Summer is a great time for big projects, right? Especially if they’re a little bit tedious and time-consuming, and therefore much easier to accomplish when there aren’t as many students around.
So I’ve been getting a vast number of scores in our band library into protective envelopes, numbering and labelling the envelopes with the needed information, etc. I’m now out of envelopes, after filling 809 of them (yes, if you order 800 envelopes, you might get 809 envelopes… how about that?). I need about 1000 more to finish the job, but we were short on funds last spring when I made the order (but–the new fiscal year starts July 1, and I know what one of my first P.O.s will be…). The pause gives me time to reflect, and to update the catalog we have on the computer.
If I were a librarian, I would have just done the deed, but since I’m the conductor who will be choosing repertoire from this library, it was only natural to make an assessment of each piece’s Wertung, as they say. Overall, the Wertung was pretty low. The story is that one of my predecessors bought out a music store that was going out of business, so there is a lot of, well, junk in there. I’m a pack rat, like my father before me, so nothing’s getting thrown out, but if I were sifting and not just cataloging, the library would end up a lot smaller.
Don’t get me wrong–there is also a fair amount of usable music, and a good selection of great music, including several winners of the ABA/Ostwald Award, original band music and transcriptions of orchestra music by some great composers and even some very interesting looking pieces by completely obscure composers who may deserve to be better known, but got lost in the process of building the canon.
But the amount of schlock (from the German schlag, for mine-tailings, according to Neal Stephenson’s excellent book Quicksilver) is just amazing. A medley of songs by New Kids on the Block. Arrangement after arrangement of Christmas music (all you really need is Leroy Anderson). How many versions of “Ode to Joy” do there need to be? Cookie-cutter Grade 2 and 3 band pieces that are clearly written with no purpose in mind other than to provide something that will score well at contest.
I can’t even begin to fathom why some of the things I’ve seen were even published. Calling your medley Great Sounds from Today’s Movies is just asking for irrelevance within a decade (this is of mid-1970s vintage). And what is with medleys anyway? Why aren’t arrangers creative enough to come up with at least a variation on a pop tune or (heaven forbid) a development section? Music of the Special Olympics? Really? I mean, I have no problem with the Special Olympics–it’s wonderful. But really?
And marches–the marches! Composers–there are enough marches now. The shortage is past. We don’t need to write anymore marches in the traditional style. We don’t need to go dig up anymore marches from 100 years ago and give them new “editions.” It’s done. Write something else. Again, don’t get me wrong–the march style is one of the major heritages of the band world, and I program a march on every band concert. But seriously… stop writing them!
The era of historical development in this chunk of the library spans (from what I can tell) about 40 years, from around 1950 to around 1990. In that time, there seem to have been two major eras. The 1950s and 1960s were the glory years for bands, but composition hadn’t caught up, so publishers were just putting out everything they could get their hands on. Lots of marches, lots of orchestral transcriptions, and some absolutely fantastic original pieces for band. Plenty of garbage, as well. This is the raw material of the canon that we don’t see when we look at the Classical and Romantic periods. The sort has been completed. I would say that even up to about 1945 or so, in that band world, we have a fairly well-established canon or original works for band.
The second era is the real problem here. In the 1970s and 1980s, we start to see the beginnings of the “synergy” model. Most blatant, I think, are the very large media companies of this era such as Warner Brothers and Columbia Pictures (owned by Coca-Cola at that time). It is here that we begin to see piles and piles of pop song arrangements, movie tie-ins and TV show themes. Adorno’s Culture Industry at work. The result–original band composition largely stagnates (yes, there are still composers like Michael Colgrass and Joseph Schwantner doing incredible work in this era–more on that below). As middle schools and high schools give their students a steady diet of tie-in music, serious composition shifts to the Grade 6 level, aimed at college wind ensembles (and the occasional amazing high school band). Where is the Michael Colgrass or Joseph Schwantner of Grade 3? (Truthfully, they are out there… it just takes some digging).
If I see one more piece that begins with trumpets playing an open fifth…
It’s early to make a verdict on the 2000s, but it seems like it has been another sort of mediocre decade for bands. Lots of good pieces; nearly infinite bad pieces; but where is the 21st-century equivalent of Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy, Husa’s Music for Prague 1968, Colgrass’s Winds of Nagual? Where is the music that not only is wonderful to listen to but also makes musicians think? In the end, it probably doesn’t matter whether my students can play. It really doesn’t matter what score a band gets at contest. Have we used music to make musicians and audiences think?
I’ll leave you with a sobering link–C.L. Barnhouse is a major publisher of music for band, one of the three or four largest in the country. They publish band music almost exclusively, and should be a leader in the field. They also have a large recording arm, Walking Frog Records. These are their Editorial/Submissions Policies. I will be having nightmares about this for years.