By Mitch MeadorApril 11, 2019
FORT SILL, Okla., April 11, 2019 -- How do you boil down 150 years of history into a single piece of music? Chief Warrant Officer 2 Bridgette Brenmark, commander of "The Pride of Fort Sill," the 77th Army Band, aims to give it her best shot.
Her theater background prevents her from divulging too much about the as-yet-untitled work, which the 77th's concert band will debut in Kerwin Auditorium as part of opening ceremonies for the 2019 Fires Conference.
How did this composition -- which will now become part of the very tapestry it portrays -- come about?
"It was an idea that I had. I was at the annual Midwest Conference in Chicago this last December and got to meet a few other composers who write for band. And then, right about that time, we'd gotten word of the 150th celebration in January. So those two things kind of came together in my mind: 'Wow, the 150th anniversary of Fort Sill's only going to happen once. And why isn't there some kind of piece dedicated to that event? And who would write it except for me? So I guess I'd better do it,'" was the way her thoughts progressed and led up to it.
The band commander said the Fort Sill Public Affairs Office and Maj. Gen. Wilson A. Shoffner, commanding general of the Fires Center of Excellence and Fort Sill, have been very helpful in brainstorming with her and sponsoring her on the project so that it could come to life. The general gave his approval to have it played during the Fires Conference, which she finds "pretty exciting."
"I would say this has been a huge research and history project for me, which actually has been surprisingly my favorite part. I learned about Fort Sill and the band when I first came here, of course, but this is a different way of digging into things, and I've learned so much about Fort Sill. There are so many different entities that were here on this land at any given time.
"So trying to figure out how to get all those different entities into one piece that makes sense, I settled upon the idea of an overture. Usually in an overture there are different themes that represent the different songs in the opera, or the different characters in the opera. So -- there isn't an opera -- but, there is what's yet to come on Fort Sill. And so this is honoring those themes from the past and then also exploring where we will go in the future of Fort Sill and modernizing and things like that.
"So it's not really any one genre. It's a little bit episodic. So, capturing the land, the Native American presence. The cavalry. The field artillery. And then where do we go from there."
Her overture is in 4/4 time throughout, though the feeling of where the strong beat is changes.
It also contains numerous key changes.
"I think it'll be a triumphant ending. Hopefully it'll be thought of that way, because I want to leave the listener with the impression of celebrating Fort Sill and thinking about future triumph," said the former piano teacher and saxophonist turned Army musician.
Brenmark has been composing music for almost her whole life. She was "probably 6 or 7" when she had her first crack at it.
"When I started learning piano, I immediately started making things up," she recalls.
She played by ear a lot, especially then.
"As I got older, I got more into the classical, popular music things, and so I learned more written music at that point. But I still do play by ear, occasionally," she said.
That taught her how to put chords together following the rules of part-writing -- keep the common tone, move to the nearest voice, and use contrary motion whenever possible.
"My very first piece that was heard by an audience was in junior high. That was 1988, I believe. A long time ago," she said, breaking into a laugh.
She called that piece "Landing of the Space Shuttle" because she was inspired by NASA and the space shuttle missions. Maybe it wasn't quite ready for prime-time, but she's proud she was able to do that. The performance was important for another reason: It marked the first time she held up a baton and conducted a live band in concert.
"That pretty much got me hooked from that point," she said.
First time conducting
She was then in eighth grade, and she wrote her original piece specifically for band even though she wasn't actually a band member at the time. That, she surmises, is part of why the band director let her conduct it.
"It was pretty scary," she confessed. "It was a good learning experience."
She continued writing, mostly songs and pieces for the piano. She actually got her degree in composition from the University of Idaho, where she wrote for a lot of smaller ensembles.
"It wasn't really until I joined the Army, I guess, and the Army Band, that I really got into writing for concert band again. I was really enjoying writing for various ensembles and in the interim exploring different instrument combinations that weren't necessarily 'normal,' or standardized I guess you could say," she said.
Her experience with Army bands has taught her a lot about how the instrumentalists can play off against each other or in concert with one another.
"I think since being in the Army and in a military band, it definitely gave me a unique appreciation for really the roots of the American concert band, which were the British military band music. So, studying (Gustav) Holst. That military band sound, I definitely learned more about that. Probably the biggest thing that I've learned is adapting to whatever our instrumentation is. Because there's always a goal of 'how many' of what instruments we should have, but it rarely happens perfectly. Unlike some of the larger bands in D.C., we don't have double reeds -- oboe, etc. I'm just lucky that right now I have a saxophone player who can play bassoon, because I'm not technically slotted to have one."
When that one perfect instrument is lacking, the arranger or composer has to make do with what's available. It might be, as in the case of her upcoming premiere, the substitution of a transverse flute for a Native American flute. But the bassoonist will be heard, and she says Sgt. Jonathan Creal is a great bassoon player.
"Being adaptable in that way is definitely an Army band experience," Brenmark said.
The 150th anniversary overture will be her parting gift to Fort Sill. Now that she's reached the rank of chief warrant officer 2, her time here grows short. The Army has graciously allowed her to stay until her husband Mike completes his music teaching degree at Midwestern State University, Wichita Falls, Texas, and walks across the stage to pick up his diploma. At the end of June the Brenmarks will depart for Fort Carson, Colo., where she will command the 4th Infantry Division Band.