They Went Out And
Happened to things
For wind ensemble
In the fall of 2020, I was fortunate enough to work with the Lindbergh School District band staff as a student teacher, and was constantly impressed with the expertise of this team of educators, as well as the skill level and drive of the students at both the middle school and high school levels. This period of time also coincided, however, with the COVID-19 outbreak, with a tense period of political turmoil, and with a time where issues of social justice needed to be seriously discussed and reexamined. School began virtually, and gradually shifted to in-person classes with masks, social distancing, and bell covers. Students and teachers did tremendous work in making the best out of the situation, but it was clear that the shift to a "new normal" was taxing on everybody. I loved my time with the Lindbergh program, and cannot articulate how much I learned and how appreciative I am to my mentors and students, but I believe I speak for everybody in saying that 2020 was an immensely difficult year to navigate.
Towards the end of my student teaching, David Wyss, the high school's head director, approached me about composing a piece for the band program, and prompted me to consider having the work act as a reflection on the events of 2020, writing something that brought to mind the feelings and sounds of the chaotic and unusual year. I enthusiastically agreed to the project, and after mulling over the idea, had one particular quote come to mind:
“It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”
Who exactly this quote is attributed to is a little murky, with some claiming it came from Leonardo Da Vinci, and others stating it was first said by Elinor Smith, a pioneering female aviator from the 20th century. Regardless, both figures were giants in the fields of aeronautics, with Da Vinci putting some of the first ever designs for flying machines to paper, and Elinore Smith having been the youngest licensed pilot in the world at age 16. With the district’s name being an homage to Charles Lindbergh, another famous pilot, I found that the quote being attributed to two aviators from different points in history would tie-in nicely the school’s namesake.
Given the circumstances of the 2020/2021 school year, it was inevitable that to a certain point, people of all walks of life had to “let things happen to them”. There was no getting around the impacts of a global pandemic, social unrest, political instability, and the total restructuring of school and work life. This composition focuses on the latter part of the Da Vinci/Smith quote, though, and is not a story about the way things changed for the teachers and students of Lindbergh, but the way those circumstances changed them. “They Went Out And Happened To Things” attempts to capture a sense of pride and triumph that can hopefully be achieved by the players and audience members alike after enduring a year of hardship.
The composition begins by plunging the listener into a loud, disorienting, smack-in-the-face section of music in A minor, a key not closely related to the familiar “home-base” band key of Bb Major. Throughout its duration, the composition will attempt to “return to normalcy” by modulating to the comfort of Bb, but will encounter several roadblocks along its journey. After the explosive opening, the low voices and percussion take over to set a more sinister tone, leading into another unrelenting repeat of the opening. Here, a chorale like figure attempts to break out of A minor, but terminates with an open fifth of G and D instead.
In a slower section, after having time to gather from the relentless introduction, woodwinds and mallet percussion begin to plaintively explore a new, reflective theme. As this music grows, it constantly hints at a modulation to Bb, but is interrupted by a statement in the brass, which also fails to bring the piece to this “normal” key center. In a moment with the full ensemble, it seems as if the key change is within reach through a resuscitation of the chorale-like figure that lead way to the first modulation, but the piece twists a full tritone away from Bb into an enormous E Major chord. Lamenting how the music must continue to “let things happen to it”, the horns and low brass cry out in a string of suspensions, and land in Ab minor. The trumpets and woodwinds respond in turn, and the first group repeats itself before landing on another E Major chord. Finally Bb Major is reached, not in a moment of triumph, but quietly, slowly, and unexpectedly.
Here, the first trumpet sizes-up the new key area with the triplet motive on the exact note it played in the intro. The pitch feels slightly out of place, and the trumpets, woodwinds, and percussion continue to prod at the Bb until growing into a giant subdominant chord. A solo euphonium loudly expresses the first line of music that could be considered “joyful” in the piece, accompanied by mallet percussion, recalling the top line from the chorale-figure that had brought about the modulations required to move away from the unfamiliarity of the opening. The full brass section briefly reflects on the “moment of growth” from the beginning of the B section, repeating its theme, before launching into a triumphant, full statement of the chorale. This moment of pride is a reflection of all the band has navigated, and marks the moment where they will no longer let things happen to them, but they will go out and happen to things. The music briefly restates the opening in Bb minor, with the chorale being more harmonically grounded, before launching into a coda that hammers away at Bb major for nearly a full minute. The sinister rising notes presented by the lows towards the beginning of the composition are countered here with their inversion, played boisterously by the horns and select woodwinds. The dissonant, descending trombone schmeres from the intro are countered with energetic, consonant, ascending schmeres leading into every phrase. Finally, the full band reclaims the triplet motive that had been linked to the disorientation of the intro, and blasts the figure as a fortissimo Bb major chord before ending on a colossal unison pitch.