Andrew Wainwright reports
Fourteen years ago, an initiative was implemented to provide a platform for developing Salvationist composers to come together for a retreat. The result of discussions between four USA territorial commanders, it has proved to be a great success in the intervening years and has seen the development of numerous aspiring composers and arrangers. The North American Composers’ Forum, as it has become known, has in past years been held at Asbury University, but a change of venue this year saw this biennial event move to USA Southern Territorial Headquarters in Atlanta. With the increasing diversity found in SA music today, it was felt that a forum dedicated solely to contemporary music ought to be introduced, and so the first of its kind took place last year. Therefore, the plan is to rotate between traditional and contemporary composers’ forums each year.
As has been the case at each forum, an outstanding faculty was assembled that read as a ‘who’s who’ of Salvation Army composition - Len Ballantine, Brian Bowen, Dr. Harold Burgmayer, Dr. Dorothy Gates, Dr. Ron Holz, Marty Thomas, Nick Simmons-Smith, Stephen Bulla and William Himes O.F all offering their boundless expertise and experience to the 30 or so delegates.
Informative lectures formed the united sessions, and covered a range of subjects pertinent to the role of the modern-day Salvationist composer. Ron Holz’s intriguingly titled talk ‘What would Richard Slater do?’ got the ball rolling, examining the role ‘the father of Salvation Army music’ might play in today’s SA musical landscape. This was followed by Dorothy Gates’ talk ‘Tips from an Editor’, in which she advised composers on how to present their scores and how to adhere to editorial standards. Nick Simmons-Smith was handed the privilege of interviewing Stephen Bulla, discussing his life as a musician under his various hats of Staff Arranger for the President’s Own Marine Band, freelance composer and composer of Salvation Army music.
This year William Himes was assigned as chaplain, and gave various impactful devotionals that clearly touched the hearts and minds of those present. At the heart of these times of worship was a new chorus which he had written, simply entitled When words fail and aptly, as the title suggests, was sung not with words but to the syllable ‘Mm’. Bill is yet to write the verses as he searches for the perfect words to fit them, but when he does, we can expect a significant addition to our repertoire of congregational songs.
Various breakout sessions gave participants the opportunity to focus on subjects pertinent to their experience and interests. These included ‘Scoring and notating for percussion’ (Bernie Dake), ‘How to get published in the USA Southern Territory’s choral journals’ (Nick Simmons-Smith), ‘Writing piano accompaniments’ (Len Ballantine), ‘Design for choir’ (Harold Burgmayer), ‘Writing for AIES Grade One’ (Nick Simmons-Smith), ‘Going deeper: A musical pilgrimage from Eric Ball to Philip Wilby’ (Ron Holz), and classes on brass and choral writing in both Finale and Sibelius (Marty Thomas and Dorothy Gates respectively).
Saturday morning saw the opportunity for participants to have their work performed by a specially formed reading band, comprising of many of the delegates and several Salvationist players from around the Atlanta area. The conductors, William Himes, Brian Bowen, Stephen Bulla, Nick Simmons-Smith and Marty Thomas, who took turns to lead the band, offered advice to each composer who had submitted a work, while the floor was open to anyone else who wished to comment. Each composer went away with useful critique on how they could improve their particular work. The same format followed in the afternoon with the choral reading session, this time conducted by Dorothy Gates, Neil Smith, Harold Burgmayer and Len Ballantine.
Later in the day we were all given the chance to relax and take in some high-class brass playing from trumpet legend Philip Smith, now on the faculty of the Hugh Hodgson School of Music at the University of Georgia, and his Bulldog Brass Quintet, which is drawn from graduates of the university. A varied programme featured items including Galliard Battalia (Samuel Scheidt), two movements from Suite Americana (Enrique Crespo), On The Town Suite (Leonard Bernstein arr. Anthony DiLorenzo), Georgia On My Mind (Hoagy Carmichael arr. Brett Bawcum) and Someone to Watch Over Me (George Gershwin arr. Fred Mills), which featured Philip Smith on flugel horn.
Despite the wide range of topics covered in the various sessions, the highlight for many was the one-to-one tutorials. Several 45-minute sessions were scheduled for each delegate, giving them the opportunity to call upon the expertise of their highly-respected tutors.
Sunday morning saw a special time of worship, led by Len Ballantine. These cherished moments of consecration challenged us all to recommit our lives to Christ, returning to our corps refreshed and energised; better equipped to use our talents to extend His Kingdom. The impact of this forum is yet to be seen, but as we begin to see new names on the top right hand corner of our music, it is possible that a seed may have been sown at the 2016 Composers’ Forum which goes on to flourish into something much greater.