Composing the Inaugural Fanfare

The inauguration of Dr. Steven R. DiSalvo as the tenth president of Saint Anselm College was a college wide event that included everyone in the college community. One unique aspect to the event was the official fanfare titled "Vers L'Avenir" (Toward the Future), composed by Assistant Professor of Fine Arts Dr. Francis Kayali. In late July of this year, he was invited to compose a brass fanfare for the inauguration and spent one month putting it together with the help of friends from the University of Southern Maine. Below is his first-hand account.

It was the last week of July, soon after my family arrived in New Hampshire from California. We were exploring Manchester, when I got a call from Prof. Parr, my colleague in the Fine Arts Department. He told me that Fr. Augustine was looking for someone to compose a brass fanfare for the inauguration of Saint Anselm’s new president. Was I interested?

I’ve always been fond of the brass sound, so I was very excited about the opportunity and quickly gathered the bits of information I needed to get started on this piece: the desired length, character (“bold and presidential!”), and, of course, the performance date (less than three months away).

There was about a month to go until the beginning of classes and I decided to have the project completed by then. Throughout the month of August, this would be my one and only project.

To prime my ears, I listened to a few tracks of brass quintet music on Spotify and on YouTube. After that, I jumped in. I improvised for a few minutes at the piano and proceeded to sketch the opening section of the fanfare.

I tend to work on pieces in a linear fashion. It’s certainly not imperative to work this way, but I find that it tends to be easier, particularly when time is of the essence. I wanted music that would have an energetic drive, music that would be festive, with the open and bold harmonies we associate with fanfares. I rarely set out to emulate a particular composer, but familiar voices or sounds do often emerge. To me, this piece has echoes of Gabrieli, Janacek, Ravel, Stravinsky, Ewazen, and Sonny Rollins, among others.

I soon started thinking of ways to include material that would be more directly associated with St Anselm. Most colleges have a school song and, I thought, St Anselm must be no exception. It wasn’t difficult to find mention of a school song, as its lyrics are included on the school’s Wikipedia article. However, there was no source for the melody. Fortunately, someone had recently uploaded a video of the choir singing the anthem. I transcribed it and started weaving some of its motives into the fanfare.

When I completed the first draft of the piece in mid-August, I decided it was time to find a brass quintet to play it through. This is when I thought of Scott Vaillancourt, the leader of the brass ensemble at my undergraduate college. I sent him a message asking for advice in locating players and he offered to have his brass quintet, the Norumbega Ensemble, play through my piece. I drove up to the University of Southern Maine campus in Gorham. They very generously devoted all of their time that night to rehearsing the piece. I came back with the recording of a run-through, which I sent to Fr. Augustine for review.

The next day, I received Fr. Augustine’s enthusiastic response. Apparently, he even played the recording on his iPad for other members of his office! He only recommended one revision: to make the quote of the school song a little more easy to discern so that the audience would be sure not to miss it. (In the first version, the melody was integrated in a somewhat veiled way.) After completing a second draft, which incorporated Fr. Augustine’s suggestion along with the performers’ technical advice, I travelled to Maine one more time to finalize performance details with the quintet.

The members of the Norumbega Ensemble are an easy-going crew. Yet, when it comes to matters of performance, they are among the most meticulous musicians I have worked with. They analyzed every aspect of the piece, carefully working out every parameter, adjusting the dynamics, tweaking the sound color, experimenting with different moods and tempo changes. At one point, they even asked me to sing the Saint Anselm Anthem for them so that they could ensure that their phrasing conformed to that of the words. I drove back to Manchester that night confident that the fanfare was in good hands.

Six weeks later, I slipped into my academic regalia and marched onto the quad with the other professors. Hearing my piece played live induced its own special form of stage fright. Nothing was expected of me: I got to sit in the audience, hidden amongst the crowd. However, everything about the performance was out of my control.

I tried to remind myself that my work was over now, that performing the piece was someone else’s job, and that I was no longer responsible for the outcome… But that doesn’t ring true. Wasn’t it my job to make sure that I composed a piece that worked? And what if something came up to throw everything off? Would the performers be fatigued after sitting out in the cold for an hour and a half? Would it start to rain? Would the wind blow off a page of someone’s music?

No, that at least would not happen. The players brought with them dozens of wooden clothespins and fastened the music to the stands. It would take a hurricane for those pages to fly off.

Still, more thoughts raced through my mind as I waited for the moment when the fanfare would be played.

We listened to Dr. DiSalvo’s impassioned presidential address and all rose for a standing ovation. Then, as the first notes of the fanfare sounded, we sat and a more reflective mood seemed to fall upon the audience. A breeze passed over the trees and I started relaxing and taking in the view of Alumni Hall, the trees, and the New Hampshire autumn. I hadn’t listened to the piece in more than a month and I was rediscovering it myself, noticing details along the way: an inflection, a ritenuto, a syncopation, a chord. I found myself enjoying the ride. Nothing fell apart. No pages flew away. The piece just… worked.

The final notes sounded and my colleagues congratulated me warmly. Throughout the evening, faculty and guests came up to me to share their impressions. By then, the quintet players had packed their instruments and were already halfway back to Maine.

As Prof. Asbury once remarked, some creative artists, by virtue of their craft, are required to work alone. Painters and composers usually fall into this category. However, I think that this particular project may prove to have a different effect. In the course of just a few weeks, I met a group of wonderful and dedicated musicians, and thanks to the performance, I feel more closely connected not only to Saint Anselm lore, but to the Saint Anselm community as whole.