• Dec1Sun

    Inside Composing: part 3

    A look behind the scenes of composing for Salvation Army brass bands. December 1, 2019 Marcus Venables
    Filed Under:
    Music & Gospel Arts

    Is it possible that every generation of composers lives in the shadow of their predecessors? Where we are presently in terms of style, output, consumption and advancement won’t really be felt or truly known for years. But it is so important to look at the past to discover trends and development. This edition of Inside Composing (part three) investigates how previous generations of composers and their musical legacy have influenced the development of modern day writers.


    In our survey of a dozen Canadian composers, this question was asked: “What era of SA band music do you most enjoy?” Most of the answers were between the 1970s-90s. This era was the high point for composers like Ray Steadman-Allen, Leslie Condon, and saw the emergence of William Himes and Peter Graham, amongst several others. Interestingly enough, it would appear this was the time in which the surveyed composers were in their youth. Their first experience of brass band music was from this generation, and they still have a fondness for this music. This would suggest the younger the composer, the later the time period. Our opinion and views are linked to our influences. There is no denying that Ray Steadman-Allen, affectionately known as RSA, will forever be considered one of the greats. During his developing years, there are obvious signs of balancing the brilliant groundbreaking music with the more acceptable genre and style of the time. When we think of RSA’s work, we might automatically start listing off titles such as The Holy War, At the Edge of Time, Daystar and keep going from there. But did you know he has over two hundred other published pieces for brass band? For every groundbreaking masterpiece, he was writing a practical hymn setting or a march that could be used on a more regular basis. Having his name at the top right corner on a published piece of music allowed people to see his name, use his music, and gave him the authority to try new things and to push the boundaries. He proved he could do all of this and still be relevant to the time. Does this mean that everyone who favours the RSA era should try and emulate his writing? Perhaps yes but also no. I think we need to write music that appeals to today’s groups and audiences, but also push into new territories and try something different.

    A person like RSA certainly had an advantage. He was either working for, or was the head of, the Music Editorial Department for a large portion of his adult years. The way in which music should be published is often debated these days. We see emerging avenues like PDF download options. Even the staple publications from the UK have started selling digital copies of back editions. With the quickness that emailing music brings, when it comes to having music published, nobody wants to wait anymore. The composer survey revealed that 80% feel it takes too long for a piece of music to be published. We want music available right away and we want our music to be out there for people to use. Sometimes we forget the necessary procedures and processes that have to take place before a publication comes to release. Let’s take a look at the many benefits to having a piece of music published.

    The Waiting

    While it is possible to instantly send your music to groups around the world, this is still limiting. You have to rely on your own contacts and circles. Even if you have a wide range of contacts, this music will only last for a certain period of time. The power of published music is that it can be distributed to unknown groups and it is archived on an index for future use. If your piece is found on an index, it will give your music life beyond the cycle of its circulation in infancy. In addition to having your piece listed, it ends up in the libraries of groups around the world for years to come. Published series such as General, Triumph, Unity and the American Band Journal are valuable in the sense that music bought as a set increases the opportunity for an unknown name to be noticed if it finds itself alongside the juggernauts. Groups have these journals in their libraries and who knows when a piece from a set will be performed across the world. There is also power in single publications as well. It potentially will be cheaper and faster to produce, and the quality and/ or functionality of the piece is left to speak for itself. The danger in this route is that the newer name perhaps doesn’t get purchased or is forgotten. With the published pieces that are indexed, a band (bandmaster) may stumble across a piece while looking for repertoire, and thus that piece has potential to live once again into the next generation.

    Now that we have outlined some of the benefits to publication, we have to consider that it is a process that takes time. There are pieces that may still be sitting in the waiting room. I’ve been here countless times myself, and sometimes it has led me to forget what I have even submitted. The downside to a piece that is sitting and waiting is that you could have potentially just circulated it yourself for use right away. I once had a piece that was rejected because too many bands already had it in their libraries. This is a good justification, but that notice came four years after I had written the piece. I thought it had been forgotten, but the piece had run its course anyway. When groups asked me Check out the March 2019 MAGAzine to read Part 1 in our Inside Composing series. for it, I sent it along just so it could live on a bit longer. Sometimes a piece of music just isn’t good enough. Not every piece deserves to be published, or perhaps a piece is too similar to something already in existence. This may sound critical but it’s a valid point. I’m certainly glad that over the years, some of my pieces were rejected. It was important for me to learn perhaps why it wasn’t suitable, what needed to be fixed, or where to go from that point onward in my journey. As well, not all opinions will be the same. We are fortunate that we have several avenues for publishing in the Salvation Army with different editors. Some publishers will give a simple yes or no, while others may identify the potential of a piece and will revise and edit to bring it up to the standard and expectation of the journal. I don’t think we would want our publications to be straight to print. We could liken it to those terrible movies that skip theatres but make it onto Netflix. We want a certain level of quality control and also consideration for theological and musical standards.

    Never stop developing

    So what do you do while you wait for pieces to be published? Take Leslie Condon for example. He had his first piece published in 1948. Then, he waited 11 years to see another piece published and eventually had 45 brass band pieces published in a 20 year span. Needless to say, clearly a developed composer emerged in those years in between. I think there are a couple lessons to be learned from this. Perhaps Leslie Condon could have been pushed to write more during those early developing years, or perhaps people just didn’t understand his style or scoring. Perhaps he needed that time to really focus on his scoring and harmony. Perhaps he was just busy being an officer. Could anyone truly tell from a Triumph series march entitled Duke Street that Condon would become a future composition superhero of the Salvation Army? We never know who the next great composer is going to be. The lesson here is that with every new piece, we have to approach it with an open mind, ear and perhaps some encouragement for the writer. If you are a composer, don’t stop because you aren’t getting your music published. Educate yourself on composition technique. Study scores and harmonies. Develop your understanding of music theory in order to understand the craft. Find a way to write for the journals but strive to write in a new, creative style. Don’t become creatively stagnant because of the process or even the wait time.

    Lastly, let’s consider future composers that don’t even exist yet. Based on the statistics, they will most likely grow up and state that the 2020s will be their favourite era and they will consider the current composers as legends. Present day composers should seek to pave the way for the future, to influence the transformation of the modern day style, and to find a way to leave their mark on the current genre. We must recognize that composition cannot become stagnant or self-indulgent. We have to strive for quality music that is proofread and edited. We can’t be wannabe Condon’s, Himes’ or Graham’s by copying their style. Instead of living in the shadow of the greats, let’s take the mantle and push forward. Our work should be relevant for today, honouring what is expected but also continuously searching for the new angle for Salvation Army band music.

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