Hidden within the typical drive-to-cadence activities that closed the 2010 Fall semester here at the University of Michigan were three special performances showcasing the creativity and boldness of student composers David Biedenbender, Roger Zare and William Zuckerman. The premieres of their works – Three Rilke Poems, Janus, and By the way: Music in Pluralism, respectively – demonstrated the profits of well executed collaborations with all of the following: a third-party ensemble, a soloist, and other forms of media. I am proud to report the largely unqualified success of these endeavors and suspect these works are part of a more general movement in the new music community to work closely with performers and performance groups on large-scale projects.

First, I will talk about David Biedenbender’s Three Rilke Poems, on which he worked closely with the University of Michigan Chamber Choir under the direction of Maestro Jerry Blackstone. For two reasons, this chamber choir collaboration was the most traditional out of the three works I’m discussing: it is not at all uncommon to work with choral ensembles, and Mr. Biedenbender’s music was fairly straightforward in terms of content. However, these realities should not diminish the absolutely overwhelming poignancy of his composition.

Three Rilke Poems had an overall structure of slow-faster-slow, though the two slow movements possessed highly contrasting materials and were not connected. The faster middle movement, Herbst, had a very elegant opening where Mr. Biedenbender layered opposing ostinati, creating a crackling bed of additive rhythms upon which he introduced the primary melodies for the piece. The practicalities of choir performance often obligate a composer to use more a more traditional harmonic language when writing a choral composition. While this was true about Three Rilke Poems, Mr. Biedenbender found many ways to undermine the order of his tertian or modal systems, such as the layered rhythms at the beginning of Herbst. Consequently, though Three Rilke Poems relied heavily on triads and diatonic dissonances, it was a clearly modern composition.

The other two movements, Abend and Lösch mir die Augen aus, were more contrapuntal than Herbst and used polyphonic techniques to obscure any sense of tonal bearing unless absolutely necessary. Abend, for example, juxtaposed homophonic sections with blurry melodies where modal scalar were smeared by rhythmically offset canons in the sopranos and tenors. Lösch mir die Augen aus, in contrast, was densely polyphonic from start to finish and was heavily populated by vocal glissandi. This movement contained more than one moment of serious beauty and the melodic threads of the music seemed to slither with the yearning expressed in the text. All this counterpoint culminated in a fantastic climax, which receded to the most chilling moment of the piece: the startling austerity of the final sonority.

On an emotional level, Roger Zare’s Janus, for percussion and prerecorded electronics, was antithetical to Three Rilke Poems. A world away from the keen sentimental resonance of the chamber choir, Janus surgically displayed Masters Student Joel Boss’ performance ability along with Mr. Zare’s cleverness and awareness of timbre. Essentially, the piece made otherworldly references to the Bach G Minor Violin Sonata, a marimba transcription of which Mr. Boss performed later on the recital, and used unpitched percussion and electronics to manipulate the clarity of the allusion.

Janus had a transparent A-B-A structure, wherein Mr. Zare surrounded a fugue for unpitched percussion – based on the famous fugue in the G Minor Violin Sonata – with ambient and spectrally motivated sections of heavy electronics decorated with bowed crotales, prayer bowls, cymbal and a waterphone. Cleverly, Mr. Zare called for the prayer bowls, crotales and cymbal to be placed on a timpani drum so Mr. Boss could manipulate their pitches by altering the tension of the drumhead. These moments melded very nicely with the backdrop of the electronics, though the association between the sounds was so close at times, it would be hard to tell which were acoustic and which were electronic if one were not able to see Mr. Boss’ hands at work.

The highlight of the piece, for me, was the fugue, which was both beautifully composed and an impressive display of virtuosity. I was pleasantly surprised by the clarity with which Mr. Zare presented the theme of the fugue so that, even though the individual voices were obscured, the form of the section – and the reference – was clear. The dry texture of this part of the piece also contrasted nicely with the surrounding passages of resonant electronics. Mr. Zare explained to me that these ambient sections also contained recorded excerpts of Mr. Boss practicing the G Minor Violin Sonata, which he integrated with the other electronic sounds. Unfortunately, these selections were either too heavily processed or drowned out by other electronics for me to comprehend the allusion, though I could clearly hear the shadow of marimba music at certain points.

The final premiere for me to discuss – William Zuckerman’s By the way: Music in pluralism – was extraordinarily impressive to experience. The piece was an hour-long multimedia explosion of music, dance and video composed, designed and choreographed by undergraduate students. In all my time going to collegiate performances, Music in pluralism was – by far – the most well executed student production of ANY KIND I have seen. The music was not only compelling but also well constructed over the massive time span of the work and paired brilliantly with the dancing, which was indescribably elegant and expressive.

Mr. Zuckerman is a loyal follower of the Bang-On-A-Can composers, and his music is heavily influenced by popular genres just like that of Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe. From a stylistic perspective, this is not my favorite kind of music, but the score for Music in pluralism transcended any notion that in order to like it, one would have to be “in to” its style. Mr. Zuckerman’s music possessed an uncanny strength of personality, which continued from beginning to end through the multifarious landscape of the work’s narrative line. Ironically, the “pluralistic” idea behind the whole work was, theoretically, undermined by the unity this clear and flexible identity gave the whole composition. Nevertheless, the music was plain good, uncommonly powerful, and exceptionally mature for such a young composer.

By the same token, the visual aspects of Music in pluralism were devoid of any amateurish insecurities. One could say the student dancers, Tara Sheena – the choreographer – and the video artists responsible for a constantly changing projected backdrop had overachieved with the wild success of their work on Music in pluralism. Yet, I don’t believe the dancing was so compelling and the video so complementary by accident. Mr. Zuckerman and the other young people behind Music in pluralism – from the performers to the creators – achieved true excellence with the project and now carry the prideful burden of knowing – in the future – just how incredible the fruits or their creativity can be.

Music and pluralism, Janus, and Three Rilke Poems were a fitting cap to my first semester at the University of Michigan, which has given me concert experiences that have continually raised my expectations, only to exceed them time after time. I look forward to the next four months of my activities here, knowing I cannot rule out feeling more incredulous joy and amazement at the end of future new music events.

One Response to “Three Premieres”
  1. Mark Winges says:

    Garrett – I have to take issue with your comment “The practicalities of choir performance often obligate a composer to use more a more traditional harmonic language when writing a choral composition.”. I simply do not believe that is true.

    While quarter-tones can be somewhat problematic (choruses can have a relatively fuzzy pitch band for sub-semi-tone divisions), I have heard Chanticleer give a totally convincing performance of Scelsi’s “Tre canti sacri” (which has them), a chromatic pitch vocabulary is not inherently un-chorus, even if it’s a little less common. I would cite any number of pieces recorded by the Eric Ericsson Chamber choir, the Danish Radio Choir, the Finnish Tapiola choir (children!), and the excellent work of Donaly Nally with The Crossing (Philadelphia) and San Francisco’s Volti Chamber Choir [disclaimer: I'm Volti's resident composer].

    Otherwise, great reivew.

    — Mark Winges