In Defense of the Wind Ensemble

When “classical music” or “serious music” is mentioned, one might think of the symphony orchestra, a string quartet, an English choir, or maybe even the opera, however debatable that may be. I’d be willing to bet that very few would think of wind ensemble music, and that is unfortunate. The wind ensemble gets lost, perhaps because when most people think of bands, they think of marching bands. They are not the same thing. The one is entertainment; the other, art—at least when there is a competent conductor to choose good repertoire. Confusion is magnified by the many town bands throughout the country who play Sousa marches out on the grass, while the war veterans say, “Thank God we killed all those Germans back in 1945; otherwise they would have taken over the world, and we’d have to listen to a bunch of stuff written by Hindemith.”

I once asked a high school band mother how good their director was. I was looking for musical things. She responded by praising his excellence at picking the right color guard moves and flags—and probably getting high scores at competitions, for all I remember. This is what serious band directors—the ones who care about music—are up against. I decided that, given some of my frank comments in the past about marching bands, it would probably be a good gesture on my part to help undue some of this ignorance, so I have come up with a list of some of my favorite wind band pieces.

I have to confess that I couldn’t take this little trip down Amnesia Lane with a dry eye. I miss a lot of this repertoire, and I miss playing the trumpet, which was one of my happier youthful follies. I can’t listen to the suites of Gustav Holst without feeling sixteen again, and I’m happy to have rediscovered this pleasure. It’s all thanks to my iPod, which has done much to break my musical listening habits—or ruts, if you prefer. In order to complete this list, I also had to rely on some rather amazing feats that Google could perform. Sometimes I could only remember some aspect of the program of a piece of music, and even that would get me the title of the piece and the name of the composer.

The wind band, as far as I can tell, had its genesis in the State, but I’m willing to overlook this since much progress has been made in its artistic development over the years. In fact, much music written more recently has focused on the evils rather than the glories of the government. Ironically, however, even the military pieces are better played by college and other non-military groups. Musicianship seems to be prohibited by the Department of Defense, with a few exceptions such as the U.S. Marine Band. Why am I politicizing this music? Well, I’m not. This music has always been politicized, and I’m just acknowledging that.

Some of those military pieces were written by England’s finest composers. Holst’s First and Second Military Band Suites are classics. The first suite actually went a long way in the early 20th century to convince other composers that serious music could in fact be written for the concert band. After this, it seems as if the floodgates opened.

Another English composer was called upon in 1937 to write a march for the coronation of King Edward VII. William Walton derived his title “Crown Imperial” from a phrase in William Dunbar’s poem “In Honour of the City of London.” It’s all English imperialist nonsense, of course, but it’s an inspiring form of nonsense that neither Ronald Reagan nor William Jennings Bryan could ever compete with. But I digress. As it turns out, Edward abdicated, and so this march was instead premiered as King George VI (the main character in “The King’s Speech”) was crowned. One waits with bated breath for a graduate student in musicology to outline stuttering in Walton’s compositional technique.

One of the virtues of the English march composers is their sense of melody. These pieces are not all just flag-waving; the trio section often features a theme worthy of an art song. Perhaps this is at least in part due to the influence that Johannes Brahms had on late 19th and early 20th century composers of that nation. Walton’s Crown Imperial arguably has one of the most beautiful trio sections of any of these marches, and its triumphant return at the end of the piece is enough to wet the pants even of the descendants of John Calvin.

I like these aforementioned pieces very much, but enough with Statism. The most special place in my heart is for wind band pieces that reflect what the government is really like rather than what it wants us to think. Yasuhide Ito’s symphonic poem, “Gloriosa” is a good place to start. Written in honor of Christians persecuted in Japan, it begins with a chant, which when I played it was one of my first exposures to Gregorian melody. I went to Catholic Mass every Sunday as a child, but I learned the Church’s music from Jewish musicologists and Southern Baptist band directors.

One of the really likable things about Ito’s composition is how the whole first movement grows out of the chant, even with such a violent story to tell. This reveals the fallacy in the belief that all music based on chant has to sound like a distant mooing sound. I’m curious about the particular melody that Ito uses. It’s most likely mode I, and it appears in none of my own chant books, which make use of a completely different mode II melody. Furthermore, Ito uses the older version (pre-1632) of the text of this hymn—O Gloriosa Domina, instead of O Gloriosa Virginum. I’m curious as to why all this is, and if it has anything to do with the particular story of these persecuted Japanese Christians. Granted, during the persecution in the Edo period, the melodies and texts (“Gloriosa” became “Gururiyoza”) of Christian song were being distorted, but this is actually a different problem. Slight melodic variation in chant is actually to be expected. If any chant scholars can chime in, please do.

The second movement of Ito’s piece, which springs from a flute solo, is also based on chant, with references to Dies Irae that are hard to miss. The percussion in particular add elements of the Far East into the mix. The third movement is based on a folk melody but doesn’t fail to embrace material from earlier in the composition. This work is an example of what good “inculturation” is all about. It is a natural comixture of disparate elements with an artistic impulse. Ito has given us a gift here.

In 1968 the Soviet Union and other members of the Communist Bloc invaded Czechoslovakia to put a halt to the liberalizing reforms taking place in that country that was stuck behind the Iron Curtain. Karel Husa, a native of the country in exile for failing to sufficiently suck up to the government, listened from America as the events were broadcast over the radio, and he was inspired to write “Music for Prague, 1968” to commemorate the oppression. This piece, having originally been written for concert band, has also been transcribed for orchestra. (How often does it happen in that sequence?) As Husa asks his forward to the piece to be included in all concert programs when it is performed, it might be best to let his own words suffice:

Three main ideas bind the composition together. The first and most important is an old Hussite war song from the 15th century, ‘Ye Warriors of God and His Law,’ a symbol of resistance and hope for hundreds of years, whenever fate lay heavy on the Czech nation. It has been utilized by many Czech composers, including Smetana in My Country. The beginning of this religious song is announced very softly in the first movement by timpani and concludes in a strong unison Chorale. The song is never used in its entirety. The second idea is the sound of bells throughout; Prague, named also the City of Hundreds of Towers, has used its magnificently sounding church bells as calls of distress as well as of victory. The last idea is a motif of three chords first appearing very softly under the piccolo solo at the beginning of the piece, in flutes, clarinets, and horns. Later it appears at extremely strong dynamic levels, for example in the middle of the Aria movement. Much symbolism also appears: in addition to the distress calls in the first movement (Fanfares), the unbroken hope of the Hussite song, sound of bells, or the tragedy (Aria), there is also a bird call at the beginning (piccolo solo), symbol of the liberty which the city of Prague has seen only for moments during its thousand years of existence.

Husa’s music makes use of ultramodern techniques, and if the story it tells were about anything else, it likely wouldn’t enjoy the popular acceptance that it has. Much as it reminds us of the evils of certain regimes, it’s also very easy to slide into that “Soviet Union bad, Western Democracy good” pigeonhole.

That is decidedly not the case with Daniel Bukvich’s Symphony No. 1 (“In Memoriam, Dresden 1945”).  I first got to know this piece from a college roommate, whose high school had performed it a few years before. Written as a master’s thesis, Bukvich uses, of all things, a favorite chord of Duke Ellington’s—C, D-flat, E, and G. While there is no revolutionary intent in his program, the music depicts the bombing of Dresden in 1945 by Allied forces which killed tens of thousands of German civilians, a consequence of the commodification of entire nation-states into war machines. My roommate told me that emotions ran in every which direction the night his band performed it.

Not to be lost in any conversation about this piece is Bukvich’s gift for melody. Listen to the French Horns about halfway through. The composer also does an excellent job of harmonizing modern compositional techniques with stuff that a lot of people would, I suppose, call “regular music.” The human voice is used in addition to the instruments, percussion recalls the bombs falling, and there are even aleatoric techniques in this piece that transcend gimmickry. After the devastation, a flute completes the piece, sighing onomatopoeically.

Much band music that is not written about the State is written about God. Two pieces come to my mind, Charles Ives’s band setting for From Greenland’s Icy Mountains. I think that’s the title, anyway; I can’t find it anywhere. Ives wrote some good music when he wasn’t distracted by surface impressions.

The other composition is Fisher Tull’s “Introit,” which is based on the famous hymn tune Rendez a Dieu. A straightforward beginning takes a surprising turn into some rather advanced techniques until the fun, if predictable, conclusion. An Introit has a flexible definition I suppose. It is the opening chant of the Catholic Mass; it could also be understood as a call to worship. So Tull’s inclusion of bells, even a reference to the Westminster chimes, is fitting. I’m a sucker for pieces like this. One of my conductors used to call me “Chorale Boy.” It’s no wonder I ended up where I did.

One more piece about God, this one by Alfred Reed. I only have one recording of this work, Russian Christmas Music. It’s a terrible CD, but I can’t stop listening to it because the music itself is so inspiring. Fueled by folksong and the Russian Orthodox Liturgy, Reed composed this work at the last minute for a concert in Denver, CO in 1944 which aimed at improving American-Russian relations. By concert band standards, it’s a humongous work and is perhaps most demanding in what it asks of the ensemble’s musicianship rather than in what it requires as far as virtuosity goes. This is a hallmark of much substantial music.

The poet Dylan Thomas is possibly most famous for his “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” I wonder how many know that Elliot del Borgo has composed a piece based on this poem. As I recall, it was commissioned by a high school in Pennsylvania in memory of a deceased student. Fleeting references to Ein Feste Burg punctuate an indignantly petulant texture that conjures up an unwillingness to surrender to death. Del Borgo uses too much percussion, perhaps, but it is best to keep them occupied lest they be a distraction with their paper airplanes in rehearsal.

I have discussed God and death (which encompasses the State) entirely too much in this entry. Maybe it’s time for a little fun. Everyone loves the Lord of the Rings, and as it turns out Johan de Mei has written a wind symphony on that theme. This is not his only work for band; he also wrote a “Big Apple” Symphony. Use this piece to cleanse your palette from all that heavy stuff that I subjected you to. Unlike “Flight of the Bumblebee,” this music does not suffer artistic damage from its levity. One can indulge with a clear conscience.

There is so much music in the world, and it’s impossible to get to know it all. That’s a mixed blessing, with alternating feelings of discouragement at the largeness of the task, and then delight at the little surprises that are inevitable. There are all kinds of unharvested corners of the music world for all of us. Discovering them is one of the capital joys of my life. I hope you have found  something edifying in this little exploration of wind ensemble music. And best wishes to all the directors out there who have to deal with the color guard moms.

The Running Cure

About fifty years ago, monks at a monastery—I can’t remember where—all got sick at the same time. Doctors were puzzled. The liturgical changes after Vatican II had recently taken place, and these changes swept away the singing of Gregorian chant, even for this monastery. Physicians, on a hunch, recommended the chant be restored. The sickness went away.

I have been thinking about this story in terms of my exercise habits. For three years I had a daily routine of running anywhere from three to eight miles a day. I usually looked forward to it, and when I didn’t I remembered the advice of Jeffrey Tucker: “When you don’t want to run is when you need to do it the most.” I clung to that maxim, and it always proved itself true, because the psychological rewards of running are equal to if not greater than the physical benefits. Depressed, tired, angry, frustrated, confused? Take a run. Clear your head. It works every single time.

Last winter I decided that this system that was working for me wasn’t good enough. So I threw the gym into the mix. The first trainer I met with there—the only one who seemed competent, quite honestly—got me into a routine that got me away from running pretty quickly.  I was doing all sorts of activities on various cardio contraptions, but no running. All was well for awhile, but lately I have felt growing dissatisfaction.

I am a cerebral person; I think for fun. “You think in your sleep, don’t you?” someone once asked me. It’s true. My father used to tell me to relax, but the truth is that this is how I relax: for me, tension is having to go through the motions of society, which, it must be admitted, doesn’t tolerate much original thought. When I think, I can be myself and by myself in glorious solitariness.

Running offers the creative space to allow this to happen, not to mention the endorphins to give my brain a little extra kick. When I run I think through the various problems of human interaction that we all face; I dream up solutions for the world; observe the way people interact in various kinds of traffic (which led me early on to the conclusion that John Nash’s Equilibrium Theory is nice but unworkable); and I even practice my music, usually concentrating on only a few phrases. In short, I get lost in my own little world, and it’s a wonder I haven’t gotten hit by a car. (Knocks on wood.)

In contrast: here is what my workout at the gym sounds like inside my head:

One.

Two.

Three.

Four.

Five.

Six.

Seven.

Eight.

You can’t think about much else when you’re counting. I get bored out of my mind, and there is no chance to get a good train of thought going. The occasional daydream happens between sets, but nothing long enough to be productive. Endorphins? Hardly. In gyms these days you can’t get a good rhythm established because the gym rats who live there slow everyone else down. (Do a set, play with iPod, talk on phone, play with iPod—all while three people are waiting.) It is not uncommon to wait for equipment while one’s heart rate goes straight to hell.

I usually finish up these workouts with some time on the gazelle, but with TVs and music blaring this is still no place to think. I don’t suppose I burn half as many calories as the machines claim, either. I can feel it in my body that I am not being challenged. The problem is the time crunch: Lifting weights and running takes a long time.

Interestingly I noticed something else recently: my leg muscles, in spite of doing two leg weightlifting routines a week, aren’t what they used to be. Maybe I’m just plateauing or something. Who knows? But I am developing the suspicion that I was actually in better shape in many respects before I started at the gym. What runs I have done recently seem to be slightly more difficult than they used to be.

I started at the gym to try to slim down just a little bit more. That worked to a limited extent for a short time, but then I got used to my new routine and compensated with my diet. Then as the muscle started to build up I started eating more to get more nutrients. But with that I also introduced more fat into my diet, which is hard to avoid unless you have your own gourmet cook. The long and short of it is that I’m only a little better off than I was before, with a little more muscle to show for it. I honestly don’t know what to do about all this, but I can say that I miss the long runs that I feel like I no longer have time for. (Seriously, unless you’re a pro athlete or something, if you spend more than two hours a day on exercise, you need to find some other things to do.)

Sometimes I think this debacle is the manifestation of a psychological disorder. I hate lifting weights, but I continue to do it because I am insecure about my image. Sometimes it seems like all I need are six pack abs, and everything will be fine. It’s the health version of “If I Had a Million Dollars.” But all flesh is as grass, and in the case of getting buff, one need not get anywhere near death before he meets with frustration. Old age will do. Even middle age is quite adequate.

But even in youth, what does it all mean? Beauty is skin deep. I think sometimes we chase after impossible, idealistic images and that many of our efforts come from unhealthy places. It takes a viciously puritanical diet to look like a fitness model. Is it worth it? It seems like a high price to pay just to show people what I’ve got every beach season. Vanity of vanities, and all that.

For me, on the other hand, the desire to run comes from a much healthier place. While the so-called Adonis complex is probably ill-advised, it’s nonetheless commendable not to be fat, and running is a good insurance policy against that fate.  Cardio-vascular health is important, too, and then there are the psychological benefits I’ve already mentioned. When I am running, my anxiety levels are more than manageable. Lately, however, I have been all over the place. I have reverted to psychological habits that I thought were well taken care of. Perhaps not. Believe me: OCD is much worse with no exercise. (I should have said “not enough cardio exercise,” or something like that. But I’m going to leave the poor choice of words in place. I think it reveals something about what my body is telling me about my current routine.)

For now, I am attempting a compromise: The two leg days at the gym are gone and have been replaced by six-mile runs. My leg muscles were frankly in better shape when I wasn’t lifting but I was running. I am retaining my upper body days at the gym, and when I’m feeling particularly adventurous may add runs to these days, but often due to time constraints I just do cardio exercises right there at the gym, while i yawn from overdoses of television. I hope this works. There are in fact benefits to weightlifting in spite of all my kvetching. Maybe if I stick with it a little longer it will all start to feel like it’s worth the effort.