Get Over Yourself and Make This Larger Thing Happen: A Conversation with Cynthia Johnston Turner
Since you’ve been at Cornell, you have had a very active commissioning policy. How do you set about commissioning, what are you looking for? To what extent are the works on the new
CD representative of that policy?
The tradition of commissioning new works—not just for wind ensemble, but for a variety of instrumentations—was strong before I got to Cornell. Mark Scatterday before me commissioned a lot of works and Marice Stith, who was director of bands here from 1966 to 1989, did a tremendous amount of recording and commissioning of new music. When I came here I felt it was the least I could do to maintain that tradition and perhaps take it in different, exciting directions. The CD just sort of evolved. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky, Roberto Sierra, and newly tenured Kevin Ernste are all on faculty and they attract extremely high quality students who want to study their doctorate in composition at Cornell. So I asked the doctoral composers if they would like to write music for winds, and I took it a step further with this project in that I asked them to write a piece that pushes boundaries. And that’s what happened. I gave them a basic instrumentation, but I said, “if you want to write for amplified accordion and wind ensemble that’s cool, or for gamelan and wind ensemble that’s fine. If you want to add voices that’s fine.” They get the opportunity to work with live musicians and possibly change the instrumentation and so on, work with me as a composer and, in this case, they have a product of a CD. In my commissioning, it’s partly that I’m interested in expanding the definition of what a wind ensemble is and expanding our repertoire, but I’m also interested in synchronizing with the composition department to help their education in any way that I can. I also commission established composers. Again that’s a tradition that I walked into and am proud to carry on.
Do you commission outside the US?
I’m in the process of doing so right now, but I can’t tell you anything yet! By the way I should say that I’m Canadian so I’m not so American-centric and that tends to be an issue in this country. We like to promote our own composers—which is wonderful—but there’s some amazing composers all over the world. I’m part of WASBE, the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles: I’m on the board of that and have been a member for many years. That has introduced me to some incredible composers from all over the world.
You were saying you were very free in the conditions you gave the composers on this disc—use of concertante drumkit and so forth. Please talk about using electronics with a wind ensemble.
Christopher Stark, who wrote
, has done a lot of work with electronics. We have a strong digital music center here at Cornell which attracts composers interested in digital music. He’d already written a piece called
Drowning and Shoegazing
for trombone and electronics [with orchestra] and his shtick is the live interaction with electronics and acoustic instruments. He is not so interested in writing music for existing tape or electronics (though he has done so)—he’s more interested in the possible playback and playfulness that can happen between the two. He’s interested in how electronics can interact with acoustic instruments in really interesting ways.
The applause at the beginning was very amusing. When that’s done live, is it sampled in real time and mixed into the overall sound the audience hears?
Exactly. It’s kind of a psychological experiment in some ways because the audience doesn’t realize, as the conductor walks onto the stage, as it’s just the clapping that we would normally receive. As it continues but doesn’t get louder, you can see people want to stop clapping but they don’t because they hear other people clapping. When it gets louder and louder they realize something funky’s going on. When we did the premiere, we weren’t sure whether they would be turned on by that, interested, or angry! In the end it’s been very successfully received and we were really happy about that.
The Jesse Jones piece,
Through the Veil
, was the most challenging for the students: not just technically, but emotionally and intellectually. It took a long time for the students to come around to that piece. But that is the joy of working with the composer. Jesse Jones happens to be one of the nicest guys on the planet and he was experimenting with his own compositional technique and doing things which he’d never done before. The students got excited by that creative, real-time process and they slowly bought into what he was trying to do, and how he was trying to do it. He worked really well with the students and supported them.
Some of these pieces sound really rich tonally, like a really substantial band, for example, Jesse Jones’s piece
Through the Veil
. What size band are you working with there?
Forty-two. The difference between a wind ensemble and wind symphony or concert band is that, in a wind ensemble, there is only one person per part: So there’s one first clarinet, one second clarinet, one third clarinet, and so on. The wind ensemble is really a chamber ensemble. In a lot of other models, you’ll have 10 first clarinets, 11 or 12 second... that’s a huge band. That’s not the case here. Part of it is that I believe the best players should be rewarded with a sense of responsibility and ownership and not get lost in a large group. I also believe, and this is a controversial thing to say, in elitism: The concept that talent and hard work deserve recognition is not an evil one to me. The best students should be rewarded by playing more difficult music, by being in an ensemble that has higher expectations where, for example, if an individual misses a rehearsal, it is a big deal because that part is therefore not covered.
Jesse Jones had five soprano clarinet players, plus a bass clarinet, an E♭-clarinet and a contrabass clarinet. I think there were four flute parts, plus piccolo. His piece was a little bit expanded, but not a lot. One of the wonderful things about Cornell is that we have these committed and talented students. But we have limitations and that’s also good for the composers. Because it’s one thing to say, “anything goes” and it’s another to say, “but I have a very strong clarinet section but a weak French horn section [for example], so you need to think about that when you’re writing the piece.” Each one of these pieces had no boundaries in one sense, but did have other kinds of boundaries because of what was available. I think that’s also really good for composers. A few years ago, I asked composers to write a piece that was meaty enough for us to play and perform, but technically easy enough for a middle school band to do. I had one taker on that project and I took it to all the middle schools in the area. I said, “here’s a free piece, I’ll come and work with your groups, you can come to Cornell and work with the composer.” That was a really neat outreach project. Afterwards, the composer told me, “that was the hardest thing I’ve had to write.” Michael Colgrass has done that too. And thank goodness they are doing it, because there’s a lot of mediocre repertoire out there and it’s fantastic to have these very fine composers accept the challenge of writing a piece that’s relatively easy to play, but still has merit.
Through the Veil
pushes boundaries of ensemble timbre or ‘global sound’ as well as individual or ‘local’ sounds and possibilities on instruments. For example, there are times when the entire ensemble is instrumentally screaming as the soul enters into the material world. In contrast, in the opening of the piece, which is a sound world of ‘other-worldliness,’ the clarinets enter incredibly softly and move to harmonics. Jesse is interested in finding beauty in sounds that are normally considered ugly. Zachary Wadsworth’s
Symphony of Glances
doesn’t really push boundaries except that it is very slow and lyrical, and features solos for tenor saxophone and euphonium, two instruments that are capable of staggering lyricism and beauty. The euphonium is used to this (although I fear, with all of the new pieces for ‘orchestral winds,’ the instrument is losing favor). The tenor saxophone however, isn’t normally featured in this way and I find it compelling.
features a concertante drumkit part.
Yes, as far as I know, there isn’t another concerto for death metal drummer and wind ensemble out there! What was fun about that premiere was the clientele we enjoyed in the audience that evening. Derek Roddy, the soloist, has quite a following in the ‘metal’ world so his appearance brought in a demographic who might not attend a wind ensemble concert! That piece is indeed about stamina, and it was difficult to rehearse. But, as soon as Derek came to the rehearsal, we were all inspired to give the same energy and even ‘aggression’ to the music.
I do have some reservations about the use of percussion in wind ensembles. After all, your group is not called the Cornell University Wind and Percussion Ensemble. What is your view on the place of percussion, and to what extent is it just decorative?
I’ve thought about that over the years and I’ve been trying to think of different terms. When we say ‘wind ensemble’ or ‘wind symphony,’ or something like that, we completely ignore the percussion section. Maybe we need to get back to ‘concert band’ or... But you’re right. In our effort to elevate our status by calling ourselves ‘wind orchestra’—because we had this problem in the wind band world where we have poor self esteem in relation to the orchestra—we have created another problem that there are now so many names for what we do that nobody gets it. We’ve ostracized a whole section of the band. I agree with you: And I’m working on it. If you can come up with a name, I might just take it!
But you also perform works written for “classical” orchestral wind bands?
Of course. But all the commissioning that has happened in the wind band world—that really started with Fred Fennell at Eastman—has exploited the percussion section. Because composers have been perhaps limited by the lack of strings, they turn to the percussion section, including piano, harp, celesta, to add color that they think isn’t already there. In many ways, the commissioning for wind ensemble we’ve done over the years has elevated the percussion section—a lot of these pieces require six, seven, eight percussion players. On the one hand, with our very name we ostracized the percussion section but, on the other hand, through all our commissioning we’ve elevated what they do.
The other thing that’s happened is that many big name composers have written a lot of works for, quote unquote, orchestral winds. So no saxophones, no euphonium, and limited percussion. We have all these wonderful pieces out there that composers have written in the hope that symphony orchestras may just pick them up and play them. But that’s not necessarily happening. I don’t turn down works for a classical orchestral wind section but I have to be careful when I programme them that the other members of the ensemble have something to do as well. I’ve actually written arrangements for saxophone choirs for them to work on and perform in a concert when we’re doing a piece for orchestral winds. And I’ve started to commission pieces written specifically for the combination of the saxophone family and euphoniums to help fill the void of programming pieces for orchestral winds.
The CD booklet mentions that most of the players are students who are not majoring in music.
They’re freshmen all the way to seniors and there’s a couple of graduate students. We have a lot of engineers and pre-med students but, from all over the map, they come to Cornell because they want a liberal arts education and they just happen to be very good players who want to continue to play. We have two wind ensembles, both auditioned. We have lecturers on staff in all the instruments so they take lessons. They’re incredible; they’re tremendously committed. They want to keep playing and they believe in it—so they do it on top of everything else that they’re trying to do.
It’s tremendously impressive. Given the players are mostly not music majors, yet the performances are so good, the success must be down to how you work with them. What do you feel makes you so successful?
I think that they are tremendous: they
playing their instruments and they
making music. There is a joy in them when they come into rehearsal. They all want to be there—which is not always the case in conservatories or music schools where the students are there to major on their instrument or voice and they go to ensemble because they have to. So I have the unique and wonderful privilege of standing in front of people who joyfully want to be there all of the time. That’s part of it. I’d have to be really bad not to make it happen, because
do it. I know my stuff I hope, I am aware of what they’re doing, I know the score and I believe in what I’m doing and I’m passionate about it. Those two things—my passion and their passion—hopefully produce great results.
I’m not sure a group of highly enthusiastic students without any leadership is necessarily going to deliver a good performance! They may deliver an enthusiastic performance, and I’m interested in probing those leadership characteristics which enable you to get great results.
I think you’re right. I think there are qualities such as high expectations and—number one to me, I guess—passion is extremely important. Authenticity on the podium and in rehearsal is extremely important. A certain amount of vulnerability and lifelong learning, so it’s not just what they’re getting from me, but what I’m learning from them—and conviction. For me, great leadership is when the followers say, “we did it ourselves.” So, empowering them to do their best and beyond, to push
boundaries of excellence, just raising the bar a little bit higher each time: Knowing how to do that, and when to do that, is something I continue to work on.
The other thing is ego—and keeping that in check. I remember, when I was at Eastman, I found standing in front of the wind ensemble incredibly nerve-racking, and I was just not getting over it. I was really nervous every time I stood on the podium until a colleague said to me, “it’s not about you, it’s about the music.” And that was such a turning point for me. I still get a bit nervous before a concert and I have butterflies, but it’s about getting them to fly in formation and it just takes the constant reminder: “This isn’t about me, so get over yourself and make this larger thing happen.”
The band has made a number of very successful tours of Costa Rica...
The year before I came to Cornell my cousin contacted me. She had retired to Costa Rica and she and her husband had done some outreach work there. They had found a music school which had just a few instruments but lots of kids coming from miles who had to share them. Did I have any ideas about how to get instruments to them? When I came to Cornell in 2004, I had this question in my mind. I had taken my high school wind ensemble on tour every year—12 days, 11 concerts—to the United States from Canada during their spring break. We performed a concert every night and stayed with host families. I had also been privileged to be in a wind ensemble in Canada as a kid and did those kinds of tours—in fact they were my model. I was transformed as a student. I grew, and bonded with the ensemble and I wanted to do that with my high school kids. In 1996, we had the perfect tour: Every concert was better than the last, we all bonded, and there was an incredible sense of community. I did a lot of research on leadership and on community building, and also on outward bound activities where you’re pushed to the limit, drawing on resources deep inside which you didn’t know you had, and working toward something that’s bigger than yourself and bigger than the group. So, when I came to Cornell I thought, “what if we put those two things together. We’ll go on tour in Costa Rica and we’ll take along some instruments.” I put it to the student leadership and, in six months, they had collected 50 instruments from around the country. In the meantime we had partnered with Hickey’s Music Center, the local musical instrument repair shop in Ithaca. They liked the project and said, “whatever you get, minor repairs or even major ones, we’ll fix them.” That was a big step and a great partnership.
And off we went. Our first tour was in 2006 and, as part of that tour, I commissioned a Costa Rican composer, Eddie Mora Bermúdez, to write a piece for us. We brought him to Cornell in December 2005 for the premiere—a concerto for four saxophone and wind ensemble—it’s a beautiful piece—and then our final concert in Costa Rica was its Costa Rican premiere. We kept it a secret that we were going to give away those instruments to this music school in Costa Rica and, when I watched the Cornell students walk across the dirt floor to present them to the kids, and I watched all the students crying, I said, “OK, this is important.” And, two years later we went back. This time, we visited three schools and gave away 80 instruments. On the third tour, we gave over 100 instruments and worked with five schools.
In the meantime they had started their version of El Sistema. I have gone back to work with their National Youth Orchestra, so I’m getting to know the country and the music scene very well. I identified six of their students who I thought would be nice to join us on our next tour and, when I invited those students, two of them literally fell to their knees and were just over the moon, so grateful and happy. One of those students, Marco Molina, joined us for the last tour, playing the flute that we had donated to him two years previously, which for us was just incredibly moving. Sometimes you go to these places, you do your thing and leave. You don’t know if the instruments are going to end up on the streets of San José and be traded for something bad. It’s really great for us to go back and know that what we did is bearing fruit—and wonderful fruit. And so that last tour, in 2012, was really great. We got off the plane and met the six Costa Ricans who were very nervous: it was awkward to start with. We were exhausted and the Costa Ricans were feeling, “oh my gosh, what have we got ourselves into?” By the end of that tour, there wasn’t a dry eye in the airport. Everyone was hugging and kissing, and now we’re all friends on Facebook. That kind of cross-cultural connection has been really wonderful.
On the website, the word ‘service’ comes up quite a lot, particularly in the phrase ‘service learning.’ I guess that is about combining the education process with putting yourself in service to other people.
Exactly. That’s it. There’s no more to say. I stumbled on this concept of service learning because, as I told you, in that first tour, I had this impression that we would be going to a developing country and providing them with our knowledge and the instruments. We had the attitude “aren’t we wonderful, and isn’t this a wonderful thing that we’re doing.” But I was immediately struck by how much actually
were getting back, how much we were learning from these kids and these communities. That impression that I and the students had
flipped over and we became quite humbled. And that is one of the bottom lines of service learning—the paradox that in giving we get back tenfold. I think—this is going to sound incredibly naïve and clichéd—but I really think this is what this planet needs to be doing just to make it a better place.
Cynthia Johnston Turner, cond; Catherine Likhuta (pn
); Derek Roddy (drumkit
); Cornell University Wind Ens
ALBANY 1344 (71:28)
A Symphony of Glances:
Down the Long Desolate Streets of Stars.
Through the Veil
This disc collects six extremely varied works for wind ensemble, all by doctoral composition students at Cornell, and all (except
Through the Veil
) commissioned by Cynthia Johnston Turner, the conductor on this disc and the University’s associate professor of performance (conducting) and director of wind ensembles. As she explains in the interview above, her intention was to provide an opportunity for the composers to challenge themselves, to push their compositional boundaries, and in this they have certainly delivered. If, occasionally, one can detect influences of other composers which have not been completely digested, that isn’t to disparage the success with which each of these pieces has been imagined and thought through—and all but one of the composers were under 30 when they wrote their pieces.
The work which gives the disc its title, Christopher Stark’s
, is an exploration of moments (
, literally, ‘glance of an eye’ or moment). Two contrasted types of music, serene “ambient” and harsh, are juxtaposed without any transitions. If there is rather more of the former than the latter, this results in a euphonious sound world of long held notes, which drift in a slightly Ligetian way. There is some light and light-hearted use of electronics, and Stark reveals himself as rather playful: At one point I was convinced my CD player was skipping.
All this is in sharp contrast to Ryan Gallagher’s
, a four-minute blast of energy for soloist on drumkit and ensemble. Derek Roddy delivers a blistering heavy metal performance, and the winds rise to the challenge, in a work which, the composer says, is deliberately designed to exhaust the players! One could have wished that the soloist was given a little more presence in the production: more ‘air’ around him and a balance between the players that lifted him in relation to the band would have enabled even more of the visceral energy to come across. (Curious readers can find a video of this work, albeit with a different band, on YouTube.)
Down the Long Desolate Streets of Stars
is the second movement of Zachary Wadsworth’s
A Symphony of Glances
Andante molto sostenuto
, this is nothing to do with Hollywood, but refers to poetic fragments by the English writer, T. E. Hulme, who was killed in the First World War. This is slow (more an
), with Brucknerian brass writing and lyrical solos in tenor saxophone and euphonium, the former very distinctive and attractive, the latter quite surprisingly flexible.
Catherine Likhuta plays the solo piano in her own piece,
, a concerto in one movement running a quarter of an hour. There is a substantial contribution from the percussion section which raises the question of whether “wind ensemble” is really the right term for this sort of band, given the important melodic contributions of, for example, the marimba. Anyway, what impresses here is the variety of interplay and genuine dialogue between the piano and the band. Whilst being somewhat sectional, there is an overall trajectory which convinces. Of
, the composer, Takuma Itoh, says, “I wanted to create an atmosphere of going in and out of a timeless suspension”—which strikes me as a pretty difficult challenge. The piece does create a sense of peaceful drifting underlying the often busy surfaces of burbling winds and tinkling percussion from which, from time to time, a tonal folk-song-like theme arises. It is impossible not to be reminded of Takemitsu in this piece and, while it doesn’t have all the subtlety, nuance, and contrast of the master’s music (the comparison being an object lesson in “less is more”),
does impress by its carefully judged, and imaginative, sonorities.
And, finally, the longest piece, Jesse Jones’s
Through the Veil
. This is certainly the most ambitious work, philosophically. It is intended to represent, more or less literally, the progress of an eternal soul from a pre-mortal existence to its incarnation in a body and the subsequent death of the body, allowing the soul to rejoin the cosmos. So we have a well-defined “point of entry”—passing through a “veil of forgetfulness”—and, later, a moment of death. This is not the place to ask why, if the soul is eternal, it is necessary to depict the second transition with “shrieking screams of death.” However, that short section is marvelously scored, based on a computer frequency analysis of a real human scream. It actually sounds rather impressively grand. There then follows a long final section in which the soul again passes through the veil into infinity. Turner reports that this piece gave the players difficulty in coming to terms with it in rehearsal and, I must admit, it gave me difficulty. Partly this is due to the presence, unremarked in the CD booklet, of three amplified sopranos who “aaaah” rather in the fashion of the women’s choir in “Neptune” from Holst’s
. I felt Jones ran a great risk of rather less-elevated comparisons being made (i.e., with ’50s sci-fi B movies) but, on multiple listening, I decided that the effect works in the context of the particular wind writing and that the vocal parts could be listened to with interest. My other reservation—nothing to do with the disc
—is that the program of this work may put off listeners. While it has nowhere near the vulgarity of
Tod und Verklärung
, I can imagine the literalness of the depiction could create resistance. Not believing in souls myself, I decided to think of the piece as a tripartite structure along the lines of Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” Sonata which, had that been the composer’s intention, could have provided the basis for a more substantial piece. Nevertheless, it is probably the piece on the disc which pushes boundaries the most and repays listening.
Most of the players in the Wind Ensemble are not music majors but, as Cynthia Johnston Turner points out, this is not necessarily detrimental to the standard of performance—which is superb. They sound completely committed to the music and, whatever its obvious difficulties, have it completely. Likewise, Turner’s readings of the pieces are, as far as I can tell without scores, compelling. Apart from my small cavil at the miking of the drumkit in
, mentioned above, the sound is excellent: forward but with plenty of space.