By Wynn-Anne Rossi
Composer, Arranger, Teacher
Following the premiere of Skyscraper at the 2014 MTNA National Conference, I walked to the John Hancock Center with a friend and took a speedy elevator to the 96th floor. In a quiet lounge, I gazed over the many skyscrapers of Chicago. I could see Lake Michigan and the famous ferris wheel at Navy Pier, so tiny from this perspective. The jazzy sounds of the new piece were fresh, and they played in my mind as I watched the tall, twinkling lights of the city. What a day!
This experience all started about a year ago when I got a phone call. Ann Witherspoon, director of the MTNA Collaborative Commissioning Project, asked if I would be interested in being one of two commissioned composers for the 2014 MTNA National Conference. This was not a difficult question to answer. Yes! The commission was for a late intermediate trio, and we discussed possibilities for instrumentation. My inklings were towards jazz, and we settled on Bb clarinet, Eb alto saxophone, and piano.
When I compose, I usually begin with a seedling of an idea. In this case, it was…skyscraper. I came to Chicago as a child, and these towering giants made a huge impression on me. As a composer, I love the presence of architecture in music. My mind went to the skeleton of the structure, full of steel girders forming squares and triangles. I liked the idea of representing these shapes through my harmonic and melodic choices using minor 3rds and 4ths (quartal harmony). I also looked up the famous “Chicago Poems” by Carl Sandburg.
“By night the skyscraper looms in the smoke and the stars and has a soul.”
–final line of “Skyscraper” from Chicago Poems by Carl Sandburg
Full of inspiration, I sat down at the piano. After briefly experimenting with ascending and descending 3rds and 4ths, the music began to take shape. As many writers will admit, a piece will take on a life of its own, and you enter a place of trust as it creates itself. I was particularly pleased with a “nature break” that happened in the music, featuring two gliding birds. Then came the revision stage! In fact, I wrote two entirely different endings. One landed gracefully at ground level, and the other flew off the top! I hope listeners are pleased with my final choice.
Click the button below to listen to a recording of the MTNA performance of Skyscraper with Janice Wenger on piano, Leo Saguiguit on saxophone and Paul Garritson on clarinet.
The first rehearsal with live performers is always a magical moment. Imagination becomes reality! Through the incredible talents of faculty musicians from the University of Missouri-Columbia, the skyscraper emerged with Janice Wenger on piano, Leo Saguiguit on sax and Paul Garritson on clarinet. By the time the audience arrived and the actual performance began, my bubbly nature had bubbled over. I would like to say that I am always calm and professional in these situations, but I simply had too much fun to behave!
The MTNA Collaborative Commissioning Project is a valuable gift to composers, performers, and teachers. Ensemble music is particularly exciting, bringing musicians together to celebrate new works. From small local groups to national organizations like MTNA, commissioning programs such as these help to inspire new works well into our future. No group is too small. LAMTA, with four teachers in Langdon, North Dakota sets an excellent example. They are hosting a Latin Festival in May, 2014 with a commissioned finale. As a composer, these projects are incredibly energizing, and they help me discover the inspiration to keep doing what I enjoy the most.