John Barnes Chance (1932-1972) was born in Texas, where he played percussion in high school.  His early interest in music led him to the University of Texas at Austin, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, studying composition with Clifton Williams.  The early part of his career saw him playing timpani with the Austin Symphony, and later playing percussion with the Fourth and Eighth U.S. Army Bands during the Korean War.  Upon his discharge, he received a grant from the Ford Foundation’s Young Composers Project, leading to his placement as resident composer in the Greensboro, North Carolina public schools.  Here he produced seven works for school ensembles, including his classic Incantation and Dance.  He went on to become a professor at the University of Kentucky after winning the American Bandmasters Association’s Ostwald award for his Variations on a Korean Folk Song.  Chance was accidentally electrocuted in his backyard in Lexington, Kentucky at age 39, bringing his promising career to an early, tragic end.

The OCU School of Music Band Program Note database offers this note on Variations on a Korean Folk Song:

While serving in Seoul, Korea as a member of the Eighth United States Army Band, Chance encountered “Arirang,” a traditional folk song sung by native Koreans when experiencing circumstances of national crisis. The Korean word “arirang” means literally rolling hills, and the song relates the story of a man who is forced to leave his significant other, despite her persistent pleas to accompany him. Chance overheard “Arirang” while riding a public bus in Korea and later incorporated it into his work, Variations on a Korean Folk Song.

Variations on a Korean Folk Song is comprised of a theme and five distinct variations. Though the theme is of Eastern origin, Chance maintains a traditional Western tonal function based on triadic harmony and a pentatonic melody. Formal techniques used in the piece are canon, inversion, imitation, augmentation, ostinato, and polymeter. Chance maintains the theme’s Eastern influence by featuring distinct percussive instruments like gong, temple blocks, cymbals, timpani, vibraphone, and triangle. In 1966, Variations on a Korean Folk Song was awarded the American Bandmaster’s Association’s Ostwald Composition Award and the piece remains a standard of band repertoire today.

The piece has Internet presence of its own via wikipedia, the Wind Repertory Project, the Wikia Program Notes site, and a Facebook page.  Some anonymous saints have even put an extensive set of rehearsal notes and a teaching unit about it!

Some links on the composer:

Listing of a John Barnes Chance CD on with an extensive customer review at the bottom that is required reading.

Also, here’s John Barnes Chance’s wikipedia bio.

A rousing performance by an anonymous band:

Wikipedia has a bunch to say about the original folk song, “Arirang”.  And there are several videos of the song on YouTube, of varying degrees of authenticity and antiquity.  Here’s a modern version done in South Korea by their National Classical Orchestra and singers from their Traditional Songs Institute:

This was a senior choice for tenor saxophonist and CUWE co-president John Meyers in 2005.  In 2011, it will be conducted by Sarah Quiroz.