Why is it that every commissioning grant or gig seems to have attached to it some component of educational outreach? Don’t get me wrong, I am probably one of the loudest proponents for getting composers and performers more involved in the musical life of younger players. But one can’t just tell a composer to do an educational project along with a commission. What are your options when you’re asked to do more than what you signed up for?
That situation happened with Common Sense Composers Collective when we undertook a project with the Albany Symphony’s Dogs of Desire Ensemble. As part of our commission to write eight new pieces for Dogs of Desire, we were asked to work with two local high school bands during our residency with the symphony. No other guidance or directions were given.
So, how could we integrate Common Sense’s modus operandi of workshopping and bringing performers into the creation process of a piece with younger players, players who have a wide range of playing ability and who have never encountered new music? And how could we find a format where all eight composers could contribute something individually, and yet be part of a conceptually integrated outreach project?
Our answer, simple but effective, was a “Variation” project. Each of our eight composers would do a variation on a pop song. Knowing we had to get the kids engaged in the project, we had them help pick the tune. The ten finalists consisted of a crazy mix of current hits and rock classics, including, to our surprise, “Stairway to Heaven.” In an overtly dramatic fashion, we revealed the winner at our introductory meeting with the two bands: “Zoot Suit Riot,” a raucous piece of retro-big band music.
Then the composing began. Two of our members were put in charge of arranging the original tune for concert band. Then, we divvied up our eight composers into two groups of four, where each foursome was then adopted by one of the two high school bands. In writing their own take on Zoot, each composer received constant back-and-forth feedback between the students, the band directors, and all of us in Common Sense. As the project progressed, a shared sense of camaraderie ensued with the bands and the Common Sensers. The final result, Zoot Suit Variations, consisted of a set of eight pieces, all varying widely in style and difficulty. We had minimalist, modernist, conceptual, improv, and performance art. And the kids ate them up.
For the concert, we devised a “battle of the bands” format for the program order. Both groups would perform their respective pieces, with the finale being the two ensembles teaming up to play the Common Sense orchestration of the original tune. When we rehearsed the whole set of eight for the first time, it was a real culmination as each band had only heard the theme and their own four variations. At the performance, the final stage of our grand plan was quite a joyous noise. The concert hall, a.k.a. the gymnasium, was stuffed to the brim with friends, siblings, parents, and relatives. It had all of the excitement of a sporting event, with the players as focused and as passionate as if it were a homecoming game.
In the end, the concert with the high school bands was more celebratory, more joyous, and better attended than the formal concert of our pieces with the pros a couple days later. And that was okay, because we Common Sensers loved our pieces and loved how we got these kids into new music by turning them on to a fun idea and watching them take full ownership of this project. Even though we as a collective had no previous experience in educational outreach it was clear from the response that night that we did something right. There, under the fluorescent lights of a huge high school gymnasium, some exceptional music making occurred, and at a level none of us could have ever anticipated.