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Composer Jan Bach and the Steelpan

The first concerto ever written for steelpan and orchestra

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

Global - “Concerto for Steelpan and Orchestra” - the ground-breaking 22-minute work of composer and educator Dr. Jan Bach of Northern Illinois University (NIU) - was most recently performed by NIU baccalaureate and soon to be Masters candidate, panist Mia Gormandy. Originally written for then student, world-renowned panist Liam Teague (and now-Assistant Professor of Steel Pan and co-director of NIU’s steelband) back in 1994, it has since been performed throughout the USA and as far afield as Prague, capital of the Czech Republic.

Dr. Bach has taught at NIU for almost forty years, and has under his belt a comprehensive body of work written for nearly every acoustic instrument and/or ensemble, including eight or nine solo concertos with orchestra and five brass quintets. He has since additionally penned the thirty-minute “Songs of the Streetwise,” for choir, soloists, and a small steelband with percussion, based on poems by Chicago’s homeless people.  In an interview, this illustrious and innovative musician/educator shares with When Steel Talks the impetus behind his initial involvement with the steelpan, classical music written for the instrument, and his overall thoughts on the movement to date.


WST: Tell us a little bit about yourself?


Jan Bach

JB: I was born in a small farm town in central Illinois and attended the University of Illinois where I received the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in 1971. My principal composition teachers were Robert Kelly and Kenneth Gaburo, with additional work with Aaron Copland, Roberto Gerhard, and Thea Musgrave. For nearly forty years beginning in 1966 I taught at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb after three years as associate first horn in the U. S. Army Band, Washington D. C., and a year teaching at the University of Tampa. NIU selected me as one of its first Distinguished University Research Professors in 1983, after a one-act opera of mine was performed at the New York City Opera under Beverly Sills’ direction. I’ve written for nearly every acoustic instrument and/or ensemble, including eight or nine solo concertos with orchestra and five brass quintets.

WST: How did you come into contact with the steelpan instrument?
JB: I watched the development of the steelpan program at NIU from its inception and beginning by G. Allan O’Connor, the NIU percussion teacher and my fellow graduate student at the University of Illinois where we both played in the university orchestra.

WSTWhat gravitated you towards the instrument?
JB:  I was intrigued with the vitality of this medium and the fun our college students -- mostly studying other degrees -- obviously got out of playing in this ensemble, but I didn’t take the group seriously until they reached the performance level to play transcriptions of traditional composers, including Bach chorales, which showed a level of sensitivity, dynamic contrast, and the performance skills necessary to play anything thrown at them.  It also helped that they all came from other instrumental studies and could read music -- a skill so often lacking in an ensemble whose forerunners in Trinidad and Tobago depended primarily on rote teaching and memorization.

WST
What inspired you to write “Concerto for Steelpan and Orchestra”?

JB:  The artistry of Liam Teague. We had had some really good soloists in the past, but when Liam appeared on campus around 1993 his performances made me realize the full capabilities of the pan as a solo instrument. He was, and is, a charismatic performer with complete control of his instrument and, in the words of the Chicago Tribune music critic, can probably play the instrument faster “than anybody can play anything.”

WST: Was it really written for the “soprano pan”?
JB: I called it that in my program notes, but it may have been a tenor pan or another voice part. Liam’s instrument extends from the D above middle C (D4) for over two octaves to high F# (F#6) which gives it a slightly larger number of notes than other pans in this range.

WST: How did Liam come to perform the piece?
JB: I wrote the work for Liam in the summer of 1994 after asking him if he would be interested in a work he could play with orchestra. NIU has an annual concerto concert for which our best students vie for the opportunity to play a concerto and I realized that unless Liam played a Vivaldi work, a transcription which would not be allowed in the competition, there was nothing else he could compete with. Of course, I went way overboard and wrote a twenty minute-piece which was twice as long as the competition allowed. Liam never did play the work on the concerto concert, but the NIU School of Music director had long hoped for an NIU partnership with Paul Freeman and his Chicago Sinfonietta, and this piece became the focal point of that partnership. Since his initial performance of the concerto, Liam has performed it with twelve or thirteen orchestras ranging from Seattle to Buffalo to the Kennedy Center to Prague.

WST: Have you written anything else for the steelpan instrument?
JB: I wrote a version of the concerto for solo steelpan and our NIU Steel Band, and it was in that arrangement that Liam first played the work, on the NIU campus under the direction of Ronnie Wooten. When Nancy Menck, conductor of the (Indiana) South Bend Chamber Singers heard Liam play the concerto with the NW Indiana Symphony Orchestra in Munster, she commissioned me to write a work for steelpan and her choir. The result was the thirty-minute Songs of the Streetwise, for choir, soloists, and a small steelband with percussion, based on poems by Chicago’s homeless people. Liam was able to take part in the premiere performance in 2002. I learned only shortly before the performance in Notre Dame, Indiana, that Notre Dame was a regional center for the distribution of food and clothing to homeless people.

 


Mia Gormandy, Jan Bach and Allan O’Connor


WST: Have you ever considered writing a piece for the full family of steelpan instruments?
JB: Songs of the Streetwise was my one effort in this direction, although the ensemble was reduced to about seven players. I haven’t ruled out additional works for this medium in the future if I am commissioned to do so, but I don’t pretend to be able to compete with the excellent arrangers who work with and play these instruments every day, and who have grown up with the traditions of steelpan.

WST: Do you listen to steelpan music in general?
JB: Rarely, although I do try to attend the twice-yearly concerts of the NIU Steel Band. And, of course, the pan has been used extensively in music of all kinds, including mass media advertising, a lot since Disney’s Under the Sea helped to popularize the sound of the instrument.

WST: If so - do you have any favorite composers/arrangers?
JB: It was Oscar “Archie” Haugland, an NIU composer/arranger, who wrote the first Bach chorale arrangements I heard for this ensemble. Al O’Connor has arranged some really ambitious concert works for steel band. I like Liam’s original “chamber” works for small steel ensembles. And I always enjoy Cliff Alexis’ originals for the whole ensemble.

WST: What is your take on the future of the steelpan instrument?
JB: I think the pan will eventually be accepted as a serious concert instrument in the same way that the saxophone, accordion and pan pipes were eventually accepted. But I think, in order for this to happen, the performers will have to abandon rote memorization and learn to read music -- but in doing so I hope the ensemble doesn’t lose the loose, free, exciting spontaneous qualities for which it is known and appreciated.

WST: How do your contemporaries/peers view the steelpan instrument - is it still considered an exotic instrument for the islands, and the beach?
JB: I think many trained and/or academic musicians still associate the ensemble with the outdoors, where it sounds great and doesn’t need the concert hall acoustic that so many other ensembles depend on. And because of the constant stereotyped images we see on TV and in the movies, it is really hard to disassociate the instruments from the beach and the islands where they originated. I do think the ensemble is no longer considered a substitute for bamboo sticks and other, more violent means of expressing oneself in street gangs, but an enjoyable alternative to the handbell choir, the balalaika orchestra, other massed groups of similar instruments. And I think people are surprised at just how bell-like, delicate and quiet the ensemble can play when called upon to do so.

WST: Recently When Steel Talks saw a young composer by the name of Andy Akiho at the Manhattan School of Music - parent a body of work for the steelpan instrument - www.panonthenet.com/news/2009/may/Akiho-show-5-2-09.htm do you think this will become more prevalent?
JB: I have no idea. I don’t really consider myself a particular spokesperson or champion for the steel band over any other large ensemble I’ve written for; they all have assets and liabilities.

And thanks very much for seeking me out for this interview!


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Contact Jan Bach at http://whensteeltalks.ning.com/profile/JanBach

Click to see Mia Normandy performing Jan Bach’s “Concerto for Steelpan and Orchestra” with NIU’s Philharmonic Orchestra

For more information on Jan Bach and “Concerto for Steelpan and Orchestra” - www.janbach.com.  This would include program notes at http://www.janbach.com/page87.html and an extensive interview with Bryan Miller about the work at http://www.janbach.com/Steelpan%20Concerto.pdf


Steelpan Concerto with orchestra
Program Notes by the composer

The solo part of the Steelpan Concerto was actually written for soprano pan, a steel instrument which usually plays the primary part in the Caribbean steel bands. The work was composed in the late summer of 1994 for Liam Teague, a young musician from Trinidad whose musicianship inspired the work, and with the financial assistance of the Woodstock Chimes Foundation, Garry and Diane Kvistad, presidents. It is also an homage to Al O’Connor and the NIU Steel Band -- one of the oldest such university groups in existence -- and to the artistry of steel drum builder Cliff Alexis, whose instruments’ incredible intonation and tone make them worthy partners in any serious musical endeavor. The work was actually conceived in terms of three distinctly different accompaniments to back up the solo pan player: piano, steel band, and full orchestra. It was also written in such a way that additional parts from the steel band could be added to augment the soloist and his accompanying forces in orchestral performances. Its idiom is a popular one, similar to some extent to the music indigenous to the Caribbean islands, from which it borrows its percussion section.

The work is in two main sections connected by an extended solo cadenza. The first movement’s title, Reflections, is not only a description of its musical content, style, and tempo, but carries an additional meaning: in Europe reflection is a synonym for pealing, the action of striking a bell. In this context, the movement’s title refers to the bell-like sound of the Alexis instruments; the climax of the movement is intended to be reminiscent of the “change-ringing” of bells popular as a seasonal sport in English church steeples. The second movement, Toccata (touch piece), also carries a double meaning. It is not only an opportunity for the soloist to display his machine- rhythm speed, accuracy, and virtuosity as well as his phenomenal dynamic control; it is also a connection with that Baroque past with which the name of this composer -- despite all efforts to the contrary -- is forever associated.

- Jan Bach -


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