In my first year of University, my composition teacher Larry Sitsky introduced me to the inimitable composer Harry Partch. Partch had his own set of ears; meaning he heard music very differently to everyone else. Instead of utilising 12 semitones in one octave, Partch created the "Genesis scale", a microtonal scale that divided the octave into 43 different tones (if you want to know how he did this, watch this clip). As traditional instruments and notation did not cater for this microtonal approach, Partch set about creating a series of instruments that were built specifically for the purpose of playing his compositions based on the "Genesis" scale.
Sitsky loaned me a number of records (yes, I went to university in the days of vinyl) and dared me to listen to nothing other than the music of Partch for one whole week. I accepted his challenge and committed myself to a week of nothing other than "And on the seventh day, petals fell in Petaluma" and other such mind-bending sonic creations. I was living on campus at the time and I'm sure I drove my neighbours batty however; by the end of this week-long walk through the microtonal park, two startling things occurred:
1. I started to make sense of Partch's music i.e. I could hear melodies, harmonic progressions and form. This seemed remarkable to me as when I started the week, all I heard was nonsense (remember that at this point in time, I was a young girl of 18 years who had not been exposed to a great deal of modern music).
2. Western music (based on an octave divided into 12 tones) sounded "chunky" and incomplete. The steps in-between each note seemed huge to my now changed ears, and somehow, quite unsatisfying. I had entered the world of Partch.
I had changed my ears.
In listening to works for wind band, particularly for younger, less experienced groups, I wonder what ears we are listening with? Are they are own ears, governed by personal taste and life experience? Or are they ears that have been conveniently moulded into the form of "this is what a school band should sound like"? When selecting repertoire should we be asking ourselves "How relevant are my ears to my students? And how much should I consider how the world sounds to them?"
I honestly believe that if we continue to play same-sounding repertoire at all levels, not only will the wind band genre completely stagnate, it will cease to cultivate future generations of listening, thinking musicians. Selecting repertoire that "sounds like a band" (as opposed to listening with "different ears") may just be responsible for breeding cohorts of students who believe that instrumental music has one 'sound'. And perhaps, just perhaps these students do not continue with their music making after school because "they've heard all there is to hear"? Perhaps the same-ness of the wind band genre, both in terms of colour and form (particularly in works for young students) is part of the reason that our students are not engaging in life-long music making?
So next time you are listening to repertoire for your ensemble to play, consider listening with "new" ears. Add a little Partch into the mix and instead of dismissing a newly found composer because their music doesn't "sound like a band", listen more closely, more intently. Listen more than once and look deeply into their scoring technique and musical intent. Perhaps they are breaking from the norm because they truly have something to say? Perhaps that composer is exploring new territory and doing their best to inject growth into the genre? Perhaps that odd-sounding work is a hidden gem students will love that will also challenge you as a musician and conductor (and what doesn't kill us makes us stronger ...right?).
If we're to keep this band thing alive in our schools, we must start listening with a different set of ears.