I had a tremendous opportunity to write for the best band in the world—“The President’s Own” United States Marine Band—and I was terrified at the prospect of writing for it. Even though the first piece I ever wrote was a band piece—it was a seven-minute amalgam of all the cool band pieces I’d played at All-State and All-New England festivals on trombone when I was in high school—I hadn’t thought seriously about band music for about 25 years. I figured that there must be specialists who write for the ensemble who understand the difference between Grade 4 and Grade 5 music, who have access to this magic grab-bag of band writing tricks, who know how to blend the sections so that it balances and all the parts are covered even when no saxophones or horns are available this year. I was a little too old to learn old tricks, and I wasn’t sure I could make that ensemble sound anywhere near as good as the specialists could.
Listen to Ten of a Kind
So Michael Colburn, who was the Assistant Director of the Marine Band, sent me a pile of CDs of recent state-of-the-art band music. I listened and figured out some of the tricks. I learned a bunch of new composers’ names. I looked up the contrabass clarinet in the Adler Orchestration textbook. And it was some virtuosic writing in Nicholas Maw‘s American Games and one particular instrumental trick in Michael Daugherty‘s Niagara Falls that gave me the best ideas about how I would want to write for band.
I decided right off that bat that I didn’t want to try a lot of instrumental blending in my piece for the Marine Band—band music that did that tended to be thick and chewy and concentrated in the middle register. Instead, I wanted to play with the pure sounds of all the sections and use that as a springboard. And as an old trombonist, I wanted to make things “wah” with Harmon mutes. Michael sent me a list of available instruments, and I was struck by the availability of three or four of most things, and of thirteen clarinets. This gave me the idea to use ten of the clarinets (E-flat, 6 B-flats, alto, bass and contrabass) as a quasi-concerto soloist and the rest of the band (29 of them, as it turns out) as a ripieno group. Michael said that would be okay.
And then I just had fun! I was assured that I could write virtuosically for every player. Even though I missed my string writing tricks—what, no thrown bows, sul pont., pizzicato, harmonics?—there were plenty of interesting and contrasting colors to play with. And the concerto metaphor helped me with the piece’s narrative.
Then came the premiere. A half-hour long mod music extravaganza called Ten of a Kind (get it?) played for a Virginia audience who came to hear The Stars and Stripes Forever. The band was decked out in red and gold with those funny shoulder ropes, and the conductor, Colonel Tim Foley, was in black and gold. The ten clarinets sat in front of the band in a big “U” and played extraordinarily. The other 29 players also played fabulously, and just about everything I wrote worked. There was thunderous applause—from about 10 people—and polite applause from the rest. My wife remarked, “Hardest band piece ever written.” The band was very excited about the piece (they kept saying, “It’s very cool, SIR!”), even though it taxed them greatly. And I got a wonderful reaction that night—an e-mail from an audience member who loved the piece and said it was “witty.”
The experience was enervating, exciting, and terrifying. All in all, writing for band is far different than writing for orchestras or chamber ensembles. It was harder to think of soft music, and a lot easier to think of musical gestures that would be called jazzy, and there was a lot of tight scoring within sections. It was odd writing exposed music for alto flute, English horn and oboe and realizing that that would be considered exotic and unusual by band people (and feeling the need to include a note in the score that no parts could be left out or substituted). I ended up grooving on the play of so many pure colors, as well as the great technique of the players in the Marine Band. And here’s the trick I stole from Michael Daugherty: tuba and timpani in unison sound like a pizzicato double bass. Cool. But mostly I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I still don’t know how to write for band.
I think my piece is Grade 6, even though I don’t know what that means.