Julie Giroux: A Wind Band is a Box of 168 Crayons
Julie Giroux, who creates music primarily for wind band, takes musicians and audiences on a journey that is a real sonic adventure and, at the same time, is always fun.
I still vividly remember my very first encounter with Julie Giroux. It was in 2015 during the first time I attended the Midwest Clinic, a massive music conference/festival/expo which is heavily but not exclusively devoted to wind band music held annually in Chicago right before the end of each calendar year.
Though I knew some wind band repertoire and had even attended a few wind band concerts over the years, nothing prepared me for how huge the wind band community is—comprising school-based ensembles, community groups, and musical units that are the pride of each of the branches of the military, plus wind bands from around the world. I was not only floored by the sensitivity and virtuosity of performance at what were basically showcases at a conference center which normally might not inspire such a level of commitment, but also how devoted these musicians were to newly composed music. There were so many new composers I discovered that first year, mostly all men, with one very noticeable exception—Julie Giroux, whose works were featured on several concerts. I still remember two of her pieces I heard that week—Riften Wed and Just Flyin’. Both took the audience on a journey that was a real sonic adventure and, at the same time, both were—dare I say it—fun.
Who was this Julie Giroux? I had to meet her. I tracked her down in the giant exhibition area of McCormick Center, which is where Midwest Clinic attendees congregate in between concerts and panel discussions. In fact, it’s a giant marketplace where attendees can and do buy sheet music, recordings (fancy that!), instruments, and even band uniforms. Giroux was holding court by the stand of her music publisher, Musica Propria. There was a line waiting to get her autograph that was longer than two city blocks. I waited. When I finally got directly in front of her, she was laughing uproariously, perhaps at something someone had just said. I was not sure. It’s very loud in that space. I didn’t have much time since there was a line just as long behind me by that point, but I told her how much I liked her music and handed her my business card saying that I hoped we’d have a chance to have a longer conversation at some point for NewMusicBox. I learned that she was based in Mississippi and began plotting ways of traveling there to chat with her. It proved challenging. Then I thought maybe we could record a convo with her during next year’s Midwest Clinic. That proved impossible since everyone else there wanted to talk to her, too, but at least I managed to say hi briefly again and hear some more of her music. And the cycle repeated itself in 2017, 2018, and 2019.
But strangely in this crazy year of 2020 when no one is able to go anywhere, we’re actually able to go more places than usual—virtually—since almost everyone is online all the time. In fact, this week (December 16-18), the Midwest Clinic, which typically attracts well over 15,000 attendees, is also an exclusively web-based experience and, as a result, might even break their previous attendance records. So, I thought I’d take a chance and reach out to Julie Giroux and see if she’d be willing to talk over Zoom. It took a while to set up, but it was well worth the wait.
“I feel like we’re in one of those really bad sci-fi films from the ‘70s where you get sucked into some computer and are trying to live that way,” she commented at some point during our sprawling conversation in which we explored the ins and outs of the wind band (including an in-depth discussion of her own wind band symphonies), her career in Hollywood (which led to her being the first female composer to win an Emmy), her wacky arrangements of Christmas songs (‘tis the season after all), and how she’s coping with life in quarantine. “I have a whole other year to sit here, and eat Cheetos and play video games,” she quipped.
When I was in junior high, I was writing for junior high band, because that was the level I was.
Julie Giroux, composer
Because I’d always played piano—when I got into band, I realized I was only playing one note. And that’s pretty boring.
Julie Giroux, composer
Now I have a whole other year to sit here, and eat Cheetos and play video games.
Julie Giroux, composer
I didn’t know that there weren’t women. I didn’t think about it. … . I didn’t know anybody was alive who was doing it.
Julie Giroux, composer
The band is as complex and has as many colors as an orchestra does.
Julie Giroux, composer
Elvis stopped being Elvis because he stopped growing.
Julie Giroux, composer
It’s like I have a box of 168 crayons. And if you want to give me 12, I don’t want to color with 12.
Julie Giroux, composer
There isn’t a person in the United States that doesn’t know “Jingle Bells.”
Julie Giroux, composer
I was somewhat surprised to learn that despite Giroux’s interest in a broad range of music making, she is not terribly interested in writing chamber music. “It’s because I am just a spoiled brat,” she confessed. “It’s like I have a box of 168 crayons. Right? And if you want to give me 12, I don’t want to color with 12. I want to color with 168, you know. So to me, it’s always no. It’s like you go to a restaurant and it’s a menu that has one thing on it. You know, you’re like, ‘No, no. I want pages. I want to just be overwhelmed with the choices that I have.’ … I mean it does sound like something I need to do to be a better composer, but it’s not something I want to do.”
Read the Full Transcript
(Transcribed by Julia Lu)
Frank J. Oteri: Ideally, it would have been great to do this in person. These things are always better in person, but this is the 2020 way we do everything. Right?
Julie Giroux: Yeah. It really is. It’s kind of crazy. It really is. The whole thing is surreal I think.
FJO: I don’t want to dwell too much on 2020 and the weirdness of it. I want to talk to you about you and your music because your music goes well beyond 2020. It’s before this year and will continue for many years after this year. But obviously we will talk about the events of this year, since it’s affected all of us and certainly affected how music is made and performed. You’ve composed music in so many different idioms throughout your career. But a huge focus for you for many years, for decades now, has been the wind band. So I wonder what attracted you to write for wind band and what’s kept you going with it all this time.
JG: I started writing for band in junior high. My first piece published, which was Mystery on Mena Mountain, I wrote when I was 12. I started really early. But I actually started composing way before that. But that was my first band piece. And so when I was in junior high, I was writing for junior high band, because that was the level I was. That was the level my brain was, my playing was. And that was kind of what I understood was going on. Then when got to high school, I upped it. And I knew what you could play in high school. Then I went from there. When I went to college, I really didn’t write college-level band music because I was doing commercial music.
I’m a French horn player, so I was playing in the symphony. And I had felt like there was just more I wanted to do. I mean, I wanted to explore the whole orchestral thing, which I didn’t have any exposure to because in high school, we didn’t have an orchestra. We just had band. So I was really mentally exploring those venues: commercial music and orchestral music. So all of my early band music is pre-college really. Then I stopped writing for band for many years, and was just doing commercial music. Then I think in 1992-ish, I started back writing for band, and not really full time. Just here and there. Then it got really to be full time around 1998 I think, just before 2000. So now here we are in 2020, and so 22 years of band music, but really strong the last 18 years as far as writing a lot of it.
FJO: You were born in Massachusetts, but you grew up in Louisiana. And now you live in Mississippi. So your experience was playing band in school. Is playing in a band how you got immersed in music?
JG: Absolutely. My dad was in the Air Force. We moved around a lot. I was born in Boston. My brother was born a year and a half later in California. And then we moved to Phoenix. And I went all through grade school in Phoenix, Arizona. Then we moved to Arkansas. And then we moved to Louisiana. So music was the only thing that was constant in my life really, as far as that goes. I and my brother, we’re very close because of that type of a background. Once I got to Louisiana, that’s when I really started writing. Once I got into mid-junior high. And then therefore, I mean, and then going forward. My first band score was on art paper that I had drawn all the lines on. Because there are no musicians in my family. It wasn’t anything like that. I was totally on my own.
When I wanted to write for band, I could see my junior high band director Charles Mayfield, everybody called him Manny. I could see Manny’s scores, and I was like: man, my score has to look like that. With my parents, if you couldn’t buy it out of the Sears catalogue, or a Kmart, it didn’t exist. So I would spend Sundays drawing lines with ink on art paper. So my first piece, Mystery on Mena Mountain, was on art paper.
Even in junior high, I knew that when my best friend who was a saxophone player, played her C, it wasn’t C. And I was a horn player, and I knew my C wasn’t a C. And so I thought, I wonder what everybody in the band is doing. So I made my own transposition book in the seventh grade. And interviewed everybody in the band. I guessed wrong with the glock. You know, once it gets really high, you don’t know what it is. And of course, I know what it is now, but back then, I don’t think I realized it was a full octave higher than that. But because I wrote it out, I’ve never had to think about it. I mean, because it’s been a part of me for so long, I never used C score. I don’t write in C score. I write in a transposed score. When I think of the trumpet, I think of their C. I, my mind is already, “oh, that’s a B-flat” and I don’t think about it. I just write and when I’m thinking trumpet, I’m thinking in trumpet key. When I think about horn, I’m thinking a horn key. So, if I’m just yelling at the band and say: “Oh my God, contra bass E-flat clarinet, play your B-flat”—I know what note that is. I just always say their note because I’m thinking their note. And I think that a lot of that might be because of being a semi-professional player and always having to play all those transcriptions where you had to transpose. I think we all underestimate the value of doing something by hand. Because I wrote all those instruments transpositions down in my head, I remember them. I didn’t just glance at a book. It’s like a rogue research project. My own seventh grade dissertation was on transposition basically. And I’ve always carried that.
FJO: And you were inside the music. You know, you playing the horn which has got a wide range, mid-range, but in terms of the band, it’s sort of the viola of the band, because it’s in the middle of the ranges and it sort of allowed you to hear all these sounds around you. And you’re also a pianist.
JG: Yes. When I first started playing, I was around two or three. I had one of those baby—they looked like a piano. You remember, I don’t know if you remember those, and I don’t know if they still make them. But you know, it was like a little, wooden piano, and it had an octave and half on it.
FJO: Oh, toy pianos.
FJO: Those are great! They’re actually great instruments to write music for.
JG: I never thought about that, maybe because I just don’t want to revisit that. But I started on that and then, at some point, we got a piano. Again, while I was really young. When my grandfather would come over on the weekends, on my dad’s side, he would play that piano. And when he would leave, I would try to play what he played. And he was a fantastic piano player. He didn’t read music. He played everything by ear. But he could play. You could just say, “Play this,” and he’d play. And so I got I got that genetic. It was on my mom’s side, too. So I had it on both sides, but none of it was official. Nobody read music. They just all played music. And sang it, and all instruments. If I think about it, my mom’s 10 brothers and sisters, you know, that was a lot of instruments they all played. And I watched them, and grew up around it. So I think that was because I’d always played piano—when I got into band, I realized I was only playing one note. And that’s pretty boring. When you go from playing full things to: “Oh my God, I’m only a note.” Not that it was easy. I mean, horn isn’t easy. But I was always listening to what everybody was doing.
I was kind of paying attention to my part, but not much. I’m not going to lie about it. I was always listening to what everybody was doing so that I could see that visually on the score. I think when I wrote my first band piece, what locked it in for me was that I could see it and knew what I was hearing, how it would look on paper. Even now, I can go see a movie, and I can hear the score back. I can come home and write as much as I can remember. For the first five or six years I was in L.A., I made a lot of money just doing take downs. There were a lot of Duke Ellington charts that they didn’t have the music for anymore, but they had the recordings. And I got asked constantly, “Hey do this orchestral Duke Ellington chart.” I could remember, he did a five-minute thing in Dixie. It was 90 miles an hour for orchestra. And it was a phenomenal chart. But there were no charts. And that was the first take down I ever did. To me it’s fun.
FJO: Wow. That’s amazing. So from the beginning and through your life, you have this whole world of the timbre of sounds in your head. There are so many people who begin composing and maybe they play the piano, so they’ll write a lot of piano music, and then they’ll write chamber music and expand. Or if you’re a singer, you’ll write vocal music and expand. But from the beginning, you’ve had this large ensemble sound world in your head, which is kind of a different way. It’s like you already have a whole, and then when you write other things, you sort of have to kind of step back and maybe reduce. I’ve never heard any of it, but I’ve read that you’ve also written chamber music, but when you have access to like 100 people, suddenly writing a piece for only four or five—
JG: —Yeah, it’s pretty boring. I mean, it’s not enjoyable. I don’t remember if it was Frank Ticheli, I don’t remember who I was having the conversation with, I think it might probably be Frank. Maybe they can only have five kids. Maybe 10, or whatever the number is. And so, we got together and you’re sitting there trying to make it as good as possible. I mean my goal was to be sure that if they play one of my pieces, I would be perfectly comfortable with that being placed in that mode. I didn’t want to just crank out crap. I wanted to be sure that I could be proud of what I put out. It took me five or six versions of One Life Beautiful because the counterpoint in that is so involved. And the chords are so involved. I mean those chord changes are just really unusual. So it took forever to get it to sound like real music. But I remember we had this conversation, and either he said it or I said it, I don’t remember, but it was like: “Man, if I had been wanting to write this chamber music, I’d have already have been doing it.” This wasn’t something that I wanted to do. None of us really wanted to do it as a composer.
But as a human being, being in this situation that we are in, of course, we all wanted to do it. We all switched to making oars so that we could keep this boat moving. And I’m fine. We were building boats before, but now, now we’re just building oars. But it’s what we have. And it’s very difficult to write right now because of that. I mean, I don’t really have any dates. I literally don’t leave the house for another year, as far as my calendar goes.
Now I have a whole other year to sit here, and eat Cheetos and play video games. This is a little scary. But it’s very difficult to write because I don’t care whether you write for film and television, and you write something tonight, and they pick it up in the morning, and you’re recording it that afternoon, or if you’re writing it now, and it premieres a year from now, at least you know. You’re working toward something. A lot of us were having a hard time doing anything and then we’re like, “Oh, we can do that. That’ll happen now.” And so that’s what we all did. But as far as writing my symphony right now, it’s very, very difficult. I don’t have a performance date. I know it might be in 2021. That’s all I know. And so I’m really just working on the technical aspects of it because it is with video, and there are other sounds that go with it. It’s not just band. And so I’m working on that because that’s do-able.
FJO: The Sixth Symphony.
JG: The Sixth Symphony.
FJO: I want to talk to you about all of the symphonies. But before I do, you talk about this weird moment we’re in and having to create oars. I’ve been telling composers for years that if they want to really get their music out there in the world that the media that they should write for are either chorus or wind band. Because those communities are so open to doing the music of living composers. More than say a symphony orchestra, a string quartet, or piano trios which have these repertoires and these kind of iconic masterpieces. But the wind band really celebrates composers. Of course, now it’s topsy-turvy. It’s like the world is upside down because now chorus and wind band are the two most dangerous ensembles to write for because they’re all about breath. So they’re potentially toxic instrumentations. But what’s interesting to me is although the wind band has been so open to so many composers, so many living composers, there’s been sort of a profile that a lot of those composers have had. I’ve been going to Midwest Clinic now for about five years. I remember the first year I was there, you were the only female composer on any of the programs that I went to. You managed to break into that world. Now lots of other people are breaking in. And you know, Omar Thomas, the first Black composer to win the Revelli Award just last year, is a huge deal. But there still hasn’t been a woman who has won any of those awards. And so I’m curious, how did you break into that “dude world” of band music?
JG: I actually think it’s very simple. My whole career has been that way. When I won my first Emmy, I was the first woman to win that award. I was the youngest person to ever win that award. I didn’t think about that before it happened. It just happened. I think if you bring the skills to the court, you’re going to play. That’s just all there is to it. And I’m not a huge basketball fan, but that analogy works really well. Although I did go to school with Shaquille O’Neal. He was in my English class. We’re the exact same age. But let’s face it. If Shaq sucked, he wouldn’t have played. But he could play, so he played.
And like you saying that you would recommend your students to write for band, that’s what I do, too. Because it’s an open field. But more so, it really isn’t political, unless a composer makes it political. But let’s face it, publishers are in the business to make money. That’s all they do. That’s why they have the business. The only way they’re going to make money is if they sell the music that people will play. And so if you write good music, people will play it. That’s all there is to it. And I mean, I am not smart, and in the eighth grade, I made a score on art paper and sent it to five publishers. And all five wanted to publish it. So I learned a really valuable lesson on that day. Only send it to one publisher at a time, because I made one good friend and four enemies in one day. But that’s the point of it. I just did it. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t know that there weren’t women. I didn’t think about it. Because I’d been looking at names on the score forever. And I thought they were all dead. I didn’t know anybody was alive who was doing it. I really didn’t. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I actually met a living composer, Francis MacBeth, who was from my area. And so I just did it.
I’m a highly opinionated person, because I’ve been doing this a long time. I went to Midwest for years before they played my music. Years. You know. So when I hear some cry baby that’s got three pieces for band crying that nobody’s playing their music in Midwest, I have no sympathy. Because the only thing you have to do as a composer is compose. That’s it. You don’t need any pedigree from anywhere. You just write. And if it’s good, people will play it. That’s all there is to it.
As far as the women thing goes, I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that, and I love thinking about this, every time I’m in Midwest, I sit there and I think how many composers are in this exhibition hall right now? How many? Is it 100? Is it 50? Whatever that number is, let’s just say it’s 100 for fun. I don’t think there are that many in there at once, but let’s say there are. Out of that 100, how many of them are women? Ten? Twelve at the most? Okay, now we’re down to 12 people. Out of those 12, how good is that music? Is it great? Is it medium? Is it awful? It’s gonna be some of all of that. And you can think of it in men as well as women. It is a percentage of people that compose that their music is good. Now whether you think my music is good or not, we’re not even talking that. I’m just talking in broad spectrum. The percentage of music that is produced on any given year that’s great is a very small percentage. And I don’t care if you’re talking about band, or pop music, or whatever you’re talking about. Think how many songs were written in 2019. How many were written? It’s got to be in the millions. So how many of those were good? And so it applies. The low number of female composers making scenes, directly reflects how many female composers there are in any given moment in time. Just like with men.
FJO: Well I wonder. The other world that you’ve worked in extensively is film and TV, and as you pointed out, you won an Emmy. The first woman to win an Emmy. That’s another world that has been mostly a domain of male composers and that’s changing now. But you know, once again, you were the pioneer in there, doing that, but it seems to me that you were able to do all of that by not really worrying about it. Not thinking about it.
JG: I just did it. Yeah. I call it the Forrest Gump approach. I just went from one moment in time to another moment in time. And I just did it. And I think being a brass player, that really helped grease the wheels for me mentally and emotionally. Because I was used to standing around men because there weren’t that many women playing French horn either in the ‘70s. There just weren’t. I remember even my college audition, my horn teacher, whom I absolutely adore, after I took my college audition, he told my mother I played good for a girl. And my mom shot immediately right back, because she has no filter. She said she plays good for anybody. And that was it. And so I just never thought about it. I was used to being around guys. I never thought about it. I know I was probably in the business ten years in L.A. before I even wondered where the other women are. Because it just didn’t dawn on me. I was busy. I was working all the time, morning to night seven days a week. And I just worked. How many women were orchestrating for film and television at the time? Me. That was it. But how many were trying? I don’t know. And how hard did they try? I don’t know what that number is. It was a very small number though.
FJO: I’m very curious about this because at New Music USA we have a new program that we just launched called Reel Change, which is a granting program designed to encourage a greater diversity among people who write music for film and TV, and media, to try to break through that wall. There have been some strides made, but obviously when you were doing this, there were no programs like that. And people weren’t even thinking in those terms. They certainly weren’t mobilizing that way.
JG: Right, and again, I mean, I am sure, I have no doubt that back in the ‘50s and ‘60s that a woman had a very hard time of doing anything. I know that’s real. And don’t even think about before that. Before that, it must have been impossible. When women got the right to vote, to me that’s kind of when you start marking time forward. Soon as we gained an inch of history that said we are your equals, even though it was not that long ago. It has lot to do with it. I guess it’ll always have a lot to do with it. And it’s gonna be decades before everyone literally is equal. I believe that that day will come. I just don’t think I’ll see it.
FJO: Although we now have a female vice-president elect.
JG: It’s amazing, right? I don’t have any fear whatsoever that a women composer out there that is sitting at home right now, writing a piece of music that’s amazing is gonna have a problem getting it played. I just don’t see that. The problem is that for every person I ever met, especially in Los Angeles in films, television, whether it’s an actor, producer, whoever it is. For every one that’s there, there are hundreds, thousands that didn’t make it that far. What is it that sets them apart? Well there’s always that small percentage of luck. Right? But you have to look past that. And you have to realize that the other 95 percent of those people put themselves in the right place every day. Every day. And one day it was the right time. So the only way you’re going to be at the right place at the right time is if you put yourself out there every freaking day. And it’s difficult. It is hard to get up every day as a composer because composers aren’t exactly extroverts. I mean, all I want to do is sit at home in pajamas and write music. But you’re never going to get played if you do that. You have to enter competitions. You have to go meet conductors because the symbiotic relationship between a conductor and a composer is where everything is.
That’s where my whole career is. That’s where it will always be. And I think that there’s not enough emphasis with young composers to let them know just how important that is. Make relationships with conductors. They’re the ones that can make or break your music. And so make that relationship. Develop those friendships. It’s like a snowball. It just grows because they have friends, conductor friends, and they have friends, and they do concerts, and they go do these concerts, and now they’re taking your music out of the country. And now it’s in all these other countries and that’s where it all starts. The relationship between a composer and a conductor. That’s it. It’s so simple.
FJO: An event like the Midwest Clinic is amazing in that you can actually meet people. You can interface with people. When you said that you estimate 100 people in that room who are composers. I think having been there five years, scouting people around, it’s probably more than that.
JG: You’re probably right.
FJO: But it’s true. Some people are afraid to talk up. I try to encourage people through my advocacy work at New Music USA and say, “Go and talk to this person.” Now that this whole thing is gonna be on Zoom, I wonder how it’s gonna work. It’s weird.
JG: It’s way beyond weird. I feel like we’re in one of those really bad sci-fi films from the ‘70s where you get sucked into some computer and are trying to live that way. I mean it’s just really, really strange. But I think doing Zooms as much as I do, and as much as I miss everybody, if Zoom is the only way that I get to be with these people, then that’s fine. This isn’t our first choice. It’s probably not even box 99 that we would check as far as things that we want to do. But if we don’t do this, we’re not meeting at all. And musicians, if nothing else, we are a tribe. And right now the tribe is scattered all over place in these little, little pockets of one everywhere. And the only way we can function right now is this way.
And as much as it literally gives me a headache to do Zooms because of my eyes; I don’t have glasses for this exact moment. No matter what it does to me that way, I always feel better after the Zoom, because I’ve talked with musicians. And we spent time together. Even if we’re not playing. At least we’re spending time together. And, I think, emotionally it really is a must. I feel sorry for any musician out there that isn’t doing Zooms right now. What are they doing? They must feel like a total orphan, an artistic orphan. So the Zooms are fantastic. I just wish technology had been to the point where we could all play from home and have it just instantly be like that instead of spending hundreds of hours engineering a three-minute Sousa march with a thousand people and you spend weeks putting that thing together, kind of the way they’re doing movies right now. But I don’t think any of us ever thought a year from now this is where we’d be.
FJO: No. Definitely didn’t think it last December in Chicago at all.
JG: Can you imagine? I mean, if you had said this was what was going to happen, you would think somebody was crazy. Bona fide, card carrying loon. Right? And then here we are, still looking at least nine months out before you see a band get together on a stage for real. Like a real band, on a stage, sitting next to each other, playing music, like we did, you know. All I can do to get myself through it is I think how beautiful it’s going to be when it does happen. It’s going to feel incredible, even though it’s gonna sound like total hell because nobody’s been playing together. I mean, I’ve got friends that haven’t even picked their horns up in six months. But it still won’t matter. Even the worst band rehearsal in history that happens, once we can all be together, it’s still going to be the best thing that’s ever happened. I’m creating knowing that that experience is already going to be over the top, because we’re all going to be so sensitive about it you know. It’s just going to be incredible.
Then to take it to another level, I really think my next symphony is going to be shocking in a way. Because it is so extreme. If everything had been just rolling along like normal, that symphony was going to be a push as far as let’s move band forward just another step this direction towards sounding like we can sound and not like a Sousa march. Not that I have a problem with Sousa marches. I like Sousa as much as the next person. But that’s one sound. And I don’t write for that sound. I write for the sound that I think the band can be. I want somebody to listen to band music and go—Wow, that sounds like an orchestra!” Not that I want the band to sound like an orchestra, I just know that the band is as complex and has as many colors as an orchestra does. Our sound can continuously become more and more—I don’t even know how to describe it other than it can just be so much more than it is.
FJO: We should be talking about the symphonies now. We should be talking about some of these pieces because these are pieces that I fell in love with and why I wanted to talk to you. Pieces like Elements and Bookmarks from Japan are just really powerful, evocative pieces that create entire universes and one of the things about the band world is these pieces are hard. In terms of the grading system, these are like Fives and Sixes. You said you’re going in this other direction, so I’m imagining Symphony No. 6 is a Seven. But it sounds to me like what you’re talking about with the first rehearsal after quarantine ends everywhere is people are going to need to write a lot of Ones, because that’s all anybody’s going to be able to play.
JG: I know. We should probably all be sitting around writing method books right now because that’s what’s gonna happen on the first day. It’s gonna be like, you’re going to do the first downbeat and go: “Oh, sweet Jesus, what did I just hear?” But it’s gonna be great. But yeah, as a composer, of course you want to get harder and harder. I could write Grade Nine. I know what a horn can do. That’s the blessing that I have, the professional orchestration background. I know what every instrument can do. I know how it’s fingered. I know what’s out of tune. I know what trills are impossible. I know what is possible, because I learned the hard way what’s possible.
And so I could push everybody in the band to a point where it’s a break, or I could break it because I could just go: “Here, do this”—and know they can’t do it. But as a composer, you want to grow. Your art has to have somewhere to go. I try to reinvent myself with every piece. I try to reinvent my style, the sound palette that I’m going to use. All of those things. That’s why my favorite composer was always Jerry Goldsmith, because you never knew when it was one of his scores. You had to see his name before you knew it. If you’re listening to The Wind and the Lion or Alien, you go: “That can’t be the same guy.” But it is the same guy.
FJO: Or Logan’s Run with all those crazy microtonal scales and synthesizers.
JG: Yeah, just crazy stuff! That’s why he was my favorite, because he reinvented himself for every project, and I try to do that, too. But it’s so difficult. You know? I think we’re kind of basically lazy as musicians, because once we find a groove that we really like, we’re fine to stay right there. We don’t need to keep going. But as a composer, if you don’t keep going, it’s death. It’s just death. You have to keep going. Elvis stopped being Elvis because he stopped growing. He never evolved. You have to evolve; just even for your own sanity, you have to evolve.
I don’t want to be the same person tomorrow at the end of the day. I got to be somebody different tomorrow. I’m trying to be somebody different today. I’m trying to be better. I’m trying to be whatever it is. So I have to grow. And so if I were to just jump it up to a Grade Six or a Grade Seven, I’m just hurting myself because the harder it gets, the fewer people that can actually play it. So as much as I want to pull every bell and whistle out of the closet, there’s a part of me that goes, “Yeah, but you want it to be played more than once. Right? You want to hear it right more than once. You want to hear it at least once.” So I’m having to really temper this next symphony down to technical difficulties to just try to stay away from, so that I can keep it a Grade Five and not make it just be only colleges that can play it. I think with Bookmarks, I hit the spot as far as there are so many people that can play the piece. It doesn’t sound easy. And there’s a lot of it that isn’t easy. But it’s not so hard that people can’t play it, that high school kids can’t enjoy it. And I have to think of that because I was a high school horn player and, hell, my parts sucked for the most part. So I’m trying to keep that in mind on this one, because [Symphony] Number Five, Elements was definitely more difficult. But I think if nothing else, I created sounds and colors they’ve never been heard in a band before. I know I did.
I know in “Rain,” nobody’s ever done that before. That technique has never been done before and not just with band. It hasn’t been done with orchestra, either—to score rain. And I don’t mean cheating, like put down five random notes and say: “Just do this randomly.” No. I didn’t do that. I didn’t leave anything to chance. I knew exactly the randomness that I wanted and I wrote the rhythms, and it took days to do that. Just days. In fact, it was weeks because the first time I did it, I looked at it and said this is unplayable because of the rhythms. Having people play randomly like that, it was like musical Tourette’s syndrome. So I had to go back; I had to re-write that three times, just so that people could figure out where they were supposed to play. So I did that in Five. So Six, I don’t want it to be here. So that’s really in line with I think what this next symphony is because we won’t be here anyway, in a year from now. It’s gonna take a lot of catching up. So you know, if that symphony premieres October, first week of October 2021, well we got a lot to catch up on before we can even start to play that kind of level of music anyway. That’s kind of where I’m at. I’m looking at how I can advance band music without it being grade nine. You know.
FJO: I’m wondering in terms of the big arc of listening, because we’ve been talking a lot about players and how they respond. I’m curious about listeners and what they’re hearing, especially with the big symphonies. Especially because in the band world, both in concerts and on recordings, often they’ll only play one movement rather than the whole piece. So to really experience what you’re doing, people really should hear the whole thing. The whole arc, but they don’t get to.
JG: Because I grew up poor, my mind is always thinking about the cost of the piece. When we did the first symphony you know, Bruce [Gilkes] and I had just gotten together, and decided we were going to this thing. We were gonna make this company [Musica Propria]. And we just did it. I just wrote the symphony. We just did it. The same with the second one and third one. And then it wasn’t until I started going out conducting that I thought I can’t ask a clinic band to buy an entire symphony to play one movement. I’m not gonna do that.
So I immediately said we need to sell movements individually. And as a composer, I do try and make it to where they stand alone. So it’s a group of short stories instead of one gigantic story. Well, it’s both. Right? So you have the one gigantic story, but you also know that if I just take this paragraph—oh, that’s a story in itself. So Bookmarks was definitely six different stories. But I wrote 14 of ‘em to get those six because it’s kind of like decorating. When you write the first one, and then you write the second one, it’s like the second one, you painted the walls and you go: “Uuuhh, now the floor looks like hell. Now I have to write a new floor.” You know, so it’s like decorating. So it took a while to get six that worked well together. I definitely had my eye on the entire picture, but I knew when we published it, I was gonna sell it individually and some people do pay individually. But I have to tell you, 90 percent of the time, people buy the whole thing. And play the whole thing.
JG: I didn’t think that was gonna happen. Never in my mind did I think, oh they’re gonna sit there and they’re going to play the whole symphony. I just didn’t think they would because it’s so much Japan, six movements of that. I don’t know what the attraction was, because it’s not me. I can’t remove myself from it. I just knew that I was writing it; it was a fun trip. It was a fun journey. I knew the first movement, the fourth movement, the fifth movement, it was all fun. And I thought this is a fun ride from one through six. It’s a great ride. And so that’s kind of how I looked at it. But I wanted to be sure each segment was good. And I did the same thing with Elements, but Elements is more traditional; it’s three big movements.
I think on this one, I’m kind of splitting the difference. I might do four movements. I don’t know, you know, because I’m just working on it. So, it’ll go where it goes. But, I think as far as the band genre goes, we like those little things all put together to make one. I think Grainger set us up for that. Lincolnshire [Posy], that’s perfect for us. We can play the whole thing, or we can play one movement, and we feel good on either circumstance. And so when I did Bookmarks, that was my model. Not to sound like it, but that emotional feel of it. So that we play one movement, I feel fine playing one movement. I do myself. If I go conduct one movement, I’m fine with that. I don’t have to hear the whole thing. But if we do the whole thing, it’s got to be a fun ride, too. I don’t think Percy sat around thinking that. I think he just did whatever he wanted to do. But just like his music, it was a fluke. His music to me is kind of a fluke and he’s one of my favorite guys, he really is, because of the sounds that he created, but it’s a fluke that I think he came up with the perfect format for band.
FJO: So now that we’re in this weird moment where we can’t do these things. We certainly can’t do a symphony. Right?
FJO: You talked about doing reduced orchestrations of pieces, is now the time for there to be the Julie Giroux wind quintet, brass quintet, socially distanced or string trio, or some other thing that doesn’t require so many people?
JG: If this is going to continue, it’s possible. But the truth of it is, if I start now on a serious work that is chamber, let’s just say it’s 15 players. Twelve players—
FJO: —That’s still a lot of people.—
JG: —Well, chamber music is much slower going than like writing for full orchestra, because every instrument is treated as a solo instrument. As soon as you start thinking solo instrument, everything slows down. I mean, even just writing a piece that is for band and solo instrument, oh my God, everything just slowed down completely because you don’t have that flow, unless you’re gonna do jazz, and of course you can do that with that. But outside of that, I think it’s very slow going. So even if I started right now, got off of this Zoom right now, just started trying to write a serious piece for band about the same size as a Mozart serenade, holy hell, that’ll be four months before I finish with it. Five months.
The symphony is going on the back burner. Logistically, it’s not going to happen, because I already have a full schedule. And if I didn’t have a full schedule, I probably still wouldn’t do it. And you know why, it’s because I am just a spoiled brat. It’s like I have a box of 168 crayons. Right? And if you want to give me 12, I don’t want to color with 12. I want to color with 168, you know. So to me, it’s always no. It’s like you go to a restaurant and it’s a menu that has one thing on it. You know, you’re like, “No, no. I want pages. I want to just be overwhelmed with the choices that I have.” And not to mention the counterpoint. Right? I mean, soon as you start talking 12 players, you start talking serious counterpoint. If they’re all solo players. And that makes my brain hurt, just thinking of it. Brass quintet, yeah, that’s easy. Four parts it’s easy. Eight parts, okay. Nine, takes a lot of stress off of each player because winds, right, so it becomes a little easier at nine, because now you don’t have to worry so much about how often people are playing. You have enough players now that you can get it off their face, because winds, right? So once you get to about 18, yeah. Now you can just play with all these colors. Oh my God, the counterpoint. I mean it does sound like something I need to do to be a better composer, but it’s not something I want to do. It’s just not. Just give me my 172 crayons and let me go play.
FJO: It was 168. Now you upped it to 172.
JG: Well I can’t remember what that big box of crayons was. Was it like 96 or something? I don’t remember. I just remember as kids you got the little pack that had like 16 in it, or you could get that big box that had the sharpener on the side. It had all those. To me, that’s what band is. It’s like yes, and Grade One is like somebody just says here’s your three crayons. Have fun. You’re like: “Huh? No!” That’s just me.
FJO: We’re going to be posting this in December and I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the incredible Christmas song arrangements that you’ve done, like that hysterical mashup of Ravel’s Bolero and “Little Drummer Boy.”
JG: I have literally been crucifying Christmas music for about 35 years. And it goes back to the fact that I love Christmas music. I can go in there and play any Christmas carol right now that you ever wanted to hear. I know them so well, that they’re just when you know something so well, you could have written it. You can think it. You can play it. You can write it down. So once you’re there, then it’s really easy to play with it, because they’re there. It’s kind of like decorating the room. You have everything you need for this setup, and you just do what you want to it. But it goes back to when I was working in Hollywood; I was working with millionaires. What do you give them for Christmas that they don’t already have five of? I mean they were all millionaires. So if they saw something they wanted, they immediately went out and got it. Being an orchestrator for Bill Conti all those years I was like: What am I gonna give Bill that he doesn’t already have? And I knew I could make him laugh. And especially with mashups. Back then before we really called them mashups, that’s what I did.
So the first year, I made a Christmas tape of one hour with my crazy little sound modules. At that time, you had one module for each sound. This is the machine that makes a bass guitar sound. So you have a whole wall of these, and so I made Christmas tapes like that. Because I knew I could make him laugh. There was no CD; it was cassettes. I think I made a hundred cassettes. And I gave them out as Christmas presents. And I hadn’t given them out more than two or three days, and everybody’s calling me and saying, “I gotta have more. I want to give these for Christmas.” And I was like, “What? Oh my God, it’s so expensive.” It takes so long to make, because back when I started, you couldn’t do them in fast speed. It was real time. It took an hour to make an hour tape. So I was constantly making those tapes. And so I did that for 18 years. So now we’re talking 18 hours of some craziest Christmas music you have ever heard. I’d been doing band about 15 years when I came back, one of my friends said, “You ought to do those for band.” And I said, “Oh no. I’m not doing that for band people. They’re either going to be offended by what I did to these Christmas carols. Or they’re going to, even worse, not take me seriously.” When in all honesty, that is way harder to do than anything else, you know, to make musicians laugh, and to do it in a way where it still sounds like music, you know, P.D.Q. Bach. I absolutely love it. And I absolutely love Christmas music because to me, as an American, especially as an American that has travelled to so many countries at different times of the year and I feel what great history they have. We don’t have that. You know? We’re like 230 years you know. We don’t have it. We don’t really have folk music like they do. But our folk music is Christmas music. We all know it. We all sing it. You know. There isn’t a person in the United States that doesn’t know “Jingle Bells.” That’s our folk music.
It’s the only kind of folk music we have. Truthfully. I mean, nobody’s sitting around singing you know, “Dixie.” You know, the Civil War kind of ruined whatever music we had at that time. But again, none of our Civil War music was original. It all came from Europe. All of it. Stephen Foster was the biggest plagiarist in the world. None of his tunes are original. None of them. You can find them all in Ireland, England, France, you can find them all. With some of them, he was so lazy he didn’t even change the key of the original piece. So I’m not sure he wrote anything that was original. He was kind of like a spin doctor. “Camptown ladies sing this song”—that’s not his song. That is an Irish tune. And so Christmas music is ours. Even though it came from all these other places, it’s what we all know. To me that’s what folk music is. That if you were to just grab somebody off the street and sing it, they know it. Right?
FJO: So maybe the compromise then is to do some kind of chamber music based on the Christmas songs for five people so we can have some music of yours to play in 2020?
JG: Actually, after I finish my symphony, I am going to write another Christmas album, because I’ve got a friend who wants to do it with his band and he’s like, “We’ve got to do this.” So I’m like, “Great, I’m fine with it.” And that was entering my mind, even though I won’t be writing it for another six months, that was entering my mind because I was like, is it going to for whole band, or is going to be adaptable, because that’s the only way we’re going to be able to record it.
So in my mind, that is kind of where I’m at thinking how is this going to work? But I’ll make it work. If it looks like six, eight months from now, it looks like that’s where we’re gonna be, then that’s what it’ll be. It’ll be an adaptable, white trash Christmas. That’s what it’ll be. I’m dreaming of a white trash Christmas. I actually feel like that’s what I’m dreaming now because it’s kind of the way I think Christmas is going to feel. As I’m writing my symphony, I’m going to pretend that everything is back to normal. And so when it does happen, whenever it is normal, it’ll be there. But, of course there’s not much normal about this symphony; I gotta tell you: It’s out there.
FJO: Well I can’t wait to hear it.
JG: You and me both.
FJO: Anyway, I’m glad we had an hour of your time. Thank you so much for chatting with us. This has been long overdue. We’ve got to think that things will go back to some kind of—I don’t want to say normal, because we don’t want it to be normal. We want it to be better somehow. Hopefully we’ll have learned something from the last eight months, which will be longer than this, and be better for it, and create better music and all of it. But it’s been great to be able to share at least an hour of this crazy quarantine time talking to you.
JG: Well, you know it’s always fun talking to a crazy person. I have a feeling it’s going to be about a year. I mean a year from when it started to a year when we start to crawl out of our hibernation. I have the feeling that’s probably about what it’s going to be, probably a year from now when we’re all playing again. That’s kind of like Christmas. Isn’t it? I mean, that’s gonna be like our Christmas when we can all get together again. And do it again. And I’m kind of trying to keep it in that box. To know that it’s coming. To know it’s going to be a painful countdown. Just like counting down to Christmas when you’re a kid. But when it happens, it’s gonna be amazing. And you know it make me smile just thinking that. Just thinking about being in a rehearsal again with people. Hugging each other. Talking. Laughing. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Boy is it going to be something when it does comes back!