Should there be competition among the Arts? Easy decisions are made on the football field, baseball diamond or at the track meet tape. Whoever is fastest or scores more points wins. With Art, subjective minds decide what/who is best – usually for the rest of us. Is Citizen Kane the greatest film ever made? Yes, say the members of the American Film Institute. The innovations were unparalleled for 1941 (and quite beyond). It’s third on my list for one reason: I don’t find the story of Charles Foster Kane at all interesting. It’s merely taste. Two superbly made films with far more compelling plots were On the Waterfront (#2) and The Lost Weekend (#1 – the “perfect” film). Yours are undoubtedly different and equally respectable – unless you loved Green Book, which is the worst choice for the Best Picture Academy Award since its 1927 inception.
Was DaVinci the greatest painter? Who wrote the best symphonies? Who is the current best composer alive? Tomato, tom-ah-to. Even in sports, who was/is the greatest baseball player? Swimmer? Quarterback? Unless Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas, Brett Favre and Tom Brady all played together, who is really the best?
So goes with drum corps. Some questions are easily answered. Blue Devils 1976 or 1986? Duh. Same opener, different planet. 1986 is among the best ever. Who else? Is it Santa Clara Vanguard 1973? That corps still holds the record for margin of victory (2.5 points). BD 2014, with DCI’s record high score, was ‘only’ 2.45 ahead of #2. How about BD 1982 with the record score (95.25) during the tick era?
The answer is so simple that you should have already said it: Garfield Cadets 1985. Score-wise, it was basically a carryover from their 1984 masterpiece but with a higher drum score. Quite a few corps have tied or beaten their 98.4, a record for its day, but are any of them greater? No. Here’s why:
1) Garfield didn’t have an arranger until March. Jim Prime did not return, and they tried other arrangers (and different shows/concepts). Mike Klesch, in his 2nd year on staff, took it on having arranged exactly ZERO shows. In his words, he locked himself in his room and wrote “A Bernstein Portrait.” Meanwhile, SCV, BD, and Madison were all repeating tunes and had everything set the November prior.
2) It is insanely difficult. I marched baritone for five years in a very good college band (we stole from DCI regularly). Most of the opener is Movement II of Bernstein’s 1st Symphony (“Profanation”). In fact, they essentially played the entire movement sans repeats, and Klesch added that sick ending (and a few mellophone flourishes). Bernstein’s strings are forced to play into entrances that aren’t on the beat or at all in any practical rhythm. In old-timey drum corps, four brass instruments voiced the violin, viola, cello, bass. Listening to the horns’ various entrances and articulations blows my mind to this day. Oh, check out the field coverage. The sops are so far from the mellos at one point, and they have to answer each other in tempo. Holy Christmas!
3) In a 12 minute 36 second show, the entire corps comes to a complete stop only EIGHT TIMES. The evolution of the drill is extremely organic – it’s a main character of the production itself. The first stop is when the entire marching unit hits the first block. (In a genius move, the Guard, hidden among the military uniforms, stands still. Only when the block begins to disperse do we see silks.) They finish the intro (from the 1st movement, “Prophecy”) and halt for just a few counts. Then the corps moves through Part I of the “Profanation” until the hornline backs into its own block, and all movement ceases (to a polite smattering of golf-claps) for Stop 3. The next time they stop is at “Jeremiah’s” end. If you’re keeping track, that’s 6½ minutes in with four full-corps stills. They march the ballad, “Make Our Garden Grow,” and stop only twice: first for the 40-second fortissimo climax and then to end the tune (#6). In “Candide,” they march until the “Glitter and Be Gay” sop solo, and then it’s (to quote the 1986 DCI yearbook) “a mad dash to the finish of an overture” and the final halt. Eight times. Count ’em. Ok, ok. It might not have the same kind of demand as today’s corps that park and play while performing that impossible shimmy-shimmy-knee bend choreography. I’m lookin’ at you, Bloo. And Crown. (Sarcasm off.) Incidentally, the 1994 Cadets started that whole thing during “Mambo,” and I’ve yet to forgive them.
4) The Guard. Yes, they finished tied for 5th; Spirit of Atlanta was amazing and athletic. Luckily, they didn’t have to march as much. In the later part of “Jeremiah,” the Live PBS camera holds point on the silks as they touch the side one end zone. The tempo returns to “frenetic,” and they start spinning and spinning and tucking the flag under their arm and spinning and ending with a toss. No, it’s not flawless, but they’re so far away from the sound that it’s mystifying how they held it together. Not even Garfield could alter time, space, and sound, could they? And some of that work is just so hard. Rumor has it that writer Wanda Conway left DCI to open a School for Sadism. Lateral career move, that.
5) The Brass. The articulations in “Jeremiah” leave little room for error. As DCI guru and PBS broadcaster Don Angelica gushed while the corps marched off the field, “…of course there were some glitches in their performance. That’s probably the most difficult thing ever marched to or played to on a football field.” The Field Brass judge, in a Drum Corps World interview, said that although he had BD first, Garfield’s level of artistry and emotion on the field made him cry. It’s one thing to pull off such an abstract 6½ minute opener, but to finish with the “Opera Buffa” ending is a far different beast. The one thing I never mastered on the trumpet was the highest register. Here, they are screaming double G whole notes while marching at 180 bpm. And they somehow maintain pitch, tone, and the best-balanced sound of the night (9.9/10 upstairs).
6) Percussion. After finishing 9th on the field in 1984 and barely winning DCI, the following season’s immediate turnaround was astounding. They co-won High Percussion on Friday, and I’ve read that they were about to win on Saturday until there was a kerfluffle at the start of “Candide.” I don’t know, a sound effect was off or something before the piece started. There’s a noticeable “ka-THUNK,” but the horns come in, and the drill does its thing. I’ve been told that the Field Percussion judge asked them later what happened and that he was on his way to scoring them first (instead of the tie for 3rd). We in Camp Randall didn’t notice anything amiss (unlike their huge ensemble tear in 1996). Regardless, find the YouTube video “Garfield Cadets 1985 From the Stands.” It’s raw and certainly recorded on a hand held cassette player of the day. It affords a much clearer sound from the battery. That snare line was solid! I’d not realized how much the quads and the mellophones shared parts. I would be remiss if I omitted the contributions of the pit. Six musicians. Yes, six playing over 50 instruments. The videos constantly show them scurrying from drum to cymbal to gong to whatnot. Nowadays, the pits stretch to the thirty-yard lines with 18 members, and they STILL need mic’ed.
There have been some amazing productions since. We can argue difficulty this, greatest that; drum corps is a different animal today. As I’ve said, I’m waiting for a show to come along to top this one. The Cadets themselves outscored this one in 2005 and still hold the distinction of being the only team to place first on every judge’s sheet including subcaptions. It’s my Citizen Kane of DCI: amazing technique and impeccable design but just not an interesting story (except the incredible ballad). As far as BD 2014 goes, it shot up (immediately) to my #2 slot. Yes, there are very difficult “moments” of the show: rotating blocks, great field coverage, and that stunning rotating line near the end. But they didn’t have Garfield’s use of 48-count phrases all the while marching (fast) and playing. Meaning, they could “rest” between those moments.
To quote former VP Dan Quayle, potato, potatoe, right?
* Featured Photo – 2006 DCI Semi-Finals Retreat: “DCI Division I Awards” flickr photo by Scutter https://flickr.com/photos/scutter/230304978 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license