Roger Jager is an American composer, music theorist and a conductor. His works are played throughout the world by various orchestras, bands, choruses and chamber ensembles. Some of his wind band works include, Espirit De Corps, Sinfonia Noblissima and Heroic Saga.
(This interview was conducted in November 2010)
Tell us a bit about yourself.
Both of my parents were musicians in the Salvation Army Band program. In fact, that is how they met. Both were trumpet (cornet) players, but my Mother gave up the instrument to take care of raising a family, which consisted of myself and an older brother and sister. When I was in 2nd grade my Father began teaching me the trumpet and we would play duets in church. My parents later left the Salvation Army and my Father was ordained as a minister. We continued to play duets and that’s when I started writing hymn arrangements for the two of us. I was about 11 years old at that time.
I was fortunate in high school to have a band director who encouraged my writing and actually performed my earliest attempts at composing. I did a lot of arrangements for the Pep Band, and some composing for the Concert Band. When I went to The University of Michigan I continued to compose for band as well as for some chamber music ensembles.
My band directors at Michigan, William D. Revelli and George Cavander, both encouraged my writing and offered me performances with the Michigan bands. Another one of my professors, Elizabeth A.H. Green, got me interested in composing for orchestra and would frequently put together a “reading” orchestra to play through my works.
Because I was a Music Education major at Michigan I learned to play, at least to some degree, all of the instruments. I’ve always been grateful for this since it gave me experience in what, or what not, to try to ask instruments to perform.
How did you know that composing was the right path for you?
I rather stumbled into composition. I loved music, but early on I never imagined that I would have composition as a career. Events just kept unfolding in my life to lead me in this direction. I have never had a formal composition lesson, most of what I have learned is by listening, score study, and just informal discussions with other musicians. By the time I was discharged from the Navy in the late 1960’s I knew that composition would be my life’s work. I was 26 at that time.
You served in the U. S. Navy for 4 years as the Staff Arranger/Composer at the Armed Forces School of Music. Tell us about that experience.
In 1961, my parents moved from Michigan to Tennessee and I lost my residency benefits at The University of Michigan. In 1962, I received a low military draft number and decided to join the Navy before I was actually drafted. I auditioned for the Navy School of Music (the name was later changed to the Armed Forces School of Music) and was accepted.
In my first year there I was fortunate enough to win the first of my three “Ostwald Awards”, which was sponsored by the American Bandmasters Association for my SYMPHONY NO. ONE FOR BAND. After that I was made Staff Arranger/Composer at the School, which meant that I spent most of my time doing compositions and arrangements for Navy concerts and other functions, such as parades and retirement ceremonies. It was a priceless experience since my music was often performed before the ink was dry on the paper.
I also had the opportunity to meet and have my music performed by some of the finest guest musicians of that time, such as Arthur Fiedler, Nile Hovey, Al Hirt, Fred Hemke, John Paynter, Col. Samuel Loboda, Col George Howard, and many others. My Commanding Officer, Captain John MacDonald, gave me many opportunities to hear my music and to meet these musicians, which was of enormous assistance later on in my career. That four years in the Navy was probably the best “teacher”, as far as composition is concerned, that I ever had.
Tell us something about your working method as a composer. Give us something that might be or might have been a starting point for a piece.
Each composition begins differently. It might be a title, a motivic fragment, a mood, a rhythm, an event – there is no one right way to begin. For instance, THE WALL was written after visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. THIRD SUITE was written as a fun “thank you” to the Granby High School Band in Virginia, because they had performed so much of my early writing attempts. The “March” in THIRD SUITE is mixed-metered because I was getting out of the military at that time and wouldn’t have to march anymore!
My procedure for writing is fairly consistent, however. I don’t use a computer, although I have nothing against others using one for composing. I love to have the “feel” of paper, pencil and a piano under my fingers when I compose. I start with a broad outline of where the piece will go, then sketches followed by a “filling in” of ideas and the working out of these ideas. This is followed by a full score in pencil, which I send to my copyist, a former student, and he works it out on computer. When I’m composing I need large blocks of time set aside to work. I can’t do it in short, irregular segments. Works can take anywhere from several months to several years to compose, and that is the reason I like to have plenty of time between composition deadlines.
How relevant is concert band music in the world of music today?
This is a difficult and multi-faceted question. I believe that the concert band music is still very viable in the fields of education and public entertainment. By public entertainment I mean, military concerts – where the primary focus is on recruiting and support for the armed forces, as well as community bands.
As far as education is concerned, the concert band has a role at every level of education from grade school through to university. The band’s role as a introduction to and a supporter of the humanities is without question its prime value. Whether a band student goes into professional music or not is not as important as the student having an awakening to the arts, which will determine their quality of life in the future.
Speaking of “professional” music, no orchestra in the United States could function without the winds and percussion that received their primary training in school bands. Then there is the fact of the discipline that band music teaches to the students involved. I love Dr. William D. Revelli’s comment about 60 to 100 members of a band having the discipline to work together to pull off a successful concert. “Why,” he would say, “if we make as many mistakes during our next concert as the Super Bowl champions did in winning, we’d be laughed off the stage!”
People seem to view the concert band as inferior to orchestral ensembles. Why do you suppose this is so?
Part of this is snobbery! Part of this is the way bands are often portrayed in movies and on TV. Some dignitary comes to town in the movie and is met by the school or community band. The band is out of tune, and the composition being played bears little or no resemblance to an actual piece. The band is portrayed as a characature of itself.
But, there is another part to this image. Bands began outdoors, primarily as military units supporting troops in parades and on the battlefield. Orchestras began indoors at the palaces of the royal and wealthy. The great body of music written for these functions reflect that, and even though composers like Handel, Beethoven, Berlioz, etc., wrote music for the wind band, this music wasn’t intended to have the same sort of variety or sensitivity as music composed for royal festivals, funerals, or for the stage. Therefore there is so much more music of a “concert” nature that has been composed for the “sit-down” ensemble.
It wasn’t until much later in history that the wind band began to perform in a concert setting. And what did they use for music? Primarily transcriptions from the orchestral literature. Only later still did original music for wind bands begin to appear on the scene, however there remains a lot of time and territory for band to play catch up. Opinions die hard and this so-called superiority of the orchestra is one of those opinions. Nevertheless, music composed for the wind band is growing both in numbers and quality.
For some time now the so-called orchestral composers have been writing for the wind band, composers such as Hindemith, Persichetti, Copland, William Schuman, Corigiliano, and many, many more. Why? Because composers are certain of several things when they write for band as opposed to orchestra – they will get more than one performance of their work, they will get more than one rehearsal period for their work, and the work will be performed at the highest level. In general, orchestras can’t afford either the time or the effort to prepare a new score for performance, and once played a new composition for orchestra will enter into a state of limbo.
Do you think a composer shoould keep in touch with performing? Does performing help the process of composing, and or vice versa?
One of my former conducting teachers, Elizabeth A. H. Green, said that there were three parts to music: “the first is the composer, the second is the performing medium, and the third is the audience. If any one of those parts is missing then there is no music.” I totally agree with this concept, especially in the case of the composer. The composer must keep composing to stay in the present. He must also be in touch with the performers so that he or she can abreast of new techniques and sounds. And the composer must also be a part of the audience so that he or she can experience the creation of music from their point of view.
Of course, Elizabeth Green meant something slightly different in her statement. She meant that music doesn’t exist without the composer or the performer or the audience. A score sitting on a shelf is just “shelf paper”.
Many composers perform on instruments or by singing. Others perform by conducting. In either event it helps the composer to get inside the music by performing in a way that just sitting at a desk and analyzing doesn’t.
lso composers need to be in touch with performers to learn how to write for a specific instrument and/or voice. I often have taken my score to the players and asked if something could be performed, or it there was a way to rewrite it to make it easier to perform.
On many contemporary scores you will find references to performers who have edited a composer’s score (with the composer’s blessing) to make it playable. This collaboration is invaluble.
What is the story behind one of your most popular works, “Sinfonia Noblissima”?
SINFONIA NOBLISSIMA is one of my earliest compositions, having been written in 1964. At the time my composer-heroes were the Romantic-era composers, such as Richard Strauss, Rachmoninoff, Tchaikovsky, for instance. The style of this work definitely reflects that. I didn’t compose the work for any one ensemble in particular. I was in the Navy at the time and just wanted to compose something that was entirely for me. The middle slow section, however, was written for a young lady that I was dating at the time.
I chose the three-part form because it gave me a chance to present the material in contrasting ways. I was still relatively new at developmental techniques, but this three-part form was useful to me in exploring what I did know. The first performance of SINFONIA NOBLISSIMA was by the Faculty Wind Ensemble at the Armed Forces School of Music in 1964 with me conducting. I then sent it to a publisher who wanted me to shorten the work by cutting off the last Allegro section. I refused. That same year I won my first “Ostwald Award” for my SYMPHONY NO. ONE for band. After that I had no trouble placing the music with a publisher, and without any changes.
Which work are you most proud of and why?
I’m sure that you’ve heard the response to that question as “Well, that is like asking which of my children is my favorite”. However, there are some that I think are more important compositions. Not all of these are popular, but they are works that I believe are well-written and make me feel that I can call myself a composer.
Here are a few of them: my two symphonies for band, CONCERTO FOR BAND, THE WALL, DIAMOND VARIATIONS, VARIATIONS ON A THEME BY ROBERT SCHUMANN, APOCALYPSE, my First, Second and Third Suites, TESTAMENT, ESPRIT DE CORPS, COLONIAL AIRS AND DANCES, MYSTIC CHORDS OF MEMORY, and one of my more recent band works that I did for the four U.S. military academies – ETERNAL VIGILANCE.]
I have mentioned the band works above, but there are orchestral, choral and chamber works that I am very proud of. And then, there are always the works that I haven’t written yet. Hopefully, I haven’t stopped writing yet.
According to your biography, you were certified a Tennessee Master Gardener in 2005. How did you come across gardening as a leisure activity?
I grew up in city apartment buildings and I believe that I had a latent green thumb (sounds ominous, doesn’t it?). I had always loved to visited gardens and farms. I loved the feel of rich dirt, and the smell of vegetables and flowers. When I moved to Tennessee in 1971, one of my first purchases was a garden tractor, and soon a roto-tiller. I got to be rather adept at gardening and eventually I had a somewhat small kitchen garden surrounded by 3 acres of landscaping that I did entirely on my own, although my wife was a tremendous help. After I retired from teaching I decided to spend some extra time getting a Master Gardener’s certification, which I did in 2005.
Gardening is a lot like composing – a little oboe here, some drums over there, backed up by several tubas, just for texture’s sake! And if you’ve found that you’ve made a mistake somewhere you use a shovel instead of an eraser to correct it.
Finally, before we sign off, is there anything you would like to say to our readers?
If you are a student, and you should always be a student, don’t ever stop investigating things that are new to you. I don’t necessarily mean compositions that were written yesterday. Even something – a composition, a thought, a book, a point of view – from two hundred years ago, if it’s new to you then become acquainted with it.
If you are a teacher and / or a conductor always be on the lookout for those of your students, or people in your ensembles, that are looking to contribute something extra to the world. If it hadn’t been for the encouragement of so many of my mentors I certainly would have given up years ago.