective? How and where did you all meet?

Eric: Jon, Steve, and I were all at Juilliard. I started recruiting friends of mine saying, “Guys, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in terms of concert music.” You can write a piece and you’ll have conductors from all over the world hunting you down and begging to perform your new pieces. And they can’t wait for your next new work, which we all know in the world of concert music is a rare situation. And then I met Jim when he was in Los Angeles and we’re all great friends and so it grew out of this. Each year there’s a big convention, the Midwest [Clinic] in Chicago. I had been going to it for a couple of years alone and I was losing my mind being there all by myself. So I invited these guys to come and check it out and we formed a little tribe to create safety in numbers.

FJO: But you’re not a publisher and you’re not a presenter. You’re not a record company, although you do have a CD out. So what are you?

Jonathan: We call ourselves a composers’ consortium.

Steve: We’re four really good friends who want to have a way to hang out together.

Jonathan: Strength in numbers to promote our music, to get the music played.

Jim: To test ideas in a safe environment…

Jonathan: Composing is such a lonely, individual thing and there’s precious little you can do with other people, especially other composers, but this is one way to do it. With three other guys, you can really make something happen. You can get a booth at Midwest. You can put a catalog together of works. If one of the band directors likes one of the composers, he’ll look at your stuff too.

FJO: But Eric just said it was easy.

Jonathan: It’s easy for Eric.

First Exposure

Eric: We’ve had different arcs. For me—I don’t know how this happened—I wrote a hit my first time out, this piece called Ghost Train. And so, my arc has been a little different because everybody knew my name, at least in the band world, and I sort of had a caché.

FJO: From one piece?

Eric: From one piece it was a sky rocket sort of situation…

FJO: So let’s go back a little further. How did that piece happen?

Eric: The thumbnail sketch—I was a student at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and I walked by the band rehearsal room and heard them playing. It was loud. I loved the sound. I didn’t really know anything about bands and while I was listening I had an idea for a piece. So I went up to the conductor afterwards and said, “I’ve got this idea for a band piece.” And he said if you write it for us we’ll play it at this big convention in the spring.

FJO: Just like that. No matter what it is, accepted carte blanche?

Eric: That’s right. Because there is this culture in symphonic wind music of being the first kid on the block with a new piece and conductors like to champion young composers. I didn’t know this at the time.

FJO: And he never heard a note of your music?

Eric: He heard some of my choral music and liked it. So I wrote the piece. I just took my best guess. I’d never written for instruments, certainly never written for band. They played it at this convention and I started getting phone calls. It started with one or two a day, then five, then ten. Then I quit my job at Kinko’s and became a full-time music publisher. I was selling this stuff out of my apartment faster than I could print it. That was the last time I ever had a real job actually. Because of that, the commission offers started flooding in and it really took me by storm.

FJO: You gave up that job at Kinko’s and gave up access to all those photocopying machines.

Eric: Well, they overlapped for about three months until I could actually afford to print things. But that’s how all of that started. And the piece continues to sell well ten years later. That community is unique on this planet, I think.

FJO: So did any of you have experience playing in a wind band.

Jonathan: I did. I played trombone. I was squad leader in my high school marching band. But when I went to college I spent a lot of time trying very hard to get away from it. I grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania and that was the only real way to make music in that part of the country much as it is in a lot of the Midwest and the South. It’s wonderful music making, but that’s the form in which it happens. And so in college, and then Tanglewood and Aspen and the rest of it, I distanced myself very much from it and did a sort of never-look-back kind of thing. I’m a string man. I’m only working on chamber music and small ensembles and orchestra works and things like this. And then I got to Juilliard and met Eric. And literally the guy says, “Listen, you know, there’s a whole other world out there” which I was vaguely aware of but it had been ten years. “It’s a whole other world and they’re playing new music and it’s loud and you get five percussionists and they just love new music and they pay for it.” And I said, “Sure, I’ll see what I can do. It sounds like fun.”

FJO: But you had already played in a band.

Jonathan: Many. I did the state band and the regional band. I played in the local college wind ensemble.

Steve: I did even more. My father was a band director for 30 years in Arkansas. So this was not a surprise to me although I hadn’t written for band for a while. But as an undergrad in Arkansas I wrote a piece for band every year. That’s how I cut my teeth actually. I didn’t write chamber music. There were no string players to speak of so I didn’t write for strings since there was no chance of hearing it. Those pieces are very much student, amateur pieces that I wouldn’t show to anyone but I would say I was much more familiar with band.

FJO: So why did you distance yourself from it?

Jonathan: I think that has more to do with me leaving home and wanting to be a different person. It has less to do with musical issues than with personal issues. You know, when you’re 18 years old you want to have your own life and do something different. I went to Tanglewood and my eyes were opened. I heard Berg for the first time and I was hooked. I studied my tail off and got very serious about serious music.

Eric: There’s a serious sense of illegitimacy in the contemporary classical music world about writing for wind band. We felt it so strongly at Juilliard. They couldn’t believe that I was writing for wind band. All of my professors, when I’d bring in a new work for my juries, would just poo-poo it. They’d say, “What is this?”

FJO: But one of the great teachers at Juilliard in the mid-20th century was Vincent Persichetti who wrote one of the great band pieces.

Jonathan: But that was 50 years ago. It was a different scene then.

FJO: What about all the great pieces by Varèse, they’re essentially band pieces… We don’t think of them that way, but that’s what they are. So, it’s not like this sound doesn’t exist in our world.

Jonathan: There’s a difference—it’s probably a semantic difference—between Hyperprism and the wind band playing that happens in the country today.

FJO: So your group in Pennsylvania didn’t play Varèse.

Steve: He’s not played a lot by bands in the United States.

Jonathan: If you studied with [H. Robert] Reynolds at the University of Michigan and you were a conducting student, I’m sure you did.

Eric: And I’ll bet his wind music gets played a lot more than his orchestral music.

Jim: Well, they don’t seem to draw a whole lot from their own historical past. Granted there are Sousa marches and things like that, but the majority of the core seems to come from people who are still alive and are still writing right now, rather than the orchestral scene which draws very much from past composers. At least the repertoire I’ve seen.

FJO: Which makes it so good for living composers!

Steve: Exactly.

Jonathan: It’s a different culture.

Jim: The style stays current in a different kind of way.

What is a Wind Band?

FJO: Let’s talk some nuts and bolts, practical issues for writing for wind band. For starters, what exactly is a symphonic wind band? What is the official instrumentation?

Eric: There are two different things. Wind ensemble is generally one on a part and that’s liberating to write for because at least you know that you have relatively standard orchestration. Concert band or symphonic band or symphonic winds can mean anything and it generally does. You can show up and there could be one clarinet on a part or there could be twelve clarinets on a part. Oftentimes the trumpets outnumber the flutes or the clarinets. There could be twelve to fifteen trumpets. There could be two bassoons; there could be six bassoons.

Jim: There could be no bassoons.

Jonathan: I’ve seen twelve alto saxes.

Eric: Obviously, because it’s mostly educational or community bands that are performing these things, even in colleges, it’s rare that there’s a standard orchestration. So, you see the obvious problems.

FJO: So when you write these pieces on your software programs or your manuscript paper, what exactly are you putting down on the page?

Jonathan: Flute, oboe, piccolo, several clarinet parts, bass clarinet and an alto clarinet part, but that’s generally being phased out.

Eric: You can write an Eb clarinet part…

Jonathan: Not just one clarinet part, but many: clarinet 1, clarinet 2, clarinet 3…

FJO: Whereas you’d write only one part for the others?

Jonathan: You could have two or three flutes; one or two oboes but you can’t always count on them being heard or being there. One or two bassoons, then you’re in the trumpet and horn category…

Steve: He jumped right over the saxes…

Jonathan: I’m sorry. I did jump over the saxes; I’m in denial over the saxes. Two alto sax parts generally, tenor sax, bari sax, and all the doublings that can happen there.

FJO: No soprano sax?

Jonathan: You can have soprano sax.

Jim: You can ask for it.

Steve: I’d consider it two altos, tenor and baritone…

Jonathan: The doublings are easy enough that if you knew you had a tenor player who could play soprano, you could get that. Then you get the brass. For some reason, the trumpets are written above the horns in the score. How did that start? I don’t know.

Eric: There’s a trumpet part and a cornet part. These are actually two different families of instruments. I’ve sort of standardized my list to only have trumpets: three trumpet parts.

FJO: Now when you say the trumpet is written above the horn parts, you have to write these scores a certain way for band conductors.

Jonathan: It’s a sort of standard. I’ve seen where all the basses are together. Or you can do it by reed families. The wind area is not as standardized as I would like, but the brass seems to be standardized.

Steve: Trumpets, horns, trombones, euphoniums, tuba. Three trombone parts…

Jonathan: I’ve gotta say, when writing orchestra music, I miss the euphoniums a little bit ’cause that’s a beautiful sound you can do wonderful color things with. It’s very lyrical and it’s a nice round sound that I would love to have standardized in orchestra music.

FJO: You said sometimes there’s no flute. Sometimes you might be missing something else. So do you write with a lot of doublings?

Steve: We’re talking about basically two different cultures here. On the college level, they do aspire to the literature. And then there’s the educational level in the high schools and the junior high schools and elementary schools. That is a different world musically and functionally. The way we approach it depends on what it’s for. And for an educational environment like that, you double it, triple it, quadruple it… For a commission, you kind of know what you’re getting into. For the wider market, you don’t make oboes or any double reeds crucial… It’s a guessing game for me every time. I don’t know that I nail it. I think that sometimes groups would like to do a piece and they don’t have the instruments to do it and then you’re stuck. Sometimes they do it anyway.

Jonathan: Creative and colorful orchestration can get challenging because it gets very difficult for ensembles if you have an oboe part that you actually need to hear, and that’s crucial to the line and crucial to the harmony and color. If it’s not played, then you’re out of luck.

Making the Grade

FJO: Now the whole question of grades. There’s the Mikrokosmos of Bartòk which is a series of graded piano pieces, but that’s unusual in classical music repertoire. You’d never say, “Oh, a Harrison Birtwistle or Elliott Carter piece is a 5.” Well, it would actually probably be a 6 or a 7.

Jonathan: Or a 17!

FJO: So what do these grades mean? How does the grading system work and how crucial is it for you to have it on your scores to get your music out there?

Jonathan: You sort of have to because the entire educational community works off of that, at least in America.

Eric: In Europe, it’s a different system, but they also very much want to know what it is.

Jonathan: I feel, regrettably, they’re very fixated on the grading system.

Steve: Especially on the easier end. The harder pieces, the high-end college pieces, they don’t care. But Grade 3 is like this magical term.

Jonathan: They’re in Grade 1 through 6.

FJO: So explain what each of those numbers mean…

Jim: Theoretically, wasn’t it supposed to reflect the number of years that the ensemble has been playing?

Eric: I’m sure that it’s a publishing thing…

Steve: It’s not necessarily written in concrete from publisher to publisher or state to state. Different states will label pieces different grade levels for their own purposes. So there’s nothing written in stone, but generally, a Grade 3 is an easy piece for junior high or high school.

FJO: What does an easy piece mean?

Steve: Very limited ranges as far as the instruments go.

Eric: Within a staff basically.

Steve: And it can’t be longer than four or five minutes.

Jim: Watch solos. You don’t want to do solos.

Eric: And, this is the one we’ve recently been amazed at, especially me personally: I’ve taken some of my choral works and transcribed them for winds and on the page they’re great “1”s, maybe “2”s. They’re chorales so they have a limited range, but there are some interesting harmonies thrown in here and there. Often times, I’ve seen them listed as Grades 4 or 5 which is relatively advanced. And the thing that I hear more often than not is that they’re musically advanced. It requires such musicianship to make the music work.

FJO: OK, you’re all saying a lot of “they” as opposed to “us”. If you guys don’t grade them yourselves, how do they get graded? Is there someone out there like the PMRC that’s puts a little sticker on each piece?

Jim: It would be nice if it were organized like that!

Eric: The people who really do it and who truly are in charge of all of this is the Texas Music Educators Association [TMEA]. Texas makes a Texas List and it’s a special list. I think that more than 50 percent of the states in America use that as their all-state and their educational informant, so if you get on the list, you’re gold. They have a committee that decides. At the same time, the publishers will market it any number of ways. Maybe a piece that Texas thinks is Grade 4, Hal Leonard will still call Grade 3 because they know that they are going to sell more copies of it. Oftentimes it’s just a perception thing. A conductor will buy the piece simply because it’s a Grade 3, and get in there and realize the piece is actually more difficult, but will try it anyway.

FJO: So how do you get on the radar of this mysterious Texas entity?

Steve: It’s every four years…I submitted a lot of my music this last time which was two years ago now.

FJO: Does it cost anything to submit?

Steve: No, just printing some scores… I printed about 18 of each of them and sent them.

Eric: If you’re looking for practical advice for composers, then I would say the way to get on that list is to have your piece performed by as many relatively influential conductors as possible…

Jonathan: In Texas…

Eric: They come from all over. When I say influential, there are colleges and high schools throughout the U.S. that have great programs. And many conductors will follow their lead. Once you’ve got some momentum with a piece, it seems to have its own life and appears magically on the list.

Jim: They can petition to have things added to the list.

FJO: So who are these influential conductors?

Jonathan: It depends on what world of wind band you’re talking about.

Steve: There’ve been a number of conductors who have been very helpful to us and very supportive.

FJO: But, in the field, there have been legendary people like H. Robert Reynolds and Freddy Fennell. These guys are the elder statesmen… Who are the important and influential conductors coming on the scene now?

Eric: There’s a real strata. All of those guys generally do extremely difficult music that relatively few bands can play. So while many conductors may admire them, they certainly can’t use the music they play for their high school and even college bands. So, there’s this group of people, and most of them come to Midwest every year, and they talk and they tell each other: “Look, there’s this great new piece I heard, have you heard about this thing? Where can I get the score and parts?” It’s a little leaderless, which is exciting I have to say. It’s infuriating also, because then you start developing voodoo theories about how to break into the big time and you can’t really find the path.

Band in the Balance

FJO: Where does the wind band thing fall into the trajectory of how you see yourselves as composers: stylistically, aesthetically? Is this a centerpiece of your work? Is this just something you’re doing to make some money?

Steve: I would say that having played in bands and my father being a band director, in some ways it’s very central. It’s taken more of a central role in my life in the last few years than I probably would have chosen, but I’m not complaining. It’s been great. And a part of that has been financial. If someone wants to pay you to write music…

Jonathan: What composer would turn that down?

Steve: And it becomes a snowball if you have any success at all. Last year I got six commissions and I wrote six wind pieces in about 14 months. And let me tell you, that’s the limit. In fact, I’ve burned myself out. I want to focus on other things for a while, like electronic stuff. I definitely do not want to be a “band composer.” I see how it happens to people who do write for band. It becomes self-perpetuating. The commissions keep coming in. This is great, you know, money and people playing my music. But that becomes all you do.

I felt myself veering dangerously close to that. I was writing so many pieces for winds and I saw certain similarities in the music. Not writing the same piece over and over again, but I was tending toward the same kind of harmonic movement, the same formal structures. That’s not what I want to be doing. I don’t think there’s a clunker among them, but I needed to stop where I was because I was obviously going to end up with just pale imitations of what I like to do. I think that’s how you become typecast as a band composer… Because that’s all you write, you write a lot of things that sound almost identical and indistinguishable from each other and you just market each new one each year.

FJO: Couldn’t that happen writing for other ensembles as well?

Steve: I think in the band world it’s pretty easy to tend toward that because there are so many sales going on.

Jonathan: I think actually that this is one of the things that BCM is about, if BCM is about anything. The four of us are trying to keep each other from becoming “band composers.” Nobody wants to be a band composer. Everybody is a composer, you just write for what you write for. But there’s a sense, when we link those two words together and say “band composer” there’s a connotation to it that means more of a formulaic…

FJO: Why is that? We don’t say, “Oh, so-and-so is an orchestral composer?”

Jonathan: Don’t we?

FJO: But it doesn’t have a pejorative connotation to it…

Eric: Of course not.

Steve: Because people we think of as band composers tend to crank out the same thing over and over again…

FJO: No orchestral composers do that?

Eric: The difference is the orchestral composers don’t make any money off it.

Jim: That keeps you honest?

Eric: Even if you’re cranking it out, there’s still some semblance or illusion of art happening.

Steve: It’s not the band that’s at fault here, it’s the commerce.

Eric: You could make a very nice living writing band music.

Jonathan: However you can’t do it writing anything you want. That’s the point. You can make a very comfortable living if you do it really well within certain guidelines.

FJO: What are those guidelines?

Jim: The grading system.

Steve: A lot of bands have to be able to play it. Grade 3.

Eric: I disagree with that because Ghost Train is at least a 5, some people put it as a 6. (Because it was the first thing I wrote, I put some absurdly difficult things in there. Things that now I wouldn’t make so difficult.) And it sells like crazy. It seems that if they get a piece that they like, that somehow sparks the imagination of the people that are buying it, then they go for it. So as much as we talk about the holy grail of Grade 3, it’s not entirely true.

FJO: I’m going to put you on the spot Eric. I’ve been listening to your choral music, and the choral world is a sort of ghetto too the way the band world is, but a different one. You mentioned that you transcribed some of your choral music for band, and I’ve listened to one of those transcriptions and to me it stood out among your band pieces. I think you have different musical styles in your choral music and your band music. In your choral music you have all these unusual, unexpected harmonies. But I didn’t hear that in any of your band pieces except the transcription.

Eric: Choral music seems to be able to sustain much more reflection and depth. As it is now, the world of winds, they’re at a different level in terms of that exploration and in terms of that culture. Most of that has to do with the conductors themselves because they teach the music. I certainly don’t think it has anything to do with the players or the potential of the ensemble. I don’t change my musical style on purpose. I do think that I have a sense of each of the ensembles I’m writing for. I have a piece called October that as schooled composers we’d say it sounds like Vaughn Williams or Elgar. You know, it’s pretty. Maybe it’s the score of The Shawshank Redemption. The band world cannot get enough of it. And I can’t tell you how many copies of this thing I sell, over and over. And we say, “Why is this? Don’t they have any taste? Don’t they have any background? What’s wrong with these people?” I don’t think it’s that at all. I think the community of band is at a certain place and I think that what I did intuitively is write for that community, write a piece that would be successful within that community.

FJO: In a weird kind of way, you’re at the opposite end of what orchestral composers are always going on about: the problem of the masterpiece syndrome. How can we ever compete with Brahms? If you deal with a community who doesn’t know who Elgar is, you’re fine! But, to put you on the spot even more, you just said they don’t have any taste. You wrote this piece. Do you think it’s a tasteless piece?

Eric: No. I’m very proud of it for a number of reasons: the architecture of it, the counterpoint, the vision, and I think it’s just beautiful music.

FJO: What I found so interesting about October was that I didn’t miss the strings. It was so lush…

Jonathan: As far as I can tell, the biggest success in scoring for winds is to sound as if the strings haven’t come in yet. And Eric’s music often sounds like that…

Eric: I’ve been trying for the last five years to make the band sound as much like an orchestra as possible. There’s a tradition now that they’re throwing in a couple of cellos and a bass into wind ensembles. Our joke is, “God, if they would just add 32 violins and some violas, a few more cellos and take out some of those clarinets, they may be onto something…”

FJO: Don’t forget the saxophones…

Taking Chances with Wind Band

FJO: I want to take this to Jim for a second because your crazy Concerto for Electric Guitar and Winds is such a disconnect. Now, you’re a guitarist, which is something I wasn’t aware of the first time I listened to the piece. And I’m thinking to myself, a wind band can do that? In a way, you’re playing this game a little bit differently than Eric is.

Jim: In the career that I travel, which is mostly commercial composition, my concert band experience is almost the legitimizing thing for me. The fact that I’m writing music that’s meant to be played in a concert, especially with the people I tend to be around, that’s a unique thing to even want to do with your time. But for me it’s really rewarding and it’s an opportunity to do some self-expression. At the same time, I agree with Eric that it’s a great place to play and have some fun trying different things out.

FJO: In a way that the other aspects of your compositional career don’t allow you to do?

Jim: A client knows what they want and that’s what you’ve got to write. That has its own unique challenges too. My day job is writing music for video slot machines. Basically, it’s a video screen and they’ve got digital audio, stereo 44.1. If you’ve ever been on the floor of a casino and you’re like “Oh, what is that noise?” That’s me!

FJO: How’d you get into that?

Jim: I was living in Los Angeles and I was trying to break into film music and TV. I was ghost writing for TV shows and scoring a million tiny films that no one will ever see anywhere and I was broke and frustrated. I ran into a buddy of mine who writes music for Midway Games. And he said, “Hey I know this company that’s really booming and they’re looking for more composers.” The company I work for now has six on-staff composers. They’ve got the budgets so I can hire a big band.

FJO: We devoted a whole issue of NewMusicBox in August about the phenomenon of people writing for video games.

Jim: With slot machines there’s even more money there. Plus your audience is a little more mature. So it’s not all hard core and hip-hop, you’ve got to span a lot more style. And the audience is used to hearing real instruments played, so they’ve got the budgets to write for real players. There’s nothing I like better.

FJO: What was so interesting is that from one piece to another, you take on the trappings of a specific style and you run with it. You wouldn’t know it’s you from piece to piece necessarily… But then with this concerto, you’re not running with the cliché of what a wind band is; you’re doing something totally different and unexpected with it.

Jim: That’s what I like about doing the wind ensemble stuff. I’m not wild about what’s going on there, but it’s a great ensemble and it’s a really challenging ensemble to write for so it’s a great opportunity to bring what I want to hear there.

Jonathan: When you say you’re not wild about what’s going on there, you mean sometimes you sit in a concert and hear the other pieces…

Jim: Yeah. A lot of it sounds really good for the ensemble. But I don’t find it particularly moving, for myself. It doesn’t mean that the person next to me doesn’t find something in it, but for me it doesn’t really appeal. There’s a sameness about a lot of it. So the idea of doing something different with it is kinda fun.

Eric: One of the things that we love about band music is that there is this sense that you don’t have to write in any style. Every piece is the next little movie that you’re gonna make, it’s something totally different. It seems to me that, specifically with orchestral music, the few people who are doing well in it don’t seem to be afforded that luxury, or they don’t explore that luxury. For instance I think that John Adams or Michael Torke, or [Aaron Jay] Kernis, they have instantly identifiable styles through almost every piece. You can hear it and say I know exactly who that is, even as they’re evolving. I’m certainly not accusing them of anything. I’m a great admirer of all of their works. But in the orchestral world, I’m not sure what would happen if your new piece sounded radically different. I’m sure the commissioning parties are very conservative and basically want your last big hit with a new title on it, this time for Birmingham rather than Chicago.

FJO: Interesting, because in the wind band music versus the non-wind band music of Steve and Jonathan I heard less of a divergence than I did in the wind band and non-wind band music of Eric and Jim, the two non-New Yorkers at the table. Steve, in your solo piano piece and in your orchestral piece done by the Juilliard Symphony, I heard a lot of the same kind of energy and displacement. And Jonathan, in your writing for strings, I felt the same kind of groove-orientation…

Jonathan: Ultimately I think we’re just writing music for different ensembles. You’re taking the performance opportunities where you can get them. What the other guys said about what the wind band community offers are good points. There is a sense that you have a little more freedom to play around. There’s less expectation about what the music should sound like. Therefore, when I write like me, and do what I want to hear, they love it. They’ve never heard anything like it. And it’s incredibly rewarding…. We’re composers. None of us is in it for money.

Eric: Wait a minute. I take issue with that. You make it sound like that’s a bad thing.

Jim: You can’t motivate yourself that way.

Jonathan: Nobody would ever say that I want to make a lot of money when I grow up so I’m going to be a composer, no matter what the ensemble is. But when you do get a reaction to your music like, “Oh my God, I never heard anything like this before! This is fantastic! I want to hear more; I want to commission you! I want you to come out and meet the students and conduct the band!” Those are really wonderful experiences that are very inspiring. I found that to be the best part about my whole experience the past few years. Standing in front of the kids… The respect that’s treated to you. It sounds cheesy, but you really feel that maybe you’re making a small bit of difference in the world. That you might actually be affecting the musical education of this particular group of people. If you go to the symphony… That audience is used to hearing that music. They expect it. They don’t want to hear the new music. They go to hear Brahms and they know what Brahms sounds like or they go to hear Vaughn Williams and they have an idea. But the audience for a wind band concert, if O.K. Feel Good gets played or Uncle Sid or something like that, they’ve never heard anything like that before in their lives. And that’s actually exciting to be a part of.

FJO: What is the audience for a wind band concert?

Eric: I’ve been doing a lot of traveling guest conducting the past few years. It can range from just being parents and friends and the local community to being big, sold out houses. In Tokyo and throughout Japan, they sell out 2,400-seat concerts. Same thing in Singapore. There’s a real sophisticated audience for this stuff. They know the different pieces. They know the different recordings. Very much the same way that classical music is. In Europe you’re starting to see this more and more. There’s a whole thing brewing and bubbling over there.

FJO: Different recordings? You go to Tower Records and go to the wind band section? Where do you get this stuff?

Eric: It’s all underground or online. Universities. Imports. But it’s all out there. We know our music especially has been recorded. I don’t even know how many times Ghost Train or October has been recorded.

Jonathan: But, there’s an issue with the lack of respect for the mechanical license. I’m not a lawyer or an expert in the field, and it gets complicated. It has to do with whether the music gets sold or if it’s rented, how many units are sold before Harry Fox deals with it, before you deal with it. I don’t know the details, but I’m sure there are resources there where composers can learn about that. But, that being said, there seems to be a need for more education in that community. If you’re recording somebody’s work, you might want to let them know.

FJO: So you’ll see your name on a recording all of a sudden and that’s how you first find out about it?

Jonathan: Occasionally you Google yourself and you find recordings of pieces.

Dos and Don’ts

FJO: OK, what are some of the “dos and don’ts” in band music? Can you do chance music?

Jonathan: You can do aleatoric stuff.

Eric: And rhythmic stuff is usually great. They can handle all kinds of different rhythms. It’s all over the place. Bands live in 7/8. That seems to be the de facto time signature. Within rhythms I would say you always have come at this from a conductor’s perspective. How difficult is this for an ensemble to pull off together? So it’s fine if everybody’s doing 7/8 but if it’s complicated, dense rhythmic material left and right, it’ll take a lot of rehearsal.

Jonathan: This is my particular problem. I enjoy writing rhythmic counterpoint of a certain type, different patterns overlayed on top of each other. That in particular is very challenging to ensembles.

FJO: You mentioned the word chromatic. So can you write 12-tone wind band music?

Steve: You could. It’s not that it’s never been done. For easy groups? For young junior high? Yeah, you could, but it’s gotta be within their ranges and I don’t think you want them blowing through a 12-tone scale. It’s more of the fingering sequences. It’s not the pitches themselves…

Jim: The randomness might also be difficult. It all depends on the amount of experience that this ensemble has musically. This might be their first encounter with 12-tone music. And the idea of making that into something expressive or effective, that may really be beyond them at this point.

FJO: So atonality of any kind?

Eric: What you have to do is convince the conductor that it’s a piece they want to play. And generally the conductors’ vocabularies are very rooted in the world of band music, which is a very specific style and sound, and generally has nothing to do with aleatory. I know the only times that I’ve successfully gotten away with any kind of atonal music or aleatory is when it’s deeply rooted in some sort of narrative. Then it seems to be fine. And most of my pieces are programmatic and cinematic and therefore you can get away with murder somehow. When I’m writing I’m constantly thinking of the conductor being able to successfully teach this.

FJO: OK. Less familiar intervals. Microtones: just intonation, quarter tones

Jonathan: Sure. You can do anything. But you’re still talking about an educational level. If you’re writing only for a Reynolds, then you do whatever you want. They can play anything that’s put in front of them.

FJO: Repetition. Minimalism

Eric: They love it. And here’s the beautiful thing about minimalism—it’s totally unchartered territory in the world of band music. It’s as if bands missed 1965 to 1985 so it’s astonishing and new and interesting and you can push the envelop left and right with that kind of music.

FJO: Ethnic influences

Jonathan: Absolutely.

Eric: Especially the percussion because you have an unlimited percussion battery.

Jonathan: Generally around five.

Eric: I’ve written for seven. Timpani is its own instrument and then you can have auxiliary percussion and five people just doing whatever.

Jonathan: I’ve never found it to be a problem to ask for another part. If you say I’d like to have six percussionists they’ll say, “Yeah, no problem!” Whereas I wrote an orchestra piece recently and, after doing a few wind pieces, it was really hard to go back to three parts.

Eric: If you’re doing it for the educational market, there’s a general set standard of instruments. But if you’re doing it for college or above, you can ask and they’ll find it.

Steve: Even for the educational world, I don’t have a broad enough sample to draw from, but I think they’re pretty open to running out and getting this crazy bucket or brake drum, whatever. I think that’s where you have the most freedom and leeway for any level group.

FJO: Now Steve, you like electronics. What about doing something for wind band and electronics?

Steve: I’ve written one piece where I’ve used a synth as a kind of supplement to fill out the bass section and add more body to it, but not as a distinct sound in itself. You don’t really know it’s there; it just feels fuller. I don’t think it’s a problem except for the problems you run into with an orchestra anywhere else. It’s the infrastructure and the knowledge. What kind of speakers do they have in the hall? What gear do they have? Do they know how to use it? Have they ever done anything like this? No. And you’ve got to take on all those roles. You’ve got to be the engineer.

Eric: I’m always pushing Steve to go the other way. Because he has a home studio and he spends a lot of time in there and does brilliant work. As opposed to a piece that could be performed live with electronics, I’m more interested in him taking band music into the computer and finding this other thing. We’ve talked for years about doing remixes of the standardized works.

Steve: Which comes back very much to what fits my style because some of the band pieces I’ve written are parodies and in ways remixes of band classics. I would really like to take a piece like Chester Leaps In, which kinda was my first “big hit”, and splice it up. And I’ve actually done a little bit of that, I just haven’t shown it to anybody yet.

Band vs. Orchestra

FJO: You work with an orchestra and you’re lucky if you get two or three rehearsals. How many rehearsals do you get for a wind band piece?

Eric: If it’s in the educational world, you’ll get all semester sometimes, so you’ll have 20, 30, 40 rehearsals. The best part is you’ll take it in for the first rehearsal and—if the conductor’s cool with it and most of the time they’re very cool with it—you can spend weeks fixing things. You can be rewriting on the spot. Bring it back in with new parts. Take it back home again. It’s the ultimate orchestration lab.

Jim: That’s the other distinction between orchestra and concert band. In concert band, everybody has their own part. No one shares the same stand. They take their parts home. If it’s really bad, they can woodshed it.

FJO: And they actually rehearse on their own?

Eric: Big time. That’s also part of the culture.

FJO: Respect for the composer. Composer shows up and says, “You should do this.” The conductor is O.K. with that?

Jonathan: It’s one of the great things. In my education, you’re sort of taught that there’s this culture of supplication. “Please play my piece. Please, would you? I love your work. You’re brilliant. Would you please take the time to just look at the score? Just for a moment. I know you have a pile of scores in your office, please maybe, sometime, would you look at it?” That’s gone. It’s there a little bit depending on whom you’re talking about. But really it’s a different culture. There’s a great respect for what composers do, not that there isn’t in the orchestral world, but it’s a little more palpable.

FJO: Let’s go back to the money. You write a 10-minute piece for wind band. And you write a 10-minute piece for orchestra. What pays more?

Eric: If you’re lucky and established, you’ll get $1000 a minute for the commission.

Jonathan: And then, you’re talking about substantial ASCAP or BMI royalties…

Eric: What, a hundred bucks! For a ten-minute piece, even at Carnegie Hall… And, with an orchestral piece, best case scenario is you’re gonna get 10 or 12 performances a year world-wide unless you really hit it big time, best case scenario, you’re gonna make $15,000 dollars. With band music, let’s say you write a 10 minute work and you continue to own the copyright. And a 10-minute work you sell at $125 a copy. Because you own the copyright and you’re distributing it yourself, after tax and the production of the thing, you’re probably pulling 42 to 43 cents on the dollar. And there’s the very real possibility that you can sell a thousand copies in one year. Then you will spend the next five years guest conducting and lecturing about the piece. And then when it does go on these legitimate CDs, people will buy them and you will receive royalties. And the ASCAP royalties now are starting to survey high school bands and college bands. So the amount of money to be made on a big hit in the world of wind symphony is on another planet.

FJO: I think we need to separate out owning the copyright because you could also own the copyright on your orchestral score, or you could have a relationship with a publisher who works on behalf of your music whether you are writing for orchestra or symphonic winds.

Eric: Unless you’re with Schirmer, who is going to find your orchestral work on your web site? Maybe some cool regional symphony, but…

FJO: So what happens if you’re with a big name publisher and they’re pushing your wind band music? I know that Boosey & Hawkes has a very successful program called Windependence to promote repertoire for wind band. What can they do that you can’t do?

Eric: They claim to have a larger marketing arm and more power in the industry. Our experience and my experience specifically has been that that is not necessarily the case. The first thing they do is take your copyright for now and forever and the second thing they do is give you 10 percent of gross which is so substantially less than you ought to be making and that you would be making if you owned the copyright that it’s ridiculous. You share the publishing royalties and then you’re at the mercy of their advertising department. If you’re not the hot piece that year, it gets buried. More and more I believe, especially for wind music, I don’t think the model anymore is going through a publisher. What we do is we self-publish and distribute through a major distributor, Hal Leonard.

Jonathan: I want to be clear that what we’re doing with self-publishing is not standard. We’re different in that way. For a lot of composers young and older, who are writing for winds—educational or otherwise—publishing is the way to go. There are very powerful publishing houses and that is the expectation. That is the standard. What we’re doing is a little bit of bucking against the system.

FJO: OK, You convinced me that I could get all these performances plus make a nice amount of money to live on. I totally buy in. I’m going to throw away all my string quartets, everything I ever wrote for orchestra. I’m gonna write nothing but wind band music from now on! Why isn’t every composer in the world jumping at the opportunity to write for wind band? Why is this such a secret?

Eric: First of all, I think the secret is out…Aaron Jay Kernis just wrote a piece for wind band. John Corigliano is just finishing up a huge commission.

FJO: David Del Tredici wrote a fantastic wind band piece.

Jonathan: Danielpour has one.

Eric: Michael Daugherty‘s been doing it for years.

Jonathan: Plus the American Composers Forum has that program with people like Libby Larsen doing things for them.

FJO: And a piece for wind band was even a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago. Ten of a Kind by David Rakowski… And talk about a wacko piece: it’s atonal, has ten clarinet parts, it goes from 11/16 to 15/16 to 13/16. So composers of all kinds are jumping on this bandwagon.

Eric: A little bit. But still there’s this horrible stigma against this kind of music. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if it’s because it’s educational or because of the lack of history, or simply because the symphony orchestra is…

Jonathan: …the gold standard…

Jim: And isn’t it also a high school cultural thing that kinda stigmatizes the “bandos”…

Steve: Nerds…

Jonathan: At the end of the day, you are talking about having performances not by professionals most of the time. I’ve had these amazing performances in Japan that you cannot believe. I’ve never had any performance with stringed instruments like it. They’re phenomenal. So that sort of negates my point I suppose, but most of the time your music is being played at a less than professional level. Always an amazing and inspiring level, but still. People want their pieces played by professionals…

FJO: But in terms of notoriety outside that community and for you as composers… Does the local critic review the wind band concerts? Do you get feature articles about you in advance of concerts?

Eric: Occasionally. I have to say it’s the strangest thing. You could be hyper-successful in the world of winds, or in chorus, and no one else knows you. There are these heroes within the communities.

Jonathan: The first time I went to the Midwest Clinic, I had this realization. Eric walks into the room and they know who he is, he’s this huge superstar and he’s signing autographs and he’s signing CDs and he’s just mobbed. And I realize that if John Corigliano walked into the room, no one would know who he was.

Eric: Or worse, they’d say, it’s Eric’s teacher! [all laugh]

Jonathan: Which to me is insane! John, who has won every award there is. To me, he’s the example of what I want to be when I grow up. And he’s the apex, the acme of what I want to do with my life and none of these people realize except a very small percentage.

Sign up for our monthly NewMusicBox newsletter

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.