I’m not terribly sure how I feel about the music of Ron Nelson. I don’t know what to make of him. I want to like it; it has everything I like in music: strong rhythmic drive, rich harmony, power, but each of his pieces sound so similar, I don’t know if I can really like it.
The first time I played his music was at an All-State festival last year. We played “Morning Alleluias.” Before we got into rehearsals, I had no idea of what it sounded like. All I knew was that my part consisted mostly of singing and repeating the same two high notes over and over. Nelson’s music has so many different interlocking parts, that they form this huge sound. For example, in the fast section of “Morning Alleluias” the high winds have this flurry of notes, with the pitched percussion, the low brass have a pedal, the high brass are playing a joyous chordal melody, and us saxes had this two-repeated thing. It all comes together to create this kind of sonic collage. It actually is really cool and exciting. The only problem, is that most of his fast movements have the same feel. The slow sections are full of aleatoric patterns for the trumpets, and flutes in the low register, and slow moving melodies, and, in the little music I’ve played by him, singing on “lu.” Seriously, the two pieces I’ve played/are playing, being the same way: most of the band singing an E on “lu.” It’s weird.
His music also has lots of percussion, like lots. In particular, pitched percussion. In most of his music, you can find some crazy marimba part in there somewhere. I was looking him up on the Wind Rep. Project, and saw that most of his pieces call for at least 5 percussionists, and up to seven, which, if you don’t know, that’s quite a few. His most famous work perhaps is his “Passacaglia (Homage on B-A-C-H).” It won all of the high profile band composition awards, so it can’t be that bad. It also calls for, no joke, 12 soprano clarinets. Not 12 players, 12 parts. There’s also 6 trumpet parts and a part for synthesizer, simulating organ.
I’m listening to a bunch of his music as I write this, and I’m definitely hearing a Nelson sounds. There are a lot of low pedal points, brassy fanfares, and exciting percussion parts. Now I love percussion, and lots of it, but as I said earlier, so much of it is in the same exact vein, I don’t know what to think. My band director feels the same way. I’m not saying it’s bad or that I don’t like it; I think it’s great music, and it is also very American. But just listen to the beginning of this, and then listen to this, and tell me you don’t hear a similarity.