The Artistic Excellence Of The California Marching Band

A few weeks ago, new reader Tweedledamn had this to say about the California Marching Band:

Let’s warm up with a little round of shed-the-xenophobia by admitting what we all know and believe is true about Stanford and Stanford fans: the furd’s band is WAY better than Cal’s. It’s irreverent, it’s uncouth, it’s mildly ironic without taking itself too seriously, and it holds a warm place in Cal football history. It’s embarrassing, actually. That should be us; that could be Berkeley; we could even outdo them. But our band sucks. A bunch of dorks in lock-step. If I wanted something like that producing the soundtrack to my football games, I’d have gone to some tight-assed military academy.

As you might expect around here, that went over about as well as Rick Reilly at an Actually Good Simile Or Metaphor Conference. 

CalBandGreat, whose nomenclature alone would imply resistance, had this to say:

Yeah, what’s the point of having a band that practices on executing perfect marching style when you can have one that runs around like a bunch of drunken fools and pisses on opposing team’s fields?

rollonubears, accurately understanding the response, had this to say:

I AM NO LONGER THE MOST HATED PERSON HERE. YES!!!!! WELCOME TO THE BLOG TWEEDLEDAMN.

In response to some of the criticisms, Tweedledamn further specified his critique:

TwistNHook, we’ve all dedicated ourselves in life to something which we know, deep down, isn’t as objectively wonderful as we want it to be. I’m sure in terms of marching bands, Cal’s is stellar. But in terms of the standards of the spirit of Berkeley, and of artistic expression in general, even the best of marching bands (especially the best of marching bands) can only ever be conventionally staid.

Of course, the knee jerk reaction is to either fight back, mock, or just hit that always dreaded ignore button (Note: Like the edit button, not a real button).  But this discussion got me thinking.  About the Stanford band.  About the intended aesthetic of both marching bands in general and the beloved Cal band.  Behind the fold I take a closer look at some bedrock assumptions challenged by Tweedledamn.

First, before I move on any further, I want to get a few thoughts out of the way:

1.  I mean no disrespect towards Tweedledamn with this post.  As I said in the original thread:

Your "Still pretty sucky" view is not going to win you a lot of friends around here, I’ll be honest. But we do value the contributions of all readers, even if they have unpopular viewpoints (we let 33SS stay, don’t we ;)). So, please just try to keep in mind that your "Still pretty sucky" view is going to encounter resistance and let’s all try to avoid any big flame wars or food fights.

We welcome everybody here at CGB.  I realize that Tweedledamn's views are not going to win him any friends, but as long as everybody stays calm and we don't get into a big flame war here, it should be OK. 

2.  Before I get into the Cal band v. the Stanford band in further detail, I just want to say that I ABSOLUTELY, TOTALLY, AND COMPLETELY LOVE THE STANFORD BAND.  Does that make me a bad person?  I applied to Stanford early decision (Ok, that DOES make me a bad person!) and had I gotten in, I would have joined the Stanford band in two shakes of a baby lambs tail.  I even briefly entertained the thought of joining when I was still attending Cal, clearly making me a bad person.  All I'd need to do is pull down my pants, throw on a yarmulke, and I am good to go.  

 

Ok, so now that we have that out of the way.  Let's try to clarify further what Tweedledamn's critiques are and see if that helps clear anything up.

 

Argument 1:  the furd’s band is WAY better than Cal’s

Argument 2: It’s irreverent, it’s uncouth, it’s mildly ironic without taking itself too seriously

Argument 3: If I wanted something like that producing the soundtrack to my football games, I’d have gone to some tight-assed military academy.

Argument 4:  in terms of the standards of the spirit of Berkeley, and of artistic expression in general, even the best of marching bands (especially the best of marching bands) can only ever be conventionally staid.

Boiling these down into one thought, it'd look something like this:

The Cal Band, which, in violation of the spirit of Berkeley, restricts itself to the conventionally staid traditional "military" style, is not as good as the Stanford band, which breaks free of the traditional style by being irreverent, uncouth, and mildly ironic. 

 

I feel that that is a fair assessment of Tweedledamn's critique, but if he/she feels otherwise, please do not hesitate to correct me. I do not feel this is an accurate critique for 3 main reasons:

1.  Reject outright.

Firstly, I reject this critique outright for being purely inaccurate.  As I'll explain further to compare the Cal Band to a military band shows a lack of understanding about the Cal marching band.  Further, the term "restrict" connotes certain things, which I do not believe are correct when discussing the marching. 

Although this first argument probably seems cursory and inane, it is probably as far as most got with Tweedledamn.  Outright rejection.  But let's take it a step further and discuss this "restriction" aspect.

2.  Restricted aesthetic?

Tweedeldamn seems to be arguing that the Cal Marching Band has restricted its aesthetic to a "military" style, which he/she abhors.  That this is in violation of the spirit of Berkeley, which is creative and destructive towards the norms. 

I do not necessarily see this is as a restricted aesthetic, I see it as an intended aesthetic.  Cal has intended its aesthetic to be within the confines of the "marching band" style.  And why is this?

Because they have the instrumentation of a marching band!  As I'll discuss later with the Stanford marching band's intended aesthetic, instrumentation is unbelievably key to a successful performance.

As Donnie Boy Rumsfield always said, "You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want."  Also, "thanks for all the help being so evil, Pete Carroll!"  Maybe the Cal Marching Band would love to have different instrumentation, I don't know.  But they have a 200 person army of woodwinds, brass, and percussion. 

Do you conduct a symphony orchestra with this?

No.

Do you have a Phish-style jam band with this?

No.

What can you do with a 200 person band comprised mostly of brass? 

March.

It is the intended aesthetic, because to fight it would prove disastrous results (see: Stanford Marching Band).  So, that's another key to the reason why I think that Tweedledamn's critique falls short.  They aren't restricting their aesthetic to a military style band, they are intending a very specific aesthetic based on the very instrumentation of their makeup.


Of course, within the aesthetic they have chosen, there is a rather epic spectrum.  On one end, you have the military style bands with crisp precision and little creativity.  On the other end, you have scramble bands (like Stanford) that have horrific precision and unbelievable creativity. 

Cal is working within the confines of this spectrum and, unlike Tweedledamn's claims, is not really near the ends of either side.  In my humble opinion, they try to combine the crisp precision of the military bands with the unbelievable creativity of a scramble-style band.  Don't believe me?  Watch this:


 


Those are just two shows.  Within the last 2 years.  Do they scream "tight-assed military band"??  I don't see any John Philip Sousa in there, do you?

Compare to this, for example:


 

 

Alright, now let me take this one step further and use a different aesthetic:

 



Here, you have two klezmer videos.  You have one that is unbelievably traditional in style.  Then, you have the "Devil Circle" from the Cracow Klezmer Band.  Although not my favorite song of theirs, it is a truly amazing song.  The instrumentation is very similar in both cases.  They stem from the opposite side of the spectrum when it comes to Klezmer, but the second you hear either going, you know you are hearing Klezmer.  You know what they are intending and they are perfect on that. 

Here, the first video would be akin to a military style band, while the second video would be somewhat closer to the Cal marching band.  Not perfectly akin, because we're really not *that* avant garde out there, but I still feel it is an apt comparison.  The Stanford band would be as if you had the klezmer instrumentation and then tried to play a country music song or a gangster rap song.  It'd be, ostensibly, possible to do so.  And could unbelievable awesome!  But it'd require an extraordinarily high level of execution, because otherwise, it would just really muddled.  Like you jammed two things together.  So, it comes down to execution.

To conclude this section, ultimately every marching band is restricted in a manner similar to Tweedledamn's claims.  It is merely how much they want to fight that.  Cal fights that in a way that produces creativity.  Stanford fights it in a way that is counterproductive at times.  Counter productive, because they do not have the level of execution necessary to pull off their conceptions.  Let's discuss that in the next section.

3.  Execution.

Honestly, this is not really about the fact that you can never get a great balance of sounds by the Stanford band.  All marching bands face the same problems where the drums and brass dominate.  I'll be the first to admit that the Cal band has the same problem.  You can rarely get a solid sound on the woodwinds.  I was actually stunned to hear that when I first got out of the band.  I was a woodwind, so I thought we were doing great.  Of course, that was because I was surrounded by all the woodwinds.  It wasn't until I graduated that I realized that I had a poor concept of our overall sound.

So, it's not really the sound aspect.  It's more the execution of the comedy aspect.  Like I said, the Stanford band is trying to avoid being a marching band and actually be an unbelievably massive comedy troupe.  Kind of like a klezmer band trying to play a gangsta rap song.  And every now and then they hit a home run.  Who could forget these classic and hilariously offensive dealies:

 

In 1990, Stanford suspended the band for a single game after their halftime show at the University of Oregon criticized the logging of the spotted owl's habitats in the northwest United States. The band used formations in the shape of a chainsaw and in the shape of the word OWL changing to AWOL.[5] Governor Neil Goldschmidt (D-OR) issued a decree that the band not return to Oregon for several years; the band did not return until 2001. [2] After the spotted owl incident, all halftime shows were reviewed and approved by Stanford's Athletic Department.

 

In 1991, the University of Notre Dame banned the LSJUMB from visiting its campus after a halftime show at Stanford in which drum major Eric Selvik dressed as a nun and conducted the band using a wooden cross as a baton. (During the pregame show and first half of the game, the drum major had been dressed as an Orthodox Jew, where the wooden cross was part of a menorah-like baton.) After the halftime show, a female Notre Dame fan ran onto the field, approached from behind the unsuspecting Selvik, and forcibly ripped the nun habit off of his head. Selvik pursued and regained his habit from the attacker, who in the scuffle for the habit told the drum major he was "going to hell for this."[3]

 

In 1997, the Band was again disciplined for shows lampooning Catholicism and the Irish at a game against Notre Dame. The Band put on a show entitled "These Irish, Why Must they Fight?" Besides the mocking supposedly stereotypical Irish-Catholic behavior, there was a Riverdance formation, and a Potato Famine joke, drawing criticism[6] for its "tasteless" portrayal of Catholics. Both the band and the Stanford President Gerhard Casper subsequently apologized for the band's behavior. [7]

 

All great stuff.  Especially if you aren't Ken Crawford or a member of the Crawford family.  Or a Notre Dame nun.  That said, these are apparently the best of the best.  The absolute pinnacle of the apparent Stanford band "inanity."  But not every show is like this.  Most shows consist of the following:

Stanford band "scrambles" into position.  Announcer reads the narrative.  Band plays song. 

We already know that the third aspect there is going to be weak for the reasons previously discussed and the fact that Stanford does not pride itself on musicianship.  Also, IIRC, the Stanford sections tend to clump together for visual reasons.  You want all your Geishas in one area, while you want your 19th century gold prospectors in another.  This is another reason why the sound is uneven.

The second aspect is also off, because it can't really match up well with the song.  They can't have the narrator talk over the bang the entire time, so they just have their snippets while the band plays its song.  That, again, doesn't match up with the first aspect, because they hold their positions for fairly long periods of time (generally coinciding with the songs). 

So, you have a series of moving parts here, the narrator, the song, the formation, which often can't match up well.  Here's a great example.  The 2001 Big Game.  Now, Big Games all throughout the 1990s tended to end in riots.  Painful, painful riots.  By the time I made it to Cal, it was well known that there would be at riots.  I remember in 1999 at Stanford, the Riot Police came out as soon as the game ended.  We in the band feared for our safety, because people were throwing items down towards the field.  But, in some cases, we not getting them far enough.  So, they were hitting Cal fans in the lower level of the stands.  I distinctly remember a Cal fan with blood running down the back of his head.  When the Big Game came back to Stanford in 2001, they decided to do the "DON'T RIOT" show.

Play-large_medium

What would a discussion of the Stanford band be without this photo!  via berkeley.edu

I remember finding a copy of the show's written sheets (potentially also called poop sheets) on the ground before the game.  I read through it and found the concept amusing.  They spelled out the word "DON'T" and then "RIOT" over and over and over and over and over and over again.  That was the entire show!!  They played music, of course, and there was the narrator.  But the music is often an after-thought and the narrator, chronologically, is only a smaller portion of the show.  The comedy is the true focus, the very thing that makes them different.  And here the "DON'T RIOT" aspect was the gimmick.  The concept that made it all work!  And reading through it, it was funny.  I could see how in the discussions with the writers, it was funny to them.  Great idea, no doubting that.

But the execution was worthless.  They ran into the word DON'T for 3 minutes, while playing a song wholly unrelated to rioting. Then, the ran into the word RIOT, while playing a song wholly unrelated to anything!  Lather.  Rinse.  Repeat.  ??.  Profit. 

Again, the concept was sound.  But when you try to shoe horn the comedy aspect into the marching band aesthetic, it fell flat.  The music did not relate to the jokes.  And the jokes took so long to reach the punchline that most people probably forgot the word DON'T came before RIOT.  This, to me, is the quintessential Stanford band show.  Better in conception than execution.  They file their aesthetic and it comes out muddled.

And the fact of the matter is few people are ever going to read the poop sheets.  It was random that I saw that one the morning of.  You are there to entertain your fans.  Period.  Not yourself.  There's no point in being artistically masturbatory.  This isn't necessarily about the fact that many Stanford alums personally despise the band and find it to be an embarrassment.  I am going to ignore that because I personally despise many Stanford alums and I find them to be an embarrassment.

Conclusion

So, those are the reasons why I believe that Tweedledamn is inaccurate in his analysis of both the Stanford and Cal bands.  I initially reject his arguments right out.  But taking a closer look at his arguments, I find them to be devoid of merit for two further reasons:

1.  The Cal band does not, in violation of an undiscussed "Berkeley spirit," limit itself to a military-style band as argued.  Instead, it finds a great spot within the intended marching band aesthetic.  As compared to the Stanford band, which counter-productively tries to free itself from this aesthetic.

2.  The Stanford band fails to free itself from this aesthetic due to anticipated and unanticipated problems coordinating all the moving parts.   Not only do you have standard problems like an uneven sound, but you also have an inability to prolong the joke for the entirety of the show.  All of these problems work together to create a show that poorly executes a potentially hilarious concept that entertains few, if any, Stanford fans.

But, like all internet arguments, this is merely my view and it wildly lacks perspective.  So, denizens of this website, tell me why I'm wrong.  I'll leave you with a creative exercise that if either band could mimic on the field would unbelievably amazing.  Yes, the greatest YouTube Video of all time (PS I don't know how to unbold this...):


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