So, What’s Going On?
When you watch five woodwind musicians walk onto a stage, what do you expect?
Perhaps the lilting sounds of composers like Haydn or Schubert?
Maybe the serious, complex music of Beethoven? Or how about the rhythms of African and Latin American music?
If so, it might be hard for you to imagine classical music merging with music that finds its roots in African, Latin American, and even Native American cultures.
So let’s challenge that perception with a performance by Imani Winds, a group of adventurous and passionate instrumentalists. Playing music identified as classical, jazz, contemporary, and everything in-between, Imani Winds bring a boldness to the music they play, bridging the musical gap across countries, generations, and styles. When Imani Winds takes the stage, they rock the house.
First, the basics. What’s a woodwind quintet?
The instruments in a woodwind quintet include a flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and French horn. In woodwind instruments, air travels into a tube and vibrates either by being blown into a hole or across a vibrating reed. On flutes, air is blown across the opening of its mouth, producing sound. On reed instruments, like the clarinet, the air vibrates against a reed on the mouthpiece. Some reed instruments, like an oboe and bassoon, have two reeds, which air vibrates between. In these five instruments, pitch is controlled by covering finger holes or pressing keys that change the length of the tube. Although most woodwinds were originally made from wood—hence their name—they can be made from a variety of materials today, including plastic and metal.
Check out an overview of the woodwind family, and see pictures of the instruments.
You might have noticed the quintet includes a French horn, a brass instrument that is played by buzzing into a mouthpiece. The horn is unique in its ability to blend its mellow sound with woodwind instruments and still retain the power of a brass instrument. Because of this, many composers began writing it into classical chamber—or small group—music.
So, where does “world music”—music that isn’t classified as traditional classical music or popular music—come in?
This term “world music” is derived from folk traditions of places that are typically outside of the European-American tradition. Imani Winds, formed in 1997, focuses on representing cultures, composers, and music originating from Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Native American Indian tribes. And the result? Well, these rhythms, tones, and overall sounds can seem unusual to ears used to hearing Western music.
During the performance, Imani Winds will open and close the concert with compositions by its members along with selections from contemporary composers under the theme of “Old Made New.”
Credit: Pierre Lidar
Imani Winds is one of the most successful and unique chamber music ensembles in the United States. Since its beginning, the quartet has taken a unique path, inserting culturally collaborative repertoire into its performances. The group’s name “Imani” means “faith” in the African language Swahili, emphasizing their connection between the dispersion of African music and the classical music traditionally played in chamber music.
Before they head out on stage, let’s meet the individual musicians:
Brandon Patrick George – flute
Toyin Spellman-Diaz - oboe
Mark Dover - clarinet
Monica Ellis - bassoon
Jeff Scott – horn
Listen to an Introduction to Imani Winds (2009):
Check This Out…
During the performance/demonstration “Old Made New,” the music will include:
by Jeff Scott (b. 1967)
Written by the group’s French horn player, this piece is a modern take on 1890s ragtime. Listen for the syncopated rhythm common in ragtime music. What about it sounds “ragged”? How does this music inspire you to move? Also note times of silence. There are moments in the beginning and towards the end when there's no sound at all, but the energy of the music is still very present.
Watch Imani Winds play Startin’ Sumthin’:
Want to learn more about ragtime?:
Quintet for Winds
by John Harbison (b. 1938)
This piece has many movements, each of which displays a different characteristic that allows the quintet and individual instruments to shine. Can you find a common thread among them? Listen for the fourth movement—“Scherzo”—where notes are “passed” between the flute, clarinet, and bassoon. Can you catch where the melody leaves one instrument and is picked up by another?
VIDEO Finale VIDEO
Listen to the entire piece played by the Harbison Wind Quintet:
La Nouvelle Orleans
by Lalo Shifrin (b. 1932)
This piece reflects its composer’s jazz and Latin American roots. The title means “New Orleans,” the city considered the birthplace of jazz. This piece is a take on a traditional “jazz funeral march;” not solemn, but rather a celebration of the dearly departed. Listen for the gradual accelerando (speeding up) over the course of the piece, building towards an ending that reflects the New Orleans jazz Second Line brass band tradition. (The “second line” are the people who follow the band in the procession.) What gives the end its big band, jazzy feel?
Listen to Imani Winds play Schifrin’s La Nouvelle Orleans:
by Henry Threadgill (b. 1944)
What does this title even mean?! Honestly, we’re not sure. What we do know is that Imani Winds commissioned this Pulitzer prize-winning composer to write this experimental, provocative piece as part of their mission to feature diverse jazz artists in their body of work. Listen for how each instrument intertwines with one another. Can you decipher which one is which?
The Light is the Same
by Reena Esmail (b. 1983)
Based on a poem from the mystic poet Rumi, the piece is written with two scales traditionally used in Indian music. Imani Winds commissioned the piece, which is a picturesque work celebrating the idea that, though we have different beliefs, we all look up and see the same stars at night. Listen for the melody created by the first scale, ominous and sparse, at the beginning of the piece. Can you hear the piccolo and French horn playing a duet before the exciting, syncopated ending?
Learn more about Esmail at
her composer site.
by Valerie Coleman (b. 1970)
Written by a former Imani Winds flutist, this piece combines a celebration of the Romani (or gypsy) culture with Middle Eastern styles. Like jazz, the composition is written with the intention that the musicians take liberties and play with passion. The piece represents high energy and has beautiful solos that whirl to a frenzied ending. Listen for the driving rhythm behind the melody and watch for the “Low A extension” that bassoonist Monica Ellis inserts into the instrument in order to play a lower note than the bassoon can typically play.
Listen to Tzigane:
Think About This…
Imani Winds say it represents “the future of wind music and all it can be.” In what ways is the future of music related to its past? How is it different? What role do you think music fulfills in a changing world?
Part of the mission of this quintet is to bridge the gap between more traditional sounds and world music. What new sounds do you hear when listening to their music? How do the new sounds compare to what you think of as “classical” music? How do they compare to music you listen to most often? Are they similar at all?
A woodwind quintet has a surprisingly “full” sound for so few instruments. Just for fun, listen to this arrangement of The Incredibles movie theme by a woodwind quintet. How do these five instruments compare to the theme you’re used to hearing from the movie? VIDEO Take Action: Bridge the Gap
Imani Wind’s mission is to bridge the gap between old and new, traditional and progressive, classical and folk. This can be seen in their repertoire selections, compositions, and even the way they talk about their music. By bridging the gap, music becomes more accessible and more connected.
How can you bridge the gap in your art? Perhaps you meld the old and the new—maybe you perform jazz standards in new ways, or use Picasso as an inspiration in a modern artistic interpretation. Or maybe you combine two art forms to create something all your own. Think about a way to share how you will bridge the gap with family and friends.
Teacher & Parent Guide
Parents, Teachers, and Caregivers: We’ve Got You Covered
If you’re accompanying kids to this performance, we’re here to help. Maybe you’re learning which five instruments are in a woodwind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and French horn, just FYI), or perhaps you’re curious about what the group means by bridging the gap between different types of music, and how world music fits into the big picture. No problem. Here are a few basics to help you guide and discuss today’s performance and demonstration with your kids:
Imani Winds is an award-winning woodwind quintet that’s been around for a couple of decades. More than just a “classical” group, the chamber musicians focus on playing works that represent composers and cultures of diverse backgrounds, and even compose some of their own music, too! By bridging multiple musical traditions, Imani Winds shows that classical music is more diverse than you might think!
Here are a couple of relevant links to get you started:
A Parents’ Field Guide to the Symphony http://artsedge.kennedy-center.org/families/out-about/good-to-go/concert
The Woodwind Family
Learn a bit about the woodwind family of instruments. https://mrsrootsmusic.weebly.com/woodwind-family.html
The USN Woodwind Quintet Band
Hear a selection by the US Navy Woodwind Quintet Band. VIDEO
To sample more of the Imani Winds: VIDEO