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The Machine Awakes: music for young band + electronics

May 7, 2012


  1. Music education is important
  2. Writing “easy” music is hard
  3. Add electronics: The Machine Awakes, for young band + electronics, premieres this Thursday night, May 10th, at Cedar Ridge High School in Hillsboro, NC!

Score and Recording (MIDI)

A vital component of my mission as a composer is music education. My father was a band director and tireless music educator, and both my parents taught many years in public schools. Strong music education (and, for that matter, strong, well-funded public schools across the board for every community) is fundamentally important to the health of society, and thus to our collective well-being. I realized early on, however, that I didn’t have the stamina to be a classroom teacher (and my heartfelt admiration and thanks go out to teachers everywhere – I’ve seen, firsthand, the all-consuming dedication required to do this job well). Composing music for these ensembles, though, is something I can offer, and it’s my goal to inspire students so they come out of rehearsals excited about what they’ve just experienced, and aware that this music can be just as satisfying, visceral, emotional, and interesting as the various music they’re immersed in the rest of their waking hours.

Now, any composer who’s attempted to write music for beginning musicians, particularly bands and orchestras, has surely discovered how difficult a task it is. Just ask John Mackey (and listen to his gorgeous new work, Sheltering Sky). The upper and lower ranges of most instruments are off limits, and even the simplest accidental out of a “known scale” becomes a potential pitfall. Even greater obstacles are the lack of (fear of?) part independence, and its cousin, exposed scoring (or, as I call it, orchestration). Oh, and don’t forget that the instrumentation itself is fluid – quite often, you may not have any bass voices in the ensemble at all, and certainly don’t count on having Bassoons or Oboes, much less a Horn section, though don’t be surprised if 25 saxophones are in a 45-piece group (I speak from experience). (N.B. For a great approach to flexible instrumentation, don’t miss Jonathan Newman’s brand new 3 O’clock Mix). Combine all of this with the fact that young musicians are still learning to produce a characteristic tone, and rarely have the muscular control to produce much beyond two, maybe three, differentiated dynamic levels (the “everything-is-always-mf-syndrome”), and the composer is left with a very small toolbox indeed!

My approach has been to write pieces that my middle-school-self would’ve enjoyed playing, which has resulted in everything from Interruptions (a spoof of the mass-market commodity drek that permeates the “educational market”), to Dusk (quiet Copland-esque contemplation of sunset), to Bloom (quasi-John Adams-lite), to MetaMarch (a March-mashup/remix verging on madness), and The Marbled Midnight Mile (more quiet contemplation). Many of these include at least one of the “off-limit” elements I outlined above, and so are usually classified a grade-level above my original target. That’s the enduring rub: how do you make music you like, if all the best tools for creating musical shape and drama are taken away?

Enter electronics.

In 2008, I wrote Ecstatic Waters for wind ensemble + electronics, and its continuing impact on musicians and listeners across the US has far exceeded anything I expected. As of this writing, there have been 150 performances, 140 or so of those in the past 3 seasons alone. This is…unexpected, especially for a 24′ work that requires a laptop, a subwoofer, water glasses, a Celesta, and a Mahler Hammer. There’s obviously something compelling about this sound world, and I’ve known for years that I wanted to bring this experience to Middle School and High School bands. It also circumvents many of the limitations outlined above (bass voice? OH YES – subwoofers make life good).

The end result is my new work, The Machine Awakes (score and recording). The technical demands are the easiest of any work I’ve ever written (it does include optional slightly-more-difficult parts if you happen to have some more skilled players in the group). The electronics are incredibly simple to setup and operate – install the free program that comes with the music on a computer, plug a cable from the headphone jack into your house PA system, setup a monitor for the conductor and band, and you’re set. I may even make an iPad app in the future…

Check it out here, including a MIDI realization and a free PDF score.

The work premieres this Thursday, May 10th, at Cedar Ridge High School, under the direction of the fearless Arris Golden. She organized the commissioning consortium and is a shining example of the drive and dedication necessary to be a great music educator.

Listen to each of these works here, or go to each work’s specific page to get a free PDF score and find out more.