Badlands (grade 5)
One of the strange and unexpected benefits of the whole COVID experience was that in May 2021, when my wife and I finished our college teaching for the year, we were able to pack up our family and head out on a month-long trip to the national parks of the western United States. Our children were learning remotely and, thanks to technology, continued to “go to school” online while we drove in the mornings; in the afternoons we explored together as a family. Our first major stop was intended to be Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills, but we arrived in the region early and, on a whim, took the exit toward the Badlands National Park, where we were met with one of the most striking and memorable experiences of our entire trip.
Badlands is inspired by my reactions to what we saw during our time in the park. It is composed in three sections, with three solo cadenzas (bass clarinet, English horn, and clarinet) serving as the introduction to each new portion of the work. When we first entered the park, there was an immediate and startling change in the landscape, with huge, jagged rock formations shooting up from the plains. The first section of Badlands is inspired by these imposing physical qualities of the park, qualities which inspired the Lakota people to originally dub the area “mako sica,” or “bad lands.” Once we proceeded to the other side of the rock formations, an enormous valley spread out below us and we suddenly became aware of the sheer vastness and beauty of this area, an emotional moment which inspired the middle portion of the piece. Finally, as we continued to drive through the park, we realized that, although this area is rocky and dry and imposing, it is simultaneously teeming with life, from prairie dogs to buffalo to mountain goats to rattlesnakes. There is a spiritual sense of hope and positive energy there that I tried to express in these final moments of the piece.
As I began attempting to find the right pitch material for the work, I realized that the first three letters of Badlands are all a part of the “musical alphabet,” and immediately B-A-D became the building blocks for the entire piece. This set of pitches is used as the melody throughout the piece, often played in order, but often transposed or inverted and then combined to create longer melodies. The three sections of the work are also in the keys of Bb minor, Ab major, and Db major, thereby “spelling out” B-A-D over the course of the piece.
Badlands was commissioned by the South Dakota Intercollegiate Band in celebration of their 35th anniversary.