When Michael Colburn first saw the movie Get Out, a 2017 film directed by Jordan Peele that captures themes of racism through lenses of horror and comedy, he thought it was all-around fantastic. But what stood out most to the Butler University Director of Bands was the music behind the dialogue.

“I knew nothing about Michael Abels as a composer until I saw that movie,” he says. “The freshness of the score caught my attention. It was very unusual, and it got me wondering if Michael had ever written anything for band.”

So Colburn tracked down the critically acclaimed composer on Facebook, asking if he would be interested in writing a piece for Butler’s Wind Ensemble.

Abels replied almost instantly. The composer has become known for his work in orchestral music and film score (especially for the Jordan Peele movies Get Out and Us), but he had never written for concert band. He was intrigued.

As the conversation went on, Colburn mentioned Butler’s nationally known ballet program. Abels had already considered trying his hand at writing for dance, and a collaboration with Butler’s annual Midwinter Dances event meant he could create music that would be performed by student-musicians, alongside choreography by student-dancers. The piece, Falling Sky, made its world debut during the performances in Clowes Hall earlier this month.

Leaders from Butler’s Dance department recommended world-renowned Patrick de Bana to lead the choreography, and the two men joined on campus last year to start talking about what they wanted to create.

Colburn asked that the piece focus on some kind of social issue because “one of the more intriguing places we approach these topics is through the arts.” Together, Abels and de Bana realized they both cared deeply about the current humanitarian crisis at the United States’ southern border.

“What really impressed me was how open-minded they were,” Colburn says. “They were making very strong points—and making them adamantly—but they were both receptive to what the other person had to offer. It was truly collaborative.”

The artists also discussed how dance differs from film: Movies have strong narratives—with music that supports certain scenes and actions—while dance is more representational.

“Patrick encouraged Abels to not think about a specific plot or narrative,” Colburn says, “but to think more in terms of representational images that convey emotions, or that capture the general experiences of people who are caught up in this crisis.”

Working together, the artists created a 20-minute performance packed with themes of innocence, terror, diversity, and hope.

Falling Sky is really a unique score,” Colburn says about the work. “I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say there’s nothing like it in the band world. Some parts are very traditional, but the second movement is based entirely on hip hop. One of Abels’ overall goals is finding ways to fuse classical music with more popular, contemporary reference points.”

A few basic themes pop up throughout the piece, Colburn says. A youthful exuberance toward the beginning reflects the spirit of the children involved in the border situation. Darker, more sinister elements come in during the second movement, representing the forces working against families.

“Then the third movement is the most angst-ridden,” Colburn says. “It seeks to capture what these families are going through when they are incarcerated and the kids are separated from their parents—and the incredible difficulties that presents.”

The piece concludes in a final movement, hinting at the optimism that comes with moving toward a better place.

Butler’s Wind Ensemble will perform music from Falling Sky in concert on March 1 as part of the Music at Butler Series. This event is free and open to the public. 

Photos by Brent Smith

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Katie Grieze
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