The world premiere of Texas composer Barry Hurt's "Alaska: The Great Land" took place in Palmer on Sept. 24. The 10-minute multi-movement work is a panoramic tone poem about Alaska's history using musicians who play the scores while moving in a complex choreography simultaneously -- all from memory.
There are few players in Alaska capable of such a performance. In fact, the only ensemble that can handle it right now is probably the Northern Sound, the band that gave the premiere -- at this time the only high school marching band in the state.
The "Alaska" performance, given before an appreciative crowd of parents, boosters and fellow students on the turf of Colony High School's Pride Field, wasn't just a debut. For the musicians, dancers and director Jamin Burton, it was a warm-up for the Bands of America Grand National Championships in Indianapolis. The Northern Sound will travel there in November to represent the state.
"This is the first time that Alaska has been at the competition," said Burton. "We're doing something that's never been done. It also the first time we've tried being 'artistic,' the first time telling Alaska's story with a marching band. I guarantee no one has ever done that before. Ever."
But it's not the first time the Colony band has represented Alaska out of state. They played at Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009. They've played at the Sugar Bowl and in the National Independence Day Parade in Washington, D.C. Last year they traveled to Pasadena, California, and became the first Alaska band to march in the Rose Parade.
"After the first mile people were saying, 'Just three more miles,' " said junior Luke Johnson, trumpeter, who took part in that event. "I lost count after 6 1/2 miles. By the end we were sweating and tired. But we had so much fun. That was an incredible experience that I will never forget."
Most if not all of Alaska's bigger high schools have pep bands, some very good, that play at sporting events. At one time they also marched as they played. Students at Anchorage High practiced their turns, crossings, evolutions and maneuvers on the grass in front of the school and took part in the Fur Rondy Parade. When the student body split into West and East, each had their own troupes.
But times changed, and the sight of massed musicians in uniform creating designs as they played marched into history, so to speak.
Recently there has been something of a revival of high school marching bands, now often called "drum corps," in the Lower 48. Rather than being seen as a quaint, outdated entertainment with quasi-military pageantry, the spectacle, flashy outfits and unison choreography have struck a fresh chord with the generation raised on hip-hop. In inner-city schools, drum corps has proven to be a vibrant motivating factor and spirit-building exercise.
But the movement hasn't reached Alaska. The September event was billed as the 11th Annual Colony High School Marching Band Invitational. The only band present was the Northern Sound.
"We send out invitations every year," Burton said. "Sometimes we get some and some years we don't. Eagle River had a band one year. Wasilla had one. And there were others. None has lasted more than a year or two."
The Colony Band, on the other hand, has been keeping the beat for more than a decade. Twelve years ago Burton was a young graduate from Brigham Young University when he applied for the job of music director at the Palmer high school. "They asked me, 'Where do you see this program in four or five years,' " he recalled. "And I said, 'We are going to have a marching band.' I got the job and from day one this has been part of our efforts."
The students have bought into Burton's vision with gusto. A sign in the band room reads, "The Mission of the Colony High School Band is to better the silent white canvas of the world. ... We strive to continually reform and improve our masterpiece for the enrichment of humanity."
"A lot of my job is expression," said junior Jessica Rentz, one of two drum majors who conduct the band on the field. "The fact is that, with a marching band, the snare drum keeps time. But how I direct affects how the band plays."
Two drum majors are needed for continuity. Rentz shares the duties with Lunia Oriol, also a junior. They march together in front of the band as it crosses the field. Then one does the conducting and cueing while the other climbs onto a high stand and takes over until the second director can get in position.
Bright sun gleamed off the tall plumed hats of the 48-member ensemble on the calm fall afternoon of Sept. 24. Players in black pants and green jackets with a silver sash followed Rentz and Oriol onto the field to the tattoo of the snare drum.
The band had previously done sections of Hurt's "Alaska" at games, but this was the first time it would be presented in its entirety. "I've been waiting all year to see it put together," Burton said gleefully.
The sponsor of the Grand Nationals, which is supported by Yamaha, a major manufacturer of musical instruments, is concerned about copyright infringement, Burton said. In some cases competing bands buy rights to a show and negotiate fees directly with ASCAP and BMI. Others, however, create their own original work, which is what Colony has done.
Burton said he was inspired by reading James Michener's "Alaska." He worked with other members of the music staff and the team choreographer to come up with ideas. "We wrote a narrative and a script and sent it to the composer," he said. Along the way the students were kept in the loop, "so they're emotionally invested in this show."
"Alaska" opens with an up-tempo movement titled "Creation." It's supposed to invoke the natural forces that produced the land. Dancers in kuspuks ran through the crossing lines of musicians with colorful banners representing the northern lights. The players emphasized high points with synchronized head and waist tilts.
The second movement, "First Nations," used a wistful melody played by the flutes as one dancer, majorette Leah Smith, switched to a fur coat, representing wildlife, and the others simulated Inuit dance gestures. "Russia" related the exploitation of resources by fur hunters with a lugubrious dirge, quoting Tchaikovsky's "Marche Slave" at one point and ending with the sousaphones dwelling on a profoundly low note.
The mood shifted with "Gold Rush," a peppy, ragtime-flavored tune, and the finale, "Today," an optimistic and celebratory vision of the future with hints of "Alaska's Flag" woven in.
"That's the show!" a beaming Burton told the crowd, which rose from the metal bench seats of the stadium in a standing ovation. As an encore, the band did their pregame program, with popular numbers like the theme from "Rocky" and "(Hail to) The Victors," aka the University of Michigan fight song, all performed to choreographed sets.
"We don't often get to play our whole show," said Johnson, the trumpet player. "This is the one time we get to play the whole thing."
Bands with as many as 250 players and four or five full-time music directors will be on the field for the Grand Nationals. Happily, Burton said, it's not the size that counts but how well the bands do. Also, the competitors are divided into categories depending on their size. The Northern Sound will be competing against similar forces.
Those forces will have some advantages, Burton said. As the only marching band in the state, the Colony students didn't have to beat anyone else to go to the championships. They just had to come up with the money to send themselves.
"We don't have that luxury of competing with other bands," Burton said. "There's nowhere to go here. This trip means they'll be able to see the best bands in the country."
"We're excited," said Johnson. "It's an honor to be part of the first Alaska band to go to the nationals and it's cool to do something about our state. After the Rose Bowl it seemed like we could do anything. So, yeah. Let's go to the Grand Nationals and let's do really good.
"Because we can."
Contact writer Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org
MUSIC FOR ALL BANDS OF AMERICA GRAND NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS will be live-streamed Nov. 11-14. Link to the webcase via www.musicforall.org.