Hymn to a Blue Hour

In March, I attended the CBDNA Southwestern Division conference in Las Cruces, New Mexico.  I had a few fine performances there (Harvest — my new trombone concerto — with Texas Tech, and Kingfishers Catch Fire with the wind ensemble from Kansas State University), and spent a few days hanging out with fun people.  And I also hung out with people who like to give me shit — particularly after a few drinks.

“Your music is all fast and loud,” I was told by a certain individual who shall remain nameless (Robert Carnochan). “Not just yours. Everybody is writing fast, loud music. But yours in particular. Fast and loud.”

“It’s true. You should write a slow, lyrical piece. If you did, I’d play it,” said another anonymous conductor (Steve Davis).

This wasn’t the only time I heard that this spring. A few days earlier, I’d been at the CBDNA Northeastern convention for the premiere of Harvest (shout-out to Joseph Alessi and the West Point Band), as well as a performance of “Asphalt Cocktail” with the West Chester University band (can I get a “what what” for Andrew Yozviak?).  At the post-concert reception that followed West Chester’s concert, I was approached by none other than Donald Hunsberger, formerly the director of the Eastman Wind Ensemble, who said to me, “you know what I’d love to hear from you?  A slow, lyrical, quiet piece.”


But it was really Rob Carnochan & Steve Davis, with their wine-enduced berating, that convinced me that yes, they were right.  I write a lot of fast, loud music.  But I write that music because I like that music.  I write music that I want to hear.  The beauty of writing for band is that if the piece is fairly successful, it’ll get a lot of performances, and I’ll hear a lot of performances.  I’m not going to write a piece that I don’t want to sit through 50 times.  If I’m going to write a piece, it’ll be a piece I want to listen to.  I’m not writing a piece thinking, “oh, I hate this, but it’ll probably get played.”  I’ve turned down commissions for works that I can’t imagine ever wanting to listen to.  And my personal opinion is that a lot of slow lyrical stuff is cheesy and, the worst offense in life, boring.

But Rob and Steve got me thinking.  What would happen if I sincerely tried to write a piece that was slow and songlike?  Could I do that and not make it (gag) cheesy or (slamming my head into a wall just thinking about it) boring?

I guess I have a few (very few) instances in other band-based pieces that have accomplished this.  The beginning of “Aurora Awakes” does this, but then it spends 75% of the piece very fast and rhythmic and dependent on the percussion section.  The “Metal” movement of my Soprano Sax Concerto is probably my favorite slow music that I’ve written, but you need a superstar soprano sax player (yo, yo, Tim McAllister) to pull that off.  Then there’s the slow movement of the trombone concerto, but unless you have Joe Alessi hanging around just hoping you’ll ask him to play the high D’s it requires, well, you’re SOL.  And then there’s “Turning,” which never gets played (save for several performances from Kenneth Thompson, and an upcoming performance at Indiana with Jeffrey Gershman), possibly because it’s so dark, or because much of it is terribly dissonant, or maybe simply because it requires a $1000 waterphone.  (I just posted a newly-discovered performance recording from Richard Clary at Florida State.  If you haven’t heard Turning, with its unusual combination of angst and waterphone, give it a listen.)

So there’s stuff — it’s not like I’ve completely avoided slow music — but it’s not the norm, and what I didn’t have was a standalone, non-concerto work that’s simple, slow, and (hopefully) beautiful.  So I gave it a shot.

What’s the best way to keep it simple?  For me, the answer is: write it at the piano.  I almost never write music “at the piano” because I don’t have any piano technique.  I can find chords, but I play piano like a bad typist types: badly.  But if I write the music using an instrument where I can barely get by, the result will be very different than if I sit at the computer and just throw a zillion notes at my sample library, all of which will be executed perfectly and at any dynamic level I ask.  I decided to write this piece at the piano largely because we’re spending the summer at an apartment in New York that has a nice upright piano.  I don’t have a piano at home — only a digital keyboard — and it’s very different to sit at a real piano with real pedals and a real action.  It was fun.  Now I want a piano.

Also fun: writing again in New York.  This on its own is a very different experience, largely because of the requirement to walk everywhere here.  If I want lunch, I’m walkin’.  I get my best ideas when I’m just outside walking somewhere.  No other US city requires you to walk to get where you want to go.  If I’m in the car, I have music playing.  Here, though, it’s just the sound (noise, I suppose) of the city.  I wrote the main melody for the piece while sitting on a brownstone stoop one morning after picking up a cup of coffee.  It was pretty funny, really, with me sitting outside on a beautiful summer morning in New York City, Moleskine music notebook in one hand, and my iPhone Pianist app in the other (so I could find pitches), writing this piece.  As I said on Facebook, I felt like I was in an ad for something.

I’d been writing mostly at the piano and hadn’t put the piece into the computer yet to try orchestrating anything yet, and then, last Monday, I received my very fancy new toy: the Vienna Symphonic Library‘s “Complete Winds” sample collection.  Once I had those samples — which are absolutely incredible, particularly the woodwinds — I started putting in 14 hour days.  I finished the piece — in full score — yesterday.

And then there’s the title.  I made an MP3 for AEJ, who comes up with almost all of my titles, and she listened to the piece a dozen times and gave me a list of possibilities.  The final title is:

Hymn to a Blue Hour

The “hymn” part of her title immediately made sense, as the melody is so simple that it does literally sound like a hymn.  It’s one of those melodies that almost seems like it must already exist, and I kept wracking (or is it racking?) my brain trying to figure out if I’d actually written this tune, or if I’d accidentally stolen it.  I’m now reasonably sure it’s an original tune.

What about the “blue hour” part?  I hadn’t heard the term, but as AEJ told me (and the Wiki confirmed!), the “blue hour” is the period of twilight where there’s neither full daylight nor complete darkness.  AEJ said that the piece sounds like vespers (the evening mass) at a simple Shaker church.  Thus, “Hymn to a Blue Hour.”  This is why she makes the big bucks.

Hymn to a Blue Hour” was commissioned by Mesa State College.  They’ll premiere the piece on December 3 at their Best of the West 2010 festival.  The piece is dedicated to Stephen Boelter, who, with his wife Karen Combs, established the Best of the West festival.

The score is up now.  The MIDI will follow… soon.


Chris Lexow says

John, Looks like a great piece! Can't wait to hear the midi for it! Congrats on a i'm sure to be successful slow piece!

Shawn Smith says

Looking forward to this John!

Andrew Hackard says

I need a bigger monitor if I'm going to try to read scores.

One question: in measure 11, the second bassoon is playing a C-flat. Why'd you note it that way, rather than just B?

RMC says

Okay John, I'll give you less shit now and try to be for fun . . . at least for a while! Glad you enjoyed writing the piece and I can't wait to study and program it with the UT Wind Symphony.

Matthew Saunders says

Looks like a fun piece, John. I think the best composers are always learning and pushing themselves in directions they haven't considered before, or which they have considered but haven't been satisfied with the results. There's nothing more boring than being stuck in a rut, even if it's a loud, fast rut. Best wishes for the premiere!

rerodriguez says

I kinda flipped out over this.
Blue Hour is my favorite time of day
Well... my favorite part of the day WAS twilight in general, before the name got sullied.

Thanks a lot Stephanie Meyer.

Can't wait for the MIDI.

Robert Benton says


I think at least part of the reason a lot of band music these days is fast and loud is because of an inferiority complex. Bands are starting to get so good that they can often compete directly with the orchestral world, and they want to prove themselves as a valid medium. In all fairness, they've been wanting to do this for a while, but it's only been recently that bands have developed the ability and had enough quality music written for them to stand a chance.

I'm a euphonium player, and we have the same problem ("our instrument is just as valid as any other!" *sniff*), but it's manifested in a different way: In every euphonium solo or concerto, there is an impossible lick (I call it the "euphonium lick") that seems designed to drop the jaws of the musicians in the audience. Kind of a "See?-We-really-CAN-do anything! (please, please write more for us...)" moment.

Robert Benton

PS: I'm looking forward to playing--well not playing, but rather sitting aside (as there is no euphonium part) and watching David Jackson play--Harvest this fall at UM.

We should go out and get some drinks while you're here in town!

Brian Landers says

Hi John, big fan of your music.

Speaking of "Asphalt Cocktail", I was wondering if you've had a chance to see/hear what the Bluecoats are doing with it this year in DCI? They're currently ranked #2 behind the Blue Devils heading into the last two weeks of the season and are absolutely rocking it (not that I'm at all biased as a former marching member).

There's some amateur video from earlier in the season on YouTube if you search for "Bluecoats 2010 show".

Can't wait to hear the audio of "Blue Hymm"

Add comment

Your comment will be revised by the site if needed.