Suspending Time and Figuring Out the Impossible—Remembering David Maslanka (1943-2017)
My first exposure to David Maslanka’s music was a monumental, life changing experience for me as a young college wind band conductor. His music speaks, regardless of the technical proficiency of the individuals or the collective ensemble, and it communicates at a deeply intense and personal level. I grew very close to his music and this quiet, generous man became my dear friend.
Generous. Kind. Humanitarian. Gentle. Mentor. Humble. Friend. Oh, and a composer. My first exposure to David Maslanka’s music was in the spring of 1986 at the University of Arizona when I led a performance of his 1981 wind ensemble composition A Child’s Garden of Dreams which had been commissioned by John and Marietta Paynter for the Northwestern University Symphonic Wind Ensemble. Conducting this music was a monumental, life changing experience for me as a young college wind band conductor and it was a work I returned to many times over the next twenty-six years. (Interestingly, A Child’s Garden of Dreams was both the first and last piece of David’s that I programmed, the last being in November of 2012, my final concert and recording session at ISU.)
I vividly recall sitting with Gary Green listening to the premiere performance of David’s Symphony No. 2 during the 1987 CBDNA Convention in Evanston, Illinois, gripping the seat, spellbound. The performing group was the combined Symphonic Band and Symphonic Wind Ensemble of Northwestern University conducted by John Paynter. Mr. Paynter had David say “a few words” prior to the premiere performance and I remember how this quiet, introspective individual speaking from the heart about his music captured me.
I moved to Normal, Illinois in the fall of 1987, beginning a quarter of a century journey with the Illinois State University Wind Symphony. When I arrived, I found a small, disheveled, underdeveloped group of students. We set about building an ensemble in an environment that previously had no wind band offering in the fall semester. In the spring of 1989, I “heroically” programmed Child’s Garden, which was a HUGE undertaking and underscores my naïveté at the time. David was very receptive to phone conversations, helping me realize the nature of his composition. He also spent time talking with a particular student who was having extreme misgivings about origins and the deeper meaning of his music.
Gary Green commissioned a “major work” from David, premiering Symphony No. 3 at the University of Connecticut in the fall of 1991. I attended the final couple of rehearsals and the premiere in Storrs taking advantage of the opportunity to spend some quality time with David on a couple of occasions, growing closer to his music and this quiet, generous man who would become my dear friend.
In the spring of 1993, both David and Gary came to campus for the final rehearsals and a performance of Symphony No. 3. I remember the experience being a real struggle for everyone involved, not the least of which were David and Gary.
When David was asked to write a piece, he composed until the music was finished. There was not a magic number of measures, nor was there a duration goal. Gary asked for a “major work,” not necessarily expecting a piece of the size and scope of Maslanka’s Third Symphony. Jerry Junkin commissioned a small work, maybe ten minutes or so, and received Symphony No. 4!
I attended the final rehearsal and premiere of the 4th in Austin, Texas and developed a stronger, more intense relationship with David. We programmed it at ISU in the fall of 1994. That final week of rehearsals with David was the seminal experience for me, making a connection that lasted two decades. Following the stunning conclusion of the symphony and multiple “curtain” calls, I recall that David and I stood in the adjacent room for what seemed like an eternity waiting for the ensemble and audience to emerge from the performance space. Students and audience members alike said they were just “too drained” to move.
We commissioned Symphony No. 5, receiving the parts for the first three movements prior to winter break in 2000. The Wind Symphony had a limited number of reading rehearsals before leaving for their break and we planned an extended rehearsal period across the Martin Luther King weekend, just prior to the spring semester beginning. David came to campus for those January rehearsals and we worked our way diligently through the first three movements over a number of rehearsals. Finally, he asked about the fourth movement. The students had it but we hadn’t read it as the parts arrived during the winter break. After we “slashed” our way through the movement, the room was deathly quiet. David slowly looked up and said, “My God, what have I done?” He decided at that moment that he NEVER wanted to be present to hear his music sight read again!!!
By the time of that workshop weekend I felt that I knew David very well. When he visited campus he stayed in my home. David traveled with a rolled up exercise pad he used for a thirty minute yoga stretching each morning at 5:00 or 5:30. He frequently cooked for us. It was not unusual for him to take hour or longer walks. Like the yoga, that too was a period of meditation for him. David HAD to have the daily New York Times cross word puzzle, which he did in ink! David was a very easy houseguest and we had some wonderful chats, not always about the music. We had shared stories, music, philosophy, passionate opinions and laughter. NEVER in all that time had I heard him swear. Not even “damn,” or “hell.” In the course of that long weekend, during one particular read-through, I had a metronome amplified through speakers so the ensemble could hear it, in an effort to help the ensemble develop a unified and steady pulse. David walked up behind me as the ensemble was slashing away and said directly in my ear, “Turn that fucking thing off.” I got the point; I never used a metronome in the same manner again.
Symphony No. 5 was important in many ways to the relationship between David, the Wind Symphony, and myself. David returned to campus for the premiere and to travel on tour, culminating at the University of North Texas, site of the 2001 CBDNA convention. David convinced me that the piece needed to be recorded and released through Albany Records. I resisted, not being a fan of the measure-by-measure recording process that had become standard practice by then. He put me in touch with Jeff Harrison in Massachusetts who talked me through the recording process that would produce a musical representation. Jeff loaded up his gear and met us in Dallas. We arranged the use of a west Dallas high school auditorium and recorded all the repertoire we planned to perform at CBDNA the next day; this became our first Albany release. That began a long relationship with Jeff Harrison, Susan Bush of Albany Records, David and myself, releasing more than twenty recordings through 2013. David produced each and every recording; painstakingly involved whether it was his music or not.
David and I often talked of the “ripple effect.” He realized the importance of working with the conductors and ensemble members who were preparing and performing his works. From a small core of conductors and their students, a “ripple effect” has been occurring and will continue to build. He tried ever so diligently to be present for each and every conductor who invited him to be part of his or her experience.
A former student was asked to describe his experiences with David and said, “You just can’t explain someone’s soul.” David did that; exposed his soul, in his music, in his teaching, in his conversations with you. His music does that with audiences. He and his music communicate at a deeply intense and personal level. To David, the act of making music is pure meditation at its most basic level, music provides the most basic form of communication. If those whom he touched were willing to listen and do the things he suggested, they too would experience these things that seemed so unlikely and confusing to most. Time is suspended when playing and/or listening to David’s music. It never failed. Each and every time on the podium in concert, when turning the final page, I would always think “Really? Already?” David wrote music to satisfy what the music needs rather than the opposite. He frequently told me that he would be finished with a particular composition when the music said it was finished.
David’s music could be extremely difficult, but his expectation was that the musicians would figure out how to make it possible. I recall a trumpet teacher commenting that David didn’t know how to write for trumpet. My reply was that David didn’t know how to write for bad trumpet players. My experience was that for those individuals who were diligently prepared and paid attention to the music, they were better musicians as a result of the process. A tuba player brought an oxygen tank to a rehearsal of David’s Symphony No. 8 to assist him with the sustained B. If you know the piece, you know of what I am speaking. On the side of the cylinder was written “for use during Maslanka’s Symphony No. 8.” Many people have thought that they couldn’t possibly play David’s music with their groups. He would show them that they could. In rehearsals he would make very soft and gentle suggestions, most often regarding what was clearly indicated in the score and parts. He simply called it “paying attention.” I used David’s Collected Chorale Settings, 117 four-part chorales composed in the 18th-century style, to begin every rehearsal in order to set the “tone” and intonation as well as to assist with the notion of “paying attention” and laying the foundation of the ensemble “sound.” David scored these chorales from his daily work with the 371 Four-Part Chorales of J. S. Bach, using the original melodies and composing new alto, tenor and bass lines.
David’s music notation was always very specific. His work in rehearsals to gain the marked tempi and expressive marks made the music come to life. However, to David, it was not about the perfect performance, it was about the experience the musicians and audience could gain from it. David’s music speaks, regardless of the technical proficiency of the individuals or the collective ensemble. Once, during a rehearsal of the final movement of A Child’s Garden of Dreams, I looked at the principal flute who had tears streaming down her cheeks as she played the final flute solo which ends the piece. Yes, she cried during the concert as well.
David had an uncanny ability to connect with people. And I mean, immediately connect with people. He ALWAYS had time for people, whether during a residency, during a convention, on the phone, via email, whatever. It didn’t matter whether the person was a fellow composer, a conductor, a college student, a high school student, or an interested community member, ANYONE. ALWAYS. It was not unusual for David to have developing composers visit Missoula for a week or more of lessons and meditation.
David always used pencil writing his scores. Always. He told me it connected him more personally to the music. I believe that to be true.
David kept a relentless schedule of residencies. Typically, he travelled from November through May, spending time with conductors and ensembles that invited him to their campuses. He worked with community groups, high school bands, and university ensembles. He connected with students, conductors, and community members, causing the ripples to spread and grow.
The work we did with David on No. 5 led to more commissions. We commissioned, premiered and recorded symphonies 7, 8 and 9. Between 2001 and 2012, there were many other commissions, premieres and recording projects as well. He wrote many lovely concerti for wind instruments and wind ensemble, occasionally utilizing beautiful cello writing in the score. One of David’s favorite compositions was A Carl Sandburg Reader for baritone and soprano voice and wind ensemble. (David had a strong connection to both Abraham Lincoln and Carl Sandburg.)
During his residency for No. 9 we made plans to commission Symphony No. 10. David was adamant about needing to write 10. We decided to let a bit of time lapse following 9 before building plans for 10. Our goal was to premiere and record 10 in the spring of 2014, which I projected to be my retirement concert. Things came to a sudden and unexpected end when I left ISU in the spring of 2013. What to do with 10? David had a growing stack of sketches that “belong in 10.” During the spring of 2014 we came to an agreement with another conductor to lead the consortium supporting the completion of 10. The consortium got off to a rather slow beginning, picking up steam in the summer of 2016.
At almost the same time, a consortium for No. 11 filled its membership rapidly, putting 10 in jeopardy. David asked if I would complete the consortium for 10, to which I agreed. My goal was to reach forty members. I only achieved thirty, but David assured me that it didn’t matter, 10 was well on its way. We aimed for a September 2017 premiere with a Tucson professional ensemble. The premiere of No. 11 was to be in the spring of 2018 and he would get some space between them.
The residency travels between November 2016 and May 2017 were particularly grueling for David. He complained of constant fatigue and the inability to compose. When he was finally finished and returned home for the summer, his wife Alison was bedridden. Very soon after that, David not only found that Alison was terminally ill but that he was in an advanced stage of colon cancer. Through all of this, Alison continued to urge him to complete 10 since it was through his composing that he lived. Alison passed away on July 3 and David passed away on August 6.
Before his death, David told me he was dedicating 10 to Alison. His scoring was complete for the first movement and most all of the second. He had crossed out the work on the third movement and replaced it with sketches. This was to be the centerpiece for Alison. The fourth movement is fully sketched but will require some interpretation. He left clear notes for an anticipated completion of the symphony. David’s son, Matthew, owner of Maslanka Press, who knows his father’s sketches and composing well, is convinced at this point that he will be able to successfully complete the score. We hope for a March 2018 premiere. Nearly all the membership of the No. 11 consortium is opting to join with the No. 10 membership. All commission fees will become the seed money for the Maslanka Foundation.
My wife Andrea and I, along with many of our friends and colleagues, will travel to Missoula for a September 3 memorial honoring Alison and David. I am a better person having known David. The world is a better place having David’s music. May the ripples continue.