Strike Up the Band

Frank J. Oteri, Editor
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Jeffrey Herman

Perhaps the most ridiculous memory I have of entering college life concerns the person who was appointed to be my student advisor whose name I seem to have now completely forgotten (which is probably for the best so no one’s feelings will get hurt).

I arrived a starry-eyed avant-garde composer-wannabe who, aside from a year or so withering away in South Florida, had never really left New York City. I had spent the previous four years at the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art hoping to be the next Stephen Sondheim. Somewhere in the middle of that, as punk rock permeated the rest of teenage culture, something twisted happened in my psyche and I glommed onto Stockhausen, John Cage, and early Philip Glass. My college choices were somewhat narrowed by not wanting to relive the brief time I spent away from Manhattan, so I inevitably wound up at Columbia, home of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center and also where Richard Rodgers’ staged some of his earliest shows.

Anyway, since I had expressed that I wanted to be a music major, I was appointed a student advisor with an interest in music. However, his “interest in music” was that he was a member of the Columbia Band! “Band, what’s that?” I wondered, “Did Columbia have a punk rock program?” Okay, I wasn’t quite that clueless, but I might as well have been. I had never consciously paid attention to wind band music. I namedropped Berio and Penderecki and asked if they wrote anything for band. He never heard of them and talked about how much fun band rehearsals were. They all got drunk and goofed around and their performances were a disaster every time. He said I should join. I wasn’t a prude but music was sacred to me, so I certainly wanted no part of his idea of “fun.” We ultimately had nothing to say to each other. And, aside from one blurry night when he threw his music history textbook in the air and it landed on the head of one of the statues guarding the 116th Street gate, we never dealt with each other again.

In the four years I was an undergrad, no one in the music department ever mentioned that Columbia had a band. I never attended a band concert or even a football game where their half-time show allegedly rivaled the football team in misplays. In the pieces I was asked to compose and the pieces I was made aware of in concert and on recordings, none were for band.

Even in the years since, I somehow never made a connection with the world of symphonic winds. Despite our valiant attempts to take ourselves a little less seriously in the past 20 years, many composers of so-called “serious” music never make that connection. Don’t get me wrong, by no means do I mean to imply here that symphonic bands can’t be taken very seriously, and most of the band performances I’ve finally become aware of over the past few months are far removed from the Three Stooges vibe I got from my former student advisor. However, the perception is still there. The community nature of wind band music making has somehow devalued it in our world of “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

Of course, in the final analysis, the joke’s on us. Collectively, symphonic wind bands commission and perform more new music than any other kind of ensemble in America today, as Brian Wise has discovered. This is further corroborated by the testimony of four leading composers (Karel Husa, Libby Larsen, David Maslanka, David Rakowski) and four emerging composers—Eric Whitacre, Jonathan Newman, Jim Bonney and Steve Bryant—who explain how this community has allowed them not only to make a living as composers, but to have a good time doing it. Established publishers have had more success with wind band repertoire than almost anything else. Perhaps the next piece you consider writing should be for wind band!

I haven’t started mine yet, but I’ve got a few ideas floating around in my head. When I finally get around to it, I hope I’ll be able to remember the name of my old student advisor. (I wonder if he’s still playing music somewhere.) I’ve never been one for reunions, but this piece will be dedicated to him.