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A Trickster’s Lesson in Music: William Campbell’s “Coyote Dances,” Performed March 31 and April 1 by the Quad City Symphony PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Frederick Morden   
Tuesday, 27 March 2012 09:20

William Campbell

While a brief, unpretentious piece, Coyote Dances – by local composer William Campbell – is long on musical adventure, drama, and humor fashioned from a Native American moral yarn reminding us not to get too big for our britches.

In personal and e-mail interviews, Campbell – chair of the St. Ambrose University music department and an associate professor there – explained how he portrayed a story of the folkloric trickster hero Coyote in music and the March 31 and April 1 premiere of the composition with the Quad City Symphony Orchestra.

“I wanted to write fun music with exuberant, joyful moments,” the composer said. And the score indicates that Coyote Dances is full of them.

Coyote Dances can be seen as an American answer to Richard Strauss’s tone poem Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (based on German mythology). Both Till and Coyote are reckless, conceited, and impudent characters who have lovable, charming dispositions. Their high jinks provide moral and social lessons for children, but a Coyote story also “includes the subjects of mysticism and supernatural powers,” Campbell explained.

The composition began in 2005 as Trickster Dances, a four-movement opus the composer described as an “electro and acoustic piece” written for an Arizona dance company. The seven-minute final movement was extracted and re-scored for wind ensemble and, for the Quad City Symphony’s performance, a full orchestra.

While the score doesn’t directly sketch out the Cheyenne folk tale of Coyote chasing a star, Campbell’s composition naturally evokes many elements of it. You can hear a prairie morning in his Copland-esque introduction of slow, simple chords breathing in and out from a few woodwinds. From the gently moving musical bellows, a solo cello emerges, introducing the brief suggestion of a melody that repeats and extends its reach, stretching like an awakening Coyote.

The music becomes faster as more woodwind and percussion instruments slip in, adding accumulating sound and momentum to a subtle climax. The slow, breath-like chords return, but now they span over the quicker tempo. More brass join in with the percussion section’s thematic bits and pieces of light, crinkling metallic sounds in the celesta, vibraphone, marimba, and suspended cymbals. Sudden dynamic contrasts burst and subside. The melody, stripped down to three-note overlapping groups, flies back and forth across the orchestration and signals Coyote’s activity.

As the drama and music develop, Coyote senses he has supernatural powers and, in a frantic flurry of repeating small melodic patterns, jumps into the sky with flickering musical gestures dancing between the trumpets and flutes, with the first and second violins imitating each other and building into a full-string-section presentation of the melody – only now inverted and racing across the night sky. With faster “panting” music in the strings, the brass become bolder, getting louder as the woodwinds compress their melodic entrances, flashing in the darkness as Coyote grabs at a star. The irregular rhythm and overlapping melodic shards suggest Coyote’s unstable flying, and he tumbles toward the ground as the music collapses and falls down to the sound of a gong. His body is in pieces as small bits of theme gasp from the dwindling orchestration.

Coyote reassembles himself as the music becomes reminiscent of the opening theme, but things have changed: The solo-cello theme is abbreviated, with echoing sounds in quiet bassoons and harp. Coyote is coming back to life a notch wiser from the adventure. With the faster tempo, he jumps back into the sky with flashing instrumental melodic fragments and is content to dance with – instead of chase – the star.

In the remaining measures of music, with the melodic summation complete and Coyote’s lesson understood, the dramatic and musical conflicts are resolved, letting the playful impulse for the adventure linger until the orchestra’s final, firm exclamation point.

Campbell does not employ the avant-garde techniques popular in the late 20th Century but returns to a traditional tonality called “pandiatonicism.” The Beatles used this technique in many songs, for instance “This Boy.” In Coyote Dances, Campbell’s use of pandiatonicism inserts additional tones that are theoretically considered dissonant but infuse color and excitement into the composer’s music without changing its functional harmony, creating additional instrumental hues.

Coyote Dances will be performed in the Quad City Symphony Orchestra’s All Singing! All Dancing! Masterworks concerts on March 31 (at the Adler Theatre) and April 1 (at Augustana College’s Centennial Hall). For more information, 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 .

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