The Lonely Land
Staying involved with music education, by means of guest conducting in high schools, adjudicating festivals, and so on, is one of the ways in which I can give back to an institution to which I owe so much, one without which I would not be doing what I am today. A particular force for good in my development was my high school music teacher, Bill Thomas, and so when the opportunity arose to do something meaningful for him, there was no hesitation.
As part of his master's thesis, Bill envisioned and sketched out a suite of four didactic compositions for developing band, based on Canadian folk songs. Three of these were eventually completed and published; the fourth was considered less marketable and so never got past the workshop stage.
The first movement, All Around the Circle, is based on the well-known Newfoundland dance tune, "I'se the B'y". Instead of the usual triadic harmonies on which a lot of Western music is built, this piece introduces the concept of quartal harmonies: chords in fourths. The second movement sets the ballad "She's Like the Swallow", also from Newfoundland, and is entitled And Love is No More. It is an exercise in dissonance, featuring suspensions and other non-chord tones. The final movement, Blue Lake and Rocky Shore, sets the Northern Ontario folk song, "Blue Lake and Rocky Shore". This movement is an exploration of minimalist techniques, in which a composer manipulates a few basic motives or ideas using repetition and gradual change.
The third movement was supposed to have been inspired by a poem called The Lonely Land, by Canadian poet A.J.M. Smith. Its pedagogical motive is the concept of aleatory, or chance music; although it is an ensemble piece, it relies on a lot of individual decision-making on the part of the players, and the result won't sound quite the same from performance to performance. It allows the musicians to experiment with textures and harmonies in real time, by deciding when to play their notes in response to the rest of the ensemble. Woven into the movement are fragments of melodies from two lullabies originating with the Chippewa peoples of Canada, the first known as either “Gentle clouds roll by” or “Way, way, way”, and the second called “Pine tree gently sigh”.
I approached Bill last summer about the possibility of commissioning him to complete this missing movement, and thanks to the generosity of several local high schools and another community band, we were able to make it happen. I will be leading the Rouge River Winds in the first performance of the complete suite at our concert on June 16. It is with great pleasure and gratification that I will be able to thus give back to a teacher who was an integral part of the lives of so many of us who went through that music program.