Viet Cuong (b. 1990) is a rising star in the music world.  At age 23 (as of this writing), his music for large ensembles and chamber groups has already been performed on four continents, and it has won him a litany of awards.  He was trained at the Peabody Conservatory (BM and MM) and Princeton (PhD in progress).  We can expect to see much more from him.

Sound and Smoke is Cuong’s first mature piece for wind band, written in 2011 while he was an undergraduate at Peabody.  It won him the Walter Beeler Memorial Prize for new wind band compositions in 2012.  He gives detailed program note in the score:

Both the title and concept of Sound and Smoke were derived from a line from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Faust, when Faust equates words to “mere sound and smoke” and declares that “feeling is everything.” Each of the two movements has been given an abstract, parenthetical title to further incorporate Goethe’s conjecture that words will never be able to fully express what feelings and, in this case, music can. Therefore, these titles serve merely as starting points for personal interpretation and should not interfere with the music itself.

The first movement, (feudal castle lights), blurs the many different timbres of the ensemble to create a resonant and slowly “smoldering” effect. Because reverb is essentially built into the orchestration, harmonies must shift using common tones and are always built upon the notes preceding them. The second and final movement, (avalanche of eyes), opens with an alternating unison-note brass fanfare that is then spun out into a fast-paced toccata. Suspense and excitement are created as the spotlight moves quickly between the various colors of the ensemble and the fanfare is transformed.

The original concept of “sound and smoke” unifies these two otherwise dissimilar movements; often times ideas are presented and then promptly left behind or transformed. Musical events therefore appear and dissipate as quickly as sound and smoke.

The Peabody Wind Ensemble performs Sound and Smoke:

Viet Cuong has an excellent website that has his bio, an up-to-date works list, and the latest news on his developing career.