SUN PAINTS RAINBOWS OVER THE VAST WAVES
Journal of the British Association of Symphonic Bands & Wind Ensembles Volume 4 No 1 Spring 1985
This was my first composition for wind bands and it would seem more appropriate to write about the circumstances of its composition and my approach to the project than attempt a musical analysis, since Robert Peel has performed this service in the Spring 1994 issue of this journal.
For someone who has never written a piece for wind band, the problems are slightly different in kind than similar cases which could be imagined. I have never, for example, been commissioned to write a Horn Trio, but I am fully aware of the repertoire and the characteristics of the instruments involved. The Wind Band, however, is an instrument in its own right and the problems for a ‘first timer’ are immense.
I was scarcely aware, for example, that such an instrument as the Eb Alto clarinet existed, lert alone its range and strengths and weaknesses. I was confused about the difference between a Euphonium, Baritone Horn, and Tenor Tuba, if there was a difference and (since the piece after its writing was initially unpublished,) the copying of the parts with all the multifarious transpositions involved was a nightmare.
My first decision was to study the repertoire, both in score and recorded form. My initial reaction was twofold. I was surprised at the amount of ‘doubling’, and dismayed by the lack of genuine musical substance in many of the pieces that I studied the Holst Suites and Percy Grainger works are, of course, masterpieces, but there seemed to be a lack of pieces by other established ‘concert-music’ composers which I found rather surprising. Its as if the Wind Band was considered a poor relation of the Symphony Orchestra.
In attending Wind Band concerts I was also rather dismayed at the content of the programmes which I felt went a long way towards explaining the above-mentioned attitude. It simply doesn’t make musical sense to have a concert consisting, say, of a Holst Suite, the Dam Busters March, selections from Jesus Christ Superstar, and some Percy Grainger. It isn’t simply a matter of good or bad taste, but of confronting the listener with so many stylistic changes that the ear soon gives up. It could of course be argued that both the members of the band and the audience like playing and listening to this music, but this is not a sound argument either authentically or educationally. If it was, then television would consist of nothing but idiotic game shows and soap operas. The playing ability of the players and the listening habits of the audience should be stretched.
I decided to try to write something that would challenge the players’ abilities and would involve as little doubling as possibility - no more doubling in fact than if it were a piece for orchestra where I might decide to double a string line with woodwind.
The major problem with this approach, and with the actual process of the music which initially involves the gradual build up of isolated quavers was one which I had not foreseen and of which I was in fact unaware; the convention of having many sectional rehearsals before a full band run through. Since, as mentioned, the opening of the piece consists of a musical process whereby a continuous quaver note is gradually built up with single contributions from many different groups, the piece simply doesn’t make any musical sense unless everyone is playing.
In a sectional, it is rather important that the players are convinced that the piece is worth learning, and since in isolation, the parts for the various sections are not too meaningful, it is surprising to me that the piece has received as many performances as it has, since I can imagine that the initial reaction of many of the players must have been a mixture of bewilderment and doubts as to the mental stability of the composer.
At several of the performances I have attended, this observation has been confirmed by several players remarking to me that at first they had regarded the piece as ‘silly’, but hearing the whole band made them realise that maybe it wasn’t so mad after all. One problem which at several places in the piece I didn’t solve was one of balance. There are several mistakes where a line fails to emerge from the texture because there is tool much going on and the line is allotted to a group which within the overall dynamic range of a Band is not very loud. On the other hand this does highlight another problem of balance which is not the composer’s fault. Given the fluid nature of the wind bands and the necessity of using the forces which happen to be available it is very difficult to arrive at a hard and fast rule about balance. This is not helped by the difficulty young players seem to have with playing at anything below mezzoforte.
If one has written a piece for Wind Band A, for example, which has one oboe, the dynamics of whose part are marked accordingly, the dynamic markings are liable to become meaningless when the piece is performed by Band B which at that particular time happens to have 4 oboes. This problem does not of course arise in writing for Orchestra where the number of players are fixed (with slight variations in the number of strings).
However, it must be said in conclusion that the helpfulness and enthusiasm which I have encountered since becoming involved in the Wind Band has been most stimulating and exciting, and I certainly intend to continue to write pieces for Wind Band if only to convince myself that the success Sun Paints Rainbows seems to have achieved so far is not beginners luck.