High Wire – premiere and recording

In February 2011, Scott Corley, the Music Director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Youth Wind Ensemble, contacted me to ask if I would write a concert opener for his group.  It would be in honor of Thomas Dvorak, who had founded the ensemble thirty years earlier.  My only other “opener” at that point was “Asphalt Cocktail,” and it’s more of a closer, so I thought, Sure!  Let’s write something flashy and cheery and short (and no, the piece is not autobiographical).

The UW-Milwaukee Youth Wind Ensemble consists of high school-aged players who rehearse once a week.  Scott asked for something around a “grade 4+” and I thought, Sure! I can do that.

The timing was a little screwy, though. The piece was initially due on February 1, but right before that, I wrote my slow “grade 3” piece, “Sheltering Sky.”  That piece was a bitch-and-a-half to write (writing easy music that doesn’t sound “simple” : hard. Writing easy SLOW music that doesn’t sound simple and cheesy: nearly impossible, at least for me), and completing it took a lot longer than I’d planned.  I finished “Sheltering Sky” on January 20.  Finishing another piece by February 1 was not going to happen.

Scott agreed to give me until March 1 to finish his piece (but I hadn’t left him much choice).  Even with a timeframe like that, I knew there could be trouble.  I usually allow at least several weeks between pieces, because I need time to clear the previous piece out of my head.  I think that any piece is kind of the “cousin” of the piece that follows it.  You can’t help but have a little of that sound stuck in your head when you start the next piece.  But without sufficient time between pieces, a “cousin” becomes a “brother,” and that can be bad (and I think is only legal in Mississippi).

I wrote the first draft material for Scott’s piece on January 24 – probably the day after I finished the parts for “Sheltering Sky.” Instead of falling into the trap of writing a close variation of the previous piece, though, I went completely in the opposite direction.  After spending six weeks writing slow music in Eb Major with only the occasional use of a single accidental, my brain was feeling really, really antsy.  And I couldn’t write in Eb Major.

So I wrote mostly in an octatonic scale (a synthetic scale consisting of alternating whole-steps and half-steps, for example: C, Db, Eb, E-natural, F#, G, A, Bb — resulting in 8 notes in an octave, rather than the 7 you’d get in a major or minor scale), and I filled the harmony with polychords (commonly used by Stravinsky and many other composers, it’s a combination of chords from different keys at the same time, like a D Major chord and an Ab Major chord at the same time — the opening gesture of “High Wire“).

And I made it really fast.  Lots of octatonic scales, which aren’t normally practiced by high school players, played in 16th-notes at quarter note=164.  The euphonium part goes up to high C.  The trumpets: also high C.  The percussion parts play in multiple meters simultaneously (although it’s all barred together).  Then there are the balance problems.  How do you make it so you can hear all of those difficult woodwind runs while the brass is playing sustained polychords? And how do you get polychords effectively in tune?

In other words, it’s not a “Grade 4,” and it’s not a high school piece.  I completely overshot what I was asked to write, but you’d have never guessed that from the performance.  The rehearsals and been pretty good, but a little scary. I mean, the group only meets once a week! The concert, though: hot.  Scott Corley exploded with energy from bar 1, and the students were right there with him.  It was a great premiere. (This is the plaque that the ensemble presented to Thomas Dvorak at the concert.)

Also, Milwaukee: surprisingly hip and picturesque.

The other band from the Youth Wind Ensembles performed “Foundry.” It’s always fun to see what people come up with for the “4 metal piles”…

… and especially for the “clang.” This was the biggest “clang” I’d ever seen. It took two people to carry it.

It sounded great.

During my visit, I tried a Zevia cola — a non-sugar soda, sweetened with something natural called “stevia.” I wouldn’t call it “yummy.”

Thank you to Scott Corley and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Youth Wind Ensembles for commissioning “High Wire” — and for working so hard to make the piece sound so good.

You can hear a recording of the piece, as graciously recorded by my friends Richard Clary and the Florida State University Wind Orchestra, by visiting the “High Wire” page. The score is there, too, if you’d like to read along.

Or if you’re super lazy, you can just click below.
[ca_audio url=”https://www.johnmackey.com/audio/HighWire.mp3″ width=”500″ height=”27″ css_class=”codeart-google-mp3-player”]


Geoff says

Classy piece. I like it.

John says

The piece was SO fun to play, thanks so much for writing it!

Doug Stotter says

Cool. Now I have to rethink my programs for the upcoming year so we can play this!

Evan Bennet says

Mr. Mackey, I'm a student at Penn High School, and when we got this piece out and performed it, I was stunned at the vigor of it. Then my instructor, Mr. Paulson told me the story of how this came to be, and I had to laugh. See, I'm a composer myself, and I recognized the octatonic scales and polychords immediately. Probably my favorite parts of it is when you'll have G-major then Eb-major in the low brass, making some Ebma7(b13) chord.

I've looked into many other of your pieces, and I think besides maybe Penderecki or Trent Reznor (I have a deep respect for his music), you're one of my favorite modern composers.

Fantastic job on High Wire, and I hope you get stuck with many more Grade-3, Eb-major chorales to write, so masterpieces like this can come along.

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