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Three Questions Before the First Night, by Carson Cooman

Judith Lang Zaimont -- Symphony for Wind Orchestra in Three Scenes

Judith Lang Zaimont (born 1945) is a versatile and expressive composer who has written over 100 works in most musical genres: symphonies, oratorios, opera, chamber music, and many works for voices and choirs. Her work is widely performed, commissioned, and published. Recordings appear on the Naxos, Albany, Arabesque, Koch, Leonarda, and 4-Tay labels. Her many prizes and awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, commissions from the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Composers Forum, and the Aaron Copland Fund for Music. She was Honored Composer at the 11th International Van Cliburn Piano Competition in 2001, during which both gold medalists selected her music to perform.

Zaimont has held teaching positions at Queens College, Peabody Conservatory, Adelphia University, and the University of Minnesota -- from where she retired in the Fall of 2005. She has been an active clinician and lecturer, and has had a particular interest in the history of women in music. Zaimont is also the creator and editor-in-chief of the acclaimed book series, The Musical Woman: An International Perspective (3 vols, Greenwood Press). For these books, she received a research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (1989) and the 1993 First Prize in the international musicology awards, the Pauline Alderman Prizes.

Judith Lang Zaimont
Judith Lang Zaimont

On 6 April 2006, the Trinity College of Music Wind Ensemble, under the direction of Roger Montgomery premieres Zaimont's Symphony for Wind Orchestra (in Three Scenes) at Trinity College of Music, Blackheath Halls, Greenwich, London.

Symphony for Wind Orchestra (in Three Scenes) is scored in three movements: 1) Growler, 2) Dreamz (Six Episodes, Dissolved), and 3) Tattoo. The work was originally commissioned to honor the Centennial of the School of Music at University of Minnesota. The outer two movements have been performed a number of times previously, but this London performance marks the world première of the entire work and the first performance of the middle movement.

The composer provides the following program notes about the work:

I Growler -- This beast groans and howls! Inside six brief minutes a seething, inflected wall of sound appears, evaporates, chases itself round and round, and then rebuilds two more times. In between these brutal walls the percussion section first marches past and later on wildly drums in two sharply designed solo turns. Low instruments, and swirling, muscular harmonies predominate.

II Dreamz (Six Episodes, Dissolved) -- Night visions of kings, cabbages and jazz. Dream visions focus, then dissipate or bleed into the next. At the movement's opening a mixed quintet -- flute, alto sax, flugelhorn, horn and euphonium (the first-chair players of each section) -- leave their stage positions to travel to remote balcony locations. The quintet enters one-third of the way through the movement, and its soft-edged blend becomes a celestial 'jam', supported by the instruments on stage. Before the close, the quintet returns to the stage to play the closing bars (standing up) as a group, clustered near the conductor.

III Tattoo -- A 'call' to all to gather and make a big sound together. A seven-minute 'wild ride' in galloping compound meters, Tattoo features rapid, rollicking beats and pinpoint tonguing in addition to an overall sound calibrated for brilliance. Many solo moments are embedded -- particularly for English horn and bass clarinet -- and the winds, brass and saxophone sections are spotlighted repeatedly throughout.

OneCarson Cooman: This work was originally commissioned by University of Minnesota for their centennial and the initial première was of just one movement. Was it always part of your conception to create a work where the moments could stand alone as individual pieces?

Judith Lang Zaimont: It was conceived that way initially for Minnesota because they wanted to make sure they had a part of it available for the year that they were hosting the CBDNA (College Band Directors National Association) convention. With Craig Kirchoff (the conductor) hosting the conference and conducting an entire program himself, it made sense to just do the last movement on that initial event. They did the first movement shortly after that.

The second movement is complex and requires a quintet to step out from the wind ensemble and play down in conversation with the rest of the ensemble on the stage and then return to the stage and play the last few measures which are sort like those 'noodles you get at the end of jazz session', standing back again with the rest of ensemble for the third movement. What was amusing was that during the composition, I had these members of the auditorium's stage crew timing themselves running up and down the stairways up to the balcony and back, with someone carrying a baritone horn (the largest of the five instruments). Thus the movement gives them plenty of time on either end of the movement to get up there and back.

The idea of a piece where movements could stand-alone also happened with my second symphony, of which the second movement, Elegy, is often played as stand-alone movement. The band piece is also a happy compromise with programming needs. I'd rather write a piece like this, and have parts of it show up elsewhere on programs than writing a piece that will always 'sit' in the overture slot.

Because of this, I designed the movements to have very specific characters. The 'scansion of the whole' was conceived first before any writing musical material. I know the middle movement would be loose-limbed, so the outer movements would need to be tight in different ways.

I looked at types and exemplars of wind ensemble literature -- great pieces like the Hindemith Symphony in Bb, the Harbison Three City Blocks, the Bernard Rands Ceremonial, and other 'contemporary standard literature' for the ensemble. I tend to look for the norms and then try and write the 'other' -- the thing for which there is no type. So Tattoo came to me very quickly in my mind -- it's a large rondo but with sub-sections with their own forms folded into it. I knew I wanted a seven minute movement that is very, very fast in compound meter.

With Growler the idea was to create 'nasty, in-your-face' music, and I wanted to bring the percussion forward. It has seven percussion parts and so the first music introduced really features that section. It focuses on different styles of mass drumming that one can have -- one is military and the other is the Japanese-style drumming, with a very insistent pulse. So obviously a great and menacing tonal structure comes out of that. From those musical ideas came the poetic concept of the Growler that groans and howls. I also designed a twelve-tone chord for that movement which occurs at the Golden Mean position, and then worked backwards as to how to build portions of that over time leading up to that moment.

One other thing about the two outer movements is that they don't build on the fundamental pitches. They start on the upper treble and build down from there -- like giant curtain swags. Growler starts in the center and builds partials outward in either directions.

'Bandwidth' is very important when you're dealing with a massed set of instruments whose tone color in large is not very differentiated. The brass will outpower the winds, for example, so one has to pay special attention to those construction aspects.

TwoCC: This appears to have been your second work for wind ensemble. Did it take a great deal of convincing to get you to approach this genre, as it does with some composers?

JLZ: No, all it needed was the invitation to write it. What has happened is this bifurcation between orchestra and wind ensemble and the instrumentation has brought its own fulfillments with it. Any group that has saxophones, percussion, extra heavy low brass, middle brass, high brass, and copious winds -- these are people whose repertoire lives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And these are groups which, at least in the United States, do not have union regulation guarding rehearsal hours. Since they situate themselves primarily on college campuses, the best part of a whole term can be devoted to preparing a piece, if necessary.

ThreeCC: You recently retired from your teaching post at University of Minnesota and have moved to Arizona, presumably to devote your time primarily to composition. What projects do you have planned ahead of you?

JLZ: I'm working now on a small commission for piano, which will be followed by a wind ensemble piece commissioned for the Kaplan Foundation for a consortium of wind ensembles, and then a piano concerto for piano and wind ensemble. There is also a new orchestra piece project in preliminary formulation.

Copyright © 6 March 2006 Carson P Cooman, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA





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