The UGA Wind Symphony and MOD[ular] Ensemble will present a joint concert on Wednesday, March 22, at 8PM in Hodgson Concert Hall. Students in MUSI 8130 (Seminar: “Innovating the Ensemble”) have studied the works to be performed by the Wind Symphony and provided the observations below:
A Dissonant Picnic: Charles Ives’ Country Band March (by Pedro Alliprandini)
Imagine yourself at a 4th of July parade where a band is marching in your direction, playing some of your favorite tunes. Suddenly you hear snare drums from further away and notice that a second band is marching towards you from the opposite direction, playing different tunes. Many say that this experience inspired the American composer Charles Ives to write his work Country Band March. Despite the chaotic, sometimes confusing nature of the piece, we can recognize many of the patriotic tunes that Ives quotes in this composition. The work presents unfamiliar sounds, dissonances, rhythmic instability and a sense of “musical disorder” in an innovative way, with the manipulation of familiar patriotic tunes and marches, the primary musical material adopted by Ives.
Ives also evokes a humanistic portrayal of amateur country bands, intentionally writing wrong notes and wrong entrances that occur during the parade. The intentional “mistakes” written in the music contribute to a comic character, which makes the piece a tongue-in-cheek play on a traditional band march. This piece has been called an “American musical joke,” and who doesn’t enjoy jokes? Musical jokes have been well appreciated throughout generations. Take, for instance Haydn’s “The Joke” string quartet, or Mozart’s Ein musikalischer Spaß (A Musical Joke).
Classical music has historically earned a reputation as an intellectual and serious activity, but why must it remain that way? Music can nurture a variety of emotional states: grief, love, anger, devotion, and why not…laughter? Ives’ Country Band March is a piece in which the composer intentionally tricks the listeners by distorting things that are familiar. Amateur country bands were part of Ives’ musical upbringing, and this piece is likely–at least in part–a lighthearted nod to this tradition. In the words of Bradley P. Ethington:
Ives and his father (also) appreciated that town bands integrated all levels of ability. If the notes and the beat got the worst of it in this democracy of competence, at least everyone was enjoying himself. Ives’s riotous Fourth of July features drunken cornet players falling off the beat and mixing up the crook attachments that changed the horns’ key, so some end up blaring away in the wrong key (…) “Bandstuff,” Ives wrote to one of his longtime copyists; “they don’t always play right and together and it was as good either way.”
For anyone that is familiar with these “Bandstuff” marches, Country Band March is a wild and fun musical ride through an unexpectedly chaotic 4th of July parade.
Fisher Tull’s Nonet: The Conductor’s Challenge (by Matthew Sadowski)
By definition, a nonet is a 9-member ensemble. But in Fisher Tull’s Nonet, the ensemble is three-fifths of a woodwind ensemble (flute, clarinet, bassoon), three-fifths of a brass ensemble (trumpet, trombone, tuba), a percussion duet (piano, percussion) and a lone saxophone that has wandered into the group (how typical). Playful at times, rather scientific at others, the piece is driven by a harmonic motive in the piano that signals the piece’s progress through its slow-fast-slow structure. Like a jazz composition, everyone gets a solo.
A conductor’s job is to interpret a composer’s written instructions (the sheet music) into a performance that accurately reflects the composer’s intentions. A piece like Nonet presents several distinct challenges, both interpretively and in actual performance. For starters, a jarring commotion begins the piece, exploding from silence as if the listener has suddenly awoken in the middle of a tremendous argument among a small crowd. This explosion is unconducted, senza misura (without time) as Tull indicates. Interpretively, the wind instruments are sounding a twelve-tone row (a technical term for using all twelve chromatic pitches in a given octave) in this explosion before ceding attention to the piano and settling into the first slow section. Immediately, the conductor’s job is to begin the piece, get out of the way, and then provide direction once more.
From a gestural standpoint (i.e. the movements a conductor must make to inspire the music to sound as the composer wishes), Nonet oscillates between pensive ruminations and restless outbursts as the saxophone and clarinet are featured. Later, more steady march-like statements and agitated flourishes define the fast section before a return to the original slow material. In addition to showing multiple styles, the conductor must also lead the ensemble through many sudden tempo changes throughout the piece.
Tull occasionally asks the instrumentalists to perform certain ideas at random, such as a given melodic fragment, or a pulsation on a single pitch (think of spelling out gibberish in Morse code). As a conductor, this is quite the challenge since it involves letting go of part of the ensemble while keeping other parts together. I have to clearly show when the random (or aleatoric) episodes begin, coordinate the non-random elements that are happening simultaneously, and then unite the ensemble again precisely when the composer indicates. It’s like trying to take a headcount while the people being counted are shouting out random numbers, and then getting them to say the final number all at once!
Aside from a brief program note, there is little written about Nonet. It is the only piece I know of to use this instrumentation, and it is truly unique; it is not quite a jazz ensemble, too varied to be an orchestral wind section, and not varied enough to be a small concert band. Its novel instrumentation and surprising sounds are charming and humorous. Nine students of the UGA Wind Symphony will perform this piece as part of a concert dedicated to unusual and uncommon combinations of instruments and compositional techniques.