This piece draws on my relationship with pan-European and American brass band music at the turn of the 20th century—the short, fast, chipper marches of the era when industrialization was thrusting Western economies into dangerous territory and nationalism was pushing to levels that would culminate in the devastating World War era.
When I began to listen to this type of music it was merely an ironical and amusing interest. I was charmed by its indomitable optimism and general softness and by the irresistibly nostalgic picture it creates for the beginning of a promising new century. But after repeated listening I began to understand that the music is not innocent. I now understand this music to also be the propaganda of war mongers who caused irreparable damage to Western society in the first World War. I also began to realize that all this music—whether employed in the name of German, Austrian, English, American, or any other country’s pride—sounds the same.
Many of us, though not united by native culture, are united by our love of that culture and our fear of those who might change it, and we all protect those values with the same rhetoric. I know it’s possible to separate a love of home from an urge to protect it from change. This piece attempts to hear and love the joy of home in march music while also hearing and reprimanding its aggression and protectionism. Can we express love for our respective homes and cultures without assaulting the homes and cultures of others?
Each movement is based on an existing march or nationalistic song from the era between 1880 and 1920. The raw materials of the original marches are sometimes rearranged and tenderly spun around in a circle, sometimes stripped to the driest and most barren accompaniment, and sometimes folded up into the tiniest imaginable space. The aggression of march music—most prominent in its speed and loudness—is rendered impotent. The speed is increased to a point of impossibility and stupidity and the loudness is thwarted by heavy mutes and the unfortunate theft of drumsticks so that the percussion must be played with bare hands alone. The supple joy of march music—most prominent in rich and well-balanced harmony, indomitably tuneful melodies, the supersmooth tone of conical brass, and a crisp, clean rhythmic drive—is worshiped. The bowed strings play widely spaced harmonies, run their bows over the warm, earthy realms of string above the fingerboard, and gently tap wood and flesh against their open steel strings. Aggression is rendered impotent and then coerced into an unfamiliar new world of delicacy and gentility.
With this piece I want to make the statement that, though the artifacts of nationalism can be beautiful and tempting, they can also be incredibly dangerous if carried too far. We can and should indulge in them from time to time but we must always be wary—especially in the current political context.
Recorded in March 2017 by Ryan Bancroft and the Nieuw Ensemble at the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam.