Last week it was finally time to hear my very first piece for wind ensemble premiered at Virginia’s Shenandoah Conservatory, the first of many milestones on my outsider’s journey into the Wide World of Winds. The director of the conservatory’s wind ensemble, Damon Talley, is a true friend to composers in that he is one of the most active commissioners of new band works from composers not typically identified with wind and brass music. These projects are undertaken to introduce fresh repertoire into the band world while connecting a new generation of composers with opportunities to compose for band.
The piece I wrote was something like my five-year-old self’s idea of a cool band piece—completely silly and boisterous, with lots of crazy sounds including extended techniques (slide pop, anyone?) as well as the addition of whoopee cushions, bags full of trash, and other items that never would have found their way into a standard orchestra piece. Not surprisingly, it was a fun and freeing process; and I would echo Rob Deemer’s suggestion that once you go brass, you never go back!
There is a whole lot about the experience of composing for band that makes me excited to try writing another wind piece—things that are totally unique to the band world and that I’ve found to be encouraging and/or exciting from a composer’s point of view. Below are some of my own rookie observations about the process:
Wind bands are generally much more flexible configurations than symphony orchestras. First of all, most “concert band” music implies sections of like instruments, while “wind ensemble” generally indicates a more lithe ensemble of soloists each playing a unique part. Heck, there’s even the realm of “symphonic winds” for those looking to double up on orchestral performances, or for those sickos who have something against the euphonium (a fine and noble instrument, if there ever was one!). Within each sub-genre, there’s a lot of flexibility as well. It’s cool to be able to change instrumentation several times during the course of composing a new piece, as desired chords and voicings begin to suggest that the piece might need four trumpets rather than three; it’s an interesting game of give-and-take that’s not possible to such an extent in the world of orchestral scoring.
The band world is almost completely centered within colleges and universities, with talented high school ensembles and associated premieres both receiving a good deal of attention. For a composer, this means no union contracts and their associated doubling fees, tons of rehearsal time, and access to solid funding sources. You absolutely don’t have to be an academic to interface with the band world—yet the band world confers many of the advantages of academia.
As John Corigliano (whose Circus Maximus is one of the major recent entries to the wind band canon) has previously written, the wind band world is not dominated by critics and reviewers, so both audiences and band directors tend to form their own opinions about the music rather than seeking external validation. There is no “cool thing everyone is doing right now and woe to the composers who don’t play into that stylistic narrative”—in fact, I was heartened to see that the band world seems wide open to all possibilities, without any prior commitment. It would be difficult to identify a more charitable and diverse genre of music than that of wind band.
While we’ve all heard band works scored in the thick, well-doubled mid-century tradition, it’s now more accepted to score band works with a light or heavy touch as the situation demands. Check out “he’s so hot right now!” band composer John Mackey’s classic blog post about the differences between band and orchestra for more on this—he captures these two ensembles’ respective traits better than anyone.
Last but not least, since the performers of wind band music are almost always students, writing new music for band allows composers to come into contact with new generations of young people and provides young people with greater opportunities to work with living composers. This has to be my favorite thing about band music and the possibilities it holds for future generations when it comes to appreciating the music of our time.