Field Report #3 from the Aspen Musical Festival: the first student composers’ concert
This is my first year at the Aspen Music Festival, and the way the second session composition program has been run is a little different than it usually is. Namely, the two composition recitals have necessarily been divided evenly among Syd Hodkinson and George Tsontakis’ studios, six on each night with Syd’s kids – or the “Hodkie’s” as some of us call our group – going first, on last Friday, August 12th (yes, that was our poster).
The reason for this is a scheduling conflict George Tsontakis had thanks to an appearance at the Cabrillo Festival he had committed to months before the festival began. Despite the knowledge that George would be out of town, the powers here at Aspen went ahead and booked the recital during his absence. The best reconciliation the festival could reach was agreeing that George shouldn’t miss his own students’ performances.
I mention this back-story to mitigate the sentiment that I am being partisan with the following praise-filled assessment of the recital. I have heard music by every composer here and we all write good stuff. As much as I intend to luxuriate in the overall excellence of last Friday’s premiere performances, I am unequivocally confident next Friday’s composition recital will be equally as strong, we just haven’t gotten there yet.
The evening’s opening piece was Dan Schlosberg’s I Was All Right for a While (2011), which takes its title – and the foundation for its material – from a Roy Orbison song. This reference’s transparency develops over the course of the piece, culminating in a full-blown quote of the song occurring at a decisive point in the work’s structure
Like the rest of us, Mr. Schlosberg gave a brief oral program note before his piece was played, in which he described the influence of the Orbison track on the work’s other musical content. I did not hear as ubiquitous a connection between the non-quoted sections and the quote as Mr. Schlosberg described, but I did detect other, more general, elements that beautifully melded these opposing sections of the piece. Namely, the restless character of the music preceding the quote conveys a clear sense of yearning I feel connects strongly with the emotional message of the referenced song. Moreover – and more importantly – the unique orchestration of the quote – vibraphone and viola harmonics carry the melody as the pianist strums chords inside the piano – elegantly transports the reference into the sound world of the rest of the piece, bridging the music’s stylistic gaps with the ensemble’s color.
The next piece was Steven Snowden’s Appalachian Polaroids (2011), for string quartet. Coincidentally, this piece also referenced a non-classical genre, this time the American folk song, “Black is the Color”. Mr. Snowden’s approach was very different than Mr. Schlosberg’s, however, inasmuch as the quoted song appears at the piece’s outset in the form of a cassette recording that is played from stage. The quartet joins into the singing – a field recording of an Appalachian housewife – with gestures drawn from the inflections in the vocal style of the recording. Simply put, the quartet emerges from the cassette playback and subsequently explores an abstract musical geography closely related to the folk song’s style. Melodic scoops, jams on open fifths and hocketed rhythmic layers impart the spirit of the song, while the thematic content of the piece carries the music into a more sophisticated musical place. In the end, it is clear Mr. Snowden took great care in maintaining a connection to the folk song, while manipulating it enough to produce a new perspective on his source material.
Third on the program were two movements of Brendan Faegre’s violin-viola duo Four Koans (2011). Mr. Faegre’s pre-performance monologue was probably the most brilliant of the evening because he perfectly set-up the intellectual headspace of the music. As he explained, koans are seemingly nonsensical questions or statements used by Zen Buddhist monks to challenge logic and force themselves to follow their instincts. The two movements really flourished when approached with a similarly intuitive style of listening, particularly the first of the presented movements – “Glass Covered Canyons” – whose static colors (only harmonics) and subtly evolving material is probably best appreciated with the in-the-moment mindset Mr. Faegre suggested. The next movement – “Ever-Ascending Spiral” is starkly contrasting both in terms of musical activity and color. Scratch tones, muted pizzicato and other special string effects ornamented the gestural, highly energetic, cause-and-effect character of the duet, epitomized by my favorite moment of the whole piece: a series of riffs playing off the open G strings shared by the two players.
Mr. Feagre’s work was followed by my piece, a horn trio titled Unmasking the Brocken Spectre (2011) (soon to be, simply: The Brocken Spectre). Logistical challenges forced me to conduct the performance, though my fantastic players (violinist Gabrielle Fischler, horn player Kathryn Peterson and pianist Lior Willinger) deserve an enormous amount of credit for learning the piece well enough to truly own it on the stage Friday night, even in spite of the limited rehearsal time the fates allowed. I was extremely happy with the performance, particularly because I didn’t find a way to screw up my talented, generous (with their time..) instrumentalists.
The program’s penultimate piece was Elliott Bark’s To Tell, a collection of four, unrelated character pieces for chamber ensemble. As Mr. Bark explained from the stage, the work is, “a study of what musical elements denote a kind of story”, with his various subjects being: “Dramatic”, “Strange”, “Sweet” and “Exciting”. Like some of the other piece’s Mr. Bark has shared with us composers, To Tell is a finely-crafted collision of dissonant, contrapuntal ‘modernist-ish’ music and tender, compelling lyricism. It should be no surprise that, “Sweet” is the gentle movement, which succeeds in large part to beautiful string writing – particularly one staggering (to my ears) moment where the viola grabs the melody. The other movements are more complex, but convey their non-musical foundations with remarkable clarity. For example, “Dramatic” is very spatial and suspenseful thanks to the way tense melodic material jumps around the ensemble. “Strange” nails its message home with a demented march, while “Exciting” is fast and disjunct, and essentially sets the ensemble’s winds in opposition to the percussion and piano and they battle for musical supremacy until the piece ends in a flourish.
The final work on the program was Michael-Thomas Foumai’s Flare Up! for string quartet. Inspired by eruptions on the surface of the sun, the piece is extremely fast and visceral, employing screeching glissandi and scratch tones along with mixed-meter riffs to deliver a very explosive musical affect. Mr. Foumai economically maintains the high-energy and intensity for almost all of the piece, re-orchestrating and expanding the work’s initial material to keep the music’s excitement level high without going too far off the deep end in terms of dissonance and melodic complexity. As the music charges forward, simple, sustained lines are passed around the quartet and the energy dissipates somewhat, leading the piece to a towering, dramatic chorale at its climax. This is the only point in the music with the “moto-perpetuo” feel is broken, and it doesn’t last long. After a couple phrases, familiar, high-energy riffs return but are not as stable as before, leading the piece to spiral out of control (including a moment of repeated glissandi in the whole ensemble!) and end, somewhat comically, on a major triad.
If you are interested in reading more about my experience as a composition student at the Aspen Music Festival, check out the ‘observations’ page of my web site.