Greek philosopher Plato is credited with saying, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”
The U.S. Marine Band’s 31st annual educational recording pays homage to the ancient scholars and the idea of the four classical elements: fire, water, earth, and air. Plato and his student Aristotle introduced the hypothesis that all things in the physical world could be connected to one of these foundations. Music is often the representation and inspiration of the world both around and within us and in the recording, aptly titled “Elements,” Director Lt. Col. Jason K. Fettig explores the classical elements in classical music, from fire in Igor Stravinsky’s Fireworks to water in Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront
, and earth with Darius Milhaud’s depiction of the genesis of the planet itself in La Création du monde. These elements are connected by the very wind that fuels the powerful hymns in Warren Benson’s The Passing Bell
While the ancient Greeks first presented the concept of the four elements, the Eastern Asian cultures transformed the idea into a belief in the transmission of energy between elements, to include wood and metal. These elements are represented in grand fashion in Jennifer Higdon’s virtuosic Percussion Concerto, featuring assistant principal percussion Master Gunnery Sgt. Christopher Rose. Higdon composed the concerto in 2005, but transcribed it for band upon Rose’s request and the Marine Band and Rose performed the world première of the composer’s transcription on May 10, 2009, at the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE) Conference in Cincinnati.
Higdon’s concerto not only puts the soloist in the spotlight, but also the wide array of instruments percussionists employ, as explained in her program notes, “From vibraphone and marimba to non-pitched smaller instruments (brake drum, wood blocks, Peking Opera gong), and to the drums themselves. Not only does a percussionist have to perfect playing all of these instruments, but also he or she must make hundreds of decisions regarding the use of sticks and mallets, as there is an infinite variety of possibilities from which to choose.”
As patrons can imagine, the instruments take up a significant amount of space on stage, which creates an additional challenge for the soloist: choreography. “It’s a very physical performance; the movements are almost as important as the notes themselves,” Rose admitted. “It’s just as visual as it is musical. Whenever I have performed this piece, folks always tell me afterward they were silently rooting for me to get to each instrument on time.” Rose had the opportunity to work with Higdon in preparation for the première and he said that although it was intimidating, she had an uncanny way of communicating her ideas without being critical.
“As popular as she is, she still is so excited that someone wants to play her music. But she allows the soloists to let their personality show,” Rose said. The intricate cadenza gives Rose the perfect opportunity to display his own personality as he performs the improvised and original passage but he mostly enjoys his interaction with the percussion section and the ensemble itself. “Her music is difficult but very accessible,” Rose said. “I’m scared to death when I perform it, but as my grandfather used to say, ‘if you aren’t nervous, you aren’t prepared.’”
“Elements” was recorded May 4-8, 2015 at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall at Northern Virginia Community College, Alexandria campus, after performing the program live on May 3 at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park.Marine Band compact discs are distributed free of charge to schools, libraries, and radio stations. To be added to the distribution list, send your request including the organization’s mailing address to email@example.com.
Not an educator? You can still access Marine Band recordings on the band’s YouTube Channel
. Earlier this year the Marine Band initiated #MusicMondays where each week the band releases streaming albums and recordings of live performances on its YouTube channel, as well as interviews with band members and historic vignettes. The online collection includes not only new releases, but many out-of-print educational recordings. “Elements” will be released on YouTube on Nov. 16. Future releases include The Bicentennial Collection, a 10-disc set from 1998, which traces the recorded history of “The President’s Own” from rare wax cylinders and early radio broadcasts to recent performances captured with the latest digital technology. None of the recordings on the set were previously released on compact disc and many are live recordings never previously released in any form.