My reaction to finding new pieces for the bassoon is pretty much the same reaction you can expect from a puppy after the phrase, “You wanna go for a walk?” I get all jumpy, excited, and my fingers itch to just go. Puppies love their homes - it’s warm, fun, and safe - same goes for standard bassoon repertoire. But every so often it’s just good to get out and walk a different path, stretch yourself, and discover something new and unfamiliar! This past year, I unveiled a collection of pieces that turned that walk around the block into a whirlwind adventure.
As a true music nerd, I was at Eastman’s Sibley Library one weekend perusing boxes of material by the 1930-70’s composer Alec Wilder, a Rochester native. I was already familiar with a handful of his bassoon works, such as the Phyllis McGinley Song Cycle, a piece that Eastman’s Professor Sakakeeny played at his last recital, and several clever Octets I had performed on mine in 2017. With Song Cycle steeped in the classical genre, and the octets in a much more cutting-edge style, I was very curious to see what other inventive works Wilder had to offer. And then I found it…
The New Music of Alec Wilder
Buried deep inside the boxes was a folder simply titled “What Happened Last Night?” Inside was a messy, original score for a unique ensemble. Although it had the foundation of a woodwind quintet, the ensemble also included horn, trumpet, guitar, upright bass, and drum kit - totaling to a group of 10. The piece was rather short - maybe 2 minutes - and I thought, well this is cute. Moving on, I found a few other oddly named pieces, such as “She Never Wore Makeup,” and “Pop, What’s a Passacaglia?”, all with the same instrumentation. I quickly pulled them aside, ultimately finding a total of 12 pieces - all brief tunes, with quirky names, and no other description.
Turns out, all the pieces were part of a collection written for the album The New Music of Alec Wilder performed by jazz guitarist Mundell Lowe and his orchestra in 1956. After hearing one piece on YouTube, I was hooked. Wilder, in a very Gershwin style, was merging classical, jazz, and pop elements into one new genre, scored for a semi-big band. The album was awesome, way ahead of it’s time, and I wondered, “Why hadn’t I heard these pieces before?”
Well, as it turns out, there were a couple of reasons…
The Pitfalls of Being Eccentric
A composer of the 50’s era, Wilder was considered odd and his works, existing mainly outside traditional categories, were, unfortunately, criticized for not being “jazzy enough” for the jazzers or “highbrow” enough for the classical establishment. At a time when combining genres just wasn’t done, it’s no surprise that a handful of these pieces withered away into obscurity. Which led me realize why I hadn’t heard of these works before - the parts were nowhere to be found. As it turns out, quite a few of Wilder’s pieces were never published, making accessibility nearly impossible.
Yet, despite the criticism and neigh sayers of his time, Wilder had a fan-base who have worked diligently to bring his pieces back into the light. Some of the people supporting this effort are none other than Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Mabel Mercer, and Marian McPartland - all of whom were close friends and collaborators of Wilder. Knowing that Wilder had this kind of all-star team backing him was impressive. But honestly, what sold me was discovering that the Bernie Garfield was the bassoonist on the original recording, hand-selected by Wilder himself. This was just getting cooler by the minute and I knew…
I had to get these pieces played again.
Bouncing as I walked away from the library that day, I was determined and excited - I was going to pull together a group and play some of these pieces on my doctoral lecture recital, pieces that hadn’t been touched for over 70 years! However, I quickly came to the stark realization that with the original parts lost or stashed in someone’s attic, I had nothing to play from. Alright, I thought “No biggie, I’ll just take the original scores and write out each part on Sibelius. There are ONLY 12 pieces for an ensemble of 10, so you know, only 120 parts…” In other words this was going to be a really BIG project, but in the end, it was going to be totally worth it.
I jumped into the arrangement process and discovered that there were quite a few unexpected road blocks. Although the recording sounded amazing, the scores most definitely did not look amazing and I was finding significant inconsistencies - mixed key signatures, illegible handwriting, inconsistent chord labelings, and entire missing pages. These kinds of issues were most likely worked out in the rehearsal stage, but I had no way of knowing how things were adjusted. The only clues I had were in the recording and I quickly realized that this effort was expanding into a transcription process rather than a simple arrangement.
Pulling it Together
For two months I taught myself how to read jazz chords, labored over the messy manuscript handwriting while listening to the recordings, a few measures at a time, over and over and over again. Next up, the first rehearsal!
It Was a Mess
Balance was a struggle, errors popped up, jazz musicians were debating written articulations, classical musicians were trying their hardest to swing, and the poor conductor hadn’t seen the last piece I had uploaded to our share folder and was totally winging it on the spot.
I went home rather bummed knowing that 1) I had a lot more work to do on the parts and 2) we had limited rehearsal time which meant the musicians would be getting the changes in fits and starts as we went along. I sent everyone links to the actual recordings asking them to play along in hopes that if anything else popped up they could spot the issues. While they practiced high-speed swinging in all registers, I met with Eastman jazz theory advisors to work on challenging notational issues, and once more listened to the recording over and over and over…
Although I was still excited, it was all beginning to worry me. Was I going to be able to finish in time? Could we all manage to learn this new mix-matched music? Did we have enough time to do it justice? Heck, even seating setups were a concern, how could all the parts be heard? Frankly, I had more questions than answers…
The End Result
We did it.
These fantastic volunteer musicians worked their butts off and did a brilliant job. It was awe inspiring to see the jazz and classical departments collaborating so beautifully together when they are rarely in the same room, let alone performing the same piece! As an ensemble, we tackled problems, talked through solutions, and listened carefully to one another - both in conversation and performance.
Despite some mixed feelings at the very beginning, the ensemble melded together and we were all thankful for the opportunity to be a part of this unique experience, playing music that was once lost in time and space. I can’t thank them enough for their hard work and efforts to make the recital such a success.
As for me, I learned a lot through the process… and it’s ongoing! The fine tuning of articulation and dynamic markings, as well as continuous interpretation of Wilder’s unique markings, are still being finalized. It’s been such a rewarding experience to not only bring Wilder’s music back into the light, but I’m excited to see where it goes from here - maybe another performance in the not-too-distant future!
In the meantime, that simple walk around the block turned mountain hike, may have been exhausting, but it was truly exhilarating!
Wanna hear how it all sounds? Go to the YouTube playlist here and enjoy!
Special thanks to the musicians in the recordings: Eugene Bisdikian, Charlie Carr, Nikki LaBonte, Stephen Morris, Hannah Pearson, Billy Petito, Mark Powell, Adam Sadberry, Elizabeth Simmons, & Kelsey Stewart.