5. Band in the Balance
FJO: Where does the wind band thing fall into the trajectory of how you see yourselves as composers: stylistically, aesthetically? Is this a centerpiece of your work? Is this just something you’re doing to make some money?
Steve: I would say that having played in bands and my father being a band director, in some ways it’s very central. It’s taken more of a central role in my life in the last few years than I probably would have chosen, but I’m not complaining. It’s been great. And a part of that has been financial. If someone wants to pay you to write music…
Jonathan: What composer would turn that down?
Steve: And it becomes a snowball if you have any success at all. Last year I got six commissions and I wrote six wind pieces in about 14 months. And let me tell you, that’s the limit. In fact, I’ve burned myself out. I want to focus on other things for a while, like electronic stuff. I definitely do not want to be a “band composer.” I see how it happens to people who do write for band. It becomes self-perpetuating. The commissions keep coming in. This is great, you know, money and people playing my music. But that becomes all you do.
I felt myself veering dangerously close to that. I was writing so many pieces for winds and I saw certain similarities in the music. Not writing the same piece over and over again, but I was tending toward the same kind of harmonic movement, the same formal structures. That’s not what I want to be doing. I don’t think there’s a clunker among them, but I needed to stop where I was because I was obviously going to end up with just pale imitations of what I like to do. I think that’s how you become typecast as a band composer… Because that’s all you write, you write a lot of things that sound almost identical and indistinguishable from each other and you just market each new one each year.
FJO: Couldn’t that happen writing for other ensembles as well?
Steve: I think in the band world it’s pretty easy to tend toward that because there are so many sales going on.
Jonathan: I think actually that this is one of the things that BCM is about, if BCM is about anything. The four of us are trying to keep each other from becoming “band composers.” Nobody wants to be a band composer. Everybody is a composer, you just write for what you write for. But there’s a sense, when we link those two words together and say “band composer” there’s a connotation to it that means more of a formulaic…
FJO: Why is that? We don’t say, “Oh, so-and-so is an orchestral composer?”
Jonathan: Don’t we?
FJO: But it doesn’t have a pejorative connotation to it…
Eric: Of course not.
Steve: Because people we think of as band composers tend to crank out the same thing over and over again…
FJO: No orchestral composers do that?
Eric: The difference is the orchestral composers don’t make any money off it.
Jim: That keeps you honest?
Eric: Even if you’re cranking it out, there’s still some semblance or illusion of art happening.
Steve: It’s not the band that’s at fault here, it’s the commerce.
Eric: You could make a very nice living writing band music.
Jonathan: However you can’t do it writing anything you want. That’s the point. You can make a very comfortable living if you do it really well within certain guidelines.
FJO: What are those guidelines?
Jim: The grading system.
Steve: A lot of bands have to be able to play it. Grade 3.
Eric: I disagree with that because Ghost Train is at least a 5, some people put it as a 6. (Because it was the first thing I wrote, I put some absurdly difficult things in there. Things that now I wouldn’t make so difficult.) And it sells like crazy. It seems that if they get a piece that they like, that somehow sparks the imagination of the people that are buying it, then they go for it. So as much as we talk about the holy grail of Grade 3, it’s not entirely true.
FJO: I’m going to put you on the spot Eric. I’ve been listening to your choral music, and the choral world is a sort of ghetto too the way the band world is, but a different one. You mentioned that you transcribed some of your choral music for band, and I’ve listened to one of those transcriptions and to me it stood out among your band pieces. I think you have different musical styles in your choral music and your band music. In your choral music you have all these unusual, unexpected harmonies. But I didn’t hear that in any of your band pieces except the transcription.
Eric: Choral music seems to be able to sustain much more reflection and depth. As it is now, the world of winds, they’re at a different level in terms of that exploration and in terms of that culture. Most of that has to do with the conductors themselves because they teach the music. I certainly don’t think it has anything to do with the players or the potential of the ensemble. I don’t change my musical style on purpose. I do think that I have a sense of each of the ensembles I’m writing for. I have a piece called October that as schooled composers we’d say it sounds like Vaughn Williams or Elgar. You know, it’s pretty. Maybe it’s the score of The Shawshank Redemption. The band world cannot get enough of it. And I can’t tell you how many copies of this thing I sell, over and over. And we say, “Why is this? Don’t they have any taste? Don’t they have any background? What’s wrong with these people?” I don’t think it’s that at all. I think the community of band is at a certain place and I think that what I did intuitively is write for that community, write a piece that would be successful within that community.
FJO: In a weird kind of way, you’re at the opposite end of what orchestral composers are always going on about: the problem of the masterpiece syndrome. How can we ever compete with Brahms? If you deal with a community who doesn’t know who Elgar is, you’re fine! But, to put you on the spot even more, you just said they don’t have any taste. You wrote this piece. Do you think it’s a tasteless piece?
Eric: No. I’m very proud of it for a number of reasons: the architecture of it, the counterpoint, the vision, and I think it’s just beautiful music.
FJO: What I found so interesting about October was that I didn’t miss the strings. It was so lush…
Jonathan: As far as I can tell, the biggest success in scoring for winds is to sound as if the strings haven’t come in yet. And Eric’s music often sounds like that…
Eric: I’ve been trying for the last five years to make the band sound as much like an orchestra as possible. There’s a tradition now that they’re throwing in a couple of cellos and a bass into wind ensembles. Our joke is, “God, if they would just add 32 violins and some violas, a few more cellos and take out some of those clarinets, they may be onto something…”
FJO: Don’t forget the saxophones…