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The Creative Repertoire Initiative: Creating Adaptable Music for Unprecedented Times

Mike Lawson • Commentary • July 15, 2020

This past March, and seemingly overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic swept through our world, leaving us isolated at home and plagued with fear and uncertainty about the future. Jobs lost, businesses shuttered, classrooms moved to online formats — our entire way of life changed in ways that shocked us to our core. And for music lovers, an unthinkable thing happened — live music stopped.

In early April, still adjusting to a new normal, I received a call from my dear friend, Allan McMurray, director of bands emeritus at the University of Colorado. After an exchange of pleasantries, our conversation turned to the pandemic and its potential impact on school music programs. Allan pointed out the possibility that schools would be mandated to limit the number of students in a rehearsal room to eight or ten students, perhaps even fewer if wind playing or singing were involved. Allan said, “If the teachers don’t have music that adapts to this kind of situation, how will they keep their students engaged? Kids might become disillusioned or bored, and drop music. Programs could be decimated and it could take years for some to recover. Some may never recover! What are you going to do to help?”

These were strong words from someone I have known and respected for decades. I took Allan’s call to action very seriously. For days, I pondered his question, unsure of how I could help. As the seriousness of the situation began to sink in, I came to formulate a solution to Allan’s challenge: to begin making arrangements of my music, playable by ensembles of any size or makeup. I resolved to put together a group of composers to join me in this endeavor. I also enlisted conductor Robert Ambrose, who I knew was a strong advocate of both composers and school band programs. He and I immediately began calling composer friends around the country to ask if they would join us in this mission.

Robert and I were amazed that no arm-twisting was required to enlist allies. The 10 composers we called jumped on board immediately, offering their time and talents without understanding fully what they were getting themselves into; they just wanted to help. Creative Repertoire Initiative (CRI) was born: a collective of 11 composers and a conductor, committed to the creation and promotion of adaptable music to meet the serious challenges facing music educators in the coming academic year and beyond.

After a series of brainstorming sessions, we settled on a twofold mission: (1) to create “adaptable” pieces, either arrangements of current works or new compositions, that could be performed in virtually any situation, and (2) to inspire, empower, guide, and amplify the voices of other composers who wished to do the same.

Over time we came to understand “adaptable” as an umbrella term encompassing a variety of compositions intended for ensembles faced with limited, fluctuating, or unpredictable personnel. We discussed a wide variety of compositional techniques, including works that utilize electro-acoustics, found instruments, and elements of chance. While we recognize that there are countless types of adaptable music, the pieces that CRI composers have come to create fall into four categories which are detailed below.

Flex. Pieces where instruments are assigned to specific parts based on range/registration. Flex pieces have been in existence for many years. They are very suitable for smaller bands where certain instruments are not represented; however, they do require that a minimum of one musician be available for each part in order to be fully realized. So, for instance, if there is no bass range player in the room, then the bass part isn’t performed. Flex pieces are abundant and include those published by Hal Leonard in their FlexBand series, as well as Bravo Music and its Japanese parent company, Brain Music. Examples of recent flex pieces include John Mackey’s Let Me Be Frank With You and Michael Daugherty’s setting of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” for young players, entitled, Made for You and Me: Inspired by Woody Guthrie, Julie Giroux’s arrangement of her Hymn to the Innocent, and Eric Whitacre’s arrangement of Sing Gently.

Full-flex. Pieces offering maximum flexibility in which any voice is playable by any instrument, making a fully-realized performance possible with any combination of four or more instruments. These pieces are useful in situations where, for example, only flutes are present for rehearsal on one day, trombones on another day, and a mix of instruments on still another day. The conductor can also experiment with part assignments, for example, giving a tuba player Part 1, and a flute play, part 4, thus placing the melody in the tuba. This might prove to be a fun experiment; the tuba player might enjoy being able to play the melody virtually the entire time. The full-flex approach was created in direct response to the need for radically adaptable pieces in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent examples include my arrangement of SimpleGifts: Four Shaker Songs, Brian Balmages’ Colliding Visions, Steven Bryant’s arrangement of Dusk, and Pete Meechan’s Taking the Fifth.

Modular/cellular. Pieces relying on motivic cells in which one cell may be repeated at will before going on to another cell. A groundbreaking example of this type of music is Terry Riley’s In C. Composed in 1964, Riley’s piece may be played by ensembles of virtually any size and makeup. Performers are empowered to choose dynamic levels, the order in which individual cells are played, the number of times they are repeated, etc. Recent modular/cellular pieces include Jennifer Jolley’s Sounds from the Gray Goo Sars-CoV-2, Alex Shapiro’s electroacoustic Passages, and my In C Dorian (inspired by Terry Riley’s piece and dedicated to him).

Improvisatory. Adaptable works based primarily in improvisation. This could entail jazz chords, verbal directions, alternative notation, and any number of additional ways to provide a framework for improvisation. Omar Thomas’s piece for young musicians, Sharp 9, is a recent example, a 12-bar blues that serves as an introduction to improvisation while also introducing young ears to rich jazz harmony.

We recognize that crises such as the current pandemic can serve as wake-up calls, firing the imaginations of composers, conductors, and performers alike to find new ways to engage in music-making. As we move forward, we hope to learn from others about new ways to enrich this repertoire. As outlined in our mission statement above, CRI is committed to encouraging, guiding, and advocating for other composers who wish to create adaptable music. We have done so in myriad ways:

Our website, www.creativerepertoire.com, has a composer resource section that contains tutorials, score templates and sample score excerpts for others to use or modify to suit their personal needs.

Our Facebook group, www.facebook.com/groups/creativerepertoire, is a place for composers to highlight their adaptable music and for directors to learn about these works. We hosted two “Adaptable Music Forums” as part of Robert Ambrose’s The Digital Director’s Lounge Zoom show. These forums provided a platform for composers to present their adaptable music to a room of hundreds of educators from around the globe. These invigorating sessions provided hope, inspiration, and joy to many. It was particularly heartening to learn about the vast number of composers who devoted these past summer months to creating adaptable music.

Adaptable music is available from the usual places one would expect to obtain their music: distributors, publishers, and self-published composers or their representatives. Scores and parts for adaptable music are most often made available as PDF files, although some publishers may also provide sheet music. While there is no single, centralized location where one can obtain adaptable pieces, The Wind Repertory Project (www.windrep.org) added “Adaptable Instrumentation” and “Flexible Instrumentation” categories to their website, and has created yet another, titled “Initiatives: Creative Repertoire Initiative” in which adaptable works are listed alphabetically by composer name.

While the COVID-19 pandemic served as the catalyst for the immediate creation of adaptable music, we recognize that the very same music may well serve a vital purpose long after the pandemic has passed. Small instrumental music programs, college and university conducting classes, and anyone looking for ways to supplement mainstream large ensemble music may find adaptable music a welcome resource.

To all music education professionals, please know: you are not alone. As you face the unprecedented challenges that lie ahead, there is a huge network of professionals who are thinking of you and supporting your work. This includes the many living composers who are excited to artfully expand this greatly needed repertoire. We hope the growing number of adaptable pieces being created offer a path forward in the year to come and beyond.

Frank Ticheli is co-founder of the Creative Repertoire Initiative. He is in his 30th year as professor of composition at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music.

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