From Dead Ends to a Destination: The Evolution of Jacob Bancks’ “Rock Island Line,” Premiering March 8 and 9 with the Quad City Symphony Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Frederick Morden   
Thursday, 20 February 2014 05:23

Jacob Bancks. Photo by Joshua Ford (

The blast of a train whistle has been transformed in the hands of composer Jacob Bancks – a shrill warning becoming the musical core of a composition that he intends as a greeting to his new community.

Using a “whistle chord” as musical glue and localism as an overriding theme, Bancks combined elements of the Mississippi River and the railroad in a way that is artful, rigorous, and sophisticated. But in creating Rock Island Line – which the Quad City Symphony Orchestra will debut on March 8 and 9 – he also incorporated nods to a local jazz legend and a popular song, playful components that help the work breathe and reach out to the audience.

Yet moving from ideas to a finished composition was not a straight line for the Quad Cities-based composer (who turns 32 on February 21). The effort included derailment and dead ends before finding workable inspiration toward an ultimate destination.

In earlier commissioned works, Bancks tried to find musical and non-musical connections to the organization and community for which he was writing. But this time the commissioning agent was the orchestra where he lives, and Bancks was particularly sensitive about the audience and community for whom this premiere would be presented. “These images and how they work with each other are very important to me, because this is my first piece in my new home and new community where I hope to remain,” he said in August, in his first interview with the River Cities’ Reader. “So, for me, through this piece, I will meet musical people I hope to meet again. And ... this would be a good way to introduce myself to a community I hope to be a part of.”

The Constraints

Last March, the Quad City Symphony commissioned Bancks – an assistant professor of music theory and composition at Augustana College – to create a work for its March 2014 concert.

There were a few guidelines attached. First, Bancks’ new piece would open a concert that also included Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 and Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. “It is daunting enough to precede one symphony,” Bancks said, “but to open a program followed by two?”

Second, Bancks’ orchestra (the instruments for which he was writing) would largely need to be the same used for the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies. While this was standard orchestration for Beethoven’s Romantic period and Brahms’ neo-Classic style, it’s a smaller palette of instrumental choices than is typically available to a 21st Century composer.

But the terms of the commission agreement allowed Bancks to use a modern percussion section that expanded the number of musicians from one to four, playing more than 30 instruments.

“It’s a beautiful thing, actually,” he said of the limitations. “You don’t need a big orchestra to get an interesting sound.”

As the opening piece of the program, and with a heavy evening of Beethoven and Brahms ahead for the audience, Bancks had a clear idea of what he wanted: “something quick, without any lugubrious suggestion.”

Idea First, Then Improvisation

In August, the start of his third academic year at Augustana, Bancks began working on his new commission by thinking about non-musical ideas, the bones on which he would build his music. Non-musical “narrative is very important to me as a composer,” he said. “I never come to improvisation without some idea of the music I want.”

Bancks’ non-musical images began not as specific characters or events, but as dramatic elements that produced the sense of a musical journey – starting in one place, going to and having an adventure in another location, and returning to the place of origin to complete the impression of a story.

He was drawn immediately to the idea of water, in part because of its role in his past. He grew up in Fairmont, a small lakeside town in southern Minnesota. His graduate work included a master’s degree at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York (on Lake Ontario), and a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago (on Lake Michigan) before bringing his family to the Quad Cities for his new job at Augustana. So it seemed natural that his musical thoughts began with “water,” particularly with the confluence of the Mississippi and Rock rivers in the Quad Cities.

With that in mind, Bancks set about improvising on the piano – experimenting, trying to find appropriate sounds and organize them into a musical expression.

He said he found “this sparkling beginning ... triangle and flute, then I realized that it was ‘Moldau’” – one of six symphonic poems from Smetana’s My Homeland.

Approaching the river idea from a different direction led him to another familiar dead end, recalling the prelude to Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold.

Bancks settled on the title Great River Rising and continued trying to fit the music into the “confluence” concept until early October. Although Bancks said he ”was really tied to the ‘rivers’ idea when I first started,” after several attempts, he was forced to face an unsettling reality: It wasn’t working. “It occurred to me that whenever I started to plan the piece, it started out like every other ‘river’ piece that ever existed,” he said.

He rejected his original approach and with it some of the musical experiments he had used to depict it. This also meant throwing out his title. “I ditched it since it seemed to imply flooding,” he said.

But Bancks was still drawn to the Mississippi.

Finding What Works

With that concept still in play, Bancks searched for new musical ideas.

“I really wanted this to be a local piece, so I started to think about Bix Beiderbecke,” he said.

He remembered taking a jazz-history course in college that included the background and music of Bix and his place in the evolution of jazz. “It got me looking through his tunes” and thinking about his importance to the Quad Cities, Bancks said.

At first, he didn’t find anything in particular except a general sense of Beiderbecke’s style and a couple of his well-know songs. But that was enough to bring Bix, elements of jazz, and the idea of localism to the front burner.

The Arsenal Bridge then became an inspiration, embodying an idea that Bancks found intriguing: “forward motion.” The bridge facilitates “the movement from one place to another” in cars, barges, and trains, tying the area’s communities together.

Bancks continued looking for music beyond Bix that suggested an association with his burgeoning “forward motion” concept. He said he found a “piece of music that I must confess I didn’t know, ‘Rock Island Line.’” Performed by Johnny Cash, Lead Belly, Lonnie Donegan, and others, the song, its train-like background, and its lyrics tell about the people who rode the rails.

More than the words or the melody, Bancks said, the rhythm of the song supports the railroad vibe: “When someone is asked to sing the tune to ‘Rock Island Line,’ it’s not all that easy. It has more of a flavor than anything else.” In its chugging accompaniment and its train whistle, Bancks found the inspiration and musical suggestions he sought. And he also thought its title was a good fit for his piece.

In October, with his non-musical ideas of the local river and railroad connected to the familiar life and music of Bix Beiderbecke and the song “Rock Island Line,” Bancks was satisfied with the key elements of his plan. “To compare the Mississippi River and the Rock River is not really fair, but the Mississippi and Rock Island Line works,” he said. Bancks believed that the differences between the river and the railroad were more distinct, dramatic, and evocative. What remained was finding a way to merge these non-musical and musical ideas into a musical composition.

The Making

Bancks’ process became centered on the sound characteristics of the river and the railroad. Through improvisation, he found a specific chord that suggested a train whistle. He improvised on the chord, “sometimes just for ideas, sometimes with the non-musical ideas [river, railroad, Bix] in mind,” he said.

He used his “whistle chord” pitches as a tonal starting point, arpeggiating them down and up, exploring how they could be organized into, for example, melodies, motives, and accompaniments as the piece progressed, always with a feeling of “forward motion” that suggested a train or the flow of a river. He tried applying traditional compositional devices to the notes, such as imitation, inversion, augmentation, diminution, mixing up the order of the notes with different instrumental combinations and rhythms. Keeping the musical ideas he liked, Bancks began developing them into a cogent musical dialogue.

A month later, in November, Bancks’ Rock Island Line was “over half done,” he said, adding what, in part, made this new artistic direction personally resonate so deeply. “I grew up at the intersection of Minnesota State Route 15 and Interstate 90,” he said. The Quad Cities, with I-80, the railroad, and the rivers, was an intersection, too, and it reminded him of his hometown.

Through November and deep into December, Bancks continued working with his musical ideas. He demarcated the piece by tempo into three sections – fast, slow, fast – and included an homage to Bix. Detailed sketches of his developing music also indicated scoring ideas for his orchestration and “were completed by Christmas,” he said.

Jacob Bancks. Photo by Joshua Ford (

An Olive Branch After a Rough Ride

The full score was finished in January, and – in an interview that month – Bancks explained the structure of his 12-minute composition and how it worked. (See the sidebar for Bancks’ own illustration of Rock Island Line’s path – both as a graph and in sound.)

The “first third of the piece is train music,” he said. The fast-moving beginning “has this ta-ka-ta-ka-ta-ka-ta-ka rhythm with a nice cello solo labeled ‘bold, mystical’” in the score.

“Then, it switches to triplets with a major brightening up to the ‘river music,’ the slower central section,” he said. Here, where Bancks said he inserted “some unexpected turns,” he spotlighted individual players with solos in the bassoon, flute, and oboe.

Transitioning to the third section, Bancks “evokes” Bix Beiderbecke in a “slow, quiet trumpet solo” inspired by recordings of the legendary cornet player, “particularly ‘Singin’ the Blues,’” he said.

The music in the final section then becomes more chaotic, bringing back material from the first and second sections with references to the song that lent its title to Bancks’ piece.

Because the first section and much of the ending are dissonant and raucous, Bancks’ introduction of the familiar “Rock Island Line” song near the end aims to reward the audience for making it through the rough tonal ride. “The song has this grab and drive to it,” he said. “I want to end big and with something that is familiar, and give an ‘olive branch’ of sorts after the first two-thirds of the piece.”

Near the end of January, Bancks was done. His completed score was in the hands of music engravers who were transferring it to a computer, then into a conductor’s full score and individual parts for the orchestra players.

Bancks himself uses a computer only to print out staff paper – not to compose. He writes music with a pencil, and likes the feeling of making every mark himself, of personalizing every detail.

Leading to a Five-Car Pile-Up

Bancks’ vivid, evocative, humorous, and insightful musical excursion around the Quad Cities was created with an eclectic combination of traditional and contemporary compositional practices.

Principally, his music explores the tonal elements of a “train whistle” as a central sound idea. Using one tonal idea as the seed for a composition is not new, but how Bancks converts its tonal content into functional music is innovative. For example, in the traditional use of harmony, the melody is the fixed idea and the chords change to support it. Bancks does the reverse: He constructs rhythmic and melodic variations around a single, static chord; the chord is unchanging and the melody conforms.

His unusual selection of a “train whistle” chord is shrewd, and his developmental use of its pitches creates a witty twist on conventional compositional techniques used for hundreds of years. The blasts of the “whistle” in the opening measures are not evenly spaced as with a metronome, but arrhythmic – suggesting the manner in which the whistle was likely blown.

The whistle effect is repeated intermittently and in many forms – for example, as though from a distance in the low brass, growing louder as the train approaches and fading as it disappears, even a Doppler effect as though it’s passing the listener.

Its harmonic structure is present in nearly every measure of the first section of the piece, through its melodic lines, fragmented variations, and harmonic accompaniment, and through the energy and motion of the sound depictions of a chugging locomotive. Even when the tonal center of the music seems to change with what Bancks referred to as “transposed” or “alter-ego” chords that contain pitches other than in the original whistle chord, the basic structure is similar. Absent in the slower middle section, the whistle reappears near the end of the final section, when many of the basic ideas presented earlier are combined.

Bancks’ use of many percussion instruments is critical in making distinct timbre variations that produce convincing contemporary musical colors, from the delicate support of melodic variations in the first section to suggesting and then stabilizing the jazz feel in the slower Bix homage.

At the beginning, the timpani’s irregular rhythms – sudden acceleration and slowing – depict the spinning wheels of a train trying to grab the rails, and the sandpaper blocks are unmistakable representations of a train’s mechanical sounds, chugging, and steam releases. The marimba subtly outlines, with soft but clear wooded sound, the beginnings of notes organized as both chords and melodies. At the beginning of the slow section, the soft mallet rolling with the flutter-tonguing of the flute creates mystery and is a distinct contrast in texture to the first and last sections of the music. Ride cymbals and hi-hat are written with delicacy – suggesting jazz music without beating it into the listeners – and as a result create an allusion to the past for the Bix homage.

Amid the clanging, cacophonic “insistent, mechanical” sounds of the train and the undulating musical flow of water, there is chamber music everywhere in quiet, detailed exchanges of musical fragments between single instruments as well as in long solo passages with sparse accompaniment. The chugging comes roaring back, but not until Bancks has had his moment with the orchestra in what he called “pure music,” shifting the spotlight to the artful musical dialogue of the orchestra.

The extended cello solo, with its breathing phrases – intensifying and relaxing the musical flow – brings a supple human quality into the machine portion of the first section. A solo bassoon jumps obliquely from high to very low notes – creating a jocular characterization – and sorrowful sounds come from the oboe. Fragments of solos are shared in a musical discourse between the bassoon, clarinet, horn, and trumpet. And, of course, there is the trumpet solo in the homage.

Among many beguiling, clever, and dramatic parts of Bancks’ Rock Island Line, two magical moments made me pause, smile, and think, “Wow.”

First, the composer grasps and concisely demonstrates the dualism in Bix. The cornet player’s enduring influence on jazz is perceptively revealed alongside his tragic life through Bancks’ “mysterious and drifting” slow section. The careful scoring creates the sensation of fog through which the past is brought forward. Building in dynamics to a sustained climatic moment, Bancks captures the musical color of bygone days with a tragic edge of reality.

Second, the ecstatic musical fun and frantic pell-mell of the end of the piece are delightful ways of summing up by mixing up his central ideas in a jazz-like accumulating riff. Using the “whistle chord” art-music tonality together with jazz syncopated rhythms, the last section begins as a repeating bass line, adding instruments playing a different written “improvisation” on the whistle chord with each repetition of the riff. From the art-music side of things, the accumulating riff is similar to, but emphatically not the same as, Benjamin Britten’s “fugue” at the end of his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra that begins with the piccolo and adds instruments with each entrance of the fugal subject.

Bancks’ riff begins in the bass and cello. At the first repetition, the bass trombone and tuba jump in with their own “ad lib.” Successive entrances add the whirl of woodwinds with trilling violins, all the trumpets growling down low in their range, and the horns bold and edgy. Playing fortissimo, two tenor trombones rip into the three-note “I Got ... ” vamp that leads into Lead Belly’s version of “Rock Island Line,” using standard jazz pitches while the “improvisations” surrounding it remain in the art-music tonality. At this point, in a sense, we are hearing the tonality of the entire piece simultaneously, what Bancks described beautifully and with tongue in cheek as “a wash in a stew of musical eclecticism.” Very chaotic, but very clever.

The frenzied mixture of “improvisations” changes into four organized, interweaving musical threads: the trombones with the riff, the woodwinds trilling, the basses swinging, and the strings and percussionists playing triplets. As the trombones continue cranking the Lead Belly riff, the “train” chord reappears in the horns and trumpets, the chugging rhythm returns, and the music accelerates until it becomes, according to Bancks, “a runaway train.”

With the train screaming down the tracks in dissonant notes in the winds and scales in the upper strings, all the trombones enter playing the song “Rock Island Line.” A short coda of “whistles” and trills brings everything to a stop with an abrupt two-note chord that represents both the whistle chord and jazz. It’s an ending that Bancks called “a five-car pile-up.”

A Musical Celebration

From my perspective, Bancks has the compositional chops to make a convincing symphony from a fence post – and that skill is evident throughout Rock Island Line.

But what elevates it to something genuinely special is how this relative newcomer to the Quad Cities fused his craft with smartly selected elements from his community. He might have chosen this path because it felt fresh and inspiring to him, but the end product – in its ideas and sounds – feels like a musical celebration of the Quad Cities.

And that’s because, as Bancks said, “the orchestra and community are my own.”

The Quad City Symphony Orchestra will perform Rock Island Line on Saturday, March 8 (at the Adler Theatre), and Sunday, March 9 (at Augustana College’s Centennial Hall). For more information, visit

For more information on Jacob Bancks, visit

Frederick Morden is a retired orchestra-music director, conductor, composer, arranger, educator, and writer who has served on the executive board of the Conductors Guild. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Sidebar: Riding the Rock Island Line

This graph by Jacob Bancks – created for the River Cities’ Reader – is a verbal and musical synopsis of his composition Rock Island Line that can also be used as a “map” during its performance by the Quad City Symphony Orchestra on March 8 and 9. (Click here for a larger version of the graph.) The illustration combines his non-musical ideas with the piece’s tonal skeleton as they progress. Each line of the graph shows one of three large sections of the piece (A, B, and C). If you get lost, look for solo indications; they’ll help you find the orchestra’s place on the graph.

Bancks explained: “The surface of a piece resembles its structure, as a leaf resembles a tree.” If the graph were played on a piano, he said, “it would sound like [the raw tonal frame of] the piece ... ; they belong to each other.” Listen to Bancks’ performance of this graph using the audio player below.

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Illustration and recording: Copyright 2014 by Jacob Bancks. Used with permission.

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