2. First Exposure
Eric: We’ve had different arcs. For me—I don’t know how this happened—I wrote a hit my first time out, this piece called Ghost Train. And so, my arc has been a little different because everybody knew my name, at least in the band world, and I sort of had a caché.
FJO: From one piece?
Eric: From one piece it was a sky rocket sort of situation…
FJO: So let’s go back a little further. How did that piece happen?
Eric: The thumbnail sketch—I was a student at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and I walked by the band rehearsal room and heard them playing. It was loud. I loved the sound. I didn’t really know anything about bands and while I was listening I had an idea for a piece. So I went up to the conductor afterwards and said, “I’ve got this idea for a band piece.” And he said if you write it for us we’ll play it at this big convention in the spring.
FJO: Just like that. No matter what it is, accepted carte blanche?
Eric: That’s right. Because there is this culture in symphonic wind music of being the first kid on the block with a new piece and conductors like to champion young composers. I didn’t know this at the time.
FJO: And he never heard a note of your music?
Eric: He heard some of my choral music and liked it. So I wrote the piece. I just took my best guess. I’d never written for instruments, certainly never written for band. They played it at this convention and I started getting phone calls. It started with one or two a day, then five, then ten. Then I quit my job at Kinko’s and became a full-time music publisher. I was selling this stuff out of my apartment faster than I could print it. That was the last time I ever had a real job actually. Because of that, the commission offers started flooding in and it really took me by storm.
FJO: You gave up that job at Kinko’s and gave up access to all those photocopying machines.
Eric: Well, they overlapped for about three months until I could actually afford to print things. But that’s how all of that started. And the piece continues to sell well ten years later. That community is unique on this planet, I think.
FJO: So did any of you have experience playing in a wind band.
Jonathan: I did. I played trombone. I was squad leader in my high school marching band. But when I went to college I spent a lot of time trying very hard to get away from it. I grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania and that was the only real way to make music in that part of the country much as it is in a lot of the Midwest and the South. It’s wonderful music making, but that’s the form in which it happens. And so in college, and then Tanglewood and Aspen and the rest of it, I distanced myself very much from it and did a sort of never-look-back kind of thing. I’m a string man. I’m only working on chamber music and small ensembles and orchestra works and things like this. And then I got to Juilliard and met Eric. And literally the guy says, “Listen, you know, there’s a whole other world out there” which I was vaguely aware of but it had been ten years. “It’s a whole other world and they’re playing new music and it’s loud and you get five percussionists and they just love new music and they pay for it.” And I said, “Sure, I’ll see what I can do. It sounds like fun.”
FJO: But you had already played in a band.
Jonathan: Many. I did the state band and the regional band. I played in the local college wind ensemble.
Steve: I did even more. My father was a band director for 30 years in Arkansas. So this was not a surprise to me although I hadn’t written for band for a while. But as an undergrad in Arkansas I wrote a piece for band every year. That’s how I cut my teeth actually. I didn’t write chamber music. There were no string players to speak of so I didn’t write for strings since there was no chance of hearing it. Those pieces are very much student, amateur pieces that I wouldn’t show to anyone but I would say I was much more familiar with band.
FJO: So why did you distance yourself from it?
Jonathan: I think that has more to do with me leaving home and wanting to be a different person. It has less to do with musical issues than with personal issues. You know, when you’re 18 years old you want to have your own life and do something different. I went to Tanglewood and my eyes were opened. I heard Berg for the first time and I was hooked. I studied my tail off and got very serious about serious music.
Eric: There’s a serious sense of illegitimacy in the contemporary classical music world about writing for wind band. We felt it so strongly at Juilliard. They couldn’t believe that I was writing for wind band. All of my professors, when I’d bring in a new work for my juries, would just poo-poo it. They’d say, “What is this?”
FJO: But one of the great teachers at Juilliard in the mid-20th century was Vincent Persichetti who wrote one of the great band pieces.
Jonathan: But that was 50 years ago. It was a different scene then.
FJO: What about all the great pieces by Varèse, they’re essentially band pieces… We don’t think of them that way, but that’s what they are. So, it’s not like this sound doesn’t exist in our world.
Jonathan: There’s a difference—it’s probably a semantic difference—between Hyperprism and the wind band playing that happens in the country today.
FJO: So your group in Pennsylvania didn’t play Varèse.
Steve: He’s not played a lot by bands in the United States.
Eric: And I’ll bet his wind music gets played a lot more than his orchestral music.
Jim: Well, they don’t seem to draw a whole lot from their own historical past. Granted there are Sousa marches and things like that, but the majority of the core seems to come from people who are still alive and are still writing right now, rather than the orchestral scene which draws very much from past composers. At least the repertoire I’ve seen.
FJO: Which makes it so good for living composers!
Jonathan: It’s a different culture.
Jim: The style stays current in a different kind of way.