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Composing ‘Big Bee’ for 50+ piece wind and brass orchestra in St. Marien, Upper Austria – protect the bees

JSTM MV Jung St. Marien (photo by Fritz Hinterhoelzl)

FAST TRACK for busy bees: watch the 18 minute ‘featurette’ of the autumn concert of the JSTM HERE (in German).

The backstory

Joe Backwood (Josef ‘Seppi’ Hinterhoelzl), drummer and bandleader of Backwood Five comes from a very musical home.

His grandfather, as I understand it, founded and led the local brass band in St. Marien (Upper Austria, south of Linz) in the late 1960s. At some point he handed the mantle over to Walter, Joe’s father who plays trombone and has conducted and led the orchestra for about 30 years. Although Joe’s grandfather always wanted Joe to play trumpet – he thought the drum kit was a much more attractive proposition – so aside from marching in front of the traditional brass band playing for community gatherings – he also played in the associated symphonic wind and brass orchestra with both his mother Lilly and sister Carmen on clarinets. Walter wasn’t content with the traditional Austrian brass music repertoire and reached a lot further – as far as performing 4’33” – the most famous and controversial John Cage composition – clearly a far cry from the ‘um-pah-pah’ music that most people would associate a marching band with.

Josef ‘Seppi’ Hinterhoelzl (AKA Joe Backwood AKA ‘Willi) enjoying his major bee antennae (photo by Fritz Hinterhoelzl)

Fast forward – a little way ago Joe’s sister Carmen became the ‘chair’ of the JSTM Jung St. Marien and every time I was out in Upper Austria at the ‘Backwood Five headquarters’ (BW5 HQs) her lobbying increased in intensity. She wanted me to write a composition for the orchestra. Always enjoying a new challenge – eventually – I gave in and (perhaps foolishly) said ‘yes’.

Chair woman Carmen Hinterhoelzl instructing the audience (photo by Fritz Hinterhoelzl)

I have composed and arranged for a fair while now, however, I’ve never written for a wind and brass ensemble – so my first thought was to write it with my long-term friend and trumpet/euphonium/composer/arranger colleague Christoph Wundrak.

Christoph Wundrak with his Euphonium (plus bee antennea)

Back to the 80s

The Booze Family (ca. 1986) [From L to R]: Stefan Redtenbacher, Christoph Wundrak, Alex Meik, Stefan Schubert, Gerhard Magerl, Bernhard ‘Big B’ Auer, Tom Hoeger, Tom Reif

Around 1986 a musician approached me and asked if I wanted to play bass for a new band, playing ‘Rhythm & Blues’ – a style of music which was not exactly in the public eye at this time, least in my home town Salzburg. This was 5 years before the movie ‘The Commitments’ came out and for me names like Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, The Neville Brothers and of course, The Blues Brothers were all new to me. Also, little did I know at the time that The Blues Brothers themselves were on a ‘Rhythm & Blues’ revival trip, inviting musicians from the original Stax house band to play with them – like Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn on bass and Steve Cropper on guitar.

It took bandleader, vocalist and guitarist Bernie ‘Big B’ Auer a little while to persuade me to join the band but he was a larger than life character who didn’t let things go easily – and I’m grateful as he not only introduced my to soul music but also to a whole new group of great local musicians, Christoph on trumpet, being one of them.

[from L to R]: Bernie ‘Big B’ Auer, Stefan Redtenbacher, Tom Reif (ca. 1989)

The ‘Big Bee’ concept

When I called Christoph to ask him if he was up for co-writing a wind and brass ensemble piece with me he was immediately smitten. Great news!

Having many great memories of performing with ‘The Booze Family’ in Southern Germany, Austria, Northern Italy and Greece, Christoph and I also share the painful memory of loosing Bernie ‘Big B’ Auer on 19th of January 2010. He was 48 years old and lost his battle with cancer.

So it was clear from the off that we wanted to write a piece in loving memory of ‘Big Bee’. When it came to a title we noticed that ‘Big B’ sounds like ‘Big Bee’ and after Carmen played a recording of ‘Jungle’ – during which the whole ensemble has to produce jungle noises to their delight – it was also clear that we wanted the orchestra to ‘hum’ as well as play their instruments for our piece. This is also gave way to the idea that our piece could help raise awareness about the very serious plight of bees, under threat worldwide.

If you are interested in this top watch ‘The Vanishing of the Bees’ and ‘Honeyland’ by the most excellent London based documentary film company DogWoof.

‘BIG BEE’ is dedicated to the JSTM MV Jung St. Marien to raise awareness to threatened bee populations worldwide, in loving memory of Bernhard ‘Big B’ Auer

Christoph and I started to work on the piece in march this year and before we actually started to commit ideas on paper/Sibelius we agreed on the overall style, form and instrumentation. A key requirement to us was to write relatively simple parts for the musicians to concentrate on the feel of the music rather than the complexity of notes.

In the spirit of this Miles Davis quote: ‘It is much more important on how to play something rather than what to play’.

The other idea was that the orchestra is set around a core which is drum kit, euphonium/trumpet and electric bass, including feature spots for improvisation. We worked on the major themes first before we went about arranging them for our chosen instrumentation. Christoph and I enjoyed a good work flow having split up all the necessary tasks between us. We had many hour long calls and gazillion of emails going back and forth – also, what has become most evident in the final piece – there is a lot less there than what we initially wrote – there are whole movements that didn’t make the cut. This reminds me of another quote by a former Berklee College of Music teacher Herb Pomeroy: ‘The arrangers best friend is the eraser’ and Sammy Nestico‘s quote: ‘You can NEVER err on the side of simplicity’.

What’s next for ‘Big Bee’?

Our ‘world premiere’ was great fun and we thought it went really well – the reaction of the audience seemed enthusiastic. It was obviously helped by our invitation to clap along during Seppi’s drum solo, prompted by Carmen holding up the respective sign – having a US talk show moment, i.e. prompting the audience what to do when. Participation was high and there was even uninvited humming along to the opening and end movement – great fun!

Conductor Peter Aigner doing a great job and joining the bee antennae fun (photo by Fritz Hinterhoelzl)

Having heard the piece ‘in the flesh’ and being inspired by the sonic possibilities, Christoph and I want to make some tweaks and also formalize the improvised sections with a view to having the piece performed by orchestras which don’t have drum kit, electric bass or improvising trumpet/euphonium players.

Christoph during his trumpet improvisation (photo by Fritz Hinterhoelzl)

Once we’ve finalized all our tweaks we are aiming to have the piece published and of course would enjoy being part of a live performance again – antennae et all!

A thought on community

Clearly, the musicians of the JSTM like to have fun!

One of the really fun aspects of being involved in a local brass band is the community aspect of it. For me – looking from the outside in – it is really impressive how such a large ensemble can work – in particular as everybody is volunteering their time – people are practicing, taking music lessons, buying instruments, coming out to regular rehearsals, playing the concerts and a social gatherings, building stages, setting it all up, involving entire families in the organization – in short an umpteen things to make it happen and also making it a success. And it is all to strengthen the community, having fun and creating great music – at the same time bearing in mind – none of them are professional musicians and all have day jobs.

I’ve concluded that brass ensembles can be a wonderful ‘institution’ and they do exist in most villages in Upper Austria – as a matter of fact – St. Marien has 3 (THREE) independent brass ensembles – a village of ca. 4,500 inhabitants! Most impressive – long may it last and thank you very much for giving Christoph and myself the opportunity to be ‘flies on the wall’…erm…bees on their meadow.

A very appreciative community (photo by Fritz Hinterhoelzl)

PS: In case of another live performance of ‘Big Bee’ I might have to read this book after all: ‘Zwischen Pauke und Taktstock – Ratschlaege eines Konzertmeisters’ by Viktor Redtenbacher (former concertmaster of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation [ORF] symphonic orchestra.)

‘Does humor belong in music?’ Stefan Redtenbacher clearly sure about the answer to Frank Zappa’s iconic question