Washington, DC -- style="margin: 0in 0in 0pt;">Marine Band Director Lt. Col. Jason K. Fettig drew the theme for the band’s 32nd annual educational recording from American composer Adam Schoenberg’s Picture Studies, a series of musical studies on transforming what we can see into what we can hear. Titled “Picture Studies,” the band’s newest release explores how images and imagination are turned into music, with inspiration taken from poetry, painting, sculpture, photographs, architecture, and film.
In addition to Schoenberg’s Picture Studies, the recording includes David Conte’s A Copland Portrait, Ottorino Respighi’s Huntingtower Ballad, Joel Puckett’s It perched for Vespers nine, and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Suite from The Gadfly.
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When creating a collection of music for a recording project, Fettig seeks to find works that share interesting commonalities, whether they are overt or somewhat obscure, and sometimes that can lead to a specific theme, as does this year’s release. Although all of the repertoire was completed in the 20th century, there is a wide variety in the music on the “Picture Studies” recording as well as in the time the works were written. Two of the pieces were composed by past luminaries of the classical music world, while three were written by living composers.
“If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the pictures that are created with the virtual colors, action, and emotion of music are surely beyond measure,” Fettig said. “Music possesses the power to conjure vivid and visceral pictures in the mind and ignite emotions shared by what we experience through both our eyes and our ears. It possesses a dimension that has the potential to move beyond the images that inspire it, becoming living art that evolves with each performance and brings with it the invitation to create new pictures within the minds of each individual listener.”
“Picture Studies” was recorded May 16-20, 2016, at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall at Northern Virginia Community College, Alexandria campus, after performing the complete program live on May 15 at the same venue. Throughout the concert rehearsals and recording process, two of the composers featured on the disc, Schoenberg and Puckett, worked closely with the Directors and musicians of “The President’s Own” to offer real-time feedback and help shape the sound of the performances.
“So much of the music that we play is by composers who are now dead. You don’t have a chance to ask them what they truly meant by the markings in their scores,” Fettig said.
“All you have is what’s on the page and recordings that other orchestras and bands have made. To be able to interact with the creator and have a conversation really helps to bring the music to life and bring it off of the page in a very special way. It is an invaluable experience to have the opportunity to collaborate personally and directly with the composers of this wonderful music, and it adds another dimension to the performances.”
Schoenberg has emerged in recent years as one of the bright stars of today’s classical music world and is one of the most often performed living composers by American orchestras. Upon receiving a commission from the Kansas City Symphony and the Nelson-Atkins Museum in 2012, Schoenberg was asked to write a 21st century version of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
“It was sort of scary,” the composer admitted. Yet, “the idea seemed both intriguing and ambitious, and given my own interest in visual art, I welcomed the challenge. After conceptualizing the piece for six months, and visiting the Nelson-Atkins on three different occasions, I decided to compose a series of studies. Mussorgsky set everything based on the work of his deceased friend, architect and artist Victor Hartmann. I decided to set four paintings, three photographs, and one sculpture.”
He noted that the piece “brings eight seemingly disparate works of art to musical life. In honor of Mussorgsky and his original work (for solo piano), four of the ten movements were conceived in the form of piano etudes and later orchestrated. But I’m not setting the artwork, the artwork really just provided inspiration. The music will speak for itself. It begins in a very gentle and intimate manner, and at times it’s violent and aggressive with celebratory music at the end.”
The work was transcribed for the Marine Band by Music Production Chief/Staff Arranger Master Gunnery Sgt. Donald Patterson in close consultation with the composer. Throughout the rehearsals, Schoenberg offered suggestions, so Patterson made adjustments and incorporated changes to the score. “Picture Studies is colorfully scored, so my goal was—using the colors available in the concert band—to generate the same musical textures as the orchestral version,” Patterson said. “I tried to make it as bright and colorful as the original, so that the original musical effect emerges.”
In the work’s sixth movement, Patterson employed a creative solution to a common problem in transcribing music for strings to music for winds alone. “High string harmonics are notoriously difficult to reproduce with wind instruments, and given the long sustain of this music in Adam’s piece, using traditional percussion instruments was also out of the question,” Fettig said.
Percussionist Gunnery Sgt. Kenneth Wolin played an important role in helping the band achieve the desired sound in the piece: “I went to a thrift shop where I tested out at least 12 crystal wine glasses. Each glass had a specific pitch range, and we needed C, E, and G. When you pour water into the glass, it lowers the pitch. So I poured water into the glasses right there in the thrift shop and tested them out with my tuner to try to find the right glass with the right pitch. I brought them to rehearsal and passed them out to the section. And with the glasses we were able to simulate the harmonics on a violin.”
With the sound of crystal wine glasses as opposed to the original strings, the movement took on a slightly different, but no less effective sound, almost becoming an entirely re-imagined piece. While working side by side with the band, Schoenberg was able to shape the piece by weighing in on balance, tempo considerations, and on the-spot orchestration adjustments.
“We worked incredibly hard to make something extraordinary, and I believe we have achieved just that!” Schoenberg exclaimed.
American composer Joel Puckett also joined the Marine Band for several rehearsals, the May 15 performance, and the recording session. His composition, It perched for Vespers nine, was commissioned by the American Bandmasters Association and the University of Florida in 2008.
“We’ve collaborated with Joel Puckett on numerous occasions,” Fettig said. “He’s written mesmerizing music both for orchestra and wind ensemble or concert band. His music is immensely expressive and personal.”
Puckett offered the following personal anecdote at how he came to compose the piece:
My wife’s grandfather was an extraordinary man. He was an immigrant who walked around quoting poetry and whistling tunes from his childhood in Scotland. Like a character from a movie, he always seemed to pull just the right verse for the occasion. In the spring of 2007, he fell into a coma following a severe stroke. After weeks of being in this state, he awoke and said: In the mist or cloud…It perched for Vespers nine… Whiles all the night…through fog-smoke white…Glimmered the white moon-shine. None of us in the room knew what that meant. These were the final words of a man who always chose the right words. Within an hour, he was gone. … The verse is from the famous poem of condemnation and redemption, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. … The verse my wife’s grandfather quoted was the verse immediately before the one containing the ill-fated murder of the albatross. As they say, the calm before the coming storm. My work entitled It perched for Vespers nine on a surface level engages the imagery from the verse itself. But the emotional core of the work is my trying to work out what my wife’s “Pop Pop” might have been trying to tell us about what awaits us “In the mist or cloud.” I don’t know what he was trying to tell us but I sure have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what he might have been telling us.
Throughout the rehearsals, Puckett made adjustments to instrumentation, dynamics, articulations, and tempos, and offered insight not always clear on the printed music. “Think of yourself as reverb,” the composer said to a Marine Band percussionist playing a critical part.”
While Marine Band recordings often include staples in established repertoire by great composers of the past, “The President’s Own” has a long and proud history of performing music by living composers, playing a role in establishing the next generation of repertoire for bands, and introducing excellent new music to educators and students.
“I always hope that our recordings provide both a standard of performance for ensembles to aspire to as well as a resource for the discovery of new and interesting repertoire,” Fettig said. “A good college band could tackle all of this music with great success, and several pieces would also be well within the range of an accomplished high school ensemble. Conte’s A Copland Portrait and Respighi’s Huntingtower Ballad would be an especially rewarding challenge for a high school band.”
He added, “The works on ‘Picture Studies’ employ the full and diverse colors and capabilities of the concert band, and I hope it proves to be a collection of music that will connect with people.”