Sunday Sounds: Lichtweg/Lightway by Jennifer Jolley

Composer Jennifer Jolley is a relatively new voice to the wind ensemble and one we all should know. Her work Lichtweg serves as a great introduction to her work.

The library of works for the wind ensemble is growing. Sure, that statement seems a bit obvious as new composers are writing for this performance medium, but it is not just achieving new numbers. Our repertoire is gaining quality works from composers, both established and new. This may largely be due to the willingness of conductors to interact and communicate with composers.

Certainly, technology helps. It is much easier to send records back and forth nowadays, as well as connect via text message or FaceTime. And, conductors are capable of sharing ideas with others regularly. That is how I discovered composer Jennifer Jolley.  In talking with a friend and conductor of a collegiate ensemble, I asked what they were programming this semester. The reply was filled with great standard works and one which I was not familiar. It was Lichtweg (Lightway) by Ms. Jolley.

Currently, Jennifer Jolley is Assistant Professor of Music at Ohio Wesleyan University where she teaches composition and music theory. She holds degrees from the University of Southern California (B.M) and the University of Cincinnati (M.M. and D.M.A.). Ms. Jolley’s teachers include Stephen Hartke, Frank Ticheli, Michael Fiday, Joel Hoffman, and Douglas Knehans.

While her catalog is diverse, her works for wind ensemble are a bit more recent. Motordom was composed in 2009, and is a musical interpretation of American light-artist Keith Sonnier’s light installation in Los Angeles. Her next work for winds, Through the Looking Glass Falls, was completed in 2014. The next four compositions were published in 2016 and 2017.

About Lichtweg

Jennifer Jolley was commissioned by the Georgia Tech Concert Band with Lichtweg being the result of the process. The ensemble premiered the work on November 19, 2017.

Like Motordom, Jolley drew inspiration from another of Keith Sonnier’s installations. This time, it was the exhibit in Terminal 1 of the Munich Airport in Germany. Photos of the installation can be found on Sonnier’s website, and are linked here. The exhibit uses glowing neon lights and mirrors throughout the corridor. The idea is to help passengers direction and variety, helping them relax from the stress of travel.

As for the composition, Jolley states the following in the program notes:

In this piece I musically portray the rhythmic placement of red and blue light emanating from this neon installation by creating a constant eighth-note ostinato that is heard throughout the piece. Just as the panes of glass, mirrors, and aluminum sheets refract and scatter the colorful neon light, this ostinato is diffused amongst the different colors in the ensemble.

The ostinato used can make the work a bit more challenging than it appears. Often times, a couple groups of musicians perform the ostinato but are separated by an eighth note, providing reflection like the mirrors in the installation. Even with the rhythmic challenges, the composition is filled with bright energy. Jolley uses the timbres of the ensemble to show the variety of light and color in the exhibit.

Her website includes a midi recording of the work, though with several ensembles performing it recently, I would not be surprised if she added a live version. There is also a sample of the score is included on her site. This work, and others, are available for rental.

Incorporating music and technology during performances

Music composition has taken a turn in the last several years by incorporating technology into pieces. And it is a great thing.

There is no doubting the facts: we are in an age of technology. Everywhere we go we witness the use of technology in everyday life. Most of you viewing this article are likely using your iPhone or other mobile devices. Statics for Predlines.com, a site I manage covering the Nashville Predators, shows that over 70% of views are through cellphones.

Technology changes almost as quickly as the seasons. We are constantly updating our phones and devices because something newer and better is available. Many band directors access their tuner or metronome on a tablet or phone. Yet, when it comes to concert performances, ensemble directors are reluctant to try new things…

…even if they spent thousands of dollars on speaker systems, microphones, and all the accessories for their marching ensembles.

Maybe there is fear of fixing an issue in case something goes screwy in performance or just the lack of understanding of how the technology works. But opportunities abound for programs to incorporate electronics into a concert program.

Give these a try.

Ecstatic Waters by Steven Bryant was the first pieces I was introduced to mixing wind band with electronics. It is a brilliant work which feels like a battle between man and machine ending in a compromise between the two sides. The 20+ minute composition is challenging, making it difficult for many high school programs.

Which brings us to another piece by Bryant entitled The Machine AwakesThis composition is accessible to most upper middle school groups and serves as a great introduction for conductors into the blending of acoustic and electronic sounds. Plus, it can be operated from an iPhone. Another option from Bryant is CoilWritten in 2014, Coil derives inspiration from Nikola Tesla’s famous Tesla Coils. The composition lasts about 5 minutes and can be performed by most high school groups.

Another composer known for using technology in their works is Alex Shapiro. Her compositions stretch across all genres but include seven works for winds and audio tracks. Of those, five works are 6-minutes or less in length, making them manageable for high school and college groups. Personally, I recommend trying Paper Cut or Tight Squeeze.

Speaking of Alex, she is part of a great consortium opportunity with Daniel Montoya, Jr. and Benjamin Taylor. The  New Band Electro-Acoustic Music (N-BEAM) project, led by James Mobley, looks to create three new works at the Grade 2 – 2.5 level for band and technology. The cost to join the project is $450, but includes copies of all three pieces, Skype rehearsals with the composers, rights to video-record performances, and much more.

Other options

Maybe adding audio technology is not a great option, but film could be. While I worked with Alpharetta HS (GA), we performed Frank Ticheli’s American Elegy and had students create a slideshow to be performed along with the music. Steve Danyew’s This World Alive combines the work of Ansel Adams and a beautiful score.

There are more options as well. Ensembles have added light shows to Michael Markowski’s Shine. Lights Out by Alex Shapiro calls for lighting effects during the performance.

The opportunities to add technology into your concert programs abound. And it may not be as challenging as one may think. Give it a chance. Your students will love it.

Saturday Sounds: ‘Kingfishers Catch Fire’ by John Mackey

A week of snow and cold brings a Saturday of coffee and music. With things warming up it is a great time to listen to John Mackey’s Kingfishers Catch Fire.

What a week it has been! After two separate winter storms trudged through the area, schools were out for six days. Five snow days and Martin Luther King, Jr. day. School out and poor roads meant my kids were home most of the week. And I with them.

I took advantage of the time at home to listen to a wide variety of music. One piece stuck with me all week was a favorite: Kingfishers Catch Fire by John Mackey.

In 2005, I was introduced to Mackey’s music when Redline Tango was part of the repertoire for the Georgia State University Wind Ensemble. Soprano saxophone was the part I was given, and I loved it. The ensemble was able to rehearse with Mackey before the Southeastern CBDNA conference in Nashville in 2006. Afterward, the graduate assistants under Dr. Robert Ambrose ate a meal with Mackey.

Now, Mackey is one of the leading composers of music for wind ensembles. Compositions like Aurora Awakes and his symphony Wine Dark Sea have solidified his place amongst the most important composers of our time. Additionally, he continues to write for younger ensembles.

About Kingfishers

Mackey premiered Kingfishers Catch Fire in 2007, and it was completed as part of a commission from ensembles in Japan. As the program note states, the kingfisher “is a bird with stunning, brilliantly colored feathers that appear in sunlight as if they are on fire.  Kingfishers are extremely shy birds and are rarely seen, but when they are seen, they are undeniably beautiful.”

The composition consists of two movements. Opening the work is “Following falls and falls of rain” calls on the bird’s shy side, using suspended tones and quiet dynamics, giving the listener the impression of the kingfisher emerging from its nest. The second movement is fiery, filled with activity and flourishes from the woodwinds and percussion. Powerful brass shows the kingfisher’s sparkle and beauty.

Two aspects of the work are rather unique. First, the second movement requires an antiphonal trumpet choir to play from the back of the concert hall. These players add to the brilliance of the bird. Secondly, Mackey references Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird” at the end of the piece. The ending of the second movement draws from the end of the “Berceuse and Finale” from Stravinsky’s masterpiece.

Kingfishers Catch Fire is available for rental from Mackey’s website (ostimusic.com). A score and recording are also accessed here. Additionally, records of the work can be found through Naxos.

I was able to work on this piece while attending the University of Southern Mississippi as a doctoral student under Dr. Thomas Fraschillo in 2011.

The Ensemble Director’s Snow Day Survival Guide

They are the most exciting and terrifying words for teachers across the nation: Snow Day. Here is how you can make the most of the missed time.

We are in the midst of a nationwide epidemic. Snow and ice forced thousands of school districts to close their doors in the name of safety for students and teachers. One snow day is okay, but some districts are already calling off school for the rest of the week. After missing Friday last week and two days this week, my kids are ready to go back to school.

I am ready for them to go back as well.

All classes suffer from the missed time, but music classes can argue being hurt the most. The lack of consistent rehearsals can lead to performance concerns in tone, pitch, and musical retention. While we cannot do anything about students leaving instruments at school, we can make sure we are prepared for what comes next.

Snow Day Survival Guide

  1. Pour a cup of coffee, hot tea, or your favorite beverage.
  2. Relax. Breathe. Read something. Stay away from your iPhone, iPad, and all things internet until lunch. And no NetFlix. That stuff is addictive.
  3. After an hour or so, take out your baton and metronome.
  4. Set your metronome to a tempo of 68 with a triplet subdivision. Begin conducting various patterns (four bars of 4, then 3, back to 4, then 5, etc.) with the right hand only.
  5. Repeat #4, adding a little staccato flick (check mark, flicking something off your baton).
  6. With same metronome settings, move left hand only. Start in resting position then move up 4 counts, down 4, right 4, back center 4, left 4, back to center 4. Then do this at 3 counts, 2 counts, and 5 counts. Be sure to breathe.
  7. Take out your scores, baton, metronome, and notebook.
  8. Read through your score from a large view, looking for musical content (dynamics, articulation, tempo changes, etc.) and make notes.
  9. With your metronome going, conduct the piece without stopping.
  10. Repeat steps #7 & 8 for each score.

There you have it. It is simple, but it prepares your mind and body for the next rehearsal. Avoid listening to the pieces. And do this list without focusing on rehearsal planning. Yes, take time to plan for the next rehearsal (whenever it may be), but preparing your mind and body for full runs of works is needed.

How often do you really run the full piece? I know when it comes to marching band, directors will end rehearsal with a full run of everything. Concert groups not so much. Doing full mental runs of a piece will help you build continuity as your ensemble rehearses. We get caught up in the minutia that we fail to build and teach larger musical concepts.

Take the time during your snow day to mentally and physically prepare for your performance. It will lead to more efficient rehearsals moving forward.

The challenges of selecting literature for your ensemble

Few things are as maddening as selecting literature appropriate for your ensemble. Everyone has opinions on what to play. Who is right?

As many of you return to school from the holiday break – likely with a snow day or two thrown in there for good measure – the task of selecting literature for your ensemble stares you in the face. Concert festivals are a minefield, filled with opinions from adjudicators whose score will be all that matters to your administration. It’s an all-too-common situation.

“You can’t play Holst’s First Suite! Everyone knows it and has an etched-in-stone opinion!”

“Not more John Mackey! He is played too much!”

“No! You should play (insert person’s favorite all-time piece. Your kids will love it!”

Sure. These statements are not (completely) true. But similar things to these have been, and will continue to be, said. Selecting literature is not an easy task. Partly because of the range of material available, and partly because we care about our students’ opinions.

Sharing some thoughts

I recently purchased a copy of Rehearsing the Band, Vol. 2 by Donald Miller. This series of text provides concepts on working with wind bands from some of the best conductors and educators from the collegiate realm. Topics such as balance, rehearsal planning, and literature are discussed. While reading through the sections on literature, one thing became apparent: everyone had their own valid opinions.

No two sections were the same. Most suggested playing music from a wide range of time periods and styles. There were thoughts on new music, chamber works, and transcriptions. A few conductors mentioned works standing the test of time which is really not in our hands to decide.

All in all, their thoughts and opinions do bring helpful information. But still, there is a level of personal taste involved. With that in mind, here are some things I consider when selecting literature.

  • Is there artistic and/or emotional value to the composition? Does it cause me to think? Does it move or excite me? (If I am not going to enjoy the piece, it will show and reflect by my ensemble’s performance)
  • Is the piece going to challenge my students musically?
  • Does the piece have historical significance?
  • Does the piece fit into our educational goals?

The most important aspect for me is the emotional and/or artistic value. Some compositions are like a new diet. You may not like the way it tastes or feels at first, but when all is finished you realize how much better off you are. I was lucky to conduct Steven Bryant’s Ecstatic Waters while attending Southern Miss. To this day, it was one of the most frustrating but rewarding experiences. The concepts presented we so new at the time the ensemble struggled at time to make the pieces fit. When they did, it was amazing.

The point of all this? Simple. Select repertoire that fits you and your ensemble. Your group may not be ready for Lincolnsire Posy or Hindemith’s Symphony in B-flat. There are other works that are artistically sound and emotionally moving. It doesn’t have to be about teaching your clarinets to cross the break, though there is nothing wrong with that. Finding balance in artistry and significance is just as important.