For Those Who Wait: a dialog with Bach

My most excellent PLU music colleague, wind ensemble conductor Ed Powell, asked me last spring to write a slow movement piece for his upcoming tour to Tennessee in January 2015. He also suggested we try to crowd-source the commission fee so as to allow smaller schools with smaller budgets to participate in the fun of commissioning a new piece. By keeping the buy-in fee low and advertising it to 6500 members of a national conductor’s listserve we received 62 requests to join and the piece was on!

Ed suggested using PLU’s Lutheran connection and heritage as a starting point, reminding me of several other very beloved pieces based on chorale tunes- in particular two by Eastman Conservatory composer Warren Benson from the 1970’s. Ed’s particular favorite chorale tune is “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” as used by Bach in his Saint Matthew Passion. In that monumental composition Bach uses this tune as a continually recurring and therefore unifying device, changing the degree of harmonic intensity in the four-part choral settings as needed depending on the changing emotions of the Passion story.

With all this in mind, I began, as I usually do, by thinking about everything I knew about this project. The chorale tune of course, but also the fact that of the 62 schools that had signed on as commissioners, some were very high-end conservatories with ensembles full of both graduate and under-graduate music majors while others were high schools in small towns with limited resources and probably limited pools of players. The technical demands on the players could not be too high but the musical meaning had to be deep enough to attract the energy and passion of players at all levels.  A slow movement of perhaps 10 minutes duration has to be very careful in its unfolding- that’s a long time for an audience to sit and listen with no fast energy to keep them engaged. Band audiences range from the music majors at big universities to mom and dad in the gym at the high school spring concert. All needed to be served in a way that was meaningful.

What sort of creative space was enclosed by these various precompositional givens? That is usually one of the most creative and interesting parts of the compositional process for me- defining the piece by the borders created by that which is known and then finding within that space the conceptual heart of the piece. Working this way allows me to dialog and bounce off of ideas outside myself for a much richer set of possibilities to consider. It also keeps me mindful of the extent to which composing is an act of service to one’s community, particularly to those who requested the piece.

I thought about the title of that chorale- at least the title often associated with it now in the US- “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” This caused me to return to a theme that had haunted me for a number of years as former PLU students of mine had joined the military and had done multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan while their spouses waited anxiously at home. For those at home, their “sacred heads” are constantly in danger and far, far away. For them, there is nothing to do but hope and pray and wait. This then became the conceptual heart I was searching for and I titled the piece “For Those Who Wait.” It is a dialog with two of Bach’s harmonic choral settings of the tune, one more calm and the other intensely chromatic.

The piece is structured in four sections that all run together: chorale fragments, chorale variations, chorale statements, and again chorale fragments. Compositionally, it takes the tune and its harmonizations and puts them through a series of intervallic processes. The intervals are increasingly “crushed” down so that the original rising fourth of the tune becomes a third and even a second with the following intervals in the tune similarly squashed. This creates different affects ranging from background concern, to gritted teeth, to an all-out nightmare version of the chromatic harmonization in which I added a rising contrapuntal line in the upper winds and had the percussion bell instruments play increasingly hysterical aleatoric lines. Between all the emotion, the sax quartet plays like the angelic organ we desire to calm us down and sing to us of beauty and peace and comfort. In the end of the piece, the inchoate fragments of the opening return, but do not quite vanquish the anxieties and we are left with the sound of a gong ringing into silence as our waiting goes on…

This recording is from the PLU Wind Ensemble’s recent January, 2015 tour to Tennessee and is the first recording ever made of this piece. I hope more recordings are shared with me from the 62 scheduled premieres coming up this year! This has been an immensely satisfying project for me, working with Ed Powell and his great students, working with band directors all over the country, and being able to celebrate and honor my PLU students and all those who wait for those in harm’s way.

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One thought on “For Those Who Wait: a dialog with Bach

  1. […] the past week. These include: “Wolfgang at the Gates: a dialog with Mozart,” “For those who wait: a dialog with Bach,” and “The Blooming Season: finally tracks with […]

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