APPROACHING A COMPOSER - FEAR NOT! / Guest Contributor - Dennis Johnson //

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August, 2017

Guest Contributor
Dennis Johnson
Director of Bands and Orchestra
Past-President - WASBE
Murray State University
As a student, percussionist and wind band nerd at the University of Michigan in the late sixties, I was fortunate to come in contact with many impressive composer’s who visited the campus. Dr. Revelli invited a few each year and it was always a new and interesting experience. Many of us knew little about them except that they composed something very interesting for wind band and we were not to “bug” them. Dello Joio, Persichetti, Husa, Bilik, Nelhybel, etc. all worked with us on their pieces. I found it quite fascinating. Some were very good at conducting their works however the majority appeared “uncomfortable”. Certainly not with their score but the size of the band (which at that time numbered over one hundred) and their conducting skills.

What I enjoyed most was when they felt the need to share an anecdote or two regarding the work, which did not appear in the score, parts or program notes. That’s when it became obvious they were not saints, seers, or magicians, simply musicians with a great gift and a strong bond we all shared, making music. Since those early years, I have found that composers usually are somewhat shy when talking about their works, and quite humbled that we were and are keeping their art alive and fresh. I once witnessed Aaron Copland actually changing a note in his score while conducting the high school band at Interlochen. I saw Vaclav Nelhybel fall off the podium while losing control of one of his patented large and fiery gestures. Toiling under Norman Dello Joio whose downbeat was so unreadable, that we decided (during a rehearsal break) to use the third button down of his shirt as our gesture for entrances. Thank goodness he wore a tuxedo with buttons for the concert. Karel Husa was always a treat for me simply because of his accent, self effacing humor and tireless effort in trying to explain his thoughts at the time he etched the notes.

After moving to Macomb, Illinois (Western Illinois University) in the eighties, I spent a weekend with Joseph Schwantner in St. Louis, studying his immense and seemingly incomprehensible scores. For a man who carved a unique niche in notation and instrumentation, I found him quite thoughtful and laid back. He did however prove very understanding and patient as we weaved our way through my analyses of each work and my inane young conductor questions. Afterwards I realized that this was one of the greatest teaching sessions I have ever experienced.

In my years to date, I have seen composers shy away from writing for “band” because they did not view this potpouri of instruments viable. Thank goodness for Holst, Hindemith, Jacob and many other early pioneers who didn’t dismiss the medium. Now we have composers such as John Corigliano, who after writing his massive work, “Circus Maximus” shared with me that he was through writing for the symphony orchesra. With the band he was assured to receive, “more consistently honest and accurate interpretations AND the reassurance that the conductor would actually study the score.” Quite a miraculous change over these years. All those experiences have steered my musical path to encourage composers to write and I have put my money where my baton is. I am proud to say I have had a hand in numerous compositions, consortiums or just promising a performance to a young composer. I consistently encourage my graduating students at the university and my colleagues at other institutions to contact established and recognized names and everything in between. Is it a gamble? Many would say yes however I disagree. People throw money at a roulette wheel or feed one-armed bandits at a casino all day – now that is a gamble!

While engaging a composer to write something that becomes “our/your own” can best be described as an act of trust, something we can play over and over in our heads at anytime, and program as frequently as we want. I encourage conductors to stay involved in the process, seek out and support young composers, challenge all of them to write for us while at the same time, leading them to compose, knowing that they must write it their way. As we learned from Brett Abigaña in the last issue, give these inspired folks your thoughts, let them know what in music inspires you, if the work will be dedicated to someone or some place, share that also. What makes us choose to commission a work? I once felt that if I shared too much, composers would write a work as trite as my thoughts, simply because I wasn’t always honest and tried to frame my thoughts around what I believed they might like to hear. The composer’s mind needs a catalyst, yet I always shy away from asking for certain time signatures, or other details that border on unnecessary dictation. I guess the basic word when dealing with a composer is “trust”. A two way street indeed, but let the final work, be theirs for you. For a composer, seeing and hearing their works in repeat performances is no doubt gratifying. And for you to know that this “gem” was inspired by your contact and support.
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