Drum corps is, among a lot of things, a form of entertainment. There’s a reason why crowds of thousands of people flock to DCI shows every Summer. The most entertaining shows in the activity, at least for me, are those that impact me on an emotional level; shows that go somewhere. I’m not just looking to see cool formations and music, I want to be taken on a journey, which brings me to Carolina Crown.
Crown’s recent brand of shows have an almost cinematic quality to them. They know how to set the stage and guide their viewers from the beginning to the end of their programs. I think the best example of this, which happens to be one of my personal favorite shows of all time, is Crown’s 2016 program entitled Relentless.
Coming out of the 2015 season in which the corps placed 2nd, the designers at Crown wanted to tell a story that reflected their current state of mind. Designer Keith Potter had the following to say on the DCI Field Pass Podcast:
“So when we were working on this early, we were really drawn to that kind-of state of being… passionately driven, unstoppable.”
What they found was that these unstoppable, relentless themes often occurred in stories of revenge, which lead them to the genre of the spaghetti western.
Marching shows are made of different movements. These pieces of the show usually have a clear beginning and end, and tend to dictate some shift in mood in the show. What’s even more important than the movements themselves is the way in which these movements flow together. The Complete Marching Band Resource Manual says the following about drill design:
“The novice drill designer often designs an entire show in terms pictures or sets. The contemporary show designer thinks and designs in terms of motion or movement between sets.”
I think we can, and should, apply this rule to the larger scale of the show. It’s not just about the moments in the show, it’s about how the corps portrays the journey between them. This is what Crown excels at: The Journey. They don’t just treat show movements as steps to get to the end, but rather as a screenwriter would treat acts in a story.
One of the more popular ways of defining story structure is Freytag’s Pyramid. Gustav Freytag believed that a drama should be divided into five separate acts: the exposition, the complications, the climax, the falling action, and the catastrophe or resolution.
Let’s take a look at relentless from beginning to end, noting how the show follows this dramatic structure, and exploring the motivated design choices that drive each act.
Exposition: Our journey begins at the same time as our characters. We see two men say goodbye to each other as one leaves on the stagecoach, which took design inspiration from Tatantino’s The Hateful Eight.
Complications: The driver is soon robbed as the corps begins to play The Ecstasy of Gold from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a song whose name and feel reflect the emotion of the scene. The robber shoots the driver, setting the conflict of the story into motion. We see the man’s loved one lament his death as the corps moves into Medea’s Dance of Vengeance. This is a perfect musical selection for this moment in the show not only because of the obvious themes of revenge that it is based on, but also because of its ostinato, or repeating musical phrase, that really solidifies the “relentless” theme. Our main character has begun his hunt for revenge. In the next movement our main character encounters a woman in a saloon who enters to the tune of El Tango de Roxanne from Moulin Rouge. We see him protect her from another man, resulting in a bar brawl.
Climax: As we move away from the action, the music moves into a dreamlike arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and another piece from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, entitled Il triello, as the murder is repeated over and over in our character’s head. As we reach the climax, he’s visited by what appears to be the ghost of his loved one, who encourages him to avenge his death.
Falling Action: The chase picks up again as our main character finally catches up to the murderer.
Catastrophe: The two brawl as the corps plays Medea’s Dance of Vengeance one more time. The main character finally gains the upper hand, but makes the choice to spare the man he has relentlessly been seeking after this entire time. The show ends with the famous “crown” set and the murderer being arrested as the main character rides off on the stagecoach.
At its core, drum corps show design can be split into two different categories: music and visual. The way in which these two things compliment each other and intertwine together is what makes the marching arts so unique. So what exactly is the relationship between music and visual? The Complete Marching Band Resource Manual states the following:
“The designer must strive to create moves, forms, and auxiliary work that match the style of the music and enhance the music.”
If the visual is meant to enhance the music, then the musical selections must be very deliberate and well thought-out in order to portray the theme or story of the show. This is another thing I love about Relentless, the music tells a story on its own. Let’s take a look at the repertoire of the show:
The recognizable theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly sets the stage for the show immediately, this is a western. The Ecstasy of Gold introduces the conflict, and Medea’s Dance of Vengeance pushes the theme of revenge. Journey of the Lone Wolf and El Tango De Roxanne tell the story of the journey and those met along the way. Hallelujah and Il Tiello are about the death of a loved one and the continued relentless drive for revenge. Equilibrium portrays the idea of trying to make things right, and the show comes to a close by introducing Medea’s one last time for the final showdown, and finishing with Hallelujah for the redemptive ending. Each one of these musical selections has a completely different feel to it, splitting the story into multiple acts in the same way that a Hollywood film does. The deliberate use of music is important to a program like Relentless. The music isn’t just chosen because it sounds nice, it’s chosen to tell a story and set a mood, a concept that is by no means new to Crown. 2014’s Out of this World is another great example of a show that uses music to take the audience on a journey. Michael Klesch had the following to say on the DCI Field Pass Podcast:
“You know, when you put together a show like this, there’s the right combination of things that make people feel uncomfortable for a certain reason, and then there are things that, you know, they can instantly gravitate to, but yet stay within the style and concept of what you’re doing… it elicits an emotional response in people… It’s all an experience that takes the listener and the viewer from the beginning of our journey to the end of our journey.”
This wouldn’t be a drum corps show without visuals, though. The most recognizable design element of relentless is the stagecoach, which enters the field on side one during the preshow and exits the field on side two as the show has ended. The audience sees the journey being made, even if they can’t necessarily make out the characters. One important thing to note is that the stagecoach never moves on its own, but there’s always someone behind the reigns. Crown’s attention to detail is among the best in the activity. Even the uniform design, which has kept a consistent style since 2013, changes slightly from year to year to fit the theme of the show.
For me, the key to an entertaining show is the journey, and no one takes you on a journey quite like Crown does. Watching a Crown show is like watching a good movie. Their deliberate usage of music and visual is designed to take the audience through multiple acts of the story they’re trying to tell, and they know exactly how to make you feel the way they want you to feel, even if it’s unsettling. If you don’t wanna take my word for it, go see them at a DCI show this Summer. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I can probably guess the set they end with.