A Composer's Adventures

The Musical Ensemble of the Future

The University of Washington Wind Ensemble. (Joanne DePue)

The University of Washington Wind Ensemble. (Joanne DePue)

I’m fortunate to have found a world that is interested in new music — commissioning it, refining it and turning out great performances. It is the world of wind ensembles that are flourishing in most of our larger universities and colleges.

Culturally they may be off the beaten track being part of academia and performing largely on campuses. But in reality they compete very well in musical excellence and numbers of performances compared to symphony orchestras. These worlds are close to my heart and I have written many works for both.

For some time I have felt that I’m off the radar of symphony orchestras, where there is fierce competition for the few slots allotted to new music. Fortunately I don’t miss orchestras, because university students in wind ensembles often play extraordinarily well. The reason for this leap in quality is a different brand of university band conductors in recent years. They are free of the usual band-type traditions and are eager to create and present new repertoire.

Here is a sampling of my inspiring collaborators:

·     Frank Battisti (formerly New England Conservatory)

·     Gary Green (University of Miami)

·     Michael Haithcock (University of Michigan)

·     Craig Kirchhoff (University of Minnesota)

·     Allan McMurray  (newly retired from University of Colorado)

·     Mallory Thompson (Northwestern University)

·     Glen Adsit (The Hartt School)

·     Dan Belongia (Illinois State University)

·     Jerry Junkin (University of Texas)

·     Sarah McKoin (Texas Tech University)

·     Eric Wilson (Baylor University)

·     Eugene Corporon (University of North Texas)

·     Brian Lamb (Central Oklahoma University)

·     Robert Ambrose (Georgia State University)

·     Emily Threinen (Temple University)

…. I could go on.

I feel completely at home when visiting these universities, where I often give workshops and talks in combination with performances of my music. Students are refreshing company in these vibrant and creative environments. Some of my recent highlights were:

·     Resident composer at New York University in Fredonia with a concert of my ‘Winds of Nagual’ conducted excellently by Paula Holcomb.

·     The following week at Georgia State University, where Robert Ambrose conducted an excellent performance of ‘Arctic Dreams.’

Other wind groups that have given top notch performances of my works in the past year are Baylor University and the universities of Central Oklahoma, Illinois State, British Columbia and Toronto.  It is very inspiring for this senior composer!

Comparing music at universities and in symphony orchestras may seem useless, because audiences are different and one is a business. However, I strongly encourage people to look for university concerts as very inspiring and easier on your pocketbook — if not free.

Another reason for the high quality of music on campuses is that university wind ensembles can put in more rehearsal hours than symphony orchestras, which offer scant rehearsal time. That is like honey to composers, who gravitate to the wind medium. Also, universities are much more open to experimentation. My most recent piece, “Urban Nocturne” is for solo clarinet, cello,  piano,  and wind ensemble, to be premiered in April, 2015. It will mark Gary Green’s retirement as Director of Bands at Miami University. At my elder age, I feel excitement and gratitude at being included in this rich musical environment. It would be great to share it with the wider public.

Michael Colgrass


  1. Very interesting Michael. This is sage advice for new composers or for established composers to hear their new works.

    I work in a college environment and am amazed at the prowess of the players. In my situation where my ensembles are focused on improvisation the ensemble parts tend to be played well but interpretation is lacking. Improvisation is a subtle art and most need a lot of experience to gain prowess in speaking a musical language. There is however, as you point out, a great willingness to explore and take chances that professionals and established orchestras balk at.

    Frank Zappa once managed to get the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra to burp on cue. Aside from whether or not this is a valid musical punctuation I can’t but see it as a great accomplishment!

  2. I wil never forget the thrill of hearing your Urban Requiem performed at Acadia University. It was indeed an induction into a new world – one of the most stimulating and inspiring musical events of my life…. and one which will, I hope, bear fruit. Thank you – for that splendid music, and for this timely and eloquent post!

  3. So true– I’ve been saying this for over one decade, but kept my projects with piano and orchestra for the most part. If I could assemble several wind ensembles to commission new works for piano and wind ensemble, I might venture into this market. seems there might be universities with such budgets to do so, and we can perform these new works, tied in with master classes in piano and choral music. Might be fun. I would welcome this new avenue.

  4. Great blog post, Michael! The adventure and wonder created by helping bring a new work to life is exactly why I chose the wind ensemble. It is the tenth anniversary of “Raag Mala” and your three-day residency at SUU where you had a profound impact on me, Patrick Roulet, and all of our students.

  5. I went to McGill where the ensembles are very hierarchal, with the Wind Symphony at the bottom of the ladder, so I wasn’t thrilled to be in it in my second year… it turned out that my most musically fulfilling concert of an official McGill ensemble was a WS concert that year, where we performed your Urban Requiem for sax quartet and wind ensemble. It was the first time I got the feeling I always imagined the musicians premiering a work by Shostakovich or Mahler must have felt– of responding musically, vitally, to the world that actually exists around you. I got that feeling a lot more during my two years in WS than I have in any of the many orchestras I’ve been in.

  6. Bravo Michael!!! This is an incredibly eloquent and well though out statement. We MUST continue to support NEW music and our composers who write for these genres. The WInd Band medium supports new music more than any music form that I am aware of. The WInd Band world WANTS new music. We thrive on bringing new and exciting sonorities and sounds to the world. Wind Bands support composers who ARE brave enough to write for us. In addition to the great Wind Bands that are on our music scene, there are “record labels” such as mine, Mark Masters and Mark Records, who are almost entirely comprised of Wind Band music! I LOVE Beethoven but I’m sort of tired of hearing orchestras constantly performing the “same old stuff. ” Congratulations Michael for stating this in the manner you did! I am excited to see new music and I encourage ALL of my artists to perform at least one world premiere on every release. With the WInd Band being so open to new music, I am 100% sure, WInd Band will be the “Classical” music of the 21st century! New is good. Those who do not change with the times, will wither and die.

  7. Adam: When you get your courage up you’ll write for it? No courage needed. Wind ensemble directors are very helpful and open to newcomers to the medium. I’d sit in on wind ensemble rehearsals—not in the audience seats but rather right inside the ensemble—to get a feel of it. It’s a fun medium to write for and you can design your own ensemble, no obligations on orchestration.

  8. Mr. Colgrass, I was a member of Baylor’s Wind Ensemble while you worked with us. You truly inspired us to be at our best. I will never forget your pieces, as I could nearly be put into the music’s setting. I almost felt the chill of our Arctic Dreams performance and the heat of the deserts in Winds of Nagual. It’s been an honor, thank you for your tireless work in a career field that is truly worth it. Your pieces will continue to be played for years and years to come.

  9. Andy, It was an honor and a pleasure to have such an excellent ensemble as that of Baylor playing my music. I just had a premiere of a new work for clarinet, cello, piano and wind ensemble, so I continue to write for this exciting medium with great interest. Michael

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