March 15, 2023

TWU produces Wind Symphony's first CD

There's nothing unusual about a new recording coming out of Denton.

For decades, the town has been home to an eclectic blend of jazz, rock, blues, soul, Tejano, country, hip-hop, classical and alternative, with a bit of Chicano rock mixed in. Live music emanates from its clubs, bars, restaurants and coffee shops. The city boasts two of the top performance halls in Texas and is littered with professional recording studios. Grammy nominees and winners have matriculated through Denton on their way to Hollywood, Nashville and New York.

And yet Denton's latest CD is unique in its performers and its creative foundation.

Walking on Shattered Glass is the first recording by the Texas Woman's University Wind Symphony, and the eight works on the nine-track CD are a rarity: a compilation of the works of all women composers. The CD contains eight recordings made in a studio environment in the Margo Jones Performance Hall and one live performance.

The release will be marked by a celebration on Tuesday, March 21, at 6:30 p.m. in the lobby of the Ann Stuart Science Complex. Admission is free, and refreshments will be served.

It's a CD made possible by equal parts the enthusiasm of its musicians, the ambition of its producers to bring overlooked composers to light, and the perseverance of a handful of people at TWU to power the project through obstacles.

"I had this idea to do an album of relatively new music written by female composers," said Carter Biggers, TWU director of bands, associate professor of music, and the CD's executive producer. "I felt it was very important for us to support and feature those composers. We have long worked towards featuring traditionally underrepresented composers in our programming and concerts."

The project, which is believed to be the first CD by any of Texas Woman’s large ensembles and the first in decades by any TWU school band, has been in the works since 2018, when Biggers approached veteran recording engineer Mark Morette at the Texas Music Educators Association convention.

"I told Mark, and he loved the idea," Biggers said. "He said this would be something that hasn't been done before, to the best of his knowledge, and he has well over 40 years in the industry."

Of course, most great ideas need funding, and producing a quality CD is no different. Biggers applied for grants, but some fell through and left the project in limbo.

But in early 2020, Donna Scott Tilley, at the time the director of Texas Woman’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and a supporter of the music department, got wind of the project and suggested Biggers contact Mary Anne Alhadeff, the newly installed chief officer of the Jane Nelson Institute for Women's Leadership.

"I told Mary Anne about the project," Biggers said. "She said, 'I want this to be the first project that I fund. Send us a budget, and we'll see what we can do.' I thought this was fantastic news."

Suddenly the funding frustration evaporated, and plans were made to record in 2021.

This, however, is the point in the story when something goes wrong, when adversity arises. In this case, it's the same adversity the entire planet faced in the spring of 2020.

"Two weeks later, COVID hit and the whole world changed," Biggers said.

Even as the pandemic shut down campuses and mothballed plans all over the world, Biggers kept alive hopes for the CD. He kept in contact with Alhadeff, whose enthusiasm did not diminish. The funding survived a session of the Texas Legislature, helped by state Sen. Jane Nelson.

"Probably late June, we finally got the green light," Biggers said.

The next challenge was to select the pieces and composers. If you've ever made a tape, burned a CD, or created a playlist, you've gone through the process of assembling a compilation. It's not easy. What do you include, in what order do the works play? Start strong, take it up a notch, cool it off. There are a lot of rules.

Now imagine that tape/CD/playlist being limited to just eight works.

"I considered hundreds or thousands," Biggers said. "It came down to the composers that I wanted to feature, then looking at their music. What music maybe has not been recorded but would be a great fit for this?"

The eight were Haley Woodrow's "In Two Places," Catherine Likhuta's "Planet B," Nicole Piunno's "Beauty Broken," Jennifer Jolley's "Ash," Grace Baugher's "Remembering the Remarkables," Jodie Blackshaw's "Catango 5," Cait Nishimura's "In Dreams," and Valerie Coleman's "Roma." A live recording of "Remembering the Remarkables," was tabbed for the final track.

With money and music in place, Biggers next needed technical expertise. Fortunately, if you're producing a CD for the first time, there are worse places to do so than Denton. The cross-town University of North Texas is one of the best music schools in the world and is home of the seven-time Grammy-nominated One O'Clock Lab Band. And for all the talk of an alleged TWU-UNT rivalry, UNT was happy to help.

"We have a great relationship with UNT," Biggers said. "Some people ask if we feel like we live in their shadow. Yes and no. They're a big program, over 1500 students. They're their own college. They do amazing things. But they used to record in Margo before they built the Murchison (Performing Arts Center, built in 1999). We have a great relationship. We have students here who march in the Green Brigade to get collegiate marching band experience. We have music therapy and they don't, so we get the students that want to learn about music therapy. Many of our faculty have degrees from UNT. It's a great, symbiotic relationship."

Most importantly in this instance, UNT offered its wealth of experience in recording, which it does multiple times a year. Andrew Trachsel, UNT professor of wind studies and chair of the division of conducting and ensembles, agreed to act as recording producer alongside Morette as recording engineer, with whom Trachsel had previously worked.

"The decision to use Mark and Andy was probably the best decision I could have made," Biggers said. "They made the whole recording experience just amazing for me and our students."

Following the 2022 spring graduation, under the direction of Biggers and his assembled team of technical experts, the Wind Symphony spent May 16-18, 2022, recording. In addition to the Wind Symphony students, four guest artists were employed: David Wright on soprano sax, David Lovrien on alto sax, Roy Allen Jr. on tenor sax, and John Sweeden on bari sax.

"The students were energetic," Biggers said. "They grew so much as an ensemble over those three days. It was amazing, really, even from session to session, from recording block to recording block. Andy and Mark kept it positive and kept everybody's spirits up, and the students learned a lot about themselves, about us as an ensemble and what we're capable of doing."

You may think that once the recordings are made, the heavy lifting is finished. Very wrong. Three days of recording produced more than 300 takes to put on a single CD of eight tracks.

Biggers spent the ensuing summer listening to all the takes, going through Morette's and Trachsel's notes.

"We never did a full run of any piece during those three days," Biggers said. "We would do large chunks and then small chunks."

In September, Biggers traveled to Morette's editing studio outside Buffalo, New York, to turn the chunks into complete works.

"I sat down with the editing engineer (David St. Onge) who's been working with Mark for more than 30 years," Biggers said. "We talked about which takes to use, then he would put the chunks together. It was amazing. We might take 15 different cuts from one piece and put it all together to make one selection. But when you listen to the final product, it sounds like one complete take."

With the pieces edited and complete, the CD just needed a name.

Biggers original idea was to name the CD after one of the pieces, but felt that would unfairly elevate one composer over the others, so he looked to his students for ideas. Clarinet player Briley Casserilla hit just the right note.

"Walking on Shattered Glass is a correction to the phrase 'breaking the glass ceiling,'" Casserilla wrote. "All of these women composers in their own right have all shattered the barriers placed upon them as women in the music field and have opened many doors for those to follow. However, this phrase I think diminishes the misogynistic remains that still exist in our society despite the progress women have achieved. Walking on Shattered Glass acknowledges the dichotomy of pioneering women who break down barriers but still have to walk over the potent challenges many women still face. It also highlights how these women lead others through their passion for composition."

Kim Iltis then designed the cover, and the CD was ready to go to press.

Walking on Shattered Glass will be available on iTunes, Spotify, and Amazon.

"The students that I've talked to that were in the project are just thrilled with it," Biggers said. "They love the final product."

So is this the last project for the TWU wind symphony?

"We'll let this one sit for a while," Biggers said. "But I've got some ideas."