Michael Boo was a member of the Cavaliers from 1975-1977. He has written about the drum corps activity for more than a quarter century and serves as a staff writer for various Drum Corps International print and Web projects. Boo has written for numerous other publications and has published an honors-winning book on the history of figure skating. As an accomplished composer, Boo holds a bachelor's degree in music education and a master's degree in music theory and composition. He resides in Chesterton, Ind.
It's a glorious day here in Bloomington and we're just about ready to kick off the Drum Corps International World Championship World Class Quarterfinals. After the "excitement" we had with having to move the show to Bloomington and then the additional excitement with the severe flooding in the area that caused part of the field to collapse, it's especially comforting to see Pioneer enter the field to start off the three days of the best drum corps on the face of the earth.
Pioneer I can't think of a better corps in the central Midwest to send a young kid to for a family-oriented drum corps experience. Being created by a family and staffed in the early years by many members of the Blenski clan, the family feel has continued on in the corps and pervades how they operate to this day. An identity is a bad thing to waste and Pioneer realizes it as "the Irish corps." There are few things we can depend on, and Pioneer being Irish is one of them…even though "Celtic Reflections" does have a couple works by British composers who are thought of being purely English.
Mandarins I remember cheering wildly for the Mandarins when they won the Division III World Championship with just 10 horn players. The corps has always made the most of what they had to work with. Sometimes it seemed the members were over-achieving, and I had to keep reminding myself that the corps really was that small. The corps is of a pretty substantial size now and some years they're in Semifinals and some years they're not. This is a year when they are rebuilding. I expect to see them in Semifinals again. This is an organization that has always refused to lie down.
The Academy My earliest memories of this corps came from hearing about this small unit from Arizona that was just doing weekend shows. When I finally saw the corps in Madison a couple years ago, I was overwhelmed with the articulate horn sound, one of the most amazing Division II programs I ever witnessed. Some people expressed concerns when the corps just missed the World Class (Then Div. I) Finals last year. And more concerns were heard this year when the corps came into the last weeks of the season appearing to not be a shoe-in for making the Semifinals competition. I think this is a perfect case when placement is not the same as audience value.
Pacific Crest For years, this corps serviced kids who had a life outside of drum corps; many even attended summer school or held down summer jobs. When the corps finally came to the World Championships a few years back, they blasted into Semifinals and I remember thinking, "This is no weekend corps." "Primality: The Rituals of Passion" fits the corps well, being that the corps has been known for its intense portrayals. I remember reading a release from the corps about their "Joan of Arc" show in 2000, when a judge stated that it was "almost TOO intense." Several weeks ago, the corps was pulling scores down that indicated it was a dark horse for possibly making the Finals competition. At the end of the season, they're fighting it out to make the Semifinals. Drum corps seasons are strange creatures.
Troopers While I hope Troopers never take off another season to restructure, I'm so happy now that they did what they needed to do a couple years ago. Last year, when they came out with more than 60 horns, I felt they were back for good. This year, they are pushing hard to be in Semifinals and just missed the cut for the live theater broadcast. The various visual and sound effect references to trains in "The Iron Horse Express" conveys the sense of wonder of the period long ago when steam wafted forth from the great contraptions that plied the plains. It's a perfect vehicle for the corps' identity and the corps remains one of the few that gets people to stand just by walking onto the field.
Spirit I still remember the first time I saw this corps; Wheeling, Ill., 1978. They had already beaten a couple of perennial Drum Corps International Finalists, so I knew something was up. But when that Jim Ott horn line turned around and smacked me in the face with the hit to "Walk Him Up the Stairs," I knew that this corps was to be a force not to be ignored. The corps was a finalist five of the past six years, but this year has been fighting it out for a spot in the Semifinals. It's one of those cycles corps sometimes go through, and yet the show and the corps seems as sophisticated and viable as it has been the past six years. But with the current push forward of so many World Class corps, a corps can move forward and still slip behind in the rankings.
Colts If you have someone who has never seen a drum corps before and you want them to be introduced to the activity via crowd-oriented music, the Colts is a corps that would do the trick. The corps sure looks like a World Champion Finalist, but they too have been pushed by a number of corps that all seem to be improved in quality. "Night and Day" is very much in the vein of the corps' thematic attempts to convey a story through music, ranging at least back to 1993's "Iowa's Four Seasons." That was the first year the corps made the World Class (then Div. I) Finals at the World Championships. Lots of the music is recognizable – some isn't – but it's all something appealing to both old and novice fans, and that's something the corps' staff has consciously decided must be a motivating factor in putting together their programs.
Madison Scouts Few corps have endured the kind of challenges the Scouts have experienced the past couple of years and not come out profoundly changed. Each year, the corps came out at the beginning of the season scoring extremely low for its stellar reputation and placement history. And both years, the corps has moved up to appear to have a legitimate shot at the cutoff for Finals. "La Noche de la Iguana" plays off the corps' success with Latin music in past years. This is music one might hear wafting out of a Latin nightclub at night while waiting for a rendezvous with a secret agent. While it plays with subtleties, the fire and intense audacity of this show reminds us of the searing hot Madison corps of the past … and likely the future as well.
Crossmen After moving to Texas last year and paying homage to the corps' long run on the East Coast with musical and visual snapshots from the past, this year's corps seems to be reinventing itself as a corps that can go in any direction, exemplified by the melding of orchestral classics with pop music. Much of the music is sliced and diced and arranged in a sort of eclectic goulash. We think we know it, and then the music goes off in an unexpected direction, keeping the ears on full alert. Over the past few weeks, the corps has made a serious run for a finalist spot and seemed to be on schedule to make its first appearance in the Saturday show for the first time since 2004, succeeding in making the Finals show at both the DCI Southwestern and Southeastern Championships.
Glassmen "Kar-ne-vel" might be the most successful theatrical show the corps has yet programmed. For a few years, it seemed like the corps might have been searching for a new identity, and with this program, it seems that the melodramatic thrust of conveying a theme fits the corps well. The theme is not the reason for the show, but a product of the successful combination of music and visual programs. The show doesn't fall into the trap of music accompanying a theme, but a theme respectfully accompanying the music. It is so difficult in this type of program to maintain that kind of balance.
Blue Stars There is a very real chance of us seeing Blue Stars in the World Class Finals for the first time since 1979. "Le Tour…Every Second Counts" somehow takes several disparate pieces of French music and incorporates the works into a loose story line of grit, determination and victory. Bicyclists stretching their legs before the start of the race, bicycle wheels and the addition today of an actual bicyclist at the end of the show plays off the theme, but at a number of moments throughout, when the theme is more transparent, the horns lay out some of the more beautiful and relaxing sounds heard on the field this year.
Boston Crusaders In recent years, Boston has experimented with substantially more subtleties than we expected from the corps in the more distant past. While not leaving behind the bold and sassy moments that first brought the corps into World Class (then Div. I) Finals in 1999, such moments seem to pop into our attention at a greater intensity due to the more elongated quieter moments that tease the ears rather than pelt them. "NEOCOSMOS" is said to be visually based on a futuristic vision of space as imagined by the Art Deco movement of the 1920s and 1930s. But even in space, the corps' trademark tune "Conquest" floats by as if in its own orbit, reminding us that the corps strongly values its past even as it looks into the outer reaches of the future.
Blue Knights Blue Knights have defined a certain style of intellectualism that has become the corps' calling card. Near the opening of "Knight Reign," the tubas reach down to a low pedal point and present a type of gurgling sound we've never heard on the field before … at least intentionally. It kind of makes one think, "What's it all about?" Which I guess is part of the purpose, as the corps seems to like making people think. As always, the corps' unique hand-painted flags add a visual calm to the academic turmoil. It's one of the identities of the corps that has come to differentiate the unit from others, along with extensive body sculpting that stretches out one's muscles from just watching it.
Bluecoats "The Knockout" is drum corps storytelling at its finest. The audience was able to get behind every piece of music, each already associated with the sport of professional boxing. What could so easily have been corny has a great amount of dignity due to the corps' ability to totally commit to the theme, and that includes the theme to the Sylvester Stallone classic, "Rocky." Delving into the up and down emotions of training as a prizefighter, the shout-out chorus of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer" always gets the audience pumped. It seems to come out of nowhere, and when it does, it drills right through the audience like a stiff upper cut.
Santa Clara Vanguard It's kind of fun looking for all the visual representations of the numeral "3" and various groupings of three in "3HREE." They just pop out of nowhere and I'm sure I missed a few. The corps' adherence to the idea of taking a visual motif and stretching it into a full production makes this show one that keeps one's eyes peeled throughout. Quite a bit of the earlier selections in the show are inspired by musical pointillism. It's not always easy to tell where the beat is, as if the music could exist without bar lines, which raises the question of how the corps can march to it. As expected, the corps lives up to the name "Vanguard" by reaching into the cutting edge and takes just enough of the edge off so that it is palatable to the masses.
Santa Clara Vanguard
The Cadets "…and the pursuit of happiness" has generated more than the normal amount of discussion amongst fans, much of it involving the narration. Over the course of the season, the "interview" being conducted by the radio personality evolved from a message of survival to a message of joy. I can't help it, but I absolutely loved the "blinking" of the eye in the "happy face" that was added a few weeks ago at the very end of the show. It's like the final message is that everything is going to be okay and we should pay the famous screed, "Don't worry, be happy." It wasn't in tonight's show. I wonder if it will reappear over the next couple of days.
Phantom Regiment Violence, violence and more violence has never been as gratifying as during the remarkable, zealous performance of "Spartacus." Much commentary has been offered about the assorted variety of murders, and the stylized mistreatment of the slaves by their Roman masters. But, hey…the enslavement of one group by another has never been one of humanity's greatest achievements. The addition of the drum major representing the slave revolt, running across the field and "spearing" the drum major representing the Roman oppressors, brought the audience to its feet, screaming in ecstasy. It seemed as if the fans in the stands had the roller coaster ride of their life and were happy to survive in one piece.
Carolina Crown "FINIS" has a cuteness factor that can't be denied, brilliantly interspersed with deadly serious symphonic musings that shouldn't co-exist in peace, but somehow do. After the raucous slapstick of "Barber of Seville," the spiritual renewal of "Clair de Lune" pulls us back to a dignified restraint as one of the most lushly opulent horn sounds of the past several years comforts and caresses the ears. A show about nothing but endings might seem like a crazy idea, but it works big time and the audience eats it up. There's lots of power contrasting beauty and sophistication contrasting just plain fun. Whether you like your drum corps with wine and Brie, or soda and potato chips, this is a guaranteed favorite.
The Cavaliers The Oriental mysticism of "Samurai" is strongly conveyed by some of the most fascinating and exotic front ensemble work I've ever heard. The use of the Chinese Yanquin (something like an Appalachian hammered dulcimer) and strange sounds that utilize a normal slide whistle to create an Oriental flute effect are spellbinding and captivating. Pitch bending in the horns further contributes to the exoticism. Visually, the late-season continuous weaving in and out of horn players jumping over other horn players is astounding, a raw display of athleticism that plays off the corps' intensive physical conditioning program. A return to the type of geometric drill evolutions that made the corps famous in the late 1980s and through the 1990s offers a kaleidoscopic array of dizzying effects.
Blue Devils Blue Devils are totally committed to visually going to the edge of the precipice in "Constantly Risking Absurdity," the horns and even the drums frequently running into position. A continual visual theme of walking a tightrope communicates the essence of the danger inherent in the Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem about poetry as mental acrobatics. I still don't know exactly what is represented by the stick figure made by the guard poles and also reflected in a subsequent drill form. And maybe it doesn't need to mean anything. If the absurdity angle is played up to the hilt, perhaps it's absurd for it to simply exist. But as absurd as this show is meant to be, it's downright rational in its desire to thrill and entertain.