A Conversation with Composer Michael Markowski: Part 2

In this continuation of an earlier post, we continue with Michael Markowski where we left off. He had just experienced his work joyRIDE being performed by his high school band in Carnegie Hall while a high school senior. That same spring he also had a work premiered by the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, a piece written for one of their family concerts where they would showcase music of many eras including the present...with his work being featured as that of an up and coming young composer. So with these musical successes he was about to begin at Arizona State University to study...film?

"I kind of thought that I would apply to college for music school and get my bachelors and masters and my doctorate and then I'd be a composer. But, that doesn't happen...I didn't do my homework basically. I was given an academic scholarship to Arizona State so I didn't even look at any other schools. I thought, 'Great, I don't have to pay for college. This is fantastic!', so I didn't even really look into the audition requirements.

"I didn't realize that Arizona State--at the time--didn't have a separate composition studio. They're a very fine performing school. And so in order to do composition you had to be admitted on an instrument, and had to pass an instrumental audition. And, I did not."

Yet, this turn of events may have ultimately contributed to his success as a composer rather than become a detriment. When I listen to his works, I told him the word "cinematic" keeps coming back to me...quite simply, to me it just contains that quality and feel. I asked him how the study of film contributed to his compositional style.

"I think the way that film background has influenced my writing has been that film making is a storytelling medium. I think we forget that music is also capable of telling some kind of story, not in the sense that music has to be programmatic...but there has to be in my opinion some kind of dramatic arc. Something has to change from the beginning to the end to make it worth the journey. It has to feel like a complete thing, in my opinion.

"Music can have its moments, it can be whatever it wants to be. But if I'm going to spend more than five minutes listening to something I need to go somewhere with it. I definitely think that storytelling structure that I learned from screenwriting is applicable to the music that I write. So I think 'cinematic' is a beautiful word for it."

His works seem to contain some deep meaning to them, rather than sounding formulaic and "churned out" simply to have something to send to a publisher. I asked him about the emotional energy that must require. While he said that not every piece needs to be serious, the storytelling aspect of the compositional process can be emotionally exhausting.

"It's often about what you're not saying. That's what's important--the subtext of it all. And that's really hard to do with instrumental music. You can do it when you have words, you can do it when you have a script...but to try to find that metaphor is very difficult. I spend a lot of time thinking about what does this piece mean for me on a personal level, and what is this piece going to potentially mean for a listener who's never heard it before, and what is this going to mean for the performer and director who has to spend eight weeks playing it."

He said it gets more challenging not to repeat yourself after awhile, but he works very hard to keep surprising himself. He likened it to giving himself a new assignment each time...to try something new, perhaps something as simple as writing a piece spotlighting an instrument he hasn't featured previously.

Last spring Markowski and I first had the opportunity to meet. The La Quinta High School Wind Symphony was in New York City to perform at Carnegie Hall, part of a concert series by Manhattan Concert Productions...just like with his own Dobson High School ten years earlier. The band was performing his City Trees, and had invited him to the clinic where they would be working on the piece with guest clinician Dr. Gary Green of the University of Miami. I asked him if that was a nice "full circle" moment for him.

"It was amazing, of course, and easy to reflect on the last ten years. I don't think 18-year-old me would have thought that 28-year-old me would be in the same place...sort of in the (John) Mackey role at that point. I've been really lucky to have not only that....I got to meet a couple of groups, one or two that actually did joyRIDE so it was sort of like a homecoming. It's funny when life throws you those opportunities a bit, sort of winks at you like that."

And what advice does he have for young composers just starting out on this path?

"This is terrible advice, but just to write as much as he or she can. No young composer wants to hear that, because that's a lot of work (laughs). But write a lot and don't be afraid to show it to people for feedback."

Laughing again, he said, "I hate all my pieces to a certain degree, but we're always our own worst critic. If the goal is for your music to be heard by others and played by others you have to be able to put on a different hat and step away from your baby. It ultimately comes down to the piece of music that you've written. If it's not a good piece of music, no amount of marketing is going to help it. But if it's a good piece of music it will market itself. It's really remarkable."

You can learn more about the music of Michael Markowski--including works for wind band, orchestra, chamber music, theater and film scores--by visiting his website at http://www.michaelmarkowski.com/.

A Conversation with Composer Michael Markowski: Part 1

Perhaps one of the greatest things about the Midwest Clinic in December is the opportunity to spend time talking with the incredible people on all sides of the music education world. What can be especially rewarding is to talk to the composers who create the outstanding music that conductors and performers enjoy, and to get the know the real people behind the name printed in the upper right hand corner of the page.

One of the best young composers whose catalogue and successes are rapidly growing in the wind band area is Michael Markowski, and I had the opportunity to talk with him early one morning as the exhibit hall was just beginning to come alive for the day. In the first part of this blog series, we discussed how he got his start at a very young age.

Like so many of us Markowski got his start in music in the public schools, beginning to play saxophone in fifth grade in his hometown of Mesa, Arizona. His compositional career began about two years later in the late 1990's, courtesy of a Christmas gift from his father--whom he described as "sort of like a software engineer, technology geek" but who also played a little piano on the side.

"He bought a little keyboard and some MIDI cables and hooked it up to my computer and showed me how to sequence using some software....And I was just hooked. For the next couple of years in middle school that's all I would do. I'd come home, do my homework and then write all night. I didn't know what I was doing, but just being able to have that music shown visually on the screen on staves you start to make connections with harmony--and you can start to visually see counterpoint."

When he got to high school, with his experience writing music for computer he began to seek a composition mentor at the nearby Arizona State University in Tempe. Someone referred him to Karl Schindler, at the time a doctoral student at ASU, who took on the tenth grader as a student.

"He's just an amazing teacher, in a lot of ways. I don't know that we ever talked about 'Here's how you write music, here's how you orchestrate'...every week I'd bring him what I'm working on, and he'd give me feedback on things to think about and work on. And we'd listen to other music that might somehow relate to what I was working on at the time. He was just a great teacher. In retrospect, he was really remarkable at encouraging and teaching by stepping out of the way."

As is the case with so many great teachers. Another great teacher in his life was his high school band director, Jon Gomez, the leader of the renowned Dobson High School band program. At about the same as he was beginning his work with Schindler, he started summer conducting lessons with Gomez. As it turns out, he discovered rather quickly that wasn't an area of interest for him.

"But we started talking about composition. He started showing me band scores. We started doing some really basic score study." He brought him an SATB choir piece that he had been working on, seeking some feedback. Gomez' reaction was that the piece would transcribe beautifully for wind band. Two months later, Markowski had a completed transcription of his first large ensemble work in the conductor's hands. As he recalls, Gomez was kind enough to spend part of a rehearsal reading the piece down, and he recounts the experience:

"I have a recording of that first reading session. And....the piece is so bad, it train-wrecked. It's a very slow piece, and it train-wrecks. I don't know how you train-wreck when you're going 5 miles per hour, but it happened. There's a random, Charlie Parker-like transcribed solo...it didn't make sense at all. And the band, they're giggling and trying not to hurt my feelings but it's pretty obvious that it was a pretty bad piece of music.

"But I learned more that day than I have the past 15 years, that was a huge moment."

He took the feedback from the experience, and set to work rewriting the piece. They read it again, and he went back and changed it again. Yet another reading session, yet another set of rewrites. Four revisions later, the piece was programmed on the wind ensemble's concert. With that year of considerable writing growth behind him, and going into his senior year, his next success was not far behind.

The entire Dobson High School Music Department had been invited to perform in what some would consider the ultimate venue, Carnegie Hall in New York City, as part of a program created by Manhattan Concert Productions. To mark the occasion, conductor Gomez proposed an idea.

"Jon Gomez approached me and said, 'You know, you should write something to commemorate this. Just a short concert opener, traditional but also fresh.' He basically gave me the assignment verbatim. 'You know, something joyful, like Ode to Joy, in some kind of contemporary minimalist style like Short Ride (in a Fast Machine).' I think we had read Short Ride and it was just too tough...but the band loves the piece, or at least the style. And I remember the first draft took ten days to write, and then we did one set of revisions and read it." That work would become joyRIDE.

One of the interesting things that happened, and perhaps a bit of career foreshadowing, he recounts in the program notes:


It was the afternoon dress rehearsal and we had just played through joyRiDE for the first time in that historic hall when a young John Mackey bolted down the aisles and onto the stage, in classic Mackey fashion. We were headlining our portion of the concert with John's early piece, Redline Tango, but he hadn't run on stage for that. To my surprise, he grabbed my arm and said, "you have to hear it out there!" He gestured out towards the twenty-eight hundred empty red velvet seats for no more than a second before dragging me offstage and into the house to listen to another run-through, this time as an audience member.

Just then, it dawned on me that I'd only ever heard my music as a performer in the performing ensemble, or on a recording, or while awkwardly sitting at the edge of the stage, or from the last fleeting echo from a final chord as it washed out into the hall, decaying into nothingness. I guess I hadn't ever really heard my music before from this point-of-view. This was the very first time I'd ever been invited to simply sit back and enjoy what I had created.

Sitting next to John in the back of Carnegie Hall, listening to some of my best friends onstage bring such amazing energy and passion to my music, I felt like one-of-the-guys—I remember thinking, "Hey! This music thing might just be crazy enough to work out!" It felt surreal, refreshing, inspiring, and, of course, like it was over too soon. Over the years, I've been lucky to share a growing friendship and remarkable collegiality with John, but I've never quite gotten over how powerful that moment was.


When I asked Markowski what that felt like, being a high school senior and having a piece you had written being performed in that historic location, his response put it in a wonderful context.

"The thing I remember most about that night was just after we played the piece and looking up into those box seats and seeing all my friends in the orchestra and just cheering...for not only me, but all of us. To be there with your friends and to have such an appreciative audience means the world. The history's cool too--I don't think it mattered to me then."

So where do you go after Carnegie Hall? The answer, which we'll discuss next week, might surprise you.


More Than You Can Chew...and Even Harder to Swallow

It was one of those moments where stubbornness and inexperience collided head on.


It was my first job, and reality was setting in. I had impatient dreams of soaring to the top of the band world pyramid....and here I was in what I felt was the most isolated antechamber possible. It was a small northwest Iowa school where I was responsible for all things band and at least one lunch duty per week, in a position that had been a revolving door for much of the past decade.


This was not what I signed on for. But, being the optimist....I was going to make the most of it and bring a high quality music experience to these high school musicians.


All 23 of them. 8 clarinets, 6 flutes, 3 saxes, 2 trumpets, 2 baritones and 2 percussionists.


I was determined to help this ensemble stretch and grow as musicians, and expose them to the finest repertoire that we could cover with the limited instrumentation we had. One afternoon, after scouring our ancient library top to bottom, and quite possibly in a moment of desperate exhaustion, I had found my solution. Fantastic literature. Limited voicing, not extreme ranges or tremendously difficult technique required. Here it was: Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring by Johann Sebastian Bach. Transcribed by Eric Leidzen.


Most of you reading this now can likely imagine the musical train wreck that followed.


Somewhere, I just KNEW this guy was laughing at me.


In my heart, and in the rational parts of my brain, I realized this was not working. Instinct was screaming find something else. But that little voice, the one you usually think is your friend, kept saying don't give in.....if you do you'll regret it. They'll know you're a pushover when things get tough. If you quit on this they'll OWN you. And in a moment of weakness I listened and bought in, and pressed on all the way to the concert. To this day, quite possibly the worst moments I've had on the podium. Ever.


Sadly, we see this happen sometimes on the festival stage. The groups that program over their capabilities. And it's a terribly uncomfortable moment for all involved--the adjudicators, the audience, the person on the podium and most of all the performers. There can be any number of reasons why this happens, but the results end up the same regardless.


The great news is this--compared to when I led my group down the path to implosion, there are now a wealth of works out there at multiple levels being written by established composers with artistic merit. This makes it possible for you to provide works of quality to your musicians without having to constantly push the envelope of their abilities.


This isn't a suggestion to take the "easy road"--certainly a degree of challenge promotes growth in your ensemble, and that's important as well. But finding the balance point of challenge and accessibility has tremendous benefits in the festival setting:

  • This ensures that your clinicians or adjudicators will have something to share with you that can genuinely make a difference. If you're still chasing notes and rhythms on a complex work, they can't get to the musical aspects....the factors where their expertise leads to the most growth.

  • If your musicians are less worried about getting notes and rhythms right, you can focus more on pitch, blend and tone quality. This INSTANTLY can lead to a better performance.

  • It is more intrinsically rewarding to perform something of artistic quality well rather than a formulaic work written to make ensembles sound good. And your choice of substance will likely be viewed better with the adjudicators who will see the educational value of your choice.

  • It shows your group at its best abilities, which is optimal for everyone involved....the students, the staff, and of course...YOU! (And the adjudicators don't mind either.)

Hindsight is always 20/20. Had I to do it over again, I would have realized that finding a different work that would challenge my group but still have the potential for success was a much more positive and less stressful and embarrassing outcome. I learned then that the voice (call it ego, call it fear, call it what you will) had no business dictating the direction of my ensemble. I learned to find that balance, and it led to better performance and education as a result through my conducting career 


What do you feel are the "gems" out there that are achievable yet can challenge an ensemble and have artistic value? Where do you go to find them? Share your thoughts and titles!



The Game Changer

It was an early fall evening, and I'm cruising down I-94 on my way to church choir rehearsal. I'm listening to my go-to radio station, WFMT---classical, 98.7 FM on the dial. Yes, I still listen to radio. When people ask me what I love about living in Chicago, that's high on the list. They play more and more wind band music, but I'd always like to hear more. I like to think it's Carl Grapentine's influence. (For that reason alone, I consider him the "Best Radio Personality on the Face of the Planet", hands down. He's band people.....he gets us.)


They're playing the final movement of Bedrich Smetana's Ma vlast, the six symphonic poems that includes the one everyone knows....The Moldau. Tonight they're playing Blanik, one that I've never heard before. Powerful stuff--big, bold....great highway driving with the windows down music.


When suddenly, unexpectedly, there it is. An eight note motif that instantaneously transports me back nearly 30 years.


Ba Ba Baaa Baaaaaah.......BA ba baaa BAAAAAH.


An old Hussite war hymn, "Ye Warriors of God and His Law." Not that I'm Hussite, or know any of the words. I wouldn't know a Hussite if he walked up to me on the street. Unless he's wearing a button that said "Kiss Me, I'm Hussite" or something like that. I live in Chicago, it could happen.



That single work. Music For Prague 1968 by Karel Husa. That changed how I viewed and heard wind band music from that point on.


It was 1985, and I was essentially a second year freshman at South Dakota State University. I had dumped my engineering major and was embarking on a music education degree. Jim McKinney was the new Director of Bands and had made a bold programming choice for the upcoming SDMEA Conference, hosted on campus and at which the Symphonic Band would be one of the featured ensembles. No pressure.


For most of us, we had experienced a pretty standard band upbringing. Some of us had the British standards under our belts--Holst, Grainger, Vaughan Williams. Others had been raised on a diet of Claude Smith and James Swearingen. But the Husa was something entirely different. Strange tonalities. Extreme registers on our instruments. Repeating improvised patterns ad lib. (Wait, wasn't that for jazz people? Sorry, I play clarinet...that doesn't work for me. Where are my notes?) And there was one commonality we all agreed upon.


We hated the piece. Desperately.


Rehearsals were stressful, draining affairs. Every time we walked in and saw Prague written on the chalkboard we steeled ourselves for what the next 90 minutes would bring. It was the talk of the practice rooms and the weekend parties. (Yes, this is what band people talk about at parties. Now you know.) And all the while the looming undercurrent of the February concert, with all those music teachers in the audience, and wondering if this was going to be a colossal flop.


But slowly....gradually....things started to click. The music and the imagery started coming together and taking shape. The lone bird call of peace. The bell towers of the city. The tanks rolling in. We were beginning to "get it"--now we would get three steps forward before taking one step back. But progress continued, and by the time the concert arrived we had immersed ourselves into the spirit of the work. It is still one of the most memorable performances of which I have been a part. Like so many great leaps of faith, Mr. McKinney's gamble had paid off--and in the process we had all grown to a new level of musicianship and appreciation of our art.


As the years continued, there were more pieces that changed the landscape for me. The Solitary Dancer by Benson. From a Dark Millennium by Schwantner. Holsinger's Liturgical Dances. These were works of substance and quality that had grabbed and challenged my artistic soul and wouldn't let go. And they would later influence the kind of works that I would put in front of my own bands as a conductor.


Yet I wonder....is it the work, or the times in which we are preparing it? Would Prague have meant as much without the pressure of the conference performance, and of stretching our abilities beyond our comfort zones? (I wonder the same about my grad school experience years later, preparing David Maslanka's Symphony #4 while it was still in manuscript, for a week long residency by the composer.)


Perhaps it is some of both.

 

I've sadly not played the Husa since. I'd love to revisit it now, but with the maturity that the years bring. When I look at the score now, comparative to some of the new repertoire for wind band it almost seems "conventional"--not to suggest it also seems easier. I keep dropping the hopeful hint with the conductor of the adult wind ensemble I play in now. I think it would be like visiting your childhood home as an adult.....familiar, yet vastly different.


What was your "game changer" piece of music literature?