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The Ripple Effect: Remembering David Maslanka (1943-2017)

Onsby C. Rose | September 2017

photo by Sue Rissberger Photography

    As a stone strikes the surface of water, ripples travel incrementally outward far from the center. This phenomenon is a perfect analogy for the life of composer David Maslanka, who passed away on August 6. After meeting David at the Midwest Clinic in 2014, we became lasting friends. Most people of his prominence are too busy for so many personal encounters, but whether it was an email with a question, a phone call to inquire about an interest, or just a chance to grab coffee and chat, David always made time.
    From a high school clarinet player to a graduate conducting student or a director of bands at a major university, David treated everyone with the same love and respect. When members of an ensemble opened up to him in a rehearsal, the result was a deep emotional and spiritual understanding and tremendous connection to the music.  The focus that he brought to any setting was amazing. His presence and approach to the world helped people realize the profound effects of music.
    He had an unusual, spiritual approach to music and composition that some found overwhelming. He described his unconscious mind as the conduit for the music to flow from the spiritual and unconscious realm to the paper. His amazing music includes over 55 works for wind ensemble and more than 130 works in all. He said that he wrote to satisfy the needs of the music rather than the desires of musicians.
    His works are often quite difficult, but he expected ensembles to figure out how to make it possible. Many directors initially thought that they could not possibly play one of his symphonies with their groups. He showed them that they could. To David it was not about the perfect performance, but rather the experience gained by the musicians and audience.
    David saw making music as pure meditation at its most basic level. If players listened and tried what he told them, they could accomplish things that seemed impossible. Recently, with his help, the Mountain View High School Band (Vancouver, Washing-ton) performed a work in a way that was far beyond the expectations of their director, Sam Ormson. The experience transformed the band as they learned a 75-minute symphony that many university groups would never attempt. David’s purpose was to show them that anything is possible, and his music gave him the avenue to do so.
    This story is one of many. Steve Steele (Illinois State University), Gregg Hanson (University of Arizona), and I all experienced this transformative process, as well as thousands of students who now have a deeper understanding of music as a result of playing his compositions and learning from his approach to music.
    David Maslanka was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1943. He attended the Oberlin College Conservatory where he studied composition with Joseph Wood. He spent a year at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria, and did masters and doctoral study in composition at Michigan State University where he studied with H. Owen Reed.
    His philosophy offers so much that we can share with students: music heals us, holds us, and transforms people and takes them to places they could never imagine. Rest in peace, David.

– Onsby Rose
The Ohio State University
Contributing Editor