Music to Drift Away With
B-flat Clarinet I-II-III
Alto Saxophone I-II
B-flat Trumpets I-II-III
Horns in F I-II-III-IV
Percussion I-II-III-IV-V, including:
- Bass Drum
- Bell Tree
- Sandpaper Blocks
- Suspended Cymbal
- Tibetan Singing Bowl
- Wind Chimes (bamboo)
None discovered thus far.
Every month or so I like to go on YouTube, find a composition I've never listened to, and then spend a few hours clicking on any of the "related/suggested" pieces that I haven't heard of. In 2012, about seven years before I started working on Music to Drift Away With, I was down one of these YouTube rabbit holes, and I clicked on Ballade for Piano and Orchestra by Germaine Tailleferre. I was instantly mesmerized: over the next few days, I listened to everything of hers that was available online, and I kept coming back to her impressionistic orchestral works, especially the Ballade and her Concertino for Harp and Orchestra.
Over the next few weeks, I gradually figured out what I was so obsessed with: Tailleferre was creating all kinds of complicated hemiolas and cross-rhythms in a different and more subtle way than I'd ever heard. Some of the hemiolas were right there in the rhythm, but others were hidden within the shape of instruments' melodic lines or the interplay of registers or the relationship between the melody and the implied metric accents. Not only that, she was using these elements to sculpt the shape of the piece and to help make her key moments land.
I have always wished that more band music would be patient and not rely too heavily on surface-level extremes in dynamics, tempos, and registers. Hearing Tailleferre's Ballade unlocked something inside my brain that helped me understand how I could better write the music I wanted to hear. Music to Drift Away With feels like a culmination of the past eight years of my obsession with Tailleferre's orchestral music.
Another big influence on my musical ideology has been the writings of the musicologist Susan McClary, particularly her book Feminine Endings. One article in this book, titled Getting Down off the Beanstalk: the Presence of a Woman's Voice in Janika Vandervelde's Genesis II, details the tendency of composers to build narrative thrust by manufacturing tension in a way that requires a violent resolution for closure. The comedian Hannah Gadsby recently made a similar statement about how comedy's punchline structure often relies on uncomfortable and borderline-socially-unacceptable premises to create tension so that people will need to laugh if they want a resolution to that tension: "Punchlines need trauma, because punchlines need tension and then tension feeds trauma."
In Music to Drift Away With, I wanted to limit this type of tension. The piece is intended to be fluid, gentle, warm, full of life, and full of little patterns that drift in and out organically. The key moments of the piece get progressively quieter and more patient, with the ultimate settling point being a moment of complete silence. There are "climbing the beanstalk" moments, but they tend to arise from ideas or patterns that have already been set in motion, and the "arrivals" after these sections add warmth and increase the energy rather than expelling it all in exchange for attaining a resolution. There are only a few moments tense enough that they appear possibly headed for a loud, triumphant, or potentially violent climax, and each of these arrivals gets reframed.
When I first thought of the concept for this piece, orchestra immediately came to mind as the most natural instrumentation. However, the more I thought about it, the clearer it was that I should write it for band specifically because band is more poorly suited to it (replacing harp and strings -- which can play quietly and gently for as long as they would like without having to breathe -- with saxophones, additional percussion, and a more brass-forward presence). The times in which we most need to de-escalate a situation are typically the times in which it feels the hardest to do so, and the people who most need to improve at de-escalation are the people who are most affected by the societal norms telling us not to.
Many aspects of the blues/jazz tradition subvert existing rhythmic hierarchies within music. For example:
- Accentuating beats 2 and 4 weakens the structural bias towards 1 and 3 (the “strong beats”)
- Syncopation also weakens the structural bias towards the “strong beats”
- Swung eighth notes weakens the structural bias towards strictness and uniformity of rhythm (1 whole note = 2 half notes = 4 quarter notes = 8 eighth notes)
- Performers delaying or anticipating the beat weakens the structural bias towards strictness and uniformity of pulse
- Though not a rhythmic device, I find it significant that the reversal of the traditional predominant/dominant order in the 12-bar blues presents the tension earlier and de-escalates it for a resolution rather than deliberately increasing the tension so that it requires a climactic moment to attain a resolution.
There are several methods that Music to Drift Away With uses in attempt to break down hierarchies that are present within the Western classical music tradition. Here are a few:
- For most of the piece, both simple and compound subdivisions of the beat exist simultaneously
- Cross-rhythms are frequently used, making it less certain which pulse is the “true” beat
- There are typically several different motives or elements of interest occurring at once, which distributes our focus more evenly across each line and weakens the hierarchy of “melody vs. accompaniment”
- Most of the recurring motives display some avoidance of downbeats: they generally start on an offbeat or are syncopated or include tied notes
- Regular (4 bar/8 bar/16 bar, etc.) phrases are often avoided by having other voices provide counterpoint, with one of the contrapuntal voices becoming the new “primary” focus.
- This also is a method to weaken the “first voice = most important voice” expectation
- Motivic material is rarely replicated identically: even when multiple instruments are playing the same melody at the same time, they often play slightly different notes or rhythms from each other, preserving a sense of individuality over conformity
- Sequences are presented as just one part of a vast texture, which allows them to repeat as many times as feel natural without the need for harmonic closure at the end of the sequence
- The harmonic language is frequently pandiatonic, extended tertian, modal, or pentatonic: these harmonies allow moderate dissonances to feel unobtrusive, which dramatically expands the melodic freedoms that each individual line can take without feeling out of place with the harmony.
- Cadential structures are frequently spread out between multiple moments: i.e., the arrival and the resolution often happen in different places.
Another often frustrating situation for music students is the hierarchy of parts that exists in most pieces. One of my goals in Music to Drift Away With was to create more independence of parts and to create a more even division of parts: pretty much everybody has several different moments where their individual voice is among the most important.
The premise of this piece aligns with something I like to do when writing band music: whenever possible, make the most challenging aspect be the musicality (i.e., understanding how the parts fit together, blending, etc.) rather than the technique.
Music to Drift Away With was completed in December 2019 and was premiered in February 2020. It is dedicated to Germaine Tailleferre and Susan McClary.
- Program Note by composer
To submit a performance please join The Wind Repertory Project
- Current and Former University of Texas Students (Michael Mikulka, conductor) – 8 February 2020
Works for Winds by this Composer
- Concerto for Trumpet and Wind Ensemble (2013)
- Etudes for Wind Ensemble (2019)
- First Suite for Wind Band (2016)
- The Florentainer (2013)
- From Detroit to LA (2011)
- Godzilla Devours Reno (2013)
- The Inaudible Do (2013)
- Music to Drift Away With (2019)
- Panic! (2010)
- Prelude and Fugue (2011)
- Six Short Scenes (2018)
- Symphony No. 3 for Wind Ensemble (2015/2020)
- Through the Icy Dawn (2010)
- Unfurl (2019)