Mozart’s Sandbox

Grade 3–5 minutes

Commissioned by the Virginia Band & Orchestra Directors Association, premiered by the District VII Junior Symphonic Band on February 4, 2012 in Bristol, VA with the composer conducting

When he’s not playing clarinet, my son Jimmy likes to play Roller Coaster Tycoon on our home computer.  It’s an amusement park simulation game whose object is to achieve goals: winning a safety award, building a coaster to a certain size, or earning a specific amount of money.  Jimmy prefers to play in sandbox mode, where the canvas is completely blank, money is no object, and the only limitation is his imagination.

I have often wondered what kind of music the great composers of the past would write if they lived today.  Most composers are considered great because they pushed the boundaries of the music of their time, but they were still limited (at least by today’s standards) by the technology of their instrumentation and the expectations of their audiences.  What kind of music would an extraordinarily creative musical mind like Mozart write if he’d been exposed to jazz or rock and roll?  Would he have embraced the electric guitar or synthesizers?  What would he have thought of Shoenberg’s twelve-tone serial music?

It’s impossible to answer that question, but it’s been fun imagining what the answer might be.  In Mozart’s Sandbox, I begin with a simple melody characteristic of the 18th century, using the instruments Mozart knew at the time, and then imagine him discovering what new sounds and 21st-century concepts he has at his disposal as the piece is composed.  He quickly discovers the trombones and trumpets don’t have to remain on the B-flat overtone series.  By the time he reaches the second theme (he’s still writing in sonata form), it occurs to him that he doesn’t have to stay in the same time signature, so he moves into a minuet.  By the development section, he discovers the percussion and realizes he can play with dynamics…and so on until by the end of the piece he’s experimented with latin music, jazz, and polytonality.  I imagine two hundred years of time travel can be disorienting, so at one point in the piece poor Wolfgang forgets who he is and accidentally quotes Beethoven.

I hope students and directors will enjoy this humorous, but good-natured and sincere homage to a great composer.

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