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Take a deeper dive into specific pieces of music and composers with Classical KC and the UMKC Conservatory while learning how they connect to events today.

This composer wants you to forget everything you thought you knew about marches

A woman smiles in a portrait
Elizabeth Glenn
Composer Jennifer Jolley.

Trailblazing contemporary composer Jennifer Jolley is deconstructing the familiar march style through a new work while also addressing the long running political instability between North and South Korea.

Author Anya Pogorelova is a DMA student in Wind Conducting/MM student in Musicology at the UMKC Conservatory.

Jennifer Jolley has never shied away from exploring provocative, taboo, or political topics in her art. In 2017, she composed "The Eyes of the World Are Upon You" as a response to the new campus carry laws in Texas that came into effect on the 50th anniversary of the University of Texas tower shooting. One year later, a collaboration with librettist Kendall A yielded "Prisoner of Conscience" which bears the description of “a crude homage to three heroes unjustly incarcerated, fighting a corrupt system that unfortunately at times bears a little too much resemblance to our own.”

Much like her previous works, "March!" has a heavy agenda: it directly addresses the long running political instability between North and South Korea while openly challenging the status quo of the march genre. It also hits a little closer to home, as Jolley’s own mother was orphaned during the Korean War.

"March!" was the result of a commission from the American Bandmasters Association, which Jolley accepted shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the loose parameters and virtually zero expectations of a “traditional” piece, composing a march for the group that once had John Philip Sousa (AKA The American March King) among its ranks seemed apt. Speaking to this decision, Jolley writes, “who doesn’t love a good march? It’s like they were engineered to give us sonic sugar highs. Yet there is another side to the sonic pleasures of the march—since antiquity, marches have been recognized and principally employed to incite combatants gearing up for battle.”

This dark, deconstructed, and conflicted homage embodies the composer’s uncertainty towards the march’s checkered past. Jolley strips her work of all traces of easy listening along with any other “aural seductions” associated with the popular form. A traditional Sousa-style march is predictable and perfectly proportional: a short introduction is followed by two repeated strains, a trio, a “dogfight” (break strain), and a coda. Each of these sections can be divided into 4 or 8 bar phrases, and the entirety of the work is performed at the same tempo with no pauses between sections. Of course, Jolley’s “anti-march” shatters every one of these expectations. The shrill introduction does not give way to a light and singable melody; instead, we are presented with fragments from Dmitri Shostakovich’s "March of the Soviet Militia" and various North Korean patriotic melodies. The piece grinds to a halt no less than 16 times, all while being assaulted by an army of battery percussion and distorted recordings from the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Unexpected asymmetrical phrases ruin any remaining sense of a proportional form. "March!" is a bold move on many fronts – so bold that despite the initial intent of the commissioning party, the work has still not been performed at the American Bandmasters Association conference. The organization maintains that the work would have been premiered on the date in the original contract had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic; however, the governing board has not taken the opportunity to program the work at either of the two conferences since that time.

"March!" was premiered by the World Youth Wind Symphony at the Interlochen Center for the Arts on August 7, 2021 under the direction of Steven D. Davis, who currently serves as the Rose Ann Carr Millsap Missouri Distinguished Professor of Music and Professor of Conducting at the UMKC Conservatory.