Michael Colgrass (b. 1932) has distinguished himself as an innovative composer and a dedicated teacher of the creative process of composition.  He started his career as a jazz drummer in Chicago and New York, studying composition all along.  Composition is where he has made his mark, with commissions from prestigious ensembles all over the English-speaking world and a Pulitzer Prize among many other awards under his belt.  He currently lives in Toronto when he is not touring the world teaching middle- and high-school teachers and their students how to compose.  To see deeper into Colgrass’s fascinating life, check out the blog related to his autobiography, or visit his website, or watch the Emmy-winning documentary that his son made about his music.  Or, for extra kicks, see his Wikipedia biography.

1985’s Winds of Nagual (subtitled: A Musical Fable for Wind Ensemble on the Writings of Carlos Castaneda) is one of Colgrass’s most fascinating pieces, and perhaps the greatest major work to be written for wind band in the 1980s, and even the entire last quarter of the 20th century.  its instrumentation, sound pallets, creative conception, and approach to its program are all strikingly original.  Colgrass chose an unusual ensemble for this tale of peyote-fueled spiritual exploration in the desert.  Among its unique features are 2 alto flutes, no oboes, contra-alto AND contrabass clarinets, contrabassoon without regular bassoons, soprano and alto saxophone only, a standalone flugelhorn, celeste, harp, and all of the percussion instruments one can possibly dream of.  The score comes with the following program note (to which I have added hyperlinks):

Winds of Nagual is based on the writings of Carlos Castaneda about his 14-year apprenticeship with don Juan Matis, a Yaqui Indian sorcerer from Northwestern Mexico.  Castaneda met don Juan while researching hallucinogenic plants for his master’s thesis in Anthropology at UCLA.  Juan became Castaneda’s mentor and trained him in pre-Colombian techniques of sorcery, the overall purpose of which is to find the creative self–what Juan calls the nagual.

Each of the characters has a musical theme: Juan’s is a dark and ominous, yet gentle and kind; Carlos’ is open, direct and naïve.  We hear Carlos’ theme throughout the piece from constantly changing perspectives, as Juan submits him to long desert marches, encounters with terrifying powers and altered states of reality.  A comic aspect is added to the piece by don Genaro, a sorcerer friend of Juan’s who frightens Carlos with fantastic tricks like disappearing and re-appearing at will.

The score is laced with programmatic indications such as “Juan entrances Carlos with a stare,” “a horrible creature leaps at Carlos,” “He feels a deep calm and joy,” etc.  The listener need not have read Castaneda’s books to enjoy the work, and I don’t expect anyone to follow any exact scenario.  My object is to capture the mood and atmosphere created by the books and to convey a feeling of the relationship that develops as a man of ancient wisdom tries to cultivate hear in an analytical young man of the technological age.

Winds of Nagual was commissioned by the New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble and is respectfully dedicated to its director, Frank Battisti.

Listen.  Then listen again.  And again.  This is a piece that I have never gotten tired of – every hearing leaves me wanting more!  This is the Baylor University Wind Ensemble in live performance, which I chose despite its recording quality for its close attention to ensemble precision and especially balance, not to mention the wonderful interpretive touches by the individual players and the ensemble.

To enhance your listening experience, here is the full list of programmatic text in the piece, with the timing to match the recording above.  Follow along, if you so choose.  Movement titles are in bold.  Text in the final movement is somewhat interpolated from parenthetic indications.

The Desert 0:04

Don Juan emerges from the Mountains 1:07

Carlos approaches Don Juan 3:08

Carlos unsure of himself 3:33

Don Juan shows Carlos a new concept of himself 3:50

Don Genaro appears 4:36

Genaro clowns for Carlos 4:46

Genaro satirizes Carlos 5:14

Genaro laughing 6:10

Genaro leaps to a mountain top 6:23

Genaro disappears 6:33

Carlos Stares at the River and Becomes a Bubble 6:41

Carlos stares at the water 6:41

…is transfixed by the ripples on the water 7:00

Carlos is mesmerized by the bubbles 7:15

…and becomes a bubble… 7:33

…and travels with the river… 7:37

Carlos tumbling in cascades of water 8:34

Juan jolts Carlos awake with a shrill voice 8:47

Carlos feels euphoric 8:56

…climbs out of the water 9:11

Gait of Power 9:29

Don Juan shows Carlos how to leap between boulders in the dark 9:29

Carlos tries it 9:42

Something moves in the dark 10:01

A terrifying creature leaps at Carlos 10:44

Carlos runs 10:47

It chases Carlos 10:49

It grabs his throat 10:51

Carlos exerts his will 11:01

Asking Twilight for Calmness and Power 11:34

Carlos calls to the desert from a hilltop 11:34

Carlos dances 11:45

Carlos meditates 12:56

Carlos moves again 14:48

He feels a deep calm and joy 15:57

Nightfall 16:54

Mist rolls in and the moon rises 17:11

Juan Clowns for Carlos 17:32

Last Conversation and Farewell 20:05

Juan speaks 20:05

Carlos speaks 20:21

Juan speaks 20:32

Carlos speaks 20:46

Juan speaks 21:10

Carlos speaks 21:18

Juan speaks 21:28

Carlos speaks 21:33

Juan speaks 21:45

Carlos speaks 21:49

Juan speaks 21:54

Carlos speaks 21:59

Juan speaks 22:07

Carlos speaks 22:15

Juan speaks 22:20

[Carlos understands everything] 22:36

Carlos leaps into the abyss 23:03

…and explodes into a thousand views of the world 23:12

You can read more about this magnificent piece on Wikipedia (it has its own entry!), the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra Blog, the Wind Repertory Project, and this dissertation about instrumentation.  Also, read up on Castaneda’s original work on Wikipedia.