David Maslanka blowing bubbles in Hudson, Illinois on June 7, 2008
Suspending Time and Figuring Out the Impossible—Remembering David Maslanka (1943-2017)
David blowing bubbles at our wedding in Hudson, Illinois, June 7, 2008

Suspending Time and Figuring Out the Impossible—Remembering David Maslanka (1943-2017)

Generous. Kind. Humanitarian. Gentle. Mentor. Humble. Friend. Oh, and a composer. My first exposure to David Maslanka’s music was in the spring of 1986 at the University of Arizona when I led a performance of his 1981 wind ensemble composition A Child’s Garden of Dreams which had been commissioned by John and Marietta Paynter for the Northwestern University Symphonic Wind Ensemble. Conducting this music was a monumental, life changing experience for me as a young college wind band conductor and it was a work I returned to many times over the next twenty-six years. (Interestingly, A Child’s Garden of Dreams was both the first and last piece of David’s that I programmed, the last being in November of 2012, my final concert and recording session at ISU.)

My first exposure to David Maslanka’s music was a monumental, life changing experience for me as a young college wind band conductor.

I vividly recall sitting with Gary Green listening to the premiere performance of David’s Symphony No. 2 during the 1987 CBDNA Convention in Evanston, Illinois, gripping the seat, spellbound. The performing group was the combined Symphonic Band and Symphonic Wind Ensemble of Northwestern University conducted by John Paynter. Mr. Paynter had David say “a few words” prior to the premiere performance and I remember how this quiet, introspective individual speaking from the heart about his music captured me.

I moved to Normal, Illinois in the fall of 1987, beginning a quarter of a century journey with the Illinois State University Wind Symphony. When I arrived, I found a small, disheveled, underdeveloped group of students. We set about building an ensemble in an environment that previously had no wind band offering in the fall semester. In the spring of 1989, I “heroically” programmed Child’s Garden, which was a HUGE undertaking and underscores my naïveté at the time. David was very receptive to phone conversations, helping me realize the nature of his composition. He also spent time talking with a particular student who was having extreme misgivings about origins and the deeper meaning of his music.

Gary Green commissioned a “major work” from David, premiering Symphony No. 3 at the University of Connecticut in the fall of 1991. I attended the final couple of rehearsals and the premiere in Storrs taking advantage of the opportunity to spend some quality time with David on a couple of occasions, growing closer to his music and this quiet, generous man who would become my dear friend.

In the spring of 1993, both David and Gary came to campus for the final rehearsals and a performance of Symphony No. 3. I remember the experience being a real struggle for everyone involved, not the least of which were David and Gary.

When David was asked to write a piece, he composed until the music was finished. There was not a magic number of measures, nor was there a duration goal. Gary asked for a “major work,” not necessarily expecting a piece of the size and scope of Maslanka’s Third Symphony. Jerry Junkin commissioned a small work, maybe ten minutes or so, and received Symphony No. 4!

Jerry Junkin commissioned a small work, maybe ten minutes or so, and received Symphony No. 4!

I attended the final rehearsal and premiere of the 4th in Austin, Texas and developed a stronger, more intense relationship with David. We programmed it at ISU in the fall of 1994. That final week of rehearsals with David was the seminal experience for me, making a connection that lasted two decades. Following the stunning conclusion of the symphony and multiple “curtain” calls, I recall that David and I stood in the adjacent room for what seemed like an eternity waiting for the ensemble and audience to emerge from the performance space. Students and audience members alike said they were just “too drained” to move.

David Maslanka and Stephen K. Steele (center left and right) with organist Karen Collier and timpanist Karen Cole following our first performance of Symphony No. 4 in November 1994.

David and I with organist Karen Collier and timpanist Karen Cole following our first performance of Symphony No. 4 in November 1994.

We commissioned Symphony No. 5, receiving the parts for the first three movements prior to winter break in 2000. The Wind Symphony had a limited number of reading rehearsals before leaving for their break and we planned an extended rehearsal period across the Martin Luther King weekend, just prior to the spring semester beginning. David came to campus for those January rehearsals and we worked our way diligently through the first three movements over a number of rehearsals. Finally, he asked about the fourth movement. The students had it but we hadn’t read it as the parts arrived during the winter break. After we “slashed” our way through the movement, the room was deathly quiet. David slowly looked up and said, “My God, what have I done?” He decided at that moment that he NEVER wanted to be present to hear his music sight read again!!!

By the time of that workshop weekend I felt that I knew David very well. When he visited campus he stayed in my home. David traveled with a rolled up exercise pad he used for a thirty minute yoga stretching each morning at 5:00 or 5:30. He frequently cooked for us. It was not unusual for him to take hour or longer walks. Like the yoga, that too was a period of meditation for him. David HAD to have the daily New York Times cross word puzzle, which he did in ink! David was a very easy houseguest and we had some wonderful chats, not always about the music. We had shared stories, music, philosophy, passionate opinions and laughter. NEVER in all that time had I heard him swear. Not even “damn,” or “hell.” In the course of that long weekend, during one particular read-through, I had a metronome amplified through speakers so the ensemble could hear it, in an effort to help the ensemble develop a unified and steady pulse. David walked up behind me as the ensemble was slashing away and said directly in my ear, “Turn that fucking thing off.” I got the point; I never used a metronome in the same manner again.

David HAD to have the daily New York Times cross word puzzle, which he did in ink!

Symphony No. 5 was important in many ways to the relationship between David, the Wind Symphony, and myself. David returned to campus for the premiere and to travel on tour, culminating at the University of North Texas, site of the 2001 CBDNA convention. David convinced me that the piece needed to be recorded and released through Albany Records. I resisted, not being a fan of the measure-by-measure recording process that had become standard practice by then. He put me in touch with Jeff Harrison in Massachusetts who talked me through the recording process that would produce a musical representation. Jeff loaded up his gear and met us in Dallas. We arranged the use of a west Dallas high school auditorium and recorded all the repertoire we planned to perform at CBDNA the next day; this became our first Albany release. That began a long relationship with Jeff Harrison, Susan Bush of Albany Records, David and myself, releasing more than twenty recordings through 2013. David produced each and every recording; painstakingly involved whether it was his music or not.

Stephen K. Steele and David Maslanka looking through one of his scores near a kitchen sink.

David and I looking through one of his scores at my home in Hudson, Illinois in November 2010.

David and I often talked of the “ripple effect.” He realized the importance of working with the conductors and ensemble members who were preparing and performing his works. From a small core of conductors and their students, a “ripple effect” has been occurring and will continue to build. He tried ever so diligently to be present for each and every conductor who invited him to be part of his or her experience.

A former student was asked to describe his experiences with David and said, “You just can’t explain someone’s soul.” David did that; exposed his soul, in his music, in his teaching, in his conversations with you. His music does that with audiences. He and his music communicate at a deeply intense and personal level. To David, the act of making music is pure meditation at its most basic level, music provides the most basic form of communication. If those whom he touched were willing to listen and do the things he suggested, they too would experience these things that seemed so unlikely and confusing to most. Time is suspended when playing and/or listening to David’s music. It never failed. Each and every time on the podium in concert, when turning the final page, I would always think “Really? Already?” David wrote music to satisfy what the music needs rather than the opposite. He frequently told me that he would be finished with a particular composition when the music said it was finished.

David and his music communicate at a deeply intense and personal level.

David’s music could be extremely difficult, but his expectation was that the musicians would figure out how to make it possible. I recall a trumpet teacher commenting that David didn’t know how to write for trumpet. My reply was that David didn’t know how to write for bad trumpet players. My experience was that for those individuals who were diligently prepared and paid attention to the music, they were better musicians as a result of the process. A tuba player brought an oxygen tank to a rehearsal of David’s Symphony No. 8 to assist him with the sustained B. If you know the piece, you know of what I am speaking. On the side of the cylinder was written “for use during Maslanka’s Symphony No. 8.” Many people have thought that they couldn’t possibly play David’s music with their groups. He would show them that they could. In rehearsals he would make very soft and gentle suggestions, most often regarding what was clearly indicated in the score and parts. He simply called it “paying attention.” I used David’s Collected Chorale Settings, 117 four-part chorales composed in the 18th-century style, to begin every rehearsal in order to set the “tone” and intonation as well as to assist with the notion of “paying attention” and laying the foundation of the ensemble “sound.” David scored these chorales from his daily work with the 371 Four-Part Chorales of J. S. Bach, using the original melodies and composing new alto, tenor and bass lines.

David at the piano in Missoula, Montana,  in June 2008.

David at the piano in Missoula, Montana, in June 2008. David began each composition session playing and singing Bach chorales. He said the most important aspect of succeeding was to “show up.”

David’s music speaks, regardless of the technical proficiency of the individuals or the collective ensemble.

David’s music notation was always very specific. His work in rehearsals to gain the marked tempi and expressive marks made the music come to life. However, to David, it was not about the perfect performance, it was about the experience the musicians and audience could gain from it. David’s music speaks, regardless of the technical proficiency of the individuals or the collective ensemble. Once, during a rehearsal of the final movement of A Child’s Garden of Dreams, I looked at the principal flute who had tears streaming down her cheeks as she played the final flute solo which ends the piece. Yes, she cried during the concert as well.

David had an uncanny ability to connect with people. And I mean, immediately connect with people. He ALWAYS had time for people, whether during a residency, during a convention, on the phone, via email, whatever. It didn’t matter whether the person was a fellow composer, a conductor, a college student, a high school student, or an interested community member, ANYONE. ALWAYS. It was not unusual for David to have developing composers visit Missoula for a week or more of lessons and meditation.

David Maslanka (far right) and Stephen K. Steele (center) with students: taken at a steak house during the Symphony No. 5 tour and CBDNA performance in Denton, TX, February 2001

David and I with students: taken at a steak house during the Symphony No. 5 tour and CBDNA performance in Denton, Texas in February 2001.

David always used pencil writing his scores. Always. He told me it connected him more personally to the music. I believe that to be true.

David kept a relentless schedule of residencies. Typically, he travelled from November through May, spending time with conductors and ensembles that invited him to their campuses. He worked with community groups, high school bands, and university ensembles. He connected with students, conductors, and community members, causing the ripples to spread and grow.

David connected with students, conductors, and community members, causing the ripples to spread and grow.

The work we did with David on No. 5 led to more commissions. We commissioned, premiered and recorded symphonies 7, 8 and 9. Between 2001 and 2012, there were many other commissions, premieres and recording projects as well. He wrote many lovely concerti for wind instruments and wind ensemble, occasionally utilizing beautiful cello writing in the score. One of David’s favorite compositions was A Carl Sandburg Reader for baritone and soprano voice and wind ensemble. (David had a strong connection to both Abraham Lincoln and Carl Sandburg.)

During his residency for No. 9 we made plans to commission Symphony No. 10. David was adamant about needing to write 10. We decided to let a bit of time lapse following 9 before building plans for 10. Our goal was to premiere and record 10 in the spring of 2014, which I projected to be my retirement concert. Things came to a sudden and unexpected end when I left ISU in the spring of 2013. What to do with 10? David had a growing stack of sketches that “belong in 10.” During the spring of 2014 we came to an agreement with another conductor to lead the consortium supporting the completion of 10. The consortium got off to a rather slow beginning, picking up steam in the summer of 2016.

At almost the same time, a consortium for No. 11 filled its membership rapidly, putting 10 in jeopardy. David asked if I would complete the consortium for 10, to which I agreed. My goal was to reach forty members. I only achieved thirty, but David assured me that it didn’t matter, 10 was well on its way. We aimed for a September 2017 premiere with a Tucson professional ensemble. The premiere of No. 11 was to be in the spring of 2018 and he would get some space between them.

The residency travels between November 2016 and May 2017 were particularly grueling for David. He complained of constant fatigue and the inability to compose. When he was finally finished and returned home for the summer, his wife Alison was bedridden.  Very soon after that, David not only found that Alison was terminally ill but that he was in an advanced stage of colon cancer. Through all of this, Alison continued to urge him to complete 10 since it was through his composing that he lived. Alison passed away on July 3 and David passed away on August 6.

Alison and David Maslanka in late June 2017

Alison and David in late June 2017.

David left clear notes for an anticipated completion of his 10th symphony.

Before his death, David told me he was dedicating 10 to Alison. His scoring was complete for the first movement and most all of the second. He had crossed out the work on the third movement and replaced it with sketches. This was to be the centerpiece for Alison. The fourth movement is fully sketched but will require some interpretation. He left clear notes for an anticipated completion of the symphony. David’s son, Matthew, owner of Maslanka Press, who knows his father’s sketches and composing well, is convinced at this point that he will be able to successfully complete the score. We hope for a March 2018 premiere. Nearly all the membership of the No. 11 consortium is opting to join with the No. 10 membership. All commission fees will become the seed money for the Maslanka Foundation.

My wife Andrea and I, along with many of our friends and colleagues, will travel to Missoula for a September 3 memorial honoring Alison and David. I am a better person having known David. The world is a better place having David’s music. May the ripples continue.

Alison and David Maslanka dancing outside in June 2008, somewhere in Wyoming

Alison and David traveled to middle America to attend our 2008 wedding. Andrea and I took them home from Hudson, IL, sharing our honeymoon, somewhere in Wyoming, June 2008.


Victor Pesavento
ISU Alum
Freelance musician in Los Angeles
Golden State Pops Orchestra Music Director

(The following text has been reprinted from his Facebook page with permission.)

I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Maslanka on two or three occasions while in the Wind Symphony at Illinois State University, always on a “professional” level. I never had the chance to hang out with him after rehearsals or any other informal situations so I can’t speak about him in that regard. However, as a clinician, he struck me as a very warm, caring man. He was always encouraging of the group and I always loved listening to his stories about what the inspirations were for his compositions.

My first experience with David’s music (that is, outside of Rollo Takes a Walk during a summer music camp) was with Symphony No. 4. We performed this monumental work only a year after its composition. I remember weeks of grueling rehearsals in which Dr. Steele systematically tore apart the ensemble and then slowly put it back together piece by piece, 16th note by 16th note. There were many tears shed and I’m sure some blood also along the way.

There were many tears shed and I’m sure some blood also along the way.

The symphony was technically beyond most of us in the group, but away we sequestered ourselves in the dungeon-esque practice rooms of the Cook Hall castle. At any given hour of any given day you would find at least one member of the clarinet section toiling away at one-quarter speed some hellish passage that would probably be equally difficult even if written for a piano. I remember hours spent on two bars here or two bars there, each more impossibly difficult than the prior, just to be able to lock seamlessly into the “grid” when I got into rehearsal with everyone else.

Among the pains were of course the pleasures. Anyone who knows the piece will recall the first 29 bars as an a capella horn solo in the key of G with the ensemble entering on a beautiful G major chord as the horn completes the opening thematic statement. I will never forget the day that the horn soloist (Kent) decided to transpose his opening solo by a half step, making for a wonderfully awful sounding surprise when the band entered (still in G) in bar 30.

As we neared the end of the cycle, after all the hours spent in the practice rooms and in ensemble rehearsal, after all the metronome batteries had died, the week of the concert was here. The first rehearsal with Dr. Maslanka came and we were all very excited to perform for him this piece on which we had worked so hard. In Cook Hall room 212, during that rehearsal, the ISU Wind Symphony gave what might have been the best performance in my entire tenure in the ensemble. I say “might have been,” but more on that in a bit. This rehearsal “performance” was nothing short of spectacular. The group was so focused that you could reach out and feel the energy and life force in the room. We finished the piece and all looked around at each other with huge grins on our faces. All those hours in the practice rooms had paid off and we were now seeing the results. The only down side…did we just peak? Surely we couldn’t re-create that same level of symbiotic energy later in the week for the concert. This had to have been the pinnacle of our labors.

After all the metronome batteries had died, the week of the concert was here.

The next couple of rehearsals we didn’t really hit the technical side of the music too hard. Instead, Dr. Maslanka took us on a wonderful ride of imagery and symbolism. This trumpet lick here signifies this and that impossibly difficult run in the saxes signifies that. Hearing his stories about how President Lincoln’s funeral train fit into the music was truly enlightening. At this point, there weren’t any scales left to practice; no more notes to learn. This week was when we learned the music.

Armed with our hard earned technical proficiency and with this new musical insight from the composer (and thankfully a bit of tapering on the endurance of the chops), we arrived at concert day. The concert opened with a fantastic Alfred Reed piece for wind ensemble and pipe organ and as we finished I remember thinking, “Holy shit, that was #$%^ing unbelievable.” We followed the Reed with pieces by Grainger and Weinberger, both of which were accompanied by the pipe organ. Finally the time came for the Symphony.

Payoff time.

I always get more nervous listening to a colleague play a difficult solo than when I myself am playing a solo. In this case, I can’t even count on one hand the rare times Kent had chipped a note in rehearsals; he was automatic (even sight transposing a half step out.

I learned that day what it meant to be a true professional.

Twenty-nine bars of unaccompanied horn solo to begin a symphony. Weeks and weeks of rehearsals. The group was feeling confident, especially after how great the concert was going so far that evening. All it would take would be one chipped note, one missed partial on a lip slur from the horn solo to break everyone’s concentration. No pressure, right? I would like to say that Kent played the solo as well as any other time he played it in the countess rehearsals leading up to that moment. He didn’t. He played it better. With the spotlights on and with hundreds of audience members waiting with anticipation, he played with the most musicality and passion that I had ever heard. I smiled a huge grin and breathed a heavy sigh of relief when that magical G major chord sounded in bar 30.

During a thirty minute piece, you usually have no choice but to let your mind wander a bit while counting rests. I don’t remember losing focus for even a beat. It felt as if the ensemble was breathing and playing all as one unit, as if we were just puppets whose strings were being manipulated by some outside being. There were missed notes. There were rhythms that weren’t quite locked in. The difference this time was that were weren’t playing the notes or rhythms. We were playing the music. I remember tearing up a little bit during the clarinet extended technique section mimicking crying babies. Maybe because of the music, maybe because I knew all the hard work that everyone put in was paying off greater than we could have ever imagined. As we neared the end of the piece and the “Old One Hundredth” anthem started sounding, I could sense the horns to my left (Kent, Brandon, Eric and Marc) starting to let loose a bit more, everything seemed so easy. We were playing the loudest I’d ever experienced in that section but yet it felt effortless.

As Dr. Steele gave us the final release of the piece (an ending, I contend, that rivals any Mahler symphony), I remember taking a deep breath and thinking to myself, “Well, that wasn’t too taxing, I could probably play that whole show again tonight.” I was quickly brought back to reality when my knees buckled and I almost fell back into my chair as the section was summoned to stand for a bow.

I mentioned earlier that I thought that there was no way that we could have performed better than our first reading for Dr. Maslanka. I was right. We were nowhere near as technically sound as we were that rehearsal, but none of that mattered. The difference in musicality was immeasurable. Everyone in the room felt it. I can’t think of another concert I’ve performed in or attended that elicited this level of emotion from an audience. Looking out of the audience, there were a number of people crying, overcome by the journey that Dr. Maslanka’s music had just taken them on. The wave of emotion wasn’t just reserved for the audience, either.

Of course, it’s always said that you get out of something what you put into it and I think that may be why all of us involved in this performance look back on it with such fondness. We worked our asses off for months on this music and then when Dr. Maslanka showed up and shared himself with us, we became emotionally invested as well.

This is the single greatest performance I’ve been involved with.

To this day, this is the single greatest performance I’ve been involved with. Not because it was technically perfect, or because the group was so talented that we could play this incredibly difficult music like it was whole notes…but because of the exact opposite. Because we earned it. As a group. And Dr. Maslanka was the whole reason. His music, his being, his guidance and most of all, his passion for making music and for working with groups like ours.

To Dr. Maslanka, may you rest in peace. Thank you for giving me and my colleagues a memory that we will carry with us our entire lives.

David Maslanka and Stephen K. Steele with the ISU Wind Symphony horn section: taken during the recording sessions of A Child’s Garden of Dreams, November 2012

David and I with the ISU Wind Symphony horn section: taken during the recording sessions of A Child’s Garden of Dreams, in November 2012.

Emily Nunemaker
ISU Alum
West Carroll High School Band Director
Mount Carroll, Illinois

(The following text has been reprinted from her Facebook page with permission.)

So in this mourning process that I’m sure all the ISU kids are experiencing, I’m listening and remembering. I’m on a road trip alone and had to pull over while listening to the 2nd Symphony. I forgot how visceral the middle movement is, how dark and ominous and impending. It shook me absolutely to my core.

I remembered my very first impression of this music. I remembered wandering lost, looking for my first wind symphony rehearsal and being shown how to find the room by an older musician. I remember opening my folder to the first two cycles worth of music and eyeballing some Hindemith and being like, “okay, that seems fine” and then pulling up Symphony No. 2 by a man I’d never heard of, David Maslanka, and at first glance (and every subsequent glace) thinking “Oh shit, I’m in the wrong place. I don’t belong here. I can’t do this.”

I nearly left, as a wet behind-the-ears freshman I thought surely there was some mistake because I couldn’t possibly be expected to play this. But something made me stay and work harder than I ever had in my life to earn the right to play it and to do so among the most superb musicians I had ever encountered and for the most intense, terrifying, and utterly brilliant conductor I had ever encountered, Stephen Steele. Now I was a solid reader but I failed miserably at my first stab and spent more time working that monster than the 4th and the Mass combined. (Maybe I was more Maslanka ready the next few times?)

But the payoff, oh the payoff.

I wanted to be worthy of being in that section, worthy of playing that piece.

If you don’t know the E-flat solo in movement 1, then you can’t possibly imagine my awe to hear Mandy Fey Carota put so much passion into every swell of every note. Listening now I’m in tears remembering how she and Christine Hoover Tuck were my first true clarinet idols and it was No. 2 that did it. I wanted to be worthy of being in that section, worthy of playing that piece. Now listening I remember the 3rd movement ripping through me tearing me limb from limb and then putting me back together better than I was before.

That is Maslanka’s music to me, destroying everything I think I know about myself and returning me to myself better than I was before.

Members of the ISU Wind Symphony

Members of the ISU Wind Symphony during a rehearsal with David, in November 2010.

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.

2 thoughts on “Suspending Time and Figuring Out the Impossible—Remembering David Maslanka (1943-2017)

  1. Tom Ford

    Dr. Steele, this is a great article. Getting to play Traveler with you will always be the pinnacle of my music career at ISU, and I’ll never forget it. It was always inspiring to sit in on your wind symphony and symphonic winds rehearsals and listen to your talk about and lead Dr. Maslanka’s music. And then watching you conduct his music… Inspiring would be an understatement. It was always fun for me to watch you conduct his music. Thank you for bringing the inspiration of this man’s music into my life and the lives of so many others.

    Reply

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