Performing Dragons in the Sky by Mark Schultz

On October 8th, my colleague Dr. Mel Mobley and I will be performing a recital of music for horn and percussion. We will close the program with Mark Schultz’s Dragons in the Sky for Horn, Percussion, and Electronic Tape. I performed this work in 2006 for a doctoral recital, and am very excited about playing it again. Dragons is a really interesting and fun work for both performers and audiences, but requires a bit of special preparation in addition to a normal practice routine. I hope that the following tips and observations will be useful to other performers.

First, here are some program notes, which readers are welcome to copy and share.

An award winning composer, Mark Schultz holds degrees from The University of Nebraska at Omaha and the University of Texas at Austin. His compositions have been performed by the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, the Florida West Coast Symphony, the Omaha Symphony, and the Omaha Chamber Symphony. Schultz is also the co-editor of JOMAR press, based in Austin Texas. He has written numerous chamber works featuring the horn and other wind instruments, as well as large compositions for orchestra and concert band. Composed in 1989, Dragons in the Sky won the International Horn Society’s 1990 composition contest. Since its 1989 premiere by hornist Thomas Bacon, this work has been performed over four hundred times worldwide.

Dragons in the Sky takes its title and inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, a portion of which describes the “Great Battle” between the elves and Morgoth.

Then, seeing that his hosts were overthrown and his power dispersed, Morgoth quailed, and he dared not to come forth himself. But he loosed upon his foes the last desperate assault that he had prepared, and out of the pits of Angband there issued the winged dragons, that had not before been seen; and so sudden and ruinous was the onset of that dreadful fleet that the host of the Valar was driven back, for the coming of the dragons was with great thunder, and lightning, and a tempest of fire. — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 2nd ed. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1977), 302.

Schultz draws upon Tolkien’s powerful imagery, creating an energetic and colorful work that allows all three parts (horn, percussion, electronic tape) to come to the forefront at different times. Constructed in three large sections, Dragons shifts between driving, rhythmic passages and slower, more ethereal portions. Percussion, horn, and tape weave fluidly in and out of the overall texture, often combining all three parts to create a sound color unattainable by any one voice alone. The computer generated tape plays almost constantly, stopping only twice for extended cadenzas from percussion and horn.

Next on the list of performance-related details is extended techniques required for the horn. There isn’t anything too crazy in Dragons, but you will definitely want to spend some time practicing them separately. If you don’t own it already, buy Douglas Hill’s book Extended Techniques for the HornThough originally published in 1983 – and recently reprinted by Really Good Music – it is still the most complete, well thought out guide available for extended techniques on the horn. There are also a handful of dissertations and YouTube videos on the subject, including this short video demonstration I put together.

Another important issue with this piece in particular is page turns. Both players perform from the score – which is pretty much a necessity in order to line everything up with the electronic accompaniment – but the large score format will result in some awkward page turns. The best solution I’ve found is to photocopy and reduce the entire score and tape it to a large piece of cardboard. If you shrink the 11 X 17 pages down to 8.5 X 11, you can fit five pages across the top and five pages across the bottom on each side of the board. So, you will turn this:

dragons_score

Into this:

dragons_board

The result is that you will only have to turn the “page” once during the entire 20 page work (although you may need a stronger prescription for your glasses or contact lenses!)

The next few issues are related to the CD accompaniment track. First, you will need a dependable assistant to start and stop the CD at the appropriate places in the score during the performance. It is essential that the assistant be able to follow the score and rehearse with you at least once before the performance. And although it isn’t specified, I have found it very helpful to use headphones on one ear and/or onstage monitors so that both players can hear the CD. In my experience it is almost impossible to hear the CD without headphones when both the hornist and percussionist are playing at full volume.

And finally, I would encourage the percussionist to experiment with different setups than what is diagrammed in the score. Depending on the size of the hall and other factors, it may be necessary to rearrange things to ensure smooth transitions from one instrument to another. The horn player doesn’t have to deal with multiple instruments, but it is important I think to have the bell facing the audience for this piece. For one, it will ensure that the horn sound doesn’t get buried during the loud parts, and it will also allow the audience to see some of the extended techniques being utilized.

Do you have any tips or suggestions for performing this work?  Feel free to comment below.

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Although not a solution for page turn issues of this piece, I have found the following to be very helpful. Using an iPad with the app “forScore” is fabulous. Scan the music and save it in forScore on the iPad. A tap on the screen turns the page. In fact, it permits “half” page turns so you can simultaneously view the bottom half of the current page and the top half of the next page. The app also allows for notes to be “penciled” on the sheet music and also allows control of recorded accompaniment from the sheet music screen. Lots of other great features, including sort and retrieval options, and creation of user-defined “sets” of stored music. I have found it quite handy. I use the sets for storing pre-determined warm-ups and practice routines for different days/times of day.

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[…] Next is  Mark Schultz’s Dragons in the Sky, a piece I last performed as a doctoral student several years ago. It was definitely the big piece on this program, and the audience really seemed to enjoy it (as did the performers!) One note about this recording is that there is a large percussion hit at 1:45, which must have scared and/or woken up some members of the audience – it takes them a few seconds to settle back down. The synchronization between horn, percussion, and tape was quite good, thanks to the use of headphones. There were a couple of places where things weren’t 100% lined up, but on the whole I am very satisfied with this performance. For more information on the unique performing demands of this piece, see this post. […]

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