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Liam Teague, Arranger for Silver Stars Steel Orchestra, Speaks On Their 2014 Panorama Collaboration

An exclusive interview with the talented Educator from NIU

A When Steel Talks Exclusive


Global -  Panorama arranger Liam Teague gives a special insight into the journey as he leads Silver Stars Steel Orchestra into the finals of the prestigious Trinidad and Tobago 2014 Panorama music competition.  Recognized as a child prodigy, Teague has gone on to blaze a musical trail with the steelpan as his main instrument.  Currently he is Associate Professor of Music and Head of Steelband Studies at Northern Illinois University, as well as co-director of the university steelband.

WST - “First off - WST (When Steel Talks) would like to congratulate you on your appointment as arranger for the Silver Stars Steel Orchestra for Panorama 2014. Silver Stars is one of the great steelband franchises of Trinidad and Tobago. How did your appointment come about?”

Liam Teague

Liam Teague - “Thank you very much WST. Allow me to congratulate you on your stellar work and service to the steelpan community worldwide.

“I received a call from Mr. Edwin Pouchet, a few months ago, who offered me the opportunity to serve as arranger for 2014. Of course, my jaw dropped to the floor and I immediately said… yes!”

WST - “You are known as a successful, cerebral, high musical content-first, all-else-“comes second”-arranger. And Silver Stars has been known as a highly entertaining and performance-oriented panorama orchestra. Rightfully or wrongly, it has been the perception out there. Did the Silver Stars arranger offer catch you off guard?”

Liam Teague - “Let me say that I have enjoyed Mr. Pouchet and Silver Stars’ contributions to Panorama for a very long time. They have brought a new-found voice and excitement to the event which is very refreshing.

“Mr. Pouchet’s offer did catch me off guard and I am extremely grateful to serve as arranger.  I had been secretly hoping to have the opportunity to work with this brilliant ensemble for many years. The “stars” (pun intended) aligned and my dream has now become reality.”

WST - “Your tune of choice is the “The Reason” by Tony Barclay. What is it about this tune that attracted you to it?”

Liam Teague - “It is a beautiful composition. I was able to find many motives in the piece that I could manipulate harmonically, etc,, and was also able to “experiment” with its chord progression by using substitutions and alterations. Tony Barclay has some wonderful compositions and I strongly recommend that people delve deeper into his work. He deserves much more recognition and accolades.”

WST - “You were able to successfully expand into some uncharted areas for Panorama orchestration, without disassociating the band - and more importantly, the audience - from the traditional Trinidad cultural nuances - ‘panorama attitude.’ Why were you successful, while others have at times come across as a runaway train with total disconnect?”

Silver Stars Steel Orchestra band logo - When Steel Talks
listen to Silver Stars
semi finals performance

Liam Teague - “I’m not sure that is a question I am qualified to answer, however, I will say this: As much as I want to be progressive (relatively speaking) and not strictly adhere to the status quo, I am very conscious that this is, first and foremost, a competition. Bands, like it or not, are looking for victory. So, I always try to achieve a balance-- though, admittedly, my arrangements are not easily digested in one listening. This is actually a good thing, as I believe that good art (especially the ones that have stood the test of time) often demands multiple ‘listenings’ to be fully appreciated. Arrangers take weeks; or, in some cases, months, to create arrangements and I don’t think that it is possible to fully comprehend the vastness of their musical statements in one sitting.”

WST -“You engaged the audience melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically - while moving at a pretty fast clip. Did you come into this gig expecting Silver Stars to possess the skill set and discipline to pull of the execution of your arrangement? Or did you open up your arrangement as you learnt the ability of the players?”

Liam Teague - “Thank you for your kind words and I accept them with the utmost humility.

“I created the majority of the arrangement before even stepping foot in the panyard. Because of my job at Northern Illinois University (NIU), I don’t have the luxury of being in Trinidad for the entire Carnival season (though, the NIU administration has been amazingly supportive of all of my Panorama ventures since 2004); as a result, I always create the majority of the arrangement ahead of time and then make edits when I am in Trinidad.

“I am greatly indebted to my former student and good friend, Yuko Asada, who transcribed the arrangement on FINALE (she is absolutely brilliant!!!), and to Marcus Ash, who taught the piece to Silver Stars.

“I knew that the members of Silver Stars were extremely skilled, but I also was cognizant of the fact that some of the musical vocabulary I’d be using in my arrangement would be somewhat foreign to them (lots of whole tone & diminished scales, bebop-derived vocabulary, etc). From many accounts, there were some players (non-stage side members) who wanted to play with the band, that eventually decided not to do so, as the arrangement seemed to be too complex. Luckily, Silver Stars is [also] comprised of high character and disciplined musicians, none of whom are afraid of challenges. So, they are executing this piece at a very high standard—I am truly blessed to be able to work with such an amazing orchestra and wonderful people!!!”

WST - “You used some killer crossovers for some of your transitions - they were indeed non-conventional. What was your basis for that?”

Liam Teague - “I have been strongly influenced by steelpan arrangers like the great Jit Samaroo, as well as classical composers. I have always enjoyed how seamless their transitions from section to section are, and I have strove to emulate these approaches.”

WST - “At times it sounded as if one was listening to string sections of an orchestra - it sounded like 1st violins, 2nd violins, violas and cellos. It was indeed a unique experience within a Panorama piece. Was this your intention?”

Liam Teague - “As a pan player, I always love to be challenged. Thus, my study of music from various genres (be it classical, jazz, etc), has had a deep impact on the way I arrange. I love all the sections of the orchestra to have their moment(s) to shine. Honestly, I don’t think that my approach is unique, as I hear this also in the arrangements of Duvone Stewart for Renegades (among others). I listened to them on the “Drag’ this past Sunday and was amazed by Duvone’s brilliant orchestration. As a matter of fact, I am like a kid at a candy store during Panorama, because it is so wonderful to listen to the unique musical approaches and perspectives by all of the arrangers. It is a shame that most of these arrangements will not be preserved and will die a natural death at the conclusion of Panorama. We need to treat these works of art with the respect and reverence that have been afforded to the Beethoven’s 5th, Mozart’s 40th and Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Future generations should have the opportunity to study and appreciate Boogsie’s “Fire Down Below”, Smooth’s “Curry Tabanca”, Jit’s “Pan in A Minor”, Bradley’s “High Mas”, Greenidge’s “Musical Volcano”, Goddard’s “Savannah Party”, etc., etc.”

WST - “Were there any difficulties implanting your vision within your arrangement - without marginalizing the components and hard-driving attitude that make a Trinidad engine room so special?”

Liam Teague - “I’ve been editing certain parts from the semifinal version of the piece, so that, hopefully, the band can have a bigger impact and win the competition. Because the players have grown accustomed to the piece, initially there was some reservation about me eliminating the (as they have been affectionately coined), “sexy parts” of the song. However, they have all bought into my vision and trust me enough to know that, at the end of the day, everything I am doing is not ego-driven; it is being implemented solely to lead Silver Stars to victory. What a great group of people to be around...”

WST - “What would you like the audience to take away from your piece, and did you accomplish what you set out to do?”

Liam Teague - “Arrangers and bands are expected to be 100% accountable to the adjudicators and listeners, in that we must give our best, come Panorama night. That being said, we also need to demand that same level of accountability. All I can ask is that the public listen to ALL of the arrangements with an honest and impartial ear. Naturally, we will have our personal allegiances to arrangers and/or bands, however, it is very critical to the survival of the art form that we truly listen with an open and loving heart. I hope that my arrangements are able to appeal to the public’s emotions and can administer thought-provoking feelings of curiosity and arouse their intellect.”

WST - “Silver Stars came out of the semifinals in 7th position. What can you do to close the gap between the other great steel orchestras in front of you?”

Liam Teague - “I say this with great humility, but I don’t remember one occasion when an adjudicator asked me to change anything about my arrangement, other than to work on balance and technical issues. I have adjusted certain sections of the arrangement, so that, at the end of the day, win, lose or draw; the arrangement will leave a great impression on the band and the public at large.”

WST - “Have you found your signature voice as a Panorama arranger?”

Liam Teague - “I think that any honest artiste will answer this question with a resounding “no”. For me, I have not found my voice as an artist and I don’t think that I ever will. It will always be an eternal quest. I know that I will never reach it, but that constant and elusive search is extremely gratifying - though, at times, frustrating.

“Thank you WST and the steelband universe for your support. I never take it for granted and I am happy to still be relevant in the Panorama arena…”  Liam

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