Joseph Schwantner (b. 1943) is an American composer and teacher. He grew up in Chicago playing guitar and tuba. He had early success at composition, winning the National Band Camp Award in 1959 when he was just 16. He went on to undergraduate studies at the American Conservatory in Chicago, then masters and doctoral work at Northwestern University, which he finished in 1968. He has served on the faculties of the Eastman School, the Juilliard School, and Yale. His compositions have won him the Pulitzer Prize (1979), several Grammy nominations, and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is known for his eclectic combination of compositional techniques and his mystical orchestrations.
…and the mountains rising nowhere is the result of a commission from Donald Hunsberger and the Eastman Wind Ensemble with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1977. It was premiered that year by Eastman at the CBDNA national conference in College Park, Maryland. It is dedicated to the children’s author Carol Adler, whose poem arioso is excerpted in the score and which inspired the work:
an afternoon sun blanked by rain
and the mountains rising nowhere
the sound returns
the sound and the silence chimes
…and the mountains rising nowhere holds a very unique place in the repertoire for wind bands. It is scored for an extended orchestral wind section: 6 flutes (4 doubling piccolo), 2 clarinets, 4 oboes (2 doubling English Horn), 4 bassoons, 4 trumpets, 4 horns, 4 trombones (the 4th being a bass), and tuba, plus string bass. It also calls for a six percussion players who play 46 different instruments in the course of the piece. The feature player is an amplified piano. In addition to all of the effects that Schwantner achieves with his percussion menagerie and conventional piano and wind sounds, he calls for unusual techniques in the winds like singing, whistling, aleatoric effects, and even tuned glass crystals which the oboists play for more than half of the piece. These combine to make a mystical soundscape unlike anything that has come before or since.
Structurally, …and the mountains rising nowhere is in three broad sections defined by its beginning around B, its middle move to A-flat, and its final return to B. Within that framework, there are nine distinct sections plus an introduction and a coda. Otherwise, the work is unified by its use of sevens: arioso has seven lines, the piece was written in 1977, it is loaded with seven-note chords and seventh leaps in the melody, it uses septuplets and other seven-note groupings, it uses seven groups of whistler, its main tonal centers are related by a diminished seventh, etc. In addition, diatonic (seven-note) scales are contrasted with octatonic (eight-note) scales for much of the piece. This is not to say that it is a tonal creation, but neither can it be considered purely atonal. It does have strong pitch centers for most of the work, but not necessarily in a way that Bach or Mozart would recognize. This ambiguity is a hallmark of Schwantner’s eclectic use of compositional techniques. Listen to the result as played by the North Texas Wind Symphony:
More information about …mountains… is available from the Wind Repertory Project, Nikk Pilato‘s doctoral dissertation from 2007 (skip to page 20), the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra blog, two different papers (here and here) by Cynthia Folio, this LiveJournal, University of Texas program notes, a chapter by Scott Higbee, Ronald Montgomery‘s dissertation, and Jeffrey Renshaw‘s articles in The Instrumentalist and Teaching Music through Performance in Band.