6. Taking Chances with Wind Band
FJO: I want to take this to Jim for a second because your crazy Concerto for Electric Guitar and Winds is such a disconnect. Now, you’re a guitarist, which is something I wasn’t aware of the first time I listened to the piece. And I’m thinking to myself, a wind band can do that? In a way, you’re playing this game a little bit differently than Eric is.
Jim: In the career that I travel, which is mostly commercial composition, my concert band experience is almost the legitimizing thing for me. The fact that I’m writing music that’s meant to be played in a concert, especially with the people I tend to be around, that’s a unique thing to even want to do with your time. But for me it’s really rewarding and it’s an opportunity to do some self-expression. At the same time, I agree with Eric that it’s a great place to play and have some fun trying different things out.
FJO: In a way that the other aspects of your compositional career don’t allow you to do?
Jim: A client knows what they want and that’s what you’ve got to write. That has its own unique challenges too. My day job is writing music for video slot machines. Basically, it’s a video screen and they’ve got digital audio, stereo 44.1. If you’ve ever been on the floor of a casino and you’re like “Oh, what is that noise?” That’s me!
FJO: How’d you get into that?
Jim: I was living in Los Angeles and I was trying to break into film music and TV. I was ghost writing for TV shows and scoring a million tiny films that no one will ever see anywhere and I was broke and frustrated. I ran into a buddy of mine who writes music for Midway Games. And he said, “Hey I know this company that’s really booming and they’re looking for more composers.” The company I work for now has six on-staff composers. They’ve got the budgets so I can hire a big band.
Jim: With slot machines there’s even more money there. Plus your audience is a little more mature. So it’s not all hard core and hip-hop, you’ve got to span a lot more style. And the audience is used to hearing real instruments played, so they’ve got the budgets to write for real players. There’s nothing I like better.
FJO: What was so interesting is that from one piece to another, you take on the trappings of a specific style and you run with it. You wouldn’t know it’s you from piece to piece necessarily… But then with this concerto, you’re not running with the cliché of what a wind band is; you’re doing something totally different and unexpected with it.
Jim: That’s what I like about doing the wind ensemble stuff. I’m not wild about what’s going on there, but it’s a great ensemble and it’s a really challenging ensemble to write for so it’s a great opportunity to bring what I want to hear there.
Jonathan: When you say you’re not wild about what’s going on there, you mean sometimes you sit in a concert and hear the other pieces…
Jim: Yeah. A lot of it sounds really good for the ensemble. But I don’t find it particularly moving, for myself. It doesn’t mean that the person next to me doesn’t find something in it, but for me it doesn’t really appeal. There’s a sameness about a lot of it. So the idea of doing something different with it is kinda fun.
Eric: One of the things that we love about band music is that there is this sense that you don’t have to write in any style. Every piece is the next little movie that you’re gonna make, it’s something totally different. It seems to me that, specifically with orchestral music, the few people who are doing well in it don’t seem to be afforded that luxury, or they don’t explore that luxury. For instance I think that John Adams or Michael Torke, or [Aaron Jay] Kernis, they have instantly identifiable styles through almost every piece. You can hear it and say I know exactly who that is, even as they’re evolving. I’m certainly not accusing them of anything. I’m a great admirer of all of their works. But in the orchestral world, I’m not sure what would happen if your new piece sounded radically different. I’m sure the commissioning parties are very conservative and basically want your last big hit with a new title on it, this time for Birmingham rather than Chicago.
FJO: Interesting, because in the wind band music versus the non-wind band music of Steve and Jonathan I heard less of a divergence than I did in the wind band and non-wind band music of Eric and Jim, the two non-New Yorkers at the table. Steve, in your solo piano piece and in your orchestral piece done by the Juilliard Symphony, I heard a lot of the same kind of energy and displacement. And Jonathan, in your writing for strings, I felt the same kind of groove-orientation…
Jonathan: Ultimately I think we’re just writing music for different ensembles. You’re taking the performance opportunities where you can get them. What the other guys said about what the wind band community offers are good points. There is a sense that you have a little more freedom to play around. There’s less expectation about what the music should sound like. Therefore, when I write like me, and do what I want to hear, they love it. They’ve never heard anything like it. And it’s incredibly rewarding…. We’re composers. None of us is in it for money.
Eric: Wait a minute. I take issue with that. You make it sound like that’s a bad thing.
Jim: You can’t motivate yourself that way.
Jonathan: Nobody would ever say that I want to make a lot of money when I grow up so I’m going to be a composer, no matter what the ensemble is. But when you do get a reaction to your music like, “Oh my God, I never heard anything like this before! This is fantastic! I want to hear more; I want to commission you! I want you to come out and meet the students and conduct the band!” Those are really wonderful experiences that are very inspiring. I found that to be the best part about my whole experience the past few years. Standing in front of the kids… The respect that’s treated to you. It sounds cheesy, but you really feel that maybe you’re making a small bit of difference in the world. That you might actually be affecting the musical education of this particular group of people. If you go to the symphony… That audience is used to hearing that music. They expect it. They don’t want to hear the new music. They go to hear Brahms and they know what Brahms sounds like or they go to hear Vaughn Williams and they have an idea. But the audience for a wind band concert, if O.K. Feel Good gets played or Uncle Sid or something like that, they’ve never heard anything like that before in their lives. And that’s actually exciting to be a part of.
FJO: What is the audience for a wind band concert?
Eric: I’ve been doing a lot of traveling guest conducting the past few years. It can range from just being parents and friends and the local community to being big, sold out houses. In Tokyo and throughout Japan, they sell out 2,400-seat concerts. Same thing in Singapore. There’s a real sophisticated audience for this stuff. They know the different pieces. They know the different recordings. Very much the same way that classical music is. In Europe you’re starting to see this more and more. There’s a whole thing brewing and bubbling over there.
FJO: Different recordings? You go to Tower Records and go to the wind band section? Where do you get this stuff?
Eric: It’s all underground or online. Universities. Imports. But it’s all out there. We know our music especially has been recorded. I don’t even know how many times Ghost Train or October has been recorded.
Jonathan: But, there’s an issue with the lack of respect for the mechanical license. I’m not a lawyer or an expert in the field, and it gets complicated. It has to do with whether the music gets sold or if it’s rented, how many units are sold before Harry Fox deals with it, before you deal with it. I don’t know the details, but I’m sure there are resources there where composers can learn about that. But, that being said, there seems to be a need for more education in that community. If you’re recording somebody’s work, you might want to let them know.
FJO: So you’ll see your name on a recording all of a sudden and that’s how you first find out about it?
Jonathan: Occasionally you Google yourself and you find recordings of pieces.