Music Plug #2: Camphouse, Maslanka

This is the second in a series of music plugs. I'd originally planned on making Brahms the second post, and I'll still get around to him, but I've recently played a couple of really powerful pieces by two modern wind ensemble composers, David Maslanka and Mark Camphouse, and felt that both of them deserved some more attention.

The biggest problem with good wind ensemble literature is that if you're not in a top amateur group  you tend to not be exposed to it.  Wind ensembles always play second fiddle to orchestras (if you'll pardon the pun).  They don't have the same dynamic and color range.  Nobody uses them for movie soundtracks.  But they can produce a bolder and in some ways more masculine sound than their stringed cousins - at least that's how Sousa characterized the difference.  And the two men I'm going to feature today use that difference to create some really unique sounds.

First, a warning: both of these composers have a very modern style.  Their pieces can be challenging listening.  They can slide around without finding a constant tone center.  They don't often have hummable tunes, though some of them contain fragments of melodies.  A lot of the pieces can often be characterized as tone poems - stories set to music, where each motif and passage is symbolic.  If it helps you, find and read the liner notes and try to visualize the story as you listen, thinking about what each part is trying to portray.

Camphouse

We'll start with Mark Camphouse, a prolific band composer who tends to paint with big brushes - thick chords, soaring melody lines, and massive dynamic changes.  The first piece I'll present, entitled "In Memoriam" was a commissioned work (as are many of the pieces by both composers) written in 2002.  Despite the imagery in the YouTube clip, it's not a memorial to the victims of 9/11, though with its sweeping scope and power it definitely could have been.  This is probably the most accessible of the pieces I'll present today:

One of Camphouse's most famous pieces is "A Movement for Rosa", dedicated to Rosa Parks.  It's another very dynamic piece and quite accessible.  The piece is in three sections: the first relates the quiet struggle of African Americans in the South prior to the Civil Rights era, the second portrays the struggle itself, and the third the triumph of the movement (though still incomplete, as evidenced by the quiet dissonance at the very end).  Try to catch pieces of the old spiritual and protest song, "We Shall Overcome", especially in the last third.

Another very famous Camphouse piece is "Watchman, Tell Us of the Night", a tribute to the survivors of child abuse.  It's long and it's not my favorite, but it has some really nice moments, including use of vocals at the end.  Listen if you like.

The recordings are mostly live and not perfect. Again, this is literature largely performed by college and community ensembles, not in the context of a professional performance, and certainly not recorded in a studio.  On the other hand, the level of many of the groups performing the music - especially the high school bands - is quite impressive!

Maslanka

David Maslanka might be the less accessible of the two composers.  He uses a more traditional symphonic scoring in places, but all of his works have parts which are highly impressionistic, with odd instrumentation, complex overlapping rhythms, and unusual voicing.

Maslanka's big pieces tend to dwell on themes of nature, time, and death.  The first piece I'll present is "Traveler", a meditation on a full life well lived and a transition to a later, quieter time; it was commissioned to mark the retirement of the Director of Bands at UT Arlington.  The program notes come with a poem:

In our hearts, our minds, our souls
We travel from life to life to life
In time and eternity.

The other Maslanka piece I'd like to present is also a meditation on life and death, coincidentally dedicated at the passing of the wife of the same band director to whom "Traveler" was dedicated.  The story I heard when we played this piece at Illinois (it's one of two of his compositions I've had the opportunity to perform) was that she was loving and well loved, and passed after a battle with cancer.  Forgive me if I have gotten any of the details wrong; it was a long time ago.

The piece itself is both unsettling and moving.  There are a number of themes; the trumpet fanfare that starts the piece is out of the normal range of the instrument (part must be played on a special piccolo trumpet) and immediately puts the audience on edge.  This is followed/accompanied by an eerie organ hymn, which becomes more powerful and terrifying as the first section continues.  You get the feeling that this harsh introduction is only there to prepare us for what is to come.

The middle of the piece is a view of the woman herself, her gentle nature portrayed by warm woodwinds and muted trumpets.  These proceed in a fugue-like pattern until they are joined by the trumpets again, unmuted, in a triumphant, constantly ascending pattern.  This repeats more forcefully with the addition of the saxes and brass, and ascends to one last moment of triumph before it is cut down by the chorale, like a sudden storm, at the climax of the work.

The piece could end there, with the chorale, but it doesn't.  The storm is followed by a peaceful calm, with its own beautiful themes, sometimes hopeful, sometimes plaintive, sometimes comforting, always slightly sad.  This final section ends - literally - in death, as the heartbeat in the woodwinds slows, then stops, leaving only the chorale, stark and cold.

I always had a hard time getting through this one without getting a little emotional.  Listen:

Bonus: Schwantner

Joseph Schwantner is another of the out-there modern composers for wind ensemble.  If you want to have your brain bent, listen to "...and the Mountains Rising Nowhere", which I think is just a wonderfully evocative title on its own.  The music is extremely atmospheric and somewhat unsettling, inspired by the poem "Arioso" by Carol Adler:

arioso bells
sepia
moon-beams
an afternoon sun blanked by rain
and the mountains rising nowhere
the sound returns
the sound and the silence chimes

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