2013 June at John Mackey's Blog



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  • June 1, 2013

    The Soul Has Many Motions

    If you’re a music educator, particularly in the state of Texas, you probably know who Richard Floyd is.  He’s been a conductor and music educator for 50 years. He was Director of Bands at Baylor for nine years.  He’s given hundreds if not thousands of clinics all over the world.  He’s a member of the American Bandmasters Association’s Board of Directors (through which he commissioned the band version of my piece, “Strange Humors“).  He’s been the Texas Bandmasters Association Bandmaster of the Year.  His “day job” is — or was — State Director of Music at the University of Texas at Austin (UIL), where he (to put it as simply as possible) ran the state’s massive solo and ensemble (3500 performing organizations!) contest system.  And it’s that job from which he’s retiring this spring.  High school bands in Texas are legendary, and it’s in no small part due to the influence of Richard Floyd. He’s also a very kind man.  Everybody loves Richard Floyd.  In honor of his retirement from UIL, UT asked me to write a piece for him.

    Scott Hanna, one of the UT conductors, first contacted me about the project in August 2010 — nearly three years ago.  The meeting went something like this:

    Scott: We’d like to commission you to write a piece for Dick Floyd’s retirement. We’ll surprise him with the piece at a concert in his honor.
    Me: Absolutely, no question, I would love to do this.  I owe so much to Dick Floyd. When is he retiring?
    Scott: He hasn’t announced his retirement yet, so we just need the piece in time to premiere it as soon as he announces his retirement. But you have to keep it secret until the concert.
    Me: Consider it done.

    If you’ve ever met Dick Floyd, you’d have a hard time imagining him “retiring.”  In fact, I was convinced he’d never retire.  This commission was the greatest gig ever!  I’d take the money but never have to actually write the piece!  $CORE!

    And as I expected, two years passed and no retirement! And then, last September, I got an email from Scott Hanna.  To my shock, Dick announced that he was retiring at the end of the school year.  That meant that I now had to write that 15-minute piece that I never expected to write. And it was for Dick Floyd, so it had to be… good.

    One of the coolest things about this commission was that it had to remain a surprise.  Dick couldn’t know about it until he showed up at the concert where the piece would premiere.  That meant that I had to resist posting on Facebook or Twitter or here on the blog anything about the writing process.  Do you know how much self control it required for me to not post about this online?!  Me – the person who posts pictures of things as minor as “hey, look, I got a new cocktail recipe book.”

    Or “here’s a box of toilet paper that I ordered from Amazon because I’m too lazy to go to the store.”

    Avoiding a web presence is not exactly “my thing.” I flew to Austin to work with the UT Wind Symphony a few days prior to the premiere, but Dick couldn’t know I was there. This became problematic when he showed up at the UT music building minutes before the dress rehearsal.

    “Dick Floyd is in the building! He’s roaming the halls! Hide!” And hide I did. I literally hid in a stairwell to avoid being spotted by him. I managed to sneak into the concert hall for the dress rehearsal, avoiding being spotted — until he came into the concert hall.

    Dick Floyd: John Mackey? I had no idea you’d be in town! What are you doing here?
    Me: Um, the band… the band is doing “Strange Humors.” And I had a clinic at Georgetown High School. (This was true.)
    Dick Floyd: Well it’s great to see you!
    Me: Um, yeah… You too!
    Dick Floyd: I understand you have a new piece on the program? Tell me about it!
    Me: Oh, it’s… it’s just a little thing. You’ll, uh, hear it tonight. Gotta go.
    (and with that, I walked away, essentially giving the brush-off to one of the most powerful people in music in Texas)

    So the band rehearses “Strange Humors,” and then starts rehearsing Persichetti’s Symphony #6, and my new piece — Dick Floyd’s new piece — which is supposed to be a surprise! — is coming up next, and Dick Floyd is still in the hall. He couldn’t be in there for the dress rehearsal! There was panic amongst the people who knew about the surprise, but nobody knew what to do. How the hell could we get him out of the hall? Should I pull the fire alarm? Shoot him with a tranquilizer dart? I had a less radical idea.

    Me, to Dick Floyd: So, they’re about to rehearse my new piece. To tell you the “truth,” the rehearsals this week have been shaky at best. It’s been pretty rough. I’d really rather you not hear the piece until the official premiere tonight. I don’t mean to sound rude, but I’d appreciate it if you’d go get a drink or something, and wait until tonight to hear the piece. That’ll give me more time to clean things up before you hear it for the first time.
    Dick Floyd: No problem. Have a good dress rehearsal. I’ll see you tonight.

    And he left. Crisis averted.

    About the piece, via an aside: I hate when people call pieces of lyric-less music a “song.” “I really like your song, The Frozen Cathedral.” No. I mean, thank you (really! you’re very sweet!), but no. To be snotty for just a moment, pieces without lyrics are called “pieces,” not songs. You could say to Mahler, “hey, I really like your Kindertotenlieder songs! Those are BAD ASS.” That would be fine. They have lyrics. And Mahler would probably love to hear that you liked his songs for the death of children. (“Thanks, kid!” he might say.) But don’t tell him “I liked your fifth symphony song.”

    In the case of this new piece, though, I really was thinking of songlike movements, not unlike Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words.” Simple structures with singable tunes. In my mind, they’re wordless songs.

    The decision was made to conceive of the suite almost like a Texas high school’s full contest program.  The suite starts with a fanfare, then moves on to a percussion feature, then the lyrical piece, and closes with a wild circus march.  As always, my wife AEJ titled the piece and the movements:

    I. Violet Crown Fanfare
    II. Night on Fire
    III. Unquiet Spirits
    IV. The Ringmaster’s March

    Here’s what she wrote describing the movements:

    In physics a motion is a change; in geometry a motion is a transformation. These four songs, written on the occasion of Richard Floyd’s retirement, celebrate that moment of change and transformation by evoking many kinds of motion, of bodies and of the soul. “Violet Crown Fanfare” captures the movement of the heavens and the optimism of the wide-open West; “Night on Fire” suggests the wild dancing of a nomadic camp; “Unquiet Spirits” is a waltz full of longing and an otherworldly sweetness. The final movement, “The Ringmaster’s March,” is a riotous Ivesian circus parade, a joyful noise in honor of a man who has always been at the center of the show.

    The piece premiered on May 3 on a concert entitled “A Tribute to Richard Floyd.” Scott Hanna wrote in the program:

    The Soul Has Many Motions is our gift to Mr. Floyd. Fittingly, the piece was commissioned by and funded entirely by students – in this case, a group of six student organizations at The University of Texas Butler School of Music with whom he has worked to produce the annual Texas State Solo and Ensemble contest. This event touches the lives of thousands of Texas high school musicians each year, and is a living testament to the incredible reach of Mr. Floyd’s work.

    The full suite is about 14 minutes long. Each movement was written to stand on its own, so groups can perform one or more of the movements on a concert, splitting them up, changing the movement order – whatever. One movement, “Night on Fire” (the least technically demanding of the four) is available as a standalone piece, but the other movements are available only with the complete suite.

    You can see the full score and listen to recordings (MIDI demos of three movements, real recording of “Night on Fire”) via this link.

    Thank you to Richard Floyd for all he has done for music education not just in Texas, but throughout the United States. And for the record, I was sort of correct: yes, he left his job at UIL, but he is nowhere near full-on spend-all-day-at-the-beach retirement. Like I said, that guy is never going to retire.

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