Is it Art

I like it, but is it Art?

Perhaps you prefer Dickens and Fassbinder, while I prefer Stephen King and Austin Powers; how can you prove that your taste is better than mine?

December 18th, 2011

I have just returned home from Chicago, after another exciting and disappointing visit to the home of the Chicago Symphony, the Lyric Opera and the Art Institute and of the Mid-West.

The Chicago Symphony played at 1.30pm to an audience of old age pensioners like me, sensitive, radiant performances of Mahler, Beethoven and Brahms arranged Schoenberg, At the Lyric Opera I heard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos conducted wonderfully by Sir Andrew Davis, a work in which I played some fifty years ago at Sadlers Wells under Sir Colin Davis. The Art Institute rated two visits, with its unbelievable collection of Old Masters, Impressionists and Contemporary pictures. I could not help reflecting on whether the wind ensemble, symphonic winds, wind band, call it what you will, is capable of such sensitivity, such refinement, such emotion. Percy Grainger obviously thought so, when he wrote:

Why this cold-shouldering of the wind band by most composers? Is the wind band – with its varied assortment of reeds (so much richer than the reeds of the symphony orchestra), its complete saxophone family that is found nowhere else… its army of brass (both wide-bore and narrow-bore) – not the equal of any medium ever conceived? As a vehicle of deeply emotional expression it seems to me unrivalled.

The disappointment came from the commercialism that pays for the Mid-West, and the business of turning out music for education, entertainment, sport, or all three. The activity is incredible, dozens of bands playing to a very high standard in programmes with strict rules as to the grades and date of publication, but like so much band music it is activity rather than any attempt at art. In the old days, I would assiduously attend every concert and note down anything that touched me emotionally, anything I would want to play. After attendance at many mind-sapping concerts, wonderfully played, of poor commercial music, many moons ago I came away with three works:

David Maslanka Rollo Takes a Walk Kjos Grade 3
Jay Chattaway Mazama William Allen Grade 3/4
Andreas Makris Improvisations; Rhythms Ballerbach Grade 4/5

The Maslanka work is rare in the wind band world, a genuinely funny piece, and the shortest of Maslanka’s works by many minutes. I found the Chattaway evocative and interesting, while the Makris with its aleatoric writing, its gentle exploration of twelve-tone music and its exploration of Greek mixed meters remains one of my favourite works at this level. There have been other works which I missed, but how many of them could one call significant or great, but in any case, it is clear that on the whole band music is an activity, not an art.

Cynthia Freeland in her book But is it Art? An introduction to art theory, poses the conundrum on taste: Perhaps you prefer Dickens and Fassbinder, while I prefer Stephen King and Austin Powers; how can you prove that your taste is better than mine? After one of my diatribes on repertoire, a colleague in Germany wrote chiding me, and pointing out that One man’s meat is another man’s poison. He and Freeland are both right of course, and I would not dare to dictate taste, but simply and humbly share my likes, and by implication dislikes.

Below is a listing of a few more works which probably have not been played at the Mid-West but which would offer some musical ideas for a Grade 4 level group to get its teeth into. Fergus O’Carroll is setting up a new forum for the exchange of repertoire ideas on the WASBE site. If you have strong feelings in support of other pieces, why not write to me at or get onto the WASBE Forum and reach a wider audience?

Works at around Grade 4
Aeolian Carillons Edwin Roxburgh Maecenas
Blackwater Fergal Carroll Maecenas
Choralis Tonalis Marco Pütz Bronsheim
Dance Sequence Marco Pütz Maecenas
Deep Soul Diving Emily Howard Maecenas
Die Judenbuche Marco Pütz Bronsheim
Divertimento Guy Woolfenden Ariel
Dusk Steve Bryant Gorilla Salad
Freya’s Call Andrew Duncan
Hymn for Africa Peter Meechan
Lachrymae Yo Goto Brain Music/Bravo Music
Natalis Martin Ellerby Maecenas
Passacaglia Timothy Jackson Maecenas
Poem Scott Boerma Neil A Kjos
Sunriuse and Safari Adam Gorb Maecenas
Sun Low over Water Bill Connor Maecenas
Tales from Andersen Martin Ellerby Studio
Tranquility Adam Gorb Maecenas
Whirlwind Jodie Blackshaw Manhattan Beach Music