November 27, 2006
I arrived in Knoxville on Sunday, November 19, after an eight-hour trip (including a 3-hour layover in Dallas). Gary Sousa (no relation — I had somebody ask), the director of bands at the University of Tennessee, picked me up at the airport, swung me by my hotel to check in, and took me to rehearsal.
First up, I worked with Don Ryder and the UT Symphonic Band on “Strange Humors.”
I had a one-hour rehearsal with each band on only my two pieces. It was awfully generous of the conductors and the students to do this. (Sometimes I only get a total of 20 minutes with a group — 20 minutes for my entire time on campus. At Tennessee, I ended up working with each band 3 times!) “Strange Humors” is only 5 minutes long, and the band sounded really good from the first playing that I heard, so after about 40 minutes, I had nothing else to fix. It’s a great group. We sent the band home, and the Wind Ensemble started setting up for “Turbine.” The timpanist looks stressed. Dude, you’re great! No worries!
“Turbine” sounded awesome, even in the band room. It was a little weird, because I now have a mental list of things to fix with each group, but this group seemed to have figured everything out in advance, leaving me without a whole lot to say. We still managed to work on it for 45 minutes or so, partially just because I loved hearing them play it. Here, Gary gives them the “thumbs up.”
One issue with “Turbine” is always the suspended steel plates. At UT, they spared no expense, and had custom plates cut. They sounded sweet — clangy and brash, without being too piercing — but they rang a little too long. This percussionist had the most brilliant solution I’ve seen yet: he attached two bed pillows to the plates with his own belts. Awe. Some. The belt on the left is particularly sweet. This guy wins the Best Problem Solver award. If I had a sticker that said as much, I’d have given it to him.
I think conducting “Turbine” would be hard. Even when it’s not changing meters, the rhythms are all over the place, and it’s non-stop at quarter=190 for over eight minutes. I don’t know where Gary gets the energy.
It wasn’t all music, of course. Being in the south, I had some good food, too. At all but one meal, I drank sweet tea, or as they say it there, “swaayt taaaay.” The TAs kept trying to get me to order it with the Eastern Tennessee accent, but I was afraid I’d get my ass kicked.
On Tuesday afternoon, I did a little composer chat. I’ve done these at some schools, and literally had one person show up. I can’t figure out why so many people showed up at UT. Maybe they thought there’d be a raffle or something. (Everybody loves a raffle.) I just wish I’d had something interesting to say.
They put me up at a nice hotel. I went for runs on the treadmill in the hotel gym each day, which helps me deal with my jet lag. (If I can’t fall asleep for a nap, running several miles seems to wake me up just as effectively, if only for a few hours.) The gym was pretty nice, but all of the TV’s were tuned to…
It was fine. It made me run faster, and kept me fair and balanced.
The percussionists in the Symphonic Band used two beautiful drums in “Strange Humors.” The smaller drum is a djembe, as the score calls for. The bigger drum is unknown, but presumably of African origin as well. I ask for a “bass drum” in the score, but allow for anything with a good bass tone. Some schools use muted concert bass drums. UT had the most interesting solution yet.
This is a real action shot. Okay, maybe it’s posed. (This “spontaneous action shot of djembe playing” has happened before.) Regardless, these guys were great, and their groove for the concert was awesome.
I don’t have any pictures from the concert, but both groups (plus the Concert Band) were fantastic. Everybody at UT showed me a great time, from their performance to their attempts to teach me the Eastern Tennessee accent. Aaaaaay laaayk yuuuuuu.