Strange Time: Time-Space Phenomena, Music and My Journey With the Wind Band
Updated: May 17, 2020
Most, if not all of my compositional life has been spent on the orchestra. In fact, it's safe to say that I live and die by the orchestral repertoire and plan to make my life and career in it, both as a composer and a conductor. However, one of my golden rules as a composer is to be as eclectic as possible. This has led to me trying some unusual things in my music. Recently, it came the time (no pun intended) to write my newest symphony. I decided to use this effort to depict time travel in music.
Before starting the composition process, however, I was faced with two big challenges:
1. How was I going to depict the phenomena of time in music?
2. I mostly specialize in writing for the orchestra. How was I going to approach writing for the wind ensemble....and why???
To understand how I got to where I am today in terms of writing for winds, we have to look at my background in the medium.
Relationship with the wind ensemble
First, since this work is for expanded wind ensemble, it is important to understand my experience and history with the band in the first place. I started band class relatively late, as a junior in high school and got my start playing quads in marching band (a fact I'm proud of, as it began my love of playing timpani) and gradually transitioned to percussion, which I still play to this day.
With this beginning experience with the literature and a band director who fed my curiosity and introduced me to many landmark works for this particular ensemble, I was ready to start writing for it.
Or....was i...? Was I really?
Remember when I said I specialized in writing for the orchestra? By the time I started composing for band in late 2012, I had been writing for orchestra for about 6 years and until that point, had only been writing for the orchestra, along with other small ensembles extracted from the orchestra (like string quartets, small wind pieces, etc.). I had no idea how to use the saxophones (I remember going "What the hell do I do with saxophones?" when it came time to write my first band score) in a large ensemble context, nor did I really know how to effectively utilize the Euphonium (something I still struggle with, I admit; the name 'Euphonium' sounds cool though).
The first piece I ever wrote for band was something for my high school band called the "Bulldog Fanfare (2012-2013)", named because of the school's mascot. It was a simple celebratory fanfare, and I chose to work with some basic musical material to create a very accessible piece of music. Because of that it was played at my high school's graduation ceremonies twice (I conducted it the both times).
Excerpt from my very first work for band: Bulldog Fanfare (2012-2013)
In 2014, just because I wanted to test my band writing chops further, I composed "6:00", a musical depiction of traffic at rush hour for band. By this time, I had become much more familiar with the wind ensemble, but still wasn't entirely confident with its inner workings. As a result, the writing was a little more adventurous but still not entirely sure of itself; for example, I utilize the key of C for this work, which is very, very rare for band pieces (usually you'll find band compositions in flat keys). I wouldn't exactly call it one of my strongest works either.
Excerpt from '6:00' (2014)
Since those two pieces, I've composed several other pieces for band, most of them written with certain ensembles in mind. Enter: the Richland Trilogy.
The Richland Trilogy and gaining experience
In 2015, I wrote 'Journeys III' (the first two 'Journeys' were for string orchestra), the first of three wind band pieces for the Richland Wind Symphony (at Richland College, which I attended from 2015-2017) and my first real attempt at a truly original piece for the medium. It turned out to be too difficult in terms of how it was written; I was still not yet familiar with band keys or how the different band instruments interacted with each other and some of the time signatures made no sense. Of course, I've revised the piece substantially since then but it still hasn't been performed.
Finale from 'Journeys III' (2015)
The next year, I tried again with 'Faster', for the same ensemble. It was written through a panic attack I had at the time. It was ambitious and still too hard (very technical passages and frequent changes of time signature), especially with short preparations for the concerts we had. It was premiered a year after I wrote it by a different ensemble, and it turned out well, but not before undergoing several revisions of course.
Those two pieces served as learning experiences (I believe the saying goes something like "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice....shame on me" or something like that) so my third and final piece for the Richland Wind Symphony was composed in 2017 and consists of a simpler lyrical style that is so popular in the band medium. 'August Morn' was a success; the ensemble really enjoyed playing it and it was prepareable in a short amount of time. I've since then had one other performance of the piece in another revised version. With this, I've found that sometimes simpler is better.
I found that the more I wrote for band, the more I wanted to treat it like an orchestra, and discover new sounds I could create with just the winds. I wanted to design something epic in the vein of an monumental orchestral piece, but I needed something, a source of inspiration to turn to. So I turned to one of the most influential symphonies written in the past 50 years and it just so happened to be for wind ensemble: David Maslanka's Symphony No. 4.
The influence of David Maslanka and his Symphony No. 4
In February 2017, I won a composition contest hosted by Texas A&M University College Station with a brass quintet I composed in 2015 called 'There's Been a Breach'. As part of my prize, I flew to College Station, TX where I attended the world premiere of this piece performed by the amazing (and very fun to hang out with) Atlantic Brass Quintet. I also got to work with the guest composer for the event, David Maslanka. Before our meeting, I was only a little familiar with Dr. Maslanka's music having heard a recording of the 4th symphony and being very impressed by it. Of course, I was naturally curious about his other symphonic works, so I went to do research and check the others out (with the exception of No. 1, written for orchestra in the early 1970's and apparently unperformed) and was immediately fascinated by the depth and scope of each work. My favorite Maslanka symphonies quickly became nos. 2 and 8. This was shortly before my trip, and it was then that I realized who exactly I would be working with. This was someone who captured the very soul of the world in his music. It was really my first time hearing something different that wasn't the band music I was used to up to that point like marches, UIL pieces or Christmas tunes (including the dreaded 'Sleigh Ride'). It was eye and mind opening to say the least.
And even though I had heard pretty much all the Maslanka symphonies and his numerous other pieces (like personal favorites Requiem and Mother Earth, which I've played the timpani part on), Symphony No. 4 was my favorite and fascinated me the most. I made it a point to get as deep inside of that symphony as possible. I found that the deeper I dove, the more I discovered that Maslanka's writing for the wind ensemble was organic and natural, much like orchestral music. That is why it appealed to me so quickly; it was the type of wind band music that I was looking for..... and that I aspired to create.
I also learned a lot working directly with Dr. Maslanka himself. The first thing I noticed about him was his simplicity of manner. He was also very spiritual, and not only was it reflected in his music but in his character and personality as well. He was soft spoken, but made every word count. I'll never forget the mornings I spent having breakfast with him and discussing various aspects of music and life. I remember asking him his secret and approach for writing for the wind ensemble, since I had little to no idea myself. I believe he answered something like, "There really is no secret. Write what you feel and the rest will come naturally. Just be yourself."
That really got me thinking. Looking at all the wind band music I had written up to that point, what was I really doing? I was trying to sound like every other band composer who was writing at the time, and that for sure wasn't going to make me stand out as a unique voice. It was from that moment forward that I began to ponder deeply about everything I was writing and how I wanted to deliver that message compositionally. I have a lot to thank Dr. Maslanka for, but in particular, I have to thank him for opening my mind up to deeper and critical thinking and for teaching me that you can have soul in your music.
A new approach to writing for the wind ensemble
A few months after that, in August 2017, David Maslanka passed. It was very unexpected for everyone as just a few months prior he seemed perfectly healthy. I was attending TCU at the time and had not thought about or written for the band medium for months (my last band piece finished at the time was 'Faster', from 2016). To honor Dr. Maslanka, I sought out and listened to a recording of his great Symphony No. 8. While listening in the morning very early in the 2017-2018 semester, something went off inside of me like a lightbulb or a spark of an idea. I knew I had to pay homage to my brief mentor somehow, and this piece had to be for wind band. However, it had to be accessible and contain not only everything I had learned from him, but shades of my own voice as well. It was then that I began writing what became 'Soul to Soul', an elegy for wind ensemble. It was started in late August 2017 and finished in October. It was read later that semester, but not premiered until two years later thanks to And we were heard, which is a initiative for new diverse voices in wind band music. It has since taken on a life of its own, with performances happening recently and some lined up for the future both nationally and internationally. It was in 'Soul to Soul' that I found a unique way to pay tribute to the composer that inspired me and at the same create something original sounding for wind band. I also made it a point o inject soul into my music, and as result, it has spoken to and moved a lot of people.
Meanwhile, I had been talking with Jack Delaney, who conducts the wind ensemble at SMU and is a dear mentor of mine, about a new piece for his group. 'Doc', as we call him, had already been an enthusiastic champion of my music at that point, premiering the Dallas Arts District Fanfare and performing it a second time. Therefore, the time had come for me to create something new and original for his virtuoso ensemble. He gave me the conditions: no time limit, no instrumentation limit.
Okay, it's important to remember that I'm not good at choices. I even have a hard time naming my own pieces sometimes.
So what was I going to do in this case? That brought me back to Dr. Maslanka and his monumental 4th. I knew what I wanted to do, and that was pay tribute to everything I had learned about the wind ensemble from Dr. Maslanka by writing a companion piece to it.
The result? My own Symphony No. 4, subtitled 'Strange Time'.
The symphony itself
I decided that I wanted to compose a large scale work using an expanded wind ensemble (with harp and organ, two tubas and an english horn and contrabassoon in the woodwinds, but notably excluding euphoniums - at least for now) that reflected my interest of time travel and space/time phenomena. It's something that I have been fascinated with for a while and curious as to whether it would work in a musical context. The first thing I had to do was my research. I remember when I was younger reading books such as H.G. Wells' The Time Machine and Jon Scieszka's series Time Warp Trio, which then inspired me to research paradoxes such as the Predestination Paradox and the Grandfather Paradox. The idea that one little action you take in the past can alter the future significantly appealed to me, and piqued my curiosity.
Then came the composition of the piece. I knew that I wanted to depict a journey into a space time continuum complete with a trip into an event horizon. I wanted to challenge the very idea of the perception of time and reality.
My new symphony is set in 5 movements played continuously without pause. The first, Passages of Time, begins with a murmuring line in the woodwinds, which continues as the brass enter with a solemn fanfare, depicting the time traveler. This chorale is heard in 4 out of the 5 movements, and acts as the catalyst that affects all the musical events around it.
Excerpt from 1st movement: Passages of Time
The 2nd movement, The Divide Between Light and Dark, contains contrasting sections of brightly colored and darkly hued music. Here, we've arrived in the time space continuum and are looking at contrasting universes.
Excerpt from 2nd movement: The Divide Between Light and Dark
In the 3rd movement, we take a trip Toward an Event Horizon. The feel of this music is frantic and energetic, as it doesn't know whether it wants to speed up or slow down. As a result, some instrumental voices push ahead in the texture; others fall back. In theory, when one approaches an event horizon, the person observing the subject entering it sees them slow down before they come to a complete stop. However, to the subject entering, they are actually speeding up. So how did I represent this in the music? Near the end of this movement, the music has the sensation of speeding up but the conductor's beats slow down until the music comes to a complete stop.
Excerpt from 3rd movement: Toward the Event Horizon
The 4th movement, Time Frozen, isn't conducted at all. The craziness of the 3rd movement and steadily building brass chorale from the first movement has pushed the music over the edge and into a void. As this music is completely aleatoric, I encourage the musicians to improvise to give the music a sense of timelessness.
In the 5th and final movement, we're Out of Time. After the timelessness of the 4th movement, we return to order but less rigid and more freely.The brass chorale returns again twice, this time quieter and tranquil before the music fades into abyss and we're left with the return of the murmurings of the first movement. This fades into a calm woodwind chorale with solo celesta flourishes, and finally ends with a distant organ to ponder the journey that we've just been on. It's also a stark reminder that we all eventually run out of time.
Excerpt from 5th movement: Out of Time
I embarked on this composition to create a large scale work that was in the same vein as a David Maslanka symphony and intended as a companion piece to the 4th, while at the same time reflecting my own unique interests and voice.
*This piece was supposed to have its premiere on May 1, 2020 but had to be postponed because of the ongoing (as of 5/7/20) pandemic. I sincerely hope to hear this work live someday and when it is performed, hope that it will reach a large audience and make them think deeply about the strange time we are currently living in.