Three Bands

Three Bands (2010) (6′)

for two solo horns and large ensemble


Elizabeth Irvin and Peter Gottlieb, horns;

Williams College Opus Zero Band, Steven Dennis Bodner, conductor

May 8, 2010

Steve Bodner asked me to write this piece for Elizabeth and Peter, following a tradition of his where juniors would write pieces to feature graduating seniors. In years previous, Brian Simalchik featured three cellists, Benjamin Wood featured an English hornist; and after Steve’s passing, I conducted the fourth work in this tradition by Laone Thekiso, featuring a string quartet.

The title, unfortunately, suggests a timbral division in the ensemble, or else invites a comparison to other monumental pieces such as Cage’s Three Dances. Knowing well enough that the piece probably deserves a better a title, I include here the notes that explain the original choice:

Three Bands takes its horn soloists and treats them as protagonists. After trips through three musical areas (at first stately and mercurial, turning aggressive but quizzical, and following with a chorale), the horns preside over their synthesis, having traded their opening teasing minor-thirds for stately minor-sevenths. So why call these three ideas bands? One of Ronald Reagan’s earliest political speeches takes the opportunity to deride a “morality gap” at UC-Berkeley by detailing the vices of a particular dance party. Two of the complaints were simple enough: the smell of drugs in the hall and the screening of videos with nudity. But the complaint that seemed out of place to me was that “Three rock and roll bands played simultaneously.” He cites only three sins, and one of them is purely musical? Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised: Mozart’s miscreant Don Giovanni dances to three superimposed tunes, and Stockhausen is a bit of a miscreant himself for scoring Gruppen for three orchestras. Even in pop music, The Flaming Lips’ release Zaireeka for four-disc simultaneous playback comes with a studio-imposed warning about the alleged dangerous effects of the high frequencies on the discs. Three Bands is not rock and roll music, and it’s not antiphonal. It is, however, about taking the horn soloists to a synthesis of three musics and teasing the boundary between gentle and mean sounds along the way. It edges right up to a morality gap, if there is one.