Phoenix (grade 5)

Phoenix

 

As a high school horn player in Earle Dickinson’s band at Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School, I was somehow lucky enough to spend several years sitting in the Iowa All-State Band and Orchestra. Those were extraordinary experiences for me, experiences that changed my life and directly affected my decision to make music my career. In fact, I can still distinctly remember playing Bach’s Komm, Susser Tod with Thomas Lee conducting and, for perhaps the first time, having one of those incredible aesthetic moments in which chills ran up and down my spine. 

It was, therefore, one of the greatest honors of my career when Thad Driskell, now the Director of Bands at Jefferson, asked me to conduct and compose for the 75th anniversary of the Iowa All-State Band. As I began work on this piece, I knew that, more than anything, I wanted to write a piece that would be meaningful, my best effort to recognize all that was given to me during my experiences in school music and especially in the Iowa All-State. Additionally, the actual writing process began in the spring of 2020, as COVID-19 forced the cancellation of that year’s All-State event. Even as I write this program note, I am hopeful that the 2021 event will somehow serve as a rebirth of the Iowa All-State as well as a celebration of its 75th anniversary.

This idea of rebirth has been explored by artists, authors, and composers throughout history, probably because it is subject matter that is significant to almost everyone. Who hasn’t felt the need to start over? Who hasn’t experienced great loss or sadness and needed to find a way to move on? Who hasn’t found the joy and beauty in life again after facing difficulty and struggle? Considering the situation, this seemed like the perfect subject matter to me, and I was immediately attracted to the concept of the Phoenix, the mythical bird which cyclically perishes in fiery death, before rising again from its own ashes to begin life anew. 

My piece is in two interconnected parts, both at a single fast tempo. The first part explores emotions of aggression and destruction, a sustained, fierce, and furious push leading to ultimate demise. The pitch material here is a five note subset of the octatonic scale, a collection of pitches that uses regular alternations of half and whole steps. The melodic ideas were derived from my own Symphony No. 10, a piece with related concepts and personal meaning for me.

Two extended and unmetered solos in the flute and clarinet signify the final moments before death and then the second section of the work begins. Introduced by mallets, keyboards and crystal glasses, the emergence of a new version of the original pitch material brings a new perspective and a feeling of openness and promise for the future. The five note set has expanded into a more traditional collection of pitches that imply major and, at times, altered minor tonalities. This is the turning point, and although there is still a battle to return home (an idea inspired by the arc of the Hero’s Journey, as proposed by Joseph Conrad and seen time and again in literature and art), it is a time of resurrection, rebirth, and celebration.

Phoenix was commissioned by the Iowa High School Music Association and Iowa Music Educators Association for the 75th Anniversary Iowa All-State Band.