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As a composer I have always found inspiration from places I have lived or experienced. Having called Chicago home for several years now and having spent my childhood growing up in the shadow of this great city I can safely say that I know it pretty well and that I have developed a significant personal connection to this place. When Gaudete Brass approached me about composing a piece for them, I thought, what better way to tackle this project than to seek inspiration from Chicago, a place we both call home.
Lately, I have been on a kick with folk tunes. Folk tunes are a fantastic way to indicate place. Their simple melodies, straightforward structure, and storytelling lyrics spark listener’s imagination unlike any other type of music. A Great Commercial City was musically inspired by an American folk song known as El-a-noy, a song that was used by land speculators in the early to mid-1800s to help convince people to migrate from the East Coast to the fertile land of Illinois. I was particularly struck by the fourth verse, which highlights “a great commercial city […] away upon the northward, right on the borderline.” All the music is based in part on the melodies and chordal structures of the original folk song. I have included the entire text of the tune below for your enjoyment:
Way down upon the Wabash sich land was never known,
If Adam had passed over it, the soil he’d surely own.
He’d think it was the Garden he’d played in when a boy,
And straight pronounce it Eden in the state of El-a-noy.
Then move your family westward,
Good health you will enjoy,
And rise to wealth and honor
In the state of El-a-noy.
‘Twas here the Queen of Sheba came with Solomon of old,
With an ass load of spices, pomegranates, and fine gold,
And when she saw this lovely land, her heart was filled with joy,
Straightway she said, ‘I’d like to be a queen in El-a-noy.’
She’s bounded by the Wabash, the Ohio and the Lakes,
She’s crawfish in the swampy lands, the milksick and the shakes,
But these are slight diversions and take not from the joy
Of living in this garden land, the state of El-a-noy.
Away upon the northward, right on the border line,
A great commercial city, Chicago you will find,
Her men are all like Abelard, her women like Heloise,
All honest virtuous people, for they live in El-a-noy.
Then move your family westward,
Bring all your girls and boys,
And cross at Shawnee Ferry
To the state of El-a-noy.
Sometimes I wonder why on earth I would be so touched by an over-the-top advertiser’s song for my home city and state. In a way though it reflects my own migration into Chicago several years ago to begin the next chapter of my life, which was to launch my professional career. Despite having already lived in Illinois for the better part of my existence, this was different; it was a new adventure, independent from my previous constraints. I remember feeling such a thrill of excitement at the idea of heading to a place with such a rich and lively musical culture. “A great commercial city, Chicago you will find.”
A Great Commercial City is dedicated to Gaudete Brass who commissioned the work. The piece was completed in 2011 and commercially recorded by Gaudete Brass on Cedille Records in 2012.
Instrumentation: brass quintet
Duration: 6 minutes