Jan Van der Roost studied at the Lemmens Institute in Leuven and the Conservatories of Ghent and Antwerp. He is an honorary teacher at the Lemmens Institute in Leuven and honorary conductor of the orchestra of this institution. He is currently a guest lecturer at the ‘AP Hogeschool’ (Antwerp), a visiting professor emeritus at the ‘Nagoya University of Arts’ and a visiting professor at the ‘Senzoku Gakuen College of Music in Kawasaki’ (both in Japan).
He is a composer of vocal and instrumental music: his oeuvre shows a broad spectrum in terms of genres and styles and ranges from simple works for children’s choir to large-scale compositions for professional performers. Finally, he is a much sought-after jury member, guest lecturer and guest conductor at home and abroad: his musical activities have taken him to more than 50 countries in all corners of the world. He composes exclusively on commission and his music is performed and recorded almost everywhere in the world (radio, TV and/or CD, DVD, etc.).
The Band Post speaks to Jan Van der Roost in his trip to Singapore, where he conducts his own music with West Winds, Band of the Bukit Batok Community Club on Sunday for the first time.
Welcome back to Singapore Jan! It is a great pleasure to see you work with our local band once again, this time, for a concert with West Winds, where you will be conducting your music on Sunday, 17 September 2023 at the Singapore Conference Hall.
You’ve had a long and successful career in composing for wind bands. Can you tell us about some of your recent compositions or projects that have been making waves in the wind band music scene?
Firstly, I would like to say that wind band music or wind orchestra music is only half of my works. The second half, is completely different music for simply the orchestra, choir, chamber music, solo instrument, etc, But that’s a different part of my compositions. The wind orchestra and brass band, the band, so to say, that’s only 50%. I would like to stress it because some people think I only compose for the wind orchestra. It’s completely not true. It’s just half or even less. Well, as always, I got lots and lots of commissions coming from all over the world. I have continued writing music for wind orchestras and ensembles and bands from all levels, from low up to high level. There’s quite a lot of fun. One of them, which West Winds will be playing in this concert, is the Takayama Impressions. As you can hear, Takayama is a Japanese commission, and for a community band in Takayama.
I have also written a very, very big and difficult piece; Colores. Colores was written for a very good Belgium band. It’s a grade six, or six plus big piece we did last year with the OSAKAN Philharmonic Winds and they are a really good ensemble. You need a wonderful, great, large ensemble and very good players for this one. I also have a new piece, Hypernikon, written for an American University Band. It’s only one or one and a half years old or something. I have many more, of course. My compositions, so to say, is continuing with medium-level pieces, easier ones and the difficult ones, short ones, long ones, just what I did before. There’s no change compared to what I did 20 years ago. It is the same diversity and variety.
You have written set pieces for the Singapore Youth Festival in 1999 for Secondary School level (Singapura Suite), which was subsequently used in 2015 for Junior College level, and 2012 for Primary School level (A Soldier’s Story), can you describe your approach to writing music that challenges and motivates young musicians while still keeping their technical abilities in mind?
Technical abilities? Yeah, that’s a good question. Of course, you never know exactly how well they can play because many schools have their own problems. Some have too many flutes, some maybe have too many horns, the other ones have maybe no horns, so it’s really unpredictable. You must write in between solutions, which normally should work for everybody. I try to basically think about what I really expect to be there, at least two trumpets or at least the basics. Then I add one or two more instruments just in case they would have more. I try to make it with the minimum instrumentation and then adding instruments. For example, the Singapura Suite, my first Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) commission, I wrote it for the minimum instrumentation which the Ministry of Education had given me. And then I’ve added e-flat horn or even bassoon, which is often missing in many young ensembles. But if they have it, they should play from the cue notes.
So the flexibility with a larger ensemble and with the real minimum instrumentation is important. It’s an extra limitation on your creativity because, you’re not free to do what you want to do, but that’s part of the game. When you write for those younger bands and divisions, you must accept that’s the reality. You can dream, I want this, I want this, very nice, but if it’s not there, it’s not there. It’s not going to be played. You must compromise what you would like to hear and what probably will be played. That’s part of the game. If you don’t accept it, you should not accept that commission. By the way, the Soldier’s Story has two parts to it – “The Wooden Soldier” and “The Soldier’s Wife”, for primary school concert band and brass band respectively. Singapura Suite also comes with two movements, as they are two pieces for different level of bands.
As a world-renowned composer and band clinician, how do you see the future of wind band music evolving?
Yeah, it’s of course difficult to say because you’re going to generalize. In some countries, it’s going to be different than in other countries. Even some regions and some areas in some countries are different from other ones. But in general, I think I see more young people being interested in good wind orchestras and music. Not all over the place and not everywhere, of course, but in many countries it’s the case. The younger generation, I think they are a little bit spoiled; they have such good quality earphones, headphones, Spotify, and everything else. What they hear is almost perfect. In one or two generations ago, that didn’t exist. At that time, people were already happy to have middle level bands, but now these young people are almost spoiled. They hear the best films and music everywhere. I think many people, in my opinion, go for good quality. But as I said, not in every country and not in every region and not in every case. I see many young people getting more interested because the repertoire is definitely more interesting than maybe 50 years ago, where the music was a little bit boring and a little bit less challenging.
Nowadays, every instrument is being played, whether you play third trumpet or second horn or third trumpet; you have to study, you must practice, and you have something to do. Many years ago, it was just the first trumpet, first trumpet, first saxophone, and the horns. There was no challenge for them. It’s not anymore. I think the repertoire has given more chances to many instruments. But it’s not a general rule, once again, it’s not going to be in all places. I’m actually slightly optimistic despite, of course, the COVID and the consequences, which are worldwide, and you can feel it. Especially for the lower levels, the beginning bands or the school bands and not so advanced ones, they have really suffered and they still have more problems than the high-level bands. That’s I think, a general phenomenon.
I would also like to say one more thing. After COVID, many people are panicking, because there are many things which are of course, affected in a negative way. But if you compare, when my father was young, he had the Second World War during his time. After the war, everything was broken. No bands, no social life, no sports, nothing anymore. Four or five years of war destroyed almost everything. Many years later, everything was there again, and it has even reached a much higher level than before the war. I like to think COVID is going to be a little bit similar. I hope that the world remains peaceful because we don’t know what will happen, but I think in a short time there’s going to be a revival of many things. Of course, if something serious happens again, that’s something nobody can predict. But if things are going to recover, I think there will be a revival in a relatively short time. I hope so. I’m always optimistic. I’m an optimistic person, and I think so. But of course, when something really bad happens to you, then you can do anything you need. That’s the same for everybody.
Collaboration is often a key aspect of today’s music scene. Have you been working with specific wind bands or ensembles recently, and what unique experiences or challenges have arisen from these collaborations?
In general, this is always good for a composer in the amateur world or in the professional world. It’s always good to hear what’s going on in the world, not only locally, but also regionally, nationally, and internationally. The more you know about it, the better, I think. For a composer, it’s always good, I think, also to be conducting, to work with them, and to listen to how it works in reality. I think a more realistic image of what people really can play or what they can manage. That’s one of the thing I think every composer should try to do. That’s also what I have encouraged my students at the time. Try to conduct your piece. Go to a rehearsal, go and listen and learn how they can handle this or how they cannot handle this. I think it’s good for everybody to have a broad view on what is happening in the wind orchestra world, and also see where is it better, what is the highest level, where is their problem, what is the lowest level, and maybe then try to find your place.
If you write for a very, very low level, you should really adjust your skills and your music and follow the limitations. If you write for high standards, you can push the boundaries towards the next level. It depends, because you should think of a pyramid. The pyramid is very broad at the bottom, with amateur music from a very, very low level, and it becomes narrower upwards to the summit. Only a few really top bands are at the top, and as you go down the pyramid, there lie the good ones and further down, the weaker ones and at the bottom of the pyramid, extremely weak. As a composer, you should know what is the bottom line and what is the top.
Can you tell us more about the works you will be conducting for the concert with West Winds?
We discussed it with, of course, with Music Director of West Winds Philip Tng and with President James, the things which they wanted to play and the things they could play and which were possible to prepare for them and for me. Because I just came in the first rehearsal yesterday, we only have two or three rehearsals to bring everything to the right level. We try to also find a good balance between a big piece like Spartacus, and Kebek, another challenging piece, not extremely difficult, but still not easy, and then a resting moment like the Adagio for Wind Band. We try to find a good balance between these pieces. Some bands enjoy playing loud pieces or spectacular pieces all the way, but that’s too much. I think we should have a good balance and a good contrast in different styles. That’s what we hoped to find, and I think we made it because now, Spartacus is an old classic, but it’s very different from Takayama, and very different from Adagio. I think it’s a nice diversity in the repertoire.
What advice would you give to emerging composers and young musicians who aspire to make a mark in the wind band music scene today?
Of course, like always, times are changing and times have changed. When I was young, I’m starting, or now it’s different because that’s like 40 years ago, times are not anymore as they used to be. But I think for me personally, what is always important is good training, and studying well. Some composers think, that they can make music just by finding a melody and putting in some chords. That’s not composing.
Composing means having horizontally and vertically many skills. It’s not only just obvious chords, just a little tune which are okay, but to do something which is interesting, which is not so trivial, which is not predictable and do something with it. If you have a theme, melody or pattern, try to develop it, elaborate it. The music should not be a chain of two or three, four ideas, without no development. Try to do something with it. Maybe bring in another instrument, work it out, put it in a different key. Try to develop music. That’s really composing. Not just writing lines of course. I think the more they can study harmony, counterpoint, instrumentation, analysis, forms, the more skill they have in their back to write music of good quality. If they want to write music that will last in the future, they should try to write good music, good substance, within content, not just superficial things. They should just try to strive for good quality music.
Finally, with your current artistic vision and mission as a composer, what legacy do you hope to leave in the wind band music scene?
Well, I hope that what I composed the last 20, 30, or 40 years will be a contribution that will fortunately last because no composer in the world, also not the classical ones, will have all his works being played afterwards. There’s even the most famous composers, but maybe only 10 or 20% of their music is going to remain. The other ones will probably disappear. I hope that at least some of my work will survive. I will not know it anymore because I will be gone by then, but I hope that I have given a contribution to the wind band repertoire by writing pieces for different levels, from easy to very difficult classes, different styles and different genres, and that I did something which has a certain remaining value.
You cannot force people to like your music or to love it or to appreciate it. If they don’t like it, they have the right to do so. But I hope that I could offer them something which they will fondly remember.
Asyahari (Hari) is a seasoned corporate professional within the government and private sector. With an interest in youth education, he leads a group of volunteers in organising character development activities for youths-at-risk. He also conducts wind and brass bands in schools. Hari regularly performs in community bands as a trombonist and is a tenor voice with the Singapore Lyric Opera Adult Chorus.