Sunday night, a great man died:
“David Maslanka died during the night of August 6th, 2017 at home. He had been diagnosed with a severe form of colon cancer in June. His wife, Alison, died on July 3rd of this year. He declined rapidly following her passing. He is survived by his children, Stephen, Matthew, and Kathryn.”
So says the statement on Maslanka’s website. A statement. A brief, professional set of facts. A more complete statement might include a list of Maslanka’s musical contributions: nine symphonies, a mass, four wind quintets, three major saxophone quartets, numerous concerti, pieces for wind ensemble, pieces for percussion ensemble, pieces for solo instruments, music for piano, music for marimba and saxophone and euphonium and even steel drum ensemble.
But that doesn’t really do it justice either. It’s a more complete set of facts, but it still falls short. A blurb for the paper. Is this what we amount to when our lives end? How do we measure someone’s life? How do we quantify the effects of the lives we have lived?
Has music ever saved you?
I had no idea who David Maslanka was until college. It was January, and I was enrolled in my freshman year at St. Olaf, seated in Skoglund “Auditorium” and waiting to hear the final piece from the St. Olaf Band’s winter tour concert. The program had been impressive so far, but there was still the last piece to hear. After the usual list of logistical thank-yous to the people that had made the tour possible, Dr. Timothy Mahr turned on the microphone to address the audience about the last piece….
Freshman year of college was difficult for me. High school had been both enjoyable and, honestly, relatively easy. High school music equally so. I was a big fish in a small pond. I had some talent, practiced sporadically, and as a result was quite successful. I had grown used to that success. I auditioned for the St. Olaf Band that fall confident that I would get in. I had, after all, already entered the music program without a day of private music instruction, and I felt good about my chances.
When my name was not among those posted that first week of school, I was crushed. It sounds petulant now, but at the time it was a huge blow. My entire sense of identity was built around being exemplary, especially in music. I had been excited to go to St. Olaf because I would meet other exemplary students and get a chance to interact with other great musicians. Unfortunately when everyone else is also intelligent and talented, you no longer feel so special. Failing my audition was a big slap in the face to my concept of myself as a musician. It also deeply shook who I thought I was as an individual. I spent the rest of that year trying to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t prepared to compete in music. I had chosen a field in which the perfection, or at least the relentless pursuit thereof, is a basic tenet. Competition is fierce. Being “good” is not good enough. Until now, I had never truly had to fight for my place, and suddenly I didn’t know if I even had it in me.
I felt like a fraud.
Of course, I couldn’t talk to anyone about how I felt. Voicing my insecurities would mean dropping the calm and collected façade that prevented others from finding out that I was a fraud. I was lonely. I was anxious and depressed, unable to derive joy from the thing I loved most. The thing I needed most. Music was the flame at the core of my being, but as the year moved on, it had turned into a source of shame. A source of stress. The flame that kept me going was dimming. Some days, when I was really lost, it felt like it was guttering out.
I’m not what you’d call a “sharer,” and I don’t need to go into details about that year here. But know that I’m serious when I say that by January of my freshman year, I was at one of the lowest points of my life.
The beginning of February at St. Olaf means the return of the St. Olaf Band from their winter tour. I attended every St. Olaf Band concert that year with a equal parts excitement and dread. Part of me was so, so thrilled to hear such great music coming from a band! Another part of me could hardly bear to be there, berating myself for not being good enough to be onstage with my friends.
It was with that mix of excitement and self-loathing that I sat down with a friend for the Home Concert in early 2009. As I said, even without the last piece, the program was exceptional, and I had thoroughly enjoyed myself enough to briefly forget how lost and miserable I was feeling. Music can do that. And now it was time for the last piece, the third movement of David Maslanka’s Symphony No. 8.
Dr. Mahr took the microphone:
“[Maslanka] talks in his program notes about using meditation to find the concept behind the piece that he wants to create, and with this one, scenes of devastation were revealed to him. And to many composers, many artists, that might have been it right there, and the work that would come out would be “scenes of devastation.” And it would be a powerful work and meaningful and so on. But he got underneath all that to this undercurrent, this base of hope that has been able to keep humanity moving forward even during the toughest times.”
Ii had been a long time by this point since music had affected me like Dr. Mahr was describing, but I was still excited to hear the piece. I settled in and took a deep breath. Dr. Mahr returned to the podium and gave the downbeat, and the piece begin.
And it started with saxophones.
It’s hard for me to describe to you what kind of impact this simple, pure sound had on me. If you didn’t know, I play classical saxophone, an instrument which is at best ignored and at worst derided in much of the classical music world. And yet here was something which sounded so right, something which could not be said by any other instrument in any other way. This was music written for my instrument. This music was written for me.
The introduction of this movement is a duet between a soprano and alto saxophone, and it is, in many ways, a microcosm of the music of David Maslanka. It is earnest, direct, song-like, perfectly scored. When the band enters, it’s as if the soloists are embraced in a sonic hug. It is the band as its own, unique entity, not as and “educational ensemble” or an “orchestra without strings.” To 18 year old me, it was the sound I had been waiting for: the sound of music written for band and only band, a sound no orchestra could hope to replicate–nor should it. It was the sound of a band taken seriously for its own artistic merit as a vehicle for artistic expression. As a saxophonist, it was the sound of belonging. Of home.
Has music ever saved you?
I could sit here and give you biographical information about David Maslanka, but you can find that on your own if you want it. It would be yet another statement of facts, and that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about his music. Suffice it to say that the man had his demons, but once he had resolved them, he emerged with a compositional style very different from his dissonant study days. Maslanka’s mature style is characterized by tonality, by long melodic lines, by almost minimalist ostinati, by brilliant orchestration (in my opinion, nearly unequalled in the band world), and by a sense of directness. He often makes use of the chorales of J.S. Bach, which he played through every day as a source of inspiration. More than that, he wanted to use them as a kind of cultural shared consciousness, as something familiar to use as a touchstone to explore emotions.
He developed a special affinity for the saxophone, producing a sonata, a concerto, several quartets, and several other chamber works, all of which have entered the standard repertoire. As someone who has played in bands for over 16 years, I can also say from experience that he wrote saxophone parts for wind ensemble better than almost anyone, understanding the instrument’s color, flexibility, and ability to both growl and sing when the occasion calls for it.
Now, as someone who has benefitted enormously from his output, I will admit that I am a bit biased about Maslanka’s music. I have heard a fair share of criticism about his works, mostly along the lines of “it’s are too simple,” or “it’s cheesy.”
I think that misses the point of Maslanka’s music entirely.
His works are earnest in an age when earnestness is frowned upon. A cynical, knowing nihilism is more the fashion of the day. We live in a world where being too earnest is either “uncool” or a sign of naïve ignorance. I understand how looking at Maslanka’s music through that lens would leave one less than impressed. Expressing emotion as openly and unguardedly as Maslanka, without layers of irony to protect against the threat of actually experiencing those emotions, is difficult to stomach today. Some see his openness and accessibility as cheese. I see it as a brave, unguarded honesty so naked that we don’t know how to respond to it.
I believe we tend to mistake simplicity with thoughtlessness. But making a piece of music difficult to play–or comprehend–does not magically grant it artistic merit. Simplicity can be a sign of emptiness, but it can also be a deliberate choice. I have played almost all of Maslanka’s works for saxophone, and I can tell you, what sounds simple actually requires the most control, the most sensitivity. His Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano is still the most difficult piece I have ever performed, not because of the technical demands (which are formidable), but because of the white hot intensity of feeling you have to sustain for the entirety of the work. If you don’t lose yourself to the piece, you’re not playing it right.
There is something Id-like about Maslanka’s music. He was a spiritual man, who believed in the power of meditation to find musical truth beyond conscious thought. He explores themes of memory, loss, hope, dreams, and nature. His music is often made up of startling contrasts in mood, held together only by his unique voice and some strange feeling–as in a dream–that there is a compelling connection between its disparate elements lying just beneath the surface.
At the same time, there is something incredibly immediate and human about his works. I contacted him twice to ask him about his music: once about the soprano saxophone solo in his Symphony No. 9, and once about the Sonata. He graciously responded both times. I have a tendency to over-analyze things, and after lengthy explanations of my interpretations and detailed questions, he responded with this advice: follow the music. “Don’t get too wrapped up in a narrative,” he told me, “just follow the music, let it take you where it needs to go.” There is a driving force in his music that, to me, circumvents any normal, logical criticism and shoots straight to the heart of things. To that raw, red, painfully-and-joyfully-alive thing within us that makes us all human.
Hearing the finale of Symphony 8 was one of the formative experiences of my musical life. I was hearing an ensemble I had been part of for years taken seriously with a level of artistry I had never before known. Even if I wasn’t on stage, I could feel that I was part of something special as the band raced to the conclusion of the piece. My best musical experiences involve a kind of paradox. They are both an expansion of my ego and a sublimation of it. An apotheosis and a self-annihilation. I am working my hardest, feeling myself at my best and most creative, and yet I also lose myself to the music I am creating so that I am no longer aware of where I end and the music begins.
Up to this point, I had never had this experience while listening. But this was a rare moment when I was exactly where I needed to be at exactly the right time. My inner landscape and the music I was hearing were reflections of each other. My soul and the music were saying the same the same thing, complimenting each other like two lenses aligned into clear focus. Thinking about it still brings me chills nine years later.
At the end of the third movement (starting at 6:32 on the video above) is a depiction of the devastation alluded to in Dr. Mahr’s speech. It is unrelenting. It is unyielding. It is dense and shrill, a hopeless, inescapable cataclysm. It is that point at which you can bear no more, when your world is crashing down around you. When all is lost.
And then at 8:09, a new melody enters. This melody is unrelenting too, but where before the music was a full of despair, this tune is an unshakeable credo. In blistering orchestration, the music cries out for perseverance. It is music full of fierce joy in the face of utter hopelessness. It is music that rages against the dying of the light.
When the melody cadences at 10:08, the music begins to rise up against a sustained drone in the low brass, struggling not to succumb, straining to free itself, pressing and pressing to an unrelenting dissonance before bursting into a jubilant B major at 11:22. It is an incredible arrival, an exaltation of the will to live against all odds. The final chords–a sound only a band could have the power to create–are an ecstatic shout of triumph to the world.
Has music ever saved you?
I started crying during that first performance. As a rule, I don’t cry in public. But there was no stopping it, and I was not ashamed. I glanced over to my friend next to me and saw that she was crying too. Maybe you’ve heard the speech about how music saves lives. I can testify firsthand that it’s true. I was at my worst, but in the music of David Maslanka I found recognition, which is one of the most powerful feelings a human being can have: that I am known. That after all, we are not alone.
I have many friends from St. Olaf who feel this way about David Maslanka’s music. Throughout undergrad, some of the St. Olaf Band’s greatest musical moments occurred during his pieces. The group’s bond was forged in the recognition that we were creating something wonderful, something that spoke to us about what it was to be human together. It was a way for us to connect with each other, with our audiences, in creating something both deeply personal and shared.
I’d love to say that the tide turned that day in February, that the concert was a wonderful new beginning. But life is not that simple. I failed my Ole Band audition for the next year, too. I was still lost. I still didn’t know who I was. I still didn’t know who I wanted to be, or how to be good, or how to be happy. But I had something important: the knowledge that I was not alone. Maslanka’s music was my life preserver–the thing that keeps you afloat when you felt you are drowning, the ember that keeps glowing even when the flames have gone out.
Has music ever saved you?
I am not a religious man. I don’t know what–if anything–awaits us beyond death. If there is any kind of eternal rest, I hope that it comes with the knowledge that your work and your life meant something. That at the end of all your labors, it is going to be okay:
What is the measure of someone’s life? I think it is who you are able to reach. Who you are able to connect with. Who you can make feel less alone. I am grateful to have music for those times when I don’t know where to turn. I am grateful that I was there at that concert, to hear that music. I am grateful for David Maslanka.