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BLUE SHADES for concert band

Blue Shades by Frank Ticheli. Hear streaming audio on this page. Suitable for college and high school bands, and advanced community bands, 10 minutes duration, Grade 4 1/2.


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Blue Shades:
The Music of Frank Ticheli (CD)

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In 1992 I composed a concerto for traditional jazz band and orchestra, Playing With Fire, for the Jim Cullum Jazz Band and the San Antonio Symphony. That work was composed as a celebration of the traditional jazz music I heard so often while growing up near New Orleans.

I experienced tremendous joy during the creation of Playing With Fire, and my love for early jazz is expressed in every bar of the concerto. However, after completing it I knew that the traditional jazz influences dominated the work, leaving little room for my own musical voice to come through. I felt a strong need to compose another work, one that would combine my love of early jazz with my own musical style.

Blue Shades

Four years, and several compositions later, I finally took the opportunity to realize that need by composing Blue Shades. As its title suggests, the work alludes to the Blues, and a jazz feeling is prevalent -- however, it is in not literally a Blues piece. There is not a single 12-bar blues progression to be found, and except for a few isolated sections, the eighth-note is not swung.

The work, however, is heavily influenced by the Blues: "Blue notes" (flatted 3rds, 5ths, and 7ths) are used constantly; Blues harmonies, rhythms, and melodic idioms pervade the work; and many "shades of blue" are depicted, from bright blue, to dark, to dirty, to hot blue.

At times, Blue Shades burlesques some of the clichés from the Big Band era, not as a mockery of those conventions, but as a tribute. A slow and quiet middle section recalls the atmosphere of a dark, smoky blues haunt. An extended clarinet solo played near the end recalls Benny Goodman's hot playing style, and ushers in a series of "wailing" brass chords recalling the train whistle effects commonly used during that era.

Blue Shades was commissioned by a consortium of thirty university, community, and high school concert bands under the auspices of the Worldwide Concurrent Premieres and Commissioning Fund. All of the commissioning parties are acknowledged at the end of these program notes.

Thematic material

The minor third is by far the most important interval in Blue Shades. During most of the opening one hundred and fifteen measures, the minor third is repeated in the background as a kind of musical thread that ties and connects a rich array of foreground events. The minor third is also used as a building block for most of the work's themes, including an important bass theme that first appears in measure 46:

Barely noticeable at first, this theme takes on increasing significance as the piece progresses. It appears frequently as a bass accompaniment, and twice as the basis for canonic passages that drive into the work's explosive climaxes (measures 249 - 64, and 388 - 98).

Late in the work, this bass theme is transformed into a walking bass ostinato. (Note that the circled pitches are a minor third transposition of the original measure 46 bass line.)

This ostinato serves as an accompaniment to an extended clarinet solo. The solo sounds improvised (as do many other solos and passages in the work), but in fact is notated in meticulous detail.

One final example reveals several crucial aspects about the work's motivic, harmonic and rhythmic structure. The extent to which the minor third (marked with an "x") sounds on many levels simultaneously is clearly seen. In addition, the clarinet and bassoon reveal the work's all-important polymodal harmonic structure (G Major/Minor, or, more precisely, G Mixolydian/Dorian). Finally, polymeter is suggested between the foreground material (3/4) and the bassoon (implied 2/4).

Rehearsal notes

In performance, maintain a high-spirited energy and jazz feeling throughout, even when the 8th note is not swung. The players should exaggerate all accented notes to bring out the jazzy syncopations; however, they should not seek to enhance the jazz feeling by improvising, or adding jazz idioms beyond those notated (e.g., no added grace notes, glissandi, bends, swoops, or scoops). Part of the piece's success lies in its understatement of these conventions.

The form is through-composed and very free; however, it can be divided roughly into six large sections:

Section I (1 - 68) Introductory Material

The brass chords in measures 3 - 14 should be very staccato, energetic, and distinct (Stravinskian). The trombone and trumpet notes in measures 18 - 25 reinforce the clarinet line, and must be played percussively, and exactly in synchronization with the clarinets. Exaggerate all notes marked sf in measures 34 - 38, 52, and 64.

Section II (69 - 172) Exposition and main themes

The multi-layered texture is elaborate, but should always sound transparent and vibrant, like a lively, compelling conversation. In measures 135 - 137, the horn players should not lose intensity as they flatten the notes slightly with hand in bell. The timpani and bass drum should powerfully and rudely interrupt the horns in measure 138. A brash energy emerges suddenly in measure 140 with the entrance of a wild two-part canon. The cowbell player must keep the momentum driving forward. The tempo must not drag here.

Section III (173 - 270) D pedal and climax

This section's machine-like strictness contrasts with the jazzier feeling of the previous sections. The underlying eighth-note D natural pedal that begins in the 2nd flutes and marimba must be played with strict precision, always heard, but never dominating.

A canonic passage (beginning in measure 249) bursts forth in an explosive climax at measure 265. The horn rips should be played as loudly and tastefully as possible here.

Section IV (271 - 320) Dark and Dirty

There should be absolutely no change in tempo at measure 271. Do not start the ritardando earlier than marked. The bass clarinet solos (measures 284 - 85, and 288 - 89) are rubato, and may be played unconducted. Be sure that the flutes and bassoons shape the dynamics as indicated (measures 286 - 87, etc.) Melt the clarinet solo into the oboe solo as smoothly as possible (measure 293), so that the listener can scarcely tell when one soloist ends and the other begins.

The passage in measures 304 - 307, marked as "Dirty," should be shamelessly provocative and carnal. The tam-tam player should not hold back in measure 304 and 306. The 3rd trumpet part cannot be understated, and is crucial in giving this section its risqué quality. On a couple of occasions when the 3rd players were not loud enough, I have asked one or two second trumpet players to join in and help out!

The accelerando from measures 308 - 321 must be smooth and consistent throughout the passage. (The parenthetical tempo markings along the way serve as a good suggestion.) Make sure that the gesture handed back and forth between the first clarinet and alto saxophone players is balanced equally.

Section V (321 - 375) Extended clarinet solo

This section implies a small jazz combo accompanied by occasional outbursts from a big band. The clarinet solo, a tribute to Benny Goodman, must be played with unabashed "gutsiness" and bravado, but without straying from the notated page. For greatest effect, the soloist may memorize the solo so that he or she can stand and face the audience directly.

The accompanying combo (muted horns, bass clarinets, bassoon and marimba) must play in strict, unwavering time (like a jazz rhythm section). Balancing the marimba accompaniment -- finding the perfect mallets for your concert hall, producing a sound not too brittle or too wet, distinct but never dominating -- is one of the most important challenges in the entire piece. Since the notes played by the marimba on downbeats are reinforced by the bass clarinet and bassoon, the player may need to bring out those played on the upbeats (right hand). The intermittent shouts (e.g., measures 330, 335, 339) should be played with intense enthusiasm, as though the players are cheering on the soloist.

Section VI (376 - 433) Final shout

The intensity increases even more as the piece draws to a close. The canon beginning in measure 388 pretends to build to the final climax, but makes a left-turn into an unexpected modulation away from the home key. The brasses "wail" dissonant chords, recalling the train-whistle effects played by 1940's Big Bands. (But make sure they allow the woodwinds through in measures 405, and 409!) A critical mass is achieved -- a pressure cooker of excitement -- exploding one last time into the final climax.

The final stroke on the splash cymbal reminds the listener that this piece is, above all, a friendly tribute to an earlier style. The splash cymbal must be small (6 to 8 inches) to give the tongue-in-cheek effect. This final cliché should elicit a chuckle from the audience.

Frank Ticheli


(Errata in blue added by Frank Ticheli September 25, 2000; minor. rev. November 30, 2001 & April 18, 2003)

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Copyright © 1998 Manhattan Beach Music. All Rights Reserved.

Performance by John L. Whitwell conducting the Michigan State University Wind Symphony.

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