Describe your inspiration for composing the piece.
I was commissioned to write a piece for the Leechburg Middle School Concert Band by their director and my very good friend Jake Mrochek. This was the first middle school level piece (Grade 2.5) I had been commissioned to write, so I struggled at first when trying to decide what to write about. I had to think back to what pieces I really enjoyed as a middle school band student. And I realized that the most enjoyable pieces (to me at least) were programmatic, depicting some kind of story. So I decided pretty early on in the composition process that I wanted to write something that told a story. I had to pick something that would grab the attention of younger musicians, so naturally I decided to write about a grave robber, ancient tombs, and booby traps!
What is the overall conception for the piece (for example, is it programmatic or abstract? Is there a specific formal structure, color, or musical device you employed?)
As I mentioned previously, Into the Crypt is a programmatic piece detailing a treasure hunter's quest through an ancient tomb. The short version of the story behind the music: The piece begins in a spooky manner, with the grave robber tip-toeing through the dimly-lit and cobweb-laden crypt, carefully making his way closer to the center. He sets off a booby trap and begins to run for his life deeper and deeper into the crypt, until he eventually runs smack-dab into the tomb where all of the treasures he had been seeking are held. As he basks in the glory of his discovery, the crypt begins to collapse around him. He grabs what he can and makes his escape, narrowly avoiding becoming a permanent resident of the crypt... [You can read the full program notes for the piece here]
What are some of the goals you strove to accomplish in writing the work?
I wanted to write something that was unique, enjoyable to play, and served a pedagogical purpose for the commissioning ensemble. The unique and pedagogical aspect of this piece is that it forces students to perform harmonies not used often in Grade 2-2.5 pieces. There are quite a bit of dissonances used throughout the piece that many middle school students may not be comfortable with at first. As a music educator, I believe it's a good idea to expose our students to the sounds found in more contemporary pieces at an early stage. Will they understand the theory behind it? No, but they will be able to understand the concept of tension and release. Through the experience of playing this piece or other pieces that incorporate similar harmonies, they will become more comfortable with playing uncomfortable-sounding harmonies. In my experience, it is much easier to teach this concept at an earlier age, rather than try to force the concept on older students who have only ever been exposed to consonant, "safe" music.
Part of my job at Mercer Middle-Senior High School is directing the Middle School Concert Band. When I select repertoire for that ensemble, I make sure that every section plays an important role at some point throughout any piece I program. There are too many pieces where some sections/instruments (usually the low reeds and low brass) have the most boring parts consisting of just long tones... I tried to make sure that every instrument played a vital role in Into the Crypt so that every student in the ensemble enjoyed their time preparing the piece. My goal was to make sure that every student felt that their part contributed to telling the story behind this piece.
Is there anything specific about your piece that you'd like your audience to look out for?
During the development section of Into the Crypt, I paid homage to two of my favorite pieces that I played as a middle school band student: Ancient Voices by Michael Sweeney, and Reverberations by Brian Balmages. In Ancient Voices, many of the wind players are called on to join the percussion section and play their music stand with a pencil. As a seventh grader, I can remember just how cool I thought it was that I got to smack my stand with a pencil! So I borrowed Sweeney's idea, and wrote in pencil parts for many of the wind players. This development section is written in a minimalistic style with various layers being added in to thicken up the texture over time. The base layer that the section begins with is just percussion and pencil-tappers.
I was fascinated in middle school by the Balmages piece Reverberations because I couldn't believe that he was able to base an entire piece off of a two-note motif. I did something similar throughout the pencil-tapping development section using a two-note motif that is passed around the ensemble as more layers are added to the texture.