Fanfare for the Column Man
A musical kerfuffle in Chattanooga.

The Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, April 30, 2008

I recently learned that I have inspired a fanfare. How many people can say that?

But I'm not going to toot my own horn, not when Kenyon Wilson is willing to do it for me. Mr. Wilson, a music professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, teaches tuba and euphonium, the latter an instrument half the size and an octave higher than a tuba. He and Shane Porter, UTC's trumpet instructor, decided to conduct a joint end-of-semester concert. They wanted an opening fanfare that their ensembles could play together, but few compositions exist for tuba, euphonium and trumpet. So Mr. Wilson produced one of his own.

This is where I entered the picture. When Mr. Wilson composes, he likes to come up with the title first. "I'm a connoisseur of big words," he says in a phone interview the day after the performance. His earlier works include "Trifecta" and "Triskaidekaphile." In this case he settled on "Kerfuffle," one of my favorite words. "The word had been introduced to me through your columns," he tells me.

Kerfuffle means a disturbance or fuss. To match the title, Mr. Wilson chose an antiphonal form. He divided the two ensembles into five quartets: one on stage, two in the front rows, on either side of the audience, and two in the rear of the auditorium. Mr. Wilson stood on stage and conducted, facing the audience.

"When you have five groups shouting over each other, you're going to have a kerfuffle--you're going to have a commotion," Mr. Wilson says. The idea was "to have everyone kind of fight against each other but still, at the end of the day, match each other."

In developing the tune for "Kerfuffle," Mr. Wilson derived a pair of musical motifs from my name, in the manner of BACH and DSCH (Dmitri Shostakovich). Rendering a name in musical notes is "far from an exact science," Mr. Wilson explains. Some letters translate directly: A and C through G to the corresponding notes, and--in accord with German notation--B to B-flat, H to B-natural and S (Es) to E-flat.

But Mr. Wilson employed some creativity in putting JAMES to music. M usually translates as E (do-re-mi, C-D-E), but Mr. Wilson thought D--mi in the key of B-flat--sounded better. And there is no standard translation for J. Mr. Wilson used C, which is pronounced like our J in Azerbaijan, where he spent a semester as a Fulbright Scholar. "Kerfuffle" also includes a TARANTO motif, though it recurs less frequently. "JAMES is quite melodious," Mr. Wilson says. "TARANTO is not as much."

As flattering as this is, mine is not the first name to be immortalized in a Kenyon Wilson composition. That honor belongs to his sister-in-law, whose maiden name was a motif in a piece Mr. Wilson composed as a wedding gift for his brother. He also used a girlfriend's name in a composition--a winning romantic gesture, one might think. But Mr. Wilson says, with a touch of rue, "That didn't work out."

You can download an MP3 of "Kerfuffle" at wsj.com/fanfare and listen as you read Mr. Wilson's description:

"It starts off with three different tuba cadenzas, mainly because I'm the tuba professor and I tend to write for what I know. . . . Between each cadenza, we had an interruption of a fanfare idea, just two or three seconds long--one from the left side in the hall, Choir C, and then Choir D, the right side of the hall.

"After the cadenzas were over, we started with the actual fanfare idea, where Choir A comes in with the idea, and then Choir B repeats it note for note. . . . We fought left and right during the fanfare, and when the fanfare was over, the tuba answered with the JAMES motif. . . . That was answered by the fanfare. On that, we went into a trumpet feature . . . over a longing bass line that I had my tuba guys perform.

"Then we got into the actual kerfuffle section, or the true commotion portion. I gave each of the five groups a different thematic idea, almost in an argument, where they decided rather than sway someone to their side, they just kept restating their argument. . . . By the time we had all five choirs in, we had this overlapping counterpoint. Everyone had something different, but it still fits together harmonically, even though they're fighting each other rhythmically. . . .

"We went back to the fanfare motif, ended with a big chord, and then a kind of a humorous ending where we end up with everyone playing just one final chord, and it gets softer as we go and ends up with just one note from Choir E . . . a whimper rather than a bang."

Like this article, sort of.

Next article: Attack of the Keller Tomatoes (The American Spectator, 5/08)

Previous article: We Stand Behind Our Stereotype (The American Spectator, 4/08)

Go to main list