What is Good Band Music?

A brief exploration of Wind band music in a Singapore context

[blockquote author=”” ]Art in our society has become perverted to such a degree that not only has bad art come to be considered good, but even the very notion of what art is has been lost, so that, in order to speak of art in our society, one must first of all distinguish true art from counterfeit.[1][/blockquote]

The genre of Wind music has not received much attention until the last century. Eric Ostling Jr. wrote a thesis on “An Evaluation of Compositions for Wind Band According to Specific Criteria of Serious Artistic Merit” in 1978. In a nutshell, he assembled a group of reputable band conductors to supply rubrics for assessing artistry in band works and to provide examples of repertoire construed as ‘important’. This idea was well received and thirty years later, Clifford Towner wrote a thesis with the same title and concept as Ostling, and called it “A second update”. Rubrics include judging of the composition form, orchestration craft, consistency in quality and style, etc.

Giving quantifiers to measure “serious artistry merit” cannot possibly be serious academia, but it demonstrates Ostling and Towner’s desire of determining and finding ‘good repertoire’. Many skilled composers of the past did not write for the genre of wind instruments; many present composers are flooding the commercial market with imitations of well-received band compositions, renamed with loaded musical terms such as “Overtures”(which is a convenient term to denote “a short piece”). Finding good musical compositions for band is indeed an increasing challenge.

In light of what is mentioned above, I wish to share some personal insights and resources in selecting good repertoire. Some of my insights echo Ostling/Towner criteria, while some are independent. Regardless, it is by no means conclusive and exhaustive. I merely hope that a slightly larger variety of band repertoire will be seriously considered, especially in Singapore.

Understanding our times

One of the successful ingredients present in the classical canons is their relevance to the societal and cultural thinking of their times. For example, the music of great composers, such as Mozart, often contains artistic value on multiple levels. His music possesses aesthetic beauty, yet it uses particular musical grammars and quotations to deliver messages pertaining to his current society – often with mockery involved. The legacy of his works lies in these hidden, deeper messages within it.

In a recent WBAS conducting seminar, Douglas Bostock mentioned repeatedly about the unparalleled greatness and legacy of the wind works chosen for the seminar, such as Dvorak’s Wind serenade and Stravinsky’s Octet, which were written in the late 19th and early 20th century respectively. Likewise with Mozart, on surface hearing they are both well written with good compositional ideas, with one sounding more melodious than the other. However, on a closer look, they are conveying messages relevant to their times. Dvorak is relaying an old enlightenment message where peasantry and aristocracy meet (especially in the finale where an aristocratic majestic dance breaks out into a folk dance) while Stravinsky is creating (or re-establishing) a trend of music called objective music, identified as “non-expressive” art, which had repercussions on the music of the future[2]. If they had composed their works in a different era, their works might have simply been rejected.

Hence we must not downplay the importance of context in a piece of art. We should consider the Zeitgeist, the spirit of our era in finding band music. Depends on one’s reading, they may include thoughts as follow: We are in a post-modernistic era which values accessible art. Tradition tends to be less important than fashion; we value both objectivity (truths and facts) and subjectivity (individual opinions and emotions), sometimes being unable to differentiate between them. We learn much less through listening and more through visual mediums. Bearing in mind the above observations, we need to consider wisely which art can speak to us.

The old but evergreen subject of Folk is always a good source of material to remind us of our origins and past communities. Boris Pigovat’s compositions are deeply saturated with Asian folk colours. In particular, his Wind of Yemen contains ancient traditional tunes kept by Yemenite Jews, which are superbly crafted into a Wind band arrangement. Franco Cesarini researched extensively on music from various countries and wrote many short band pieces that transport us into a vivid and authentic soundscape of the land. The chorale colour of Ron Nelson is rather charming and often infused with a medieval flavour.

There is another category of composers, who fuse familiar ideas with our current day modernity. Examples include Adam Gorb’s Metropolis, Awayday and Adrenaline city, which incorporates a modern-jazz style that connects us with the sounds of a large city. Steven Bryant has a natural flair in writing parodies of other compositions in a familiar modern-day soundscape, making it an original work by itself. Eric Whitacre is famous for his choral writings with his signature harmonic clusters that create a familiar new age feel.

Creativity

A creative piece of music offers original ideas in a fresh, exciting way to the listener. There is no absolute originality, for all ideas already exist in various guises. Great composers of the centuries strive to develop their own musical vocabulary and originality throughout their lives. The renowned Mozart was known to be a genius in his compositional prowess. Among his many talents was his natural flair of operatic gestures in his compositions. Beethoven was also a genius, but differed from Mozart in compositional technique. He wrote great music using small units called motifs.

Nonetheless, Beethoven like many other composers started composing by imitating Mozart. It is always upon one’s departure from his own imitation, where creativity is found. Mendelssohn, Schumann, Schubert and Ravel… the list goes on; all started living under somebody’s shadow and grew to be role models of others.

In the same way, creativity in band music could come from using ideas that were never explored before, or simply fresh statements from days of yore. There are great pieces of musical works that use concepts that are understandable, yet resonate within our souls (probably what Tolstoy meant by “sincere art”[3]). Rolf Rudin is such an example. His music never departs from well thought out structure and form, yet is never boring. Meanwhile, originality never leaves Serge Lancen, though his instrumentation is often a little outdated. Steven Reinecke is a skillful and vivid storyteller via his predictable musical language while Duffy Thomas champions in his abstract tonal language of his characters, without a storyline. Jan van der Roost, Francis McBeth and Stephen Melillo have special moments in some compositions worthy of exploration.

Creativity may extend beyond compositional ideas, where skilled composers-arrangers make ordinary sounding materials come to life. Robert Sheldon has a rich sound palette for both younger and mature bands, most evident in the former. Frank Ticheli composes wonderfully for young bands, but this is out shadowed by his somewhat-interesting compositions for mature bands. Marco Pütz and Dana Wilson have well-crafted contributions that should be out on our repertoire shelf more. Alfred Reed has good arrangements when a band is incomplete or too small, but they should be used with greater discernment.

There are many more nuances that can be discussed, like the subject matter of the compositions, the style of composition, the handicraft exhibited by the composers, to name a few. There is also a long list of well-written Asian compositions that were not mentioned. Of note, we skip the band classics that have been the cradle of wind band compositions as it is far to deep to discuss in this short article[4]. It is my hope that we can further explore these unexplored topics in greater details in time to come.

Below are some suggestions of repertoire sources:

  • Ostling and Towner’s thesis are available in the Internet for perusal, containing a comprehensive list of band classics. Lincolnshire posy is rated with the highest “artistic merits”, which I agree is one of the most excellent literature ever written for band.
  • More band classics are available in Teaching Music through Performance in Band, volume 1-10 by Richard Miles and friends. The commentary for each piece may be slightly simplistic, but it is undoubtedly a large databank of titles. Our local band stores, such as Lester and Music Elements, can bring in the series.
  • notendatenbank is a German data bank that has over 200 000 band pieces catalogued in a website, with a ‘search’ function. With an additional 30 Euros membership fee, one may even get to read up more and listen to some of the selected works. Just google ‘notendatenbank’.
  • The composer names I mentioned have many titles by that are either self-published or available from publishing companies. Many are available on youtube. They should total up to a couple of hundred of titles at least.
  • Felix Hauswirth has published a catalogue with a selection of 1600 band pieces by himself (2 books, 1000 for higher grade and 600 for lower). The best part about this catalogue is its precise cataloguing according to grades, instrumentation, origins (country), genre (concerto/chamber) and publisher. It is hailed in Eurowinds as the bible of Wind band repertory and the title is ausgewählte Werke für Blasorchester. Currently it is only available in German online shops.
  • Timothy Reynish is a dedicated composer in search of artistic wind band repertory. He has written many articles and suggestions on his website. Google Timothy Reynish.

A small note about pedagogical pieces, a term to describe pieces written in a standard template that makes it sound like “band music”: music by James Curnow, Swearingen, Sparke, and others does have its place. Many of their simpler pieces are not meant to be artistic, but educational. In current society where music literacy is drowning, accessible pedagogical music is excellent in attracting people and galvanizing the players to improve in their instrumental skills. Nevertheless, we must not stop at nice sounding melodies that give us warm fuzzy feelings. Such stagnancy will blind us towards great art. Our artistic taste buds will turn numb, eventually leaving us baselessly arrogant with our fine performance and knowledge of pedagogical pieces, while leaving us empty at the same time.

I am positive that James Curnow and Philip Sparke will agree with me[5].

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[1] Leo Tolstoy, “What is art?”, opening of chapter XV.
[2] Taruskin, “Music in the Early Twentieth Century”, pp 490, 493.
[3] Leo Tolstoy, “What is Art?”, chapter XV, on the topic of sincerity
[4] I recommend “Winds of Change” for introduction and elaboration of older classics and “Winds of Change II” for the last 10 years of development of band repertoire, both books written by Frank Battisti.
[5] GIA publications, “Composers on composing for band”, volume 2. These pedagogical music writers derive their inspiration from the classical canons.

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