Friday, October 15, 2010

Strong Mouth, Fresh Wind

Eye-rolling time. We fifth graders had barely gotten accustomed to our new digs — Fairfield Street School, way on the other side of town — when already we were summoned to an assembly, whatever that was. We hardly ever had assemblies in first through fourth grades. This involved a regimented and highly supervised march to the junior high, where there was an actual gymnasium, with bleachers of sufficient size to seat the fifth grade class.

We were to repeat this march, but much less regimentedly, many times in fifth grade. Since our gym classes were held at the junior high, too.

This first of the fifth grade assemblies involved listening to a lecture-demo by a guy introduced to us as Mr. Ellis. From Ellis Music Company somewheres downstate. We got an entertaining lecture — verging on perky — by this Mr. Ellis Jack-of-All-Trades guy about the instruments of the band. All of which he could play and tell goofy stories about. Naturally, the tuba demo was accompanied by a story about an elephant. As I recall, the clarinet demo was largely about the Maxwell House Coffee commercials.

You gotta admire a guy whose business it is to go to all the schools in the state and play all the instruments for them. How exactly do you keep up your chops on a dozen and a half or so instruments? How do you even carry that many instruments in your car?

Conspicuously absent from the demo was the string instrument family. Not that the magical Mr. Ellis wouldn't sell you a string instrument. For you see, there were apparently no string players in town, save perhaps a jazz bassist (I believe they were known as string bassists) here or there, no string programs, no nothin'. For all I knew, the only violin in town was in my mother's closet. I took it out once and couldn't figure out where to put my hands. Maybe you had to go all the way to Burlington to find people who knew where to put their hands on a string instrument. We only went there to get day-old bread for fifteen cents off.

Mr. Ellis's demo finished with the expected invitation for the kids to badger their parents to buy instruments from him. Lessons for all the kids were free, through school! From a really old guy with an amazingly floppy gullet and cigarette breath called Mr. Bostwick. What a New England name! And another jack of all trades, of sorts.

So I made the customary pitch to the parents when I got home. I don't recall which instrument I wanted to play, and I doubt I was seduced by the coffee commercial. Long before this meeting, though, my father had decided my instrument for me: the French horn.

Keep in mind that there is no musical ability or taste on the Polish side of the family (I could apparently still be a musician if the Polish were extracted). Dad was entirely tone deaf, and had the easy listening station from Montreal playing all day. So I'm just a bit curious as to why he chose this instrument.

Fail! The powers-what-be in music said no French horning until seventh grade, after two years with another instrument. So dad said, let's get a saxophone instead. Fail again! Same parameters. Third time's a charm? Trombone? Score! Please remit one hundred and eighty-five 1968 dollars.

So Mr. Cigarette-Breath Bostwick taught us trombonists in groups of five or so, conducted the junior high band, and by the end of my fifth grade year, had me playing Asleep in the Deep as a solo/duo with the band. Probably Grade Two, even though I neither knew what that meant then nor what it means now. When I say solo/duo, I meant that Jim Farley and I played it in unison. I was the brash up-and-comer, he was the King of the Trombone Hill about to graduate. To high school.

Apparently, band music is graded, just like railroads and highways. And it runs the gantlet. I don't know how the scale works, but two is probably pretty easy, right? On the other hand, the solo part begins in sixth position ...

Once in our group lesson — by the end of the school year, I would be the last trombone standing — Mr. Cigarette Breath chewed out the whole group for lack of effort, then pointed to me as a sterling example. We didn't really hear him chew us out — we were always busy fanning the cigarette smoke away.

Me and Mr. Cigarette Breath had a sizable generation gap, as when he tried to become friendly, he asked me what I listened to at home. I replied that my sister had brought home a Chicago album, jazz-rock as they called it. He replied, and voluminously so, that Chicago jazz was famous the world over, and he gave a long list of its practitioners. I fanned the cigarette smoke.

In sixth grade, I was sent to the high school district music festival, and in seventh grade I was encouraged to play a solo in the same festival's solo competition. When I say encouraged I mean forced. I played the Grand March from Aïda, and what is significant about that was that I was accompanied by Verne Colburn in the concert, our first meeting. Really, you haven't lived until you've heard, and swooned to, the Grand March from Aïda for trombone and piano. I am pleased to report that I have lived. When I say pleased I mean something else. While I didn't win, it was probably remarked that the Aïda guy sure was little.

Eventually, dad's friend Carl Eller got me to play in two local town bands, in which Mr. Eller played saxophone — which I was now old enough to play but didn't, because I was a gentleman. Hence began my outside ensemble performing career — literally my outside performing career. Not only were most of the tunes on the concerts sight-read (at least by me, since everyone else had been playing the same tunes for about eighty-six years), but I got to savor the treat of applause by people in lawn chairs supplemented liberally by horn-honking of those listening from inside their cars. How odd that I myself have yet to go to a concert for which I stay inside my car; I rarely use my car horn to express approval of the actions of others.

By high school, there were all-state and all-New England festivals for which to audition and go to, and it's well-documented here that playing and hearing that extended tonal Americana stuff got me started as a composer, and by writing for my own high school band. I was trying to win a composition contest with my very first piece, and I reveal here for the first time its embarrassing title. I was doing junior-in-high-school pretentio-guy by imagining that, instead of stealing the best work of others, I was using music to embody the striving of the human spirit (not the Hunan spirit, which would come with hot and sour soup). That Fsus4 beginning and ending must have represented something really pretentio, as it represented ultimate striving. The piece, as submitted to the competition, was Opus 3, "The Ultimate". The quotes were part of the title.

I lost, of course — to a brass ensemble in Renaissance style with a less pretentio-title. Years later it got back to me that the judging panel liked the piece and hated the title.

The following year I wrote another band piece for the same competition, and this time it won. The new piece had five short movements — probably modeled on or stolen from the Persichetti Divertimento. It was more transparently and professionally written, and was never performed (parts would have had to be copied). The title was no less pretentio — Suite from Erehwon, which retrograded is Nowhere Morf Etuis. The second title would have been better. Or at least funnier.

So my entire musical life — by entire I mean more than half of it (I know some government accountants, and do they have stories...) — revolved around bands. I even got to be the fulcrum when the band marched.

Oh. Did I mention that all of us in band had to learn to march, too? Our jack-of-all-trades Mr. Colburn, conservatory-trained and a monster jazz pianist, had to kowtow to the locals' desire to see the local high schoolers wearing stifling wool uniforms — to which I was allergic — and marching down Main Street. So he had to teach us how to march. At the Veteran's Day and Maple Festival parades, my instrument's slide occasionally froze so that the only notes available to me were the harmonic series on B-flat.

By fulcrum, I mean to say I was the left corner of the front row, and when the band made its left turns, I was literally that — the point of the compass. The trombone at the other fulcrum, meanwhile, was the pencil on the compass, marching the fastest. At right turns, I was the pencil. We still don't know who the walrus was.

After high school, I got little exposure to wind ensemble music, despite the fact that NEC had one of the bitchinest wind ensembles in all of creation. I went to a lecture-demo when Joe Schwantner was in town for the local premiere of his then-new mountains rising nowhere — notable for the use of tuned wine glasses and chords stacked in thirds. And for how quickly it became standard rep for band.

Tuned wine glasses. Obviously the year was between 1975 and 1978. It was one of those thingies that was really cool and had a shelf life approximately equivalent to that of the Pet Rock. Roll your eyes, here come the tuned wine glasses ... again ...

Thus speaks the guy who owned not one, but two leisure suits.

I did not own a Pet Rock. Nor a tuned wine glass. Though tuned wine glasses turn out to be a nice way to get old folks acting pretty silly.

Then band music was totally off my radar for twenty-two years — equivalent to the amount of time it takes to write a hundred piano études, as it turns out.

Actually, I fib a little more than slightly. I played euphonium — euphonium! — in the Princeton Wind Ensemble for one concert, since nobody else could or would, and tuba — tuba! — at two graduation ceremonies. So make that nineteen years. Add euphonium solo in Mars to my list of who cares? accomplishments. The band also played Copland's Outdoor Overture, and Jody Rock and I put words to the three-note ostinato: I've sold out. I've sold out. I've sold out. Also to the opening tutti: I'm making lots of DOUGH!

Nineteen years and twenty-six thousand three hundred twenty-five dollars and twenty-five cents later, I got a letter and package from Mike Colburn at 8th and "I" Streets in DC. He had bought my freshly-minted twenty-six thousand three hundred twenty-five dollars and twenty-five cents CD on CRI, liked the music, said he was programming Sesso e Violenza from said CD at a concert at the Library of Congress. He also wondered if I'd be interested in writing for the band — here are some digital examples contained in the package.

Mike Colburn. Assistant Director of the US Marine Band. Son of the monster jazz pianist who had to teach me and my homeys how to march all proper. Yeah, okay, you got my attention.

I didn't know anything about writing for band, really, despite having started there. Good thing I had a bunch of examples of the band — which were later supplemented by more CDs from other bands. To me, band, wind ensemble, seemed like one of those niche worlds occupying a secluded corner of the ether, with its own passwords and secret handshakes and insider jokes and its own hero composers.

Got it in one.

Just like, say, the harp world. Go through that door and what you hear is Salzedo, Salzedo, Salzedo, why can't you write for harp more like Salzedo, and why do you not revere him as we enlightened harpists do?

By the same token, I was once obligated to keep a straight face when a timpanist friend declared that Elliott Carter's Eight Pieces for Four Timpani was great music. I'm afraid I wasn't up to the obligation.

I exaggerate what I thought of the band world — daunting would be a more apt description. And the niche is actually a pretty gigantic one. What I had remembered most about band music was all the cues in it to cover for parts that might not be available this year. For instance, I'd never encountered much in the way of double reeds in my band experience — is an oboe solo an exotic thing in a band piece and a bassoon solo exoticker? In my memory — and in the digitally-represented performances at hand — the full band playing medium to fast reminded me of the taste and texture of melted caramels. And all the cuing — can the composer really control all the instrumental colors?

These digital representations — lots of tricks, and lots of the same tricks. Aha, I had learned the first part of the secret handshake. And formal paradigms? Fast and brassy followed by lyrical slower stuff, and an abbreviated return. Most of the time.

I also thought that a significant majority of the music tossed my way was carp. I'm using an anagram here. It was this. Still with the anagrams.

Not all of it, though. Nick Maw and Warren Benson, good. 

And the band world itself? In America, something like

  • 99.9% educational (middle school, high school, college)
  • 0.00999% professional, associated with the military
  • 0.000001% professional, not associated with the military

I may have to revise those numbers later. That last figure seems a bit high.

What I was about to find out was that my re-entry into this world was to be at the very highest level. This truly was, and is, the best band in the world. And they came and knocked on my door for a piece. The performance of Sesso e Violenza was very, very good, even worth going through two layers of Library of Congress security.

At that S&V gig, one audience member said he'd taken a course with Dallapiccola when he was at Berkeley and asked he was still teaching there. I said not since he died twenty-six years earlier. The audience member nodded in agreement.

The parameters for the Marine Band piece were pretty much carte blanche. Write your music, and please please please please don't write a band piece. We've got a lot of those already. Message received. The availability of so many clarinets led to the idea of making it a concerto grosso for ten clarinets of various sizes and twenty-nine players.

Franco Terry later asked me to write about this experience, and I did.

Mike even thought the whole thing was important enough — outlier finds comfort zone in military band world — to conduct an interview for a trade magazine. The interview was long enough to be published in two installments, and the beer flowed freely. Mike's wife Nancy commented the next day that we sure did laugh a lot, and for a long time.

Doing things the military way — not related to the music, but essential for this project. Once the commission was settled, there was the form of payment. A supply sergeant in St. Louis (I do not know why he shared with me his location) called to ask if I took credit cards. Imagine the esprit d'escalier on that response. Eventually, I had to cumber some and register as a military contractor, which as you can imagine was cumberful to the extreme. The payment was late, and because of that, I was paid with interest — enough for a nice lunch with Beff. Too bad they couldn't have paid it in 1968 dollars.

The act of writing the piece — daunting, but in the end, really really fun. I wasn't writing a band piece, so there were no roads. If instrumental combos seemed cool, I used them (bassoon doubling vibraphone in octaves with motor and a triangle roll? I own that sonority!) And complicated counterpoint? Bring it on!

Man, did they smoke that performance, and even moreso at the WASBE conference a few months later. Oh yeah — free trip to Lucerne, Switzerland. Cool, huh?

And I learned about the interesting intersection between music culture and military culture. The performers? Enlisted men and women, various flavors of sergeants. The assistant directors? Officers. In rehearsals, performer questions were prefaced with "Sir". And since there I was hangin' with the officers, they called me "Sir" as well. Force of habit, I guess. Example: your piece is really hard. But really cool. Sir. Another example. Sir, is this piece twelve-tone?

And since then? A call from a band director in Texas about how important the piece was and how soon he would be performing it (he didn't). And a performance in Norway. Well, you know, build it with ten virtuoso clarinet parts and see just how many non-Norwegians line up to play it.

Not much later, in need of a project to take only a few available days, I arranged my tango étude for band and showed it to Michael. His immediate response — who's going to do a 3-minute band piece? Arrange three more! So I did. And Mike, now the Director of the Band, did it at the Midwest Clinic. Stride piano for band? A real goof-a-thon. Hardest part about that arrangement? Writing a faux drum set part for the bop-athon. I pretty much copied the drummer on a Charlie Parker recording that was at hand. It didn't suck.

My final toe submersion in the band world was to apply for the Barlow Prize for the wind ensemble commission, which I won. Thus another band piece, likely my last. What was new this time was doing bandlike stuff — my first march ever, and a bunch of scimmiamerda drumming. Again, the Marines did a smash-up premiere and this time it sounded — to me — more professional, more like band music. For I no longer had carte blanche (four of the ensembles to play this piece are college bands). Still good, though. And still ... serious. Though mildly disappointing that I seemed to know what I was doing.

Hey, my brand was I don't know how to write for band, so I just make up shit. Now what do I do?

And of those five wind ensembles contracted to premiere the piece, still waiting on forty percent of them.

So there we have it. I came, I saw, I Concord. I know how to write for band now. Even though I still get to be an outlier. Bring on the next hard thing.

And this band music grading thing. I know there's a list somewhere made by people with advanced degrees in education who have forgotten far more big words than I will ever know. I saw my pieces listed as "Grade 6" somewheres. Is this the pinochle? After the Lucerne performance, a Swiss guy smiled and remarked "Grade Eight."

And the title of this post — a translation of a Japanese toothpaste commercial.