The Wind Band Composer in the 21st Century

The Wind Band Composer in the 21st Century

My music education as a player began in school band programs in Ohio, midwest USA, where every school, large or small, had, and still does today, a band (that is woodwind, brass, and percussion).  It is as much a social and community activity in its impetus as a musical one.  But there was always this feeling, in fact reality, that the wind band was considered to be a second best cousin to the symphony orchestra in the classical music world (yes, even in America).

Twentieth century composers produced classic band literature which is still revered here in the 21st C.   Gustav Holst’s First Suite for Military Band is a prime example (premiered 1920).  In that same period Percy Grainger (native of Australia), in his prime known as one of the worlds great concert pianists,  became a master of the sonorities of the wind band through his immersive experience in a New York military band during WWI, and his Lincolnshire Posey, based on turn of 20th century folk singers north of London, is still considered a masterpiece of the wind band literature.  Even so, by mid-century bandmaster Frederick Fennell (also from Ohio, Cleveland) bemoaned the lack of attention to the wind band by his contemporary composers.   He became determined to change that, inventing a new smaller version of the wind band allowing a more virtuosic group, which he called a ‘wind ensemble’, at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, New York in the mid-fifties.  Using a new sound reproduction method, ‘stereophonic’, employed in Mercury records ‘Living Presence’ series, which engaged a concert hall (not studio) venue, recording with only three strategically placed microphones, Fennell’s Eastman Wind Ensemble produced a rush of masterful recordings which grabbed the attention of a new generation of wind band players, conductors and composers.  Fennell became my ‘band hero’ on first hearing of one of them.

When I moved to New Zealand, and before the internet and You Tube got going, I was missing out on the emergence of a new era.  As the 21st century approached and arrived, and now in full bloom, a new confidence has arisen in the wind band world which is in full view today.  A variety of levels of ability are catered for, from junior high school bands to virtuosic necessity.  With the exponential growth in the use of digital storage, and its incorporation onto platforms like You Tube, this new wind band world is now available to me, and to anyone interested in having a look.   Standout ensembles like the University of North Texas Wind Symphony and the University of Michigan Symphony Band, and many others, have produced a prodigious number of videos and CD presentations which provide You Tube evidence of this new confidence.

Just one example of this younger breed of composers is John Mackey, originally from Ohio, who in 2014 at age 41 became the youngest composer ever inducted into the American Bandmasters Association.  I’ve chosen Mackey as example for a few reasons:  his wide popularity among recording bands and his noted accomplishments, yes, and also because he is from Ohio.  But also because of the uniqueness of his background, not being a player.  Yes, Mackey does not play a wind instrument, or percussion, and maybe doesn’t even sing, I don’t know.   He grew up in the 70s/80s in a musical household where he had access to synthesizers.  Perhaps easier to experiment with harmonies and time signatures without the challenge of having to play them on an instrument?


John Mackey, youthful master

John Mackey (b.  1 Oct, 1973 –  New Philadelphia, Ohio.  Educ: Westerville South HS near Columbus; Cleveland Institute of Music, Juilliard  School) is an American composer who has found a niche, you might say, and become one of the 21st century’s most admired composers for wind band (brass, woodwind, and of course percussion).  There are dozens of outstanding performances of his work, mostly by university student bands which have been at the forefront of wind band music since mid-20th century, on You Tube.

To a wind band fan like me the following 2005 blog from his web site, Osti Music, strikes a chord.  It gives a picture of what the wind band community thinks of the attention it gets in the world of classical music.  Mackey does admit he has matured since 2005 so that he sees the tenor of this piece as sexist.  Even so, it is an entertaining attempt at describing the situation the wind band finds itself.



‘Newman’ is Jonathon Newman, a composer contemporary of Mackey’s.

‘Tanglewood’ is a well storied summer music camp in the Berkshire mountain area of western Massachusetts.  “

‘Concertgebouw’ is an iconic (1881) concert hall in Amsterdam.  (Note, inside looks a good bit like the Town Hall in Wellington).

“shi-shi-la-la Art”  ???

Following that blog is a description of one of his simpler compositions, ‘Sheltering Sky’, at Grade 3 rating it could be played by a good middle school band.



Top of Form

July 7, 2005

Even Tanglewood has a band

(note: This post was written in 2005, when I was much more of a sexist asshole. Much of the humor here does not hold up…)

Newman emailed me last night to tell me about this year’s Tanglewood schedule, which he’d picked up over the weekend. One part of Tanglewood is the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, a training program for younger musicians. We’re not sure if this is the first year they’re doing it, but this year, Tanglewood has a band. And they got the master, H. Robert Reynolds, to conduct it. This feels like quite a major stamp of approval from the titan of summer music festivals — and of “shi-shi-la-la Art” in general. As Newman said, “What’s next? The Concertgebouw Marching Cadets?”    Band just gets bigger and bigger. Or maybe it’s losing weight, in the superficial sense.

If you’re a composer who grew up wanting to write orchestra music, and you listened to Barber rather than Grainger, you probably start with the attitude that you should be writing orchestra music, and band somehow isn’t the goal. So, you marry Orchestra. Orchestra is hot. Okay, maybe not hot, but at least she’s the kind of hot that you know you should like. At the very least, she’s very pretty. And she’s really, really smart, and speaks, like, seven languages, and she knew everybody (though she only ever wants to talk about Beethoven). But you quickly realize that Orchestra thinks she’s better than you, and she acts like every minute she spends with you is some kind of charity work. You get her gifts, and shower her with attention, but you soon realize that she doesn’t appreciate you at all, and she’s neglectful, and at worst, abusive.

And then one day at a party, you meet Band.

“What do you do?” she asks. “Um, I’m a composer,” you reply, expecting little reaction, but Band lights up and exclaims, “oh my God, that’s HOT! Do you have any music I can play? The newer, the better! . . . . . Let me get you a drink!”



Band is loud. She’s not quite as pretty as Orchestra, and she’s a bit, shall we say, bigger-boned, but she has that truly “hot” aspect to her that Orchestra never had. And most importantly, Band loves what you do. Whereas it was like pulling teeth to get Orchestra to look at your new music (and if she looked, she was generally not impressed, often comparing you unfavorably to one of her many ex’s — like Dvorak), Band thinks it’s awesome. Band tells you things like “you’re special and perfect and I’ll appreciate you and your music like Orchestra never has, and never will.”

What is Composer supposed to do?! Did I mention how loud and boisterous Band is? (Let’s say she’s a screamer. Totally your type.) You have a blast when you’re with her, and your friends agree that she’s a lot cooler than Orchestra, and they see how she treats you much, much better. How can Composer not be expected to stray?

Luckily for Composer, he figured this out around the age of 30, and not much, much later. He just feels bad for all of the other Composers who haven’t yet caught on and left their dysfuncional, abusive relationships.




Sheltering Sky (2012)  –

“…an even greater pull toward wistful nostalgia.”

for concert band
duration: 5’30”
Grade 3
/ Texas PML Grade 4

Commissioned by Traughber Junior High School Band (Rachel Maxwell, director), and Thompson Junior High School Band (Daniel Harrison, director), Oswego, Illinois.

World premiere April 21, 2012.

The wind band medium has, in the twenty-first century, a host of disparate styles that dominate its texture. At the core of its contemporary development exists a group of composers who dazzle with scintillating and frightening virtuosity. As such, at first listening one might experience John Mackey’s Sheltering Sky as a striking departure. Its serene and simple presentation is a throwback of sorts, a nostalgic portrait of time suspended.

The work itself has a folksong-like quality, intended by the composer, and through this an immediate sense of familiarity emerges. Certainly the repertoire has a long and proud tradition of weaving folk songs into its identity, from the days of Holst and Vaughan Williams to modern treatments by such figures as Donald Grantham and Frank Ticheli. Whereas these composers incorporated extant melodies into their works, however, Mackey takes a play from Percy Grainger. Grainger’s Colonial Song seemingly sets a beautiful folksong melody in an enchanting way (so enchanting, in fact, that he reworked the tune into two other pieces: Australian Up-Country Tune and The Gum-Suckers March). In reality, however, Grainger’s melody was entirely original, his own concoction to express how he felt about his native Australia. Likewise, although the melodies of Sheltering Sky have a recognizable quality (hints of the contours and colors of Danny Boy and Shenandoah are perceptible), the tunes themselves are original to the work, imparting a sense of hazy distance as though they were from a half-remembered dream.

The work unfolds in a sweeping arch structure, with cascading phrases that elide (ed.  merge, overlap) effortlessly. The introduction presents softly articulated harmonies stacking through a surrounding placidity. From there emerge statements of each of the two folksong-like melodies, the call as a sighing descent in solo oboe, and its answer as a hopeful rising line in trumpet. Though the composer’s trademark virtuosity is absent, his harmonic language remains. Mackey avoids traditional triadic sonorities almost exclusively, instead choosing more indistinct chords with diatonic extensions (particularly seventh and ninth chords) that facilitate the hazy sonic world that the piece inhabits. Near cadences, chromatic dissonances fill the narrow spaces in these harmonies, creating an even greater pull toward wistful nostalgia. Each new phrase begins over the resolution of the previous one, creating a sense of motion that never completely stops. The melodies themselves unfold and eventually dissipate until at last the serene introductory material returns, the opening chords finally coming to rest.

Program note by Jake Wallace
Please credit Jake Wallace when reproducing or excerpting this program

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