Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Einstein on the Field

In response to "Ligeti at the 50-yard line," posted by Alex Ross on TheRestIsNoise.com.

Eight and a half years ago I dashed through the pouring rain to an 8:30 a.m. breakfast interview in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, wearing a full suit and closed-toe heels. Across the table from me was Jenny Bilfield, then President of Boosey & Hawkes, whom I'd never met before, wearing stylish sweatpants and a matching hoodie. (She was kind enough to meet me on a weekend, knowing that my employer at the time did not offer lunch breaks or PTO.) What I remember most about that interview, apart from our discussion of the blurred lines between personal and professional life in the music business, was her question about my background with composers.

Well, I had to plead a certain level of ignorance regarding the Boosey roster. But I was quick to answer, without understanding how anomalous this was, that the commissioning of composers was commonplace throughout my public school and university music education. My first experience was at the age of 13, when my middle school band director commissioned a piece from a local composer for our eighth grade band to play at our final concert. My high school band director brought in an established composer, Robert W. Smith, to work with our symphonic band on one of his pieces. And my university band director frequently commissioned pieces, notably including a piece written by one of our contemporaries, Brian Balmages, who was a composition grad student at the time and who has gone on to lead a successful compositional career. As far as I knew, composers were people who lived nearby and showed up to rehearsal wearing khaki shorts.

I did have experience with some Boosey composers --  I had played John Adams's Short Ride in a Fast Machine on a friend's conducting recital, and plenty of Stravinsky, some Prokofieff, Bernstein and Copland (of course). A percussionist friend had played me Reich once. And of course I knew (R.) Strauss, Bartok, and Rachmaninoff from recordings and possibly from playing in my university orchestra. But as I scrolled through the hundreds of names on the website I couldn't find most of the composers who loomed large in my wind band-directed education. And I wondered why that was.

Where were Persichetti, Gordon Jacob, Malcolm Arnold, John Barnes Chance, Maslanka, Stamp, Ticheli, Grainger? This was my first time encountering the ravine that divides (c)omposers of "educational literature" from Composers of The Canon. Also conspicuous in their absence were the jazz, songbook, and Broadway composers I loved to sing along with and the [film + tv] composers I knew via my innate French hornist's affection for Hollywood scores -- Newman, Williams, Horner, Elfman.

Of course, Boosey is only one publisher (and they do, or at least did, curate a series of high level band pieces, titled Windepedence). But over the past several years working in the classical music business -- and specifically with contemporary composers -- I have been surprised at how seemingly irrelevant all of those names -- along with the entire wind band tradition and repertory -- are in this line of work. It's largely a matter of sociological infrastructure, I suppose. Wind bands are a relatively new type of ensemble, the offspring of military bands, and therefore have always played "new music" for lack of an existing canon. They found a home in the American education system, and therefore music written for them is considered "educational" as opposed to "classical" or "serious." Arrangements of orchestral works are programmed from time to time but the market is driven by annual band conferences where directors convene State- or Nationwide to attend reading sessions and select fresh repertoire for the coming school year. In this world, it is a fundamental reality that top ensembles and programs distinguish themselves by playing hot new pieces by hot new composers. And the students in these programs are often jazzed about "this crazy part" in a new piece that they get to learn. Tackling an especially bizarre, loud, or challenging new passage is what makes it fun.

What my rural home county didn't have was an orchestra program, and my parents didn't listen to classical music, so I wasn't attuned to the great tradition of playing "Masterworks" (read: only music written by dead mentally-disturbed slutty megalomaniacal European demigods). My first experience playing in an orchestra was in college, and the string program was significantly weaker than the wind and percussion programs, so most of rehearsal was spent watching the conductor help the violins get it together while our horns became the icy cold temperature of institutional air-conditioning. Still, there was some amount of repertoire crossover. In both wind ensemble and orchestra we played Hindemith, Milhaud, Vaughn Williams, Holst,  Respighi (Pines! of! Rome!). Respectable company.

But the classical music business is largely disconnected from all of this, driven by opera companies and orchestras with celebrity singers and soloists (piano and string - almost never wind! hiss!), playing revered pieces of music by dead idiots savants. In this world, playing "new music" by active composers, who show up to rehearsal wearing shorts, is somewhat of a novelty and very often a hard sell. (Except to those for whom it is a booming counterculture [my neck of the business], where innovation and individuation are exalted above all, or to those organizations with especially "adventurous" mission statements.) Why is that? Playing new music is an "adventure" but it's one that band students of all ages take every day. Are young string students not playing literature commissioned by local/popular composers the way band students are? Are they all just playing watered down arrangements of Old Faithfuls of the repertory, and are lessons/rehearsals wholly focused on adopting ancient performance practice? Is that why there's such resistance to playing today's music in the orchestra world? Or is it because of ticket sales? For better or for worse, I might say that the primary purpose of wind band repertoire is to be played rather than heard, and ticket sales are not vital to a successful school band. So I can see where this might allow a certain freedom in terms of programming.

Perhaps it is partially for these reasons that composers on the "classical" career track, who'd hope for their music to be accepted into this strict canon and heard by these often-sneering ears, don't consider writing for wind band. Perhaps they fear being pegged and stigmatized as not being "serious" composers. And perhaps it's the same set of reasons that drives many wind band composers away from this classical track, staying close to existing university contacts and networks, writing useful music for adoring students and respected band directors.

All of this to say, it is drum corps season. A proud former mellophonist, I drove to Allentown, PA, this past Sunday for my annual dose of drumlines in the distance and slamming walls of brass: the DCI Tour of Champions Eastern Classic. I had previously read Alex Ross's recent blog post about what he called "drum-corps modernism" -- the inclusion of pieces by such composers as Ligeti, John Adams, Philip Glass -- in DCI shows. But why single out only certain names/pieces as "modern" when only one piece on the entire line-up was written before the 20th century (1896) and the majority of featured composers are alive and kicking? To me, it's not news that bands are playing modern music. What's notable to me is that these programs present a characteristically omnivorous display of composers across classical, jazz, film, band, Broadway, and songwriting traditions.

Here's a rundown of Sunday's line-up:

Carolina Crown: E=mc2
Richard Strauss (classical, deceased)
Philip Glass (classical)
Paul Lovatt-Cooper (band)
Bertrand Moren (band)

Santa Clara Vanguard: Les Miserables
Claude-Michel Schoenberg, Alain Boublil (Broadway)

Phantom Regiment: Triumphant Journey
Craig Armstrong (film)
Bernard Herrmann (film)
Benjamin Britten (classical, deceased)
Edward Elgar (classical, deceased)
Schostakovich (classical, deceased)

The Cavaliers: Secret Society
Hans Zimmer (film)
John Mackey (band)
Drew Shanefield (band)
Michael Giacchino (film)

Blue Devils: The re:Rite of Spring
Stravinsky (classical)
Darryl Brenzel (classical/jazz)
Don Sebesky (musical theatre, film, classical)

Bluecoats: ...to look for America
Simon & Garfunkel (songwriter)
Rufus Wainwright (songwriter)
Leonard Cohen (songwriter, deceased)
Steve Reich (classical)
Duke Ellington (jazz, deceased)
Stravinsky (classical, deceased)
Steven Bryant (band)

The Cadets: Side by Side
Samuel Barber (classical, deceased)

Attention Composers
: Here lies work.

And Attention Team Classical: If you are looking for adventurous audiences, you'll find them wearing pit crew sweatshirts in stadiums across the country or wearing plumes and cumberbunds on the marching field. They have been there for decades.

Meanwhile, behold the below and swoon.





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