Select Page

Point: Star of Indiana Was Good for the Activity

by T.L.

In this debate on the state of drum corps today, one corps – Star of Indiana – has been a flashpoint. To many, Star is the strongest example of what ails the activity. They look at the corps’ progressive programming and financially firm footing and think that this somehow will bring drum corps to ruin.

That’s ridiculous!

No doubt Star is controversial, but that is healthy. The fact is that the corps took chances, experimented artistically (sometimes, one suspects, to the corps’ competitive detriment), and pushed the activity in a forward direction. Star did exactly what corps of other eras had done.

Back in the late 1960s, the Boston Crusaders took chances, experimented artistically (use of mallet instruments, for which the corps was penalized every show – in the “good old days”), and pushed the activity in a forward direction (performing pieces like “Boris Godunov” – which people at the time argued was “boring”). The same can be said for the Blue Devils in the late 1970s and Cadets in the 1980s.

Throughout the history of art, there has been resistance to anything new. The dancer Pavlova refused the title role in the premiere of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” because, she said, the music was “nonsense.” “Rite of Spring” caused people to walk out of the concert hall. Even a work now regarded as the ultimate in mainstream – ·Carmen” – was early on rejected by critics and audiences. Its problem? It was different.

Impressionistic art – Monet, Renoir, and others – has won great acceptance. It is part of the collection of every great art museum. When the movement began, the Salon in France. THE final arbiter at the time – rejected for showing all impressionists’ work because it was “artless junk.” Look at Monet’s “Cathedral at Rouen” and “Haystacks” series and seriously tell me this is artless junk.

So it is with Star.

1991 Star of Indiana

The corps’ reputation as general effect/audience reaction anathema rests, one suspects, with 1993’s Bartok “Music for Percussion and Celeste.” Bartok will never have the audience react as it would to “Stars and Stripes.” The composer probably never intended
that it would.

Star’s decision to perform that work took great courage. What Star achieved with “Music for Percussion” was one of the sublime accomplishments in the activity’s history. We’re not just talking technical proficiency, which was enormous. The feel, the texture that the composer intended, was so strong you could almost feel its physical presence. Was this disturbing? Yes, a little.

Star could have taken the easy way out, not doing the piece or doing it with a variety of surefire general effect devices. The writers didn’t, and for that, we should be grateful.

That piece wasn’t everybody’s favorite and I certainly wouldn’t want to sit through an entire evening of that kind of literature (or for an entire show of Sousa or Latin jazz or whatever). But as one piece from one drum corps program, “Music for Percussion” was, for this listener, a great experience. And certainly not the ruin of the activity!

People don’t always have a good understanding of the creative process. I think that sometimes they are under the impression that staffs sit around thinking up new ways to bore the audience. In all my time in DCI and marching band, I have never experienced this. In fact, the opposite is true.

Some literature you do strictly to entertain; some, to educate. There are pieces that do both (think of Star’s “Roman Festival” show). The activity has the potential to both entertain and educate. Star has, over the years, done both.

“E.T.” entertained. The Gershwin show entertained. The “Roman Festival” show, because so much of the literature was new to the activity, both entertained and educated. The Morton Gould patriotic show, because it was an education wolf in entertainment sheep’s clothing, was less successful. People’s expectations were raised, but then the corps took it in an abstract direction.

All of which is to say that this is an inexact science. I miss Star because that progressive, courageous voice is missing from drum corps. Certainly, the corps didn’t deserve the derision it received in some comers, but then fratricide is as old as drum corps itself.

Counterpoint: Star of Indiana Was Bad for the Activity

by Richard Shaughnessey

Drum corps is filled with people who think they invented the activity yesterday.

Anyone who says the Star of Indiana was good for the activity is ignoring all those people dressed as empty seats in Orlando. What is it going to take for people to realize that current drum corps is B-O-R-I-N-G? Where have all the goose-bumps gone? The incredible crowd appeal that drum corps used to have is no more.

Star wasn’t the first boring corps, (just about any Midwest corps – except Madison – for the last ten years fits that description), but it certainly is the strongest case that these staffs just don’t care about the audience.

If Star was so right, why did Bergen County play all the John Williams and “Rodeo” music the last couple of years? Because the Cadets – after a few boring years themselves – finally have figured out that the audience does count.

To compare Star to Boston of the 1960s is dumb. Boston was exciting. Audiences can relate to “Conquest.” That Bartok piece Star did? Junk, if you ask me.

You shouldn’t have to own an advanced degree in music theory to understand what is staged on a football field. This isn’t ballet or Symphony Hall.

1993 Star of Indiana

The guys who put this stuff together must be frustrated symphony musicians. They certainly aren’t real drum corps people.

Remember going to the Nationals and having the audience go nuts? Remember the Bridgemen and their New York medley? What about the Lancers? Those were corps that knew about G.E. Staffs today know nothing about G.E.

If I want to sit through something disturbing, I’ll watch Hitchcock on late-night TV. Most of us go to drum corps shows to be entertained.

A lot of corps these days are afraid to play loud. I remember seeing the Crossmen in Foxboro at DCI in 1994. They had about one and a half impact points the whole show. (If you call those impact points.) The guy who taught the hornline was from Star. You figure it out. At least you could relate to the tunes they played, if not the way they played them.

In 1995 they tried to make the Crossmen into Star East and flopped miserably. At least they figured it out last season. “Birdland” was one of the best things out there. It was great to hear a Crossmen corps not afraid of playing the horns.

Madison proves you can be contemporary and not dull. The 1995 corps, in particular, is the kind of unit that would put people in the stands again. There used to be a lot of corps like that. Madison survives. A lot of corps that tried to play the DCI game didn’t.

Corps don’t play marches anymore. A marching activity in which they don’t play marches? Something’s screwy about that!

Maybe staffs don’t sit around thinking up new ways to bore the audience, but they might as well. Better yet, they should just ask Star’s staff how it’s done.

I think the time has finally come when the egos of the corps’ staffs have surpassed the egos of DCI, VFW, and the American Legion, an insurmountable task!