Trends and Changes in Today’s Wind Orchestra Scene

Johan de Meij • June 2022Repertoire • June 14, 2022

This is the second installment in a multi-part series of articles by leading composers for wind bands. The acclaimed composer and conductor Johan de Meij has compiled this fascinating article involving his colleagues from around the world answering the following questions:

Johan De Meij: Which new trends have you noticed over the last 20–25 years in the repertoire of the wind orchestra – for instance the use of electronics, different styles like minimal or hip-hop etc.? What about the instrumentation for the wind orchestra? How have these trends affected your own compositions (if applicable)?

The percussion family has gained significantly in prominence during the past 25 years, gaining far more attention than in the past, and there is a huge trend toward finding new colors and color combinations within that family. I think Joseph Schwantner’s And the Mountains Rising Nowhere… was a turning point with regard to how we approach the percussion family. The trend is advancing significantly since that groundbreaking piece. There are also far more stylistic hybrids where the lines between styles (especially classical and popular) are being blurred. My own Blue Shades was an early example of this. Prior to Blue Shades there weren’t many serious wind pieces that crossed boundaries and blended jazz and classical. I notice more emphasis these days on rock-based influences rather than jazz-based influences, especially from the younger composers. Some younger composers even consider it passé to evoke jazz in their music.

Frank Ticheli (USA)
Composer and conductor

It’s interesting to me that recent trends in the wind band do not seem to be mirroring recent trends in orchestral music. In the latter case, the pendulum is swinging back toward more hardball modernism, more adventurous experimentation, especially in extended techniques and color (e.g., multiphonics, wind sounds, scratch tone effects on strings, etc.). Recent band compositions, while more diverse in style than 25 years ago, show more resistance to ‘modernist’ approaches than current orchestral compositions. This is a bit ironic to me, as orchestras are generally dependent on audience support for their survival.

One other thing I notice may have to do with the transition from hand manuscripts to computer engraving: less tempo fluctuation within a piece. This is a gross generalization, but I do notice more pieces relying on a constant, unwavering pulse, like a motor. I believe it has to do with the computer software being used today. They can lure us into a motoric kind of thinking. I don’t see a lot of wind band pieces coming out that use substantial electronics. Steven Bryant’s Ecstatic Waters is one exception, but electronics are just not a big part of recent wind band repertoire, at least not yet. With all the software programs, out there – Logic, Max MSP, etc. – it seems like there should be more happening.

I think there is a trend to integrate instruments which are not standard in wind band repertoire, as well as vocal soloists or vocal elements. Like Johan de Meij integrated the use of bottles in Extreme Make-over and Celtic instruments in At Kitty o’Shea’s for example, there are more pieces that are searching for a different instrumental color or touch. Jan Van der Roost was one of the first to do this by integrating a recorder quartet in ‘Poeme Montagnard’ in 1996. Furthermore, various compositions for piano solo and wind orchestra, as well as cello or violin and winds have been composed. For the use of vocal elements, Thomas Doss makes the players sing, for example.

Bert Appermont (Belgium)
Composer and conductor

Other trends could be the many crossovers between genres that are being used. Oliver Waespi managed to write several pieces in a funk style that he combined with a ‘contemporary’ way of composing (ex. Divertimento, Audivi Media Nocte). Michael Gandolfi mixed tango elements together with a contemporary style in Vientos y Tangos, and John Adams-like minimal elements appear in Namasé Rhapsody by Van der Roost and in Joyride by Michael Markowski. Regarding the integration of non-wind band instruments, I have used a classical (flamenco) guitar in ‘Egmont’ and a duduk and soprano solo in Rubicon. In Celtic Child, I used a vocal solo and a youth/children choir. Furthermore, I have composed two musicals with wind band accompaniment: Zaad van Satan and In the Shadow of Napoleon.

Regarding instrumentation, the low woodwind section has become standard in the wind repertoire of different grades. Most wind bands have a bass clarinet and baritone saxophone, even in grade 3, which was not the case 20 years ago. Lately, because Hal Leonard has overtaken European publishers, there is a tendency to write in a more standardized kind of instrumentation for wind band. The American system of set ranges and use of instrumentation for every grade is also used more and more in Europe and pushed by the publisher. I personally think this is not always a good approach, since it is a pity when you have an English horn in a grade 3 band, and there is no part for it because of the standardized instrumentation. In countries where they use flugelhorns and cornets, they play newer repertoire, so it might be possible that in the long run, these kinds of specific instrumentations will disappear.

The development has taken place in two ’speeds.’ While the 1970s to the ‘90s were dominated by neo-classical and neo-baroque approaches, we can witness an enjoyable extension of aesthetic positions since the 2000s, at least on the elite level of writing for winds. Some new landmark pieces have brought a whole new range of quality and style to the movement, partly fueled by the vibrant parallel world of the brass band movement, with pieces like Spiriti and others by Thomas Doss, works by Marco Pütz, Nigel Clarke, Peter Meechan, Extreme Makeover and others by Johan de Meij, From Ancient Times by Jan van der Roost, Audivi Media Nocte by Oliver Waespi, further works for brass and winds by Simon Dobson, Gavin Higgins, Paul McGhee, Thierry Deleruyelle, works by Frank Ticheli like Blue Shades and Angels in the Architecture Steven Bryant (Concerto for Winds), John Mackey, Ed de Boer/Alexander Comitas, Etienne Crausaz and many more.

Oliver Waespi (Switzerland)
Composer and conductor

On the other hand, the repertoire chosen for competitions sometimes doesn’t reflect the new variety of styles, there’s some sort of stagnation especially on grade 2 to 4 levels. There, some sort of middle-of-the-road-scores based on watered-down film score tunes seem to dominate the markets. One reason for this may be that the bands don’t seem to want to take any risks in competitions while they seem to be more open for other experiences in concerts. Ironically, the bands on all levels have clearly improved during the last 20 years, so basically, they would be able to tackle more advanced repertoire.

While some crossover experiences have been made, there’s very limited use of electronics as far as I can see. Pieces for concert band in avant-garde styles (e.g. influenced by Boulez or Stockhausen) seem to have vanished almost entirely. I have some influences of minimal music in two recent compositions: my second symphony The Golden Age and in a new piece titled Wonders of Nature. Regarding instrumentation:  There is improvement of instrumentation at least in mainland Europe, double reeds standard down to grade 4 bands; on the other hand, cornets and flugelhorns tend to disappear in favor of a US-standard, three trumpet lineup (except for Austria, Germany and maybe Eastern Europe, where the flugelhorn still plays an important role). I also notice a gradual disappearance of the German-Austrian tenorhorn (in BH, not to confuse with the tenorhorn in EH in British style brass bands) in favor of the euphonium.

Andy Pease (USA)

I am noticing more rock and metal influence in the repertoire, both in terms of percussion use and harmonic/melodic structures. Electronics have also come in, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Also, almost all wind band repertoire these days seems to be programmatic. The soprano saxophone has come roaring back from near-death. The percussion section has continued its relentless expansion, with both more players called for and a greater variety of instruments and sounds needed.


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