Stephen Bulla: Images for Brass


Stephen Bulla grew up in a musical family, with his father playing tuba, and his mother playing piano. Bulla took up music too, and he ended up studying at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he passed with distinction. At Berklee, Bulla studied trombone performance with Phil Wilson and composition with Herb Pomeroy. In 1980, Bulla earned a position as ‘Staff Arranger’ for The President’s Own US Marine Band and Chamber Orchestra in Washington DC. Bulla remained in this position until 2010, after he had provided a wealth of scores for White House events and more.

Bulla has composed for a number of different musical ensembles including full symphonic orchestra, chamber ensembles, brass bands and solo instruments (in particular trombone!). According to ASCAP, Bulla’s music has featured on TV programs such as CSI Miami, Joan of Arcadia, Survivor and Guiding Light. Bulla is currently the Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the New England Brass Band and Brass of the Potomac.


The Music

Images for Brass is a brass band test piece that was most recently used for the Second Section 2016 Championship Finals. Set into four short movements, Images for Brass is a descriptive work that was composed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima. The battle took place between 19th February – 26th March 1945. The famous image of the raising of the flag on top of Mount Suribachi signalled the end of this significant pacific conflict of the Second World War.

The work was premiered by the brass choir of the U.S. Marine Band at the National Cathedral in Washington DC.

Movement I – Prologue

The opening two minutes represent the anticipation before the conflict. The piece opens with ominous tubular bells, low bass drones and a mysterious trombone solo that is accentuated by percussion. The middle of the band join the trombone for a once over of the melody, which leads to the upper band joining in. The first climax is heard about one minute in as the band builds and explodes into awesome colour. Muted cornets battles with the grand trombones, until an interlude section takes hold. A lone solo euphonium leads the way, with the snare drum adding that war-like atmosphere.


Movement II – Approach by Sea

The music continues straight into the next section – Approach by Sea. This section depicts the arduous journey to the scene of the battle. Fluctuating cornets represent the sea, with the uneasy feeling carrying through the band. The movement between time signatures gives off the atmosphere of being at sea.

The band is in constant dialogue with one another, passing the main theme around. The percussion is again a welcome constant behind the band. The upper band unite to proclaim the main melody again before the music begins to come down once more. Bulla’s use of the pentatonic scale on the marimba and the use of the tam-tam signify the music reaching Japan.


Movement III – Chorale Prayer

The music falls into an introspective prayer which features the hymn tune Melita. Muted cornets open and leave room for the warm instruments in the middle of the band to sing through. The chorale is warm and emotional, which provides a stark contrast to the previous two movements. A solo cornet takes up the melody after the long introduction, which soon builds into a full band affair.

The music perhaps represents the barron wasteland that greeted the soldiers as they arrived to battle. This whole section oozes the brass band tradition of hymns. The warm tones, simple movement and unity in melody and harmony make this movement one of the most memorable.


Movement IV – Engagement

The final movement represents the hostile confrontation of the war itself. Opening with a two-note motif from muted cornets, the band follows creating a cascade of two-note motifs. There is a sharpness at the start of this movement, with the mutes adding to this drama. The percussion drives the music forward with an animalistic accompaniment to the band.

The music is loud and sees the band untie for certain phrases to accentuate the melody. The war-like atmosphere here is sustained by the chugging lower band and the persistent percussion who charge the band into battle. The end of the music signifies the raising of the American flag at the end of battle, with the music echoing the US National Anthem. A fiery close to a highly programmatic work.


Final Thoughts

Images for Brass challenges a band in a number of ways. From the atmospheric playing to the bold and charging presence in the finale movement. Tricky solos are littered onto most principal players, offering a new challenge for the leaders of the band. The driving percussion must lead the band in quite a few instances, making them just as important. Most of all, the band must be able to represent each section, its story and why it’s important to Bulla’s overall message.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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