For the students in Aspen’s Composition Individual Studies Program, the last week of the festival culminated the final student composers’ concert last Friday, August 19th. This evening of music not only featured large works by the six students of George Tsontakis, but also featured the Aspen-first: an Exquisite Corpse composition created by all 12 of this half-session’s composition students. My review of the August 12th composers’ concert presaged the strength of Friday’s program and – despite offering an unconventional lineup of ensembles – the featured works did not disappoint my auguring.
Patrick O’Malley’s Five Scales for Brass Quintet – the first of two works for that ensemble – opened the evening like a fanfare. The work is brightly scored and drawn from a simple idea of cleverly harmonizing a basic scale, such that the linear movement of the music is colored distinctly with varying levels of dissonance and consonance depending on the section of the work. The brass writing is solid and attractive, particularly the bass trombone part, which explodes at various times, adding breadth to Mr. O’Malley’s inventive harmonic progressions. A calming postlude in A-flat major cleanses the audience’s aural palettes after the work’s chaotic, polyrhythmic climax featuring clashing quarter-note triplets and sixteenth notes. As if the dissonances, jarring dynamics and wide orchestration of this moment aren’t attention-grabbing enough, this section offers a stunning contrast to the predominant chorale-like flow of the work. The necessity of this brief, violent burst is made apparent at the onset of the aforementioned and subdued postlude, whose sweetly and tightly voiced polyphony puts an appealing cap on the extremity of the preceding musical journey.
Five Scales’s reserved closing phrases acted as an effective set-up for the concert’s next work, Wen-Hui Xie’s …After… for clarinet, violin, percussion and prepared piano. The piece, written in response to the devastating earthquake that struck China in 2008, is not booming or violent as one might expect. Rather, the piece is a captivating series of widely-spaced (temporally) and subtle gestures that builds from extreme quietness to slight loudness over its 7-8 minute duration. The suspenseful delicacy of the work’s gestures draw the audience toward the stage, and put me – at least – on the edge of my seat as my attention was captured by Ms. Xie’s faint and translucent musical landscape. Supporting – perhaps even predicating – the music’s plaintive character is Ms. Xie’s exotic and elaborate sense of color. The prepared piano part includes multiple bowed passages along with fingered pizzicato, and similar extended techniques permeated the rest of the score: the percussionist rubs his fingers on a snare drum and bows a cymbal on top of a timpani while the clarinetist and violinist both speak in addition to producing ivarious unpitched instrumental noises. However intricate these sounds seem in writing, they carried essential and highly effective roles in the communication of Ms. Xie’s artistic message.
Tim Woos’ Brass Trio for trombone, horn and trumpet followed …After… with a complementarily high level of rhythmic energy. Mr. Woos is keenly interested in electronic ‘house’ music, and the three movements of his piece glimmered with direct and obscured references to this style. Overall, Brass Trio is highly rhythmic and flows in a sort of modular way instead of unfurling linearly. For example, the second movement, ‘Freefall’, pits a bubbly, leaping trumpet part against slower, languid chords in the trombone and horn. The general impetus of the harmonies is downward, as the title suggests, but the sonorities don’t plummet as one might expect. Rather, the higher trumpet part works like a parachute, so to speak, keeping the harmonic motion of the horn and trombone in a slow, steady descent. The final movement, ‘Electric Factory’, deliberately references Mr. Woos’ favorite dance club in Philadelphia, and employs an extremely clever trombone part to capture the metallic-tinted slides and bursts typical to that style of electronica. Thanks to a ‘wah-wah’ sounds and other colors from the trombone’s harmon mute, Mr. Woos’ ‘Electric Factory’ triumphs in achieving its extra-musical connection and rounds out the set with an ebullient flare.
Next on the program was Nick DeBerardino’s 27 Morningside, a stand-out because it was scored for piano trio an appeared on a concert designed to feature ensembles heavily laden with wind instruments. More seriously, to my ears, 27 Morningside bridged the stylistic extremities of the evening’s music by unifying passages of unusual instrumental noise – this included the pianist slamming his instrument’s fallboard – with more straightforward, fast-paced, tertian ideas. These divergent musical personalities arise from the piece’s programmatic background, succinctly described by Mr. DeBerardino as, “both wistful and positive”. Sounds of knocking and dissonant sonorities teetering atop irregular rhythms embody the “wistful” side of the piece while major-tinted melodies – both relaxed and quickly pulsed – characterize the “positive energy” Mr. DeBerardino noted as an omnipresent force in the piece. As the piece rounds home, high energy dominates the texture, alluding to the work’s intense, clamorous opening. Yet, the music at this point carries a more enthusiastic and optimistic mood, representing a marriage of the two opposing musical energies exhibited in the earlier stages of the piece.
Trevor Doherty’s subsequent Brass Quintet was the second of three pieces for brass ensemble on the night’s atypical program. Like the first composition recital, each of the Friday’s presenting composers gave a brief oral introduction to their work, and Mr. Doherty’s was particularly thorough. His monologue accurately emphasized a dichotomy between an introductory, rhythmic ostinato and broad lyricism, which characterizes later sections in the piece. The music fulfills his stated goal with great success and beauty thanks, in part, to a remarkable solo by trumpet player Billy Gerlach reminiscent (in terms of personality) of the haunting trumpet melody in John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls. The transition from the opening ostinato to this striking, homophonic passage is elegantly achieved, but – to my ears – the ostinato returns too quickly, though I may feel that way because the world of that trumpet aria is so gorgeous. Beyond the change in surface rhythm, Mr. Doherty effectively delineates the piece’s sections with alterations in ensemble texture and scoring, namely a shift from the tightly-packed hockets of his crucial ostinato motive to the broadly widened and soaring passages whose trumpet solo I just complimented.
Closing out the evening’s individually composed works was David Robert’s Cut and Run for wind quintet. According to his description, the piece unfolds as a series of “vignettes”, but the work is much more connected than Mr. Roberts suggests. Cut and Run opens with a gurgling chorale in which one of the ensemble’s greatest challenges is conquers: Mr. Roberts blends the five instruments into a cohesive aural unit. The group’s sound is ingeniously centered around middle C, allowing the stronger tessituras of the horn and clarinet to rise to the foreground while not totally overpowering the delicate colorations provided by the bassoon, oboe and flute in that register. To create contrast as the piece progresses, each instrument is given a time to show off, though none shines brighter than the horn part, which gains greater and greater flash as the piece winds towards its conclusion. By the time Cut and Run ends, almost all of the work’s ostensibly disconnected material is reconciled and reconfigured, changing roles from melody to accompaniment and vice versa. Though the first half of the piece is segmented as Mr. Roberts explained, the piece is much more unified – to my great satisfaction – than he led on.
I mentioned that Cut and Run was the final “individually composed” work because Friday’s concert ended with a first at Aspen: an Exquisite Corpse. The inspiration and initiative for the project came from Dan Schlosberg and Brendan Faegre, who approached George Tsontakis on the bus, of all places, before presenting the idea to Syd and the rest at our first weekly seminar. I was extremely proud of all of us for participating and – most amazingly – staying on schedule with our contributions. In order to submit the compiled score and parts on time, we had a week to compose and engrave the twelve sections, and it took an awe-inspiring level of teamwork to make it happen.
A recording of the Corpse is available on the home page of my website, and we are all extremely grateful to Syd Hodkinson and the members of the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble for squeezing in a couple run-throughs – not to mention individual practice – of the piece into their busy, busy schedules. Essentially, we viewed the project as a tribute to Susan and Ford Schumann, the composition program’s benefactors, and we created a special copy of the score – featuring Steve Snowden’s fantastic original logo (see the picture at the top of this post) – complete with handwritten versions of each composer’s section to create memento of the 2011 Aspen Music Festival’s Composition Individual Studies Program.