John P. Morneau conducting the Bowdoin College Concert Band on the day of the Scarab Dance premiere. (Image curtesy of Shirley Stenberg.)
The wind band makes for a particularly suitable "entomological" ensemble. The brass instruments, for instance, are reminiscent of the sturdy exoskeletons of insects. Many insects are also known for their highly organized social structure and the awe-inspiring potential of their collective behavior. Not only is the dynamic power of the band a viscerally moving expression of collective might, but the particular brash harmonies often used in band music evoke visions of Spartan battles and Roman gladiator duels (images and sounds made popular by films such as the historical epics of the 1950s and 1960s). When my friend the entomologist and composer Yui Suzuki (Bowdoin '01) composed Khepri, for the Bowdoin Band in 2007, he tapped into these associations to depict musically a battle to the death between two beetles.
The country roads where I grew up in France are often covered with coarse pieces of grey gravel which prevent them from turning to mud on rainy days. When beetles make their way across this sea of boulders, they perform an ungainly, angular dance, which is the image that was evoked for me at the beginning of Scarab Dance. The word "scarab" is also associated in my mind with a piece of jewelry fashioned in the shape of a beetle, which can then be the subject of mystery and treasure hunt novels such as Edgar Allan Poe's "The Gold-bug." During the course of this piece, the "bug theme" goes through several variations, maintaining a rhythmic and playful mood throughout.
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Now that the wind band repertoire includes literally hundreds of reliable, quality selections, there are easier avenues for a conductor than to program student pieces and works that have never before seen the light of day. In spite of this, John has remained a tireless advocate for new works by supporting composers and by putting countless hours into the preparation and rehearsal of these often difficult pieces.
Because his first priority is to find ways for his students to learn and to develop as musicians, John has always demonstrated a willingness to encourage students, alumni, or members of the community, be they performers or composers, be they beginners or seasoned musicians. This piece aims to honor the contributions of this committed educator to the Bowdoin Music Department over the past quarter of a century.
My first collaboration with John took place in 2001, when I composed a concerto for piano and band as my senior thesis. My second piece for the band, Fantasy on Bowdoin Songs, was performed for the opening ceremonies of Studzinski Recital Hall in 2007. With this commission, John has given me a third exciting opportunity to compose music for the Bowdoin Band. It is my hope that Scarab Dance will provide a fittingly celebratory and enjoyable piece to mark this important milestone.
Scarab Dance was premiered by the Bowdoin College Concert Band, on November 18, 2012 at Bowdoin.