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Program Essay: SONiC – Sounds of a New Century

From October 14-22 in various locations in New York City, the American Composers Orchestra hosts SONiC, a new music festival co-curated by Derek Bermel and Stephen Gosling. ACO asked me to write an essay for the program booklet, which they’ve kindly let me share with Sequenza 21 readers as a preview of the concerts

Trying to sum up the diverse array of compositional styles and performing traditions that comprise contemporary classical music’s many “scenes” is a daunting task. One can scarcely imagine distilling its essence, even over the course of several evenings. But during SONiC: Sounds of the New Century, the American Composers Orchestra aims to do just that. With curatorial assistance from pianist Stephen Gosling and composer Derek Bermel, ACO has organized an ambitious series of programs, enlisting many topflight ensembles and spotlighting composers under forty. The orchestra’s first free concert at the World Financial Center, a new music marathon, late night jam sessions, and several premieres are all part of the festivities.

JACK Quartet. Photo: Stephen Poff.

During late summer, I had a chance to speak with some of the composers and performers featured on SONiC, a small but representative sampling of the diverse array of participants. While one would need as many essays as there are participants to tell all of the stories of SONiC, we hope that what follows provides an idea of the variety of ways that new music is being created for these events.

JACK Quartet is an important presence at SONiC, hosting the Extended Play marathon at Miller Theatre on October 16. Along with harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, the quartet is premiering Filigree in Textile, a work commissioned from Hannah Lash by the Fromm Foundation. (Lash had a piece read by ACO in 2010 on the Underwood New Music Readings). While Filigree in Textile is inspired by Flemish tapestry – its movements are titled “Gold,” “Silver,” and “Silk” – two other “threads” run through its genesis: Lash’s own background as a harpist, and her frequent collaborations with JACK, dating back to their student days at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.

Hannah Lash. Photo Noah Fowler.

Lash says, “I know the harp very well, so when I write for it, I feel that I can exploit a lot of that instrument’s possibilities without overextending the player in a way that would be uncomfortable. I notice that when I write for an ensemble that has harp in it, I feel very comfortable and excited to make the most of its presence.”

She continues, “As an undergraduate, I wrote quite a few string quartets, and at least three members of JACK Quartet played pretty much all those quartets over our years at Eastman on the Composer Forums.  These players were wonderful, and always completely fearless.  I remember one piece in particular that I wrote for them when I was a junior: it took me literally three weeks just to copy the score and make parts because the notation was so detailed.  It was such a great experience to give it to these amazing players and have them learn it and play it so enthusiastically and elegantly. In fact, I was completely spoiled, because the summer after that year, I took this piece to a festival where a professional quartet was supposed to play it; they had one rehearsal and then told me I had written something completely unplayable.  I did not mention the fact that it had only taken my friends at school a week to learn the piece and put it together.”

Currently, Lash focuses her energies on composing (and writing her own libretti); performing as a harpist has, for now, largely fallen by the wayside. Other composers in this era subscribe to the DIY aesthetic: performing their own music and forming their own ensembles. SONiC curator Derek Bermel is an acclaimed clarinetist.

Composer/pianist Anthony Cheung helped to form the Talea Ensemble, a group that has fast become one of the most formidable interpreters of the most daunting repertoire in contemporary music. These pieces are often categorized as works of the New Complexity movement or the Second Modernity. They return music to an aesthetic that revels in detail and is intricately constructed. Scores by New Complexity composers are abundantly virtuosic avant-garde fare.

On SONiC, Cheung will play his Roundabouts, a piece written in 2010 for pianist Ueli Wiget of Ensemble Modern. (Cheung is another composer familiar to ACO: he participated in the 2004 edition of the Underwood Readings.) There’s a long tradition of composer-performers, particularly pianists. One can look at great figures from the classical music canon, such as Mozart, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff; more recently, composers such as Thomas Ades and Philip Glass continue this tradition, championing their own music from the keyboard. Cheung feels that being an active performer informs his work as a composer. He says, “It’s definitely a huge benefit, but one that needs to be carefully considered. Getting inside a composer’s head and extrapolating a personal language from a score, while adding a unique interpretative angle if appropriate for the music, is as good as any analysis or score study. And while analysis can approach the minutiae of each moment and attempt to dissect intentionality, being part of the real-time re-creation of a work is a direct window into a composer’s experience of time and form. These things seep into your consciousness and make you more open to creative possibilities of your own. The danger is also to one’s advantage: falling back into a comfort-zone with your instrument, where idiomatic fluency can lead to a kind of repetition of received practice and prevent you from considering possibilities outside of them.”

Kenji Bunch is another composer/performer, active as a violist. He will perform as soloist (on an amplified viola) with the ACO in his concerto The Devil’s Box, a piece inspired by the many legends that associate fiddles and fiddle playing with diabolical influences and pursuits. It’s also a chance for the classically trained Bunch to demonstrate his mettle in the realm of bluegrass and folk music.

Bunch says, “Back in the mid-nineties, I spent a few summers teaching composition in Kentucky, and was exposed to some wonderful bluegrass bands.  I had long been interested in improvisation and non-classical approaches to string playing, and at the time had been doing some work with a rock fusion band on electric violin.  I was somewhat dissatisfied with what I was contributing in that context, and felt I was trying too hard to be an electric guitar.  In this sense, bluegrass was a revelation.  Here was an ensemble of all acoustic string instruments in which the fiddle was an essential, organic member. Further trips to Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama helped to shape my understanding of the music and its history.  Perhaps most significant to my study of American roots music was a chance acquaintance with master fiddler, composer, and educator Mark O’Connor, whose friendship and encouragement has given me an exposure to all kinds of string traditions well beyond bluegrass fiddle.”

He continues, “It was after teaching at one of Mark’s fiddle camps that I began to incorporate elements of American folk music into my compositions.  Incidentally, before I started doing this, I had never performed my own music!  For some reason, I had kept my parallel careers as a violist and composer as separate as possible.  I think I started performing my own work out of convenience; the inflections and articulations are hard to notate, and it was easier just to do it myself.  When I realized how rewarding it was, I started working on a repertoire of works I could perform.  Today, most of the playing I do is my own music.”

Traditional instruments, even repurposed ones like Bunch’s amplified viola/fiddle, are one way to go in new music. Another is to find or create new instruments altogether. Such is often the pathway of composer Oscar Bettison. He enjoys incorporating unconventional instruments, such as those made from found objects or junk metal, into his scores.

Bettison says, “This was all a result of moving to Holland to study in the early 2000s. Before that, I had written a lot of music for traditional forces and I wanted to get away from that: to stretch myself as a composer. So, I started to play around with things, even going as far as to build some instruments; percussion mostly, but later on I branched out into radically detuning stringed instruments – there’s some of that in the guitar part of O Death. These things I called “Cinderella instruments: the kind of things that shouldn’t be ‘musical’ but I do my best to make them sing. And I suppose as a counterpoint to that, I shunned traditional instruments for a long time.”

Cinderella instruments, as well as references to popular music of many varieties, are signatures found in his work O Death, which will be played on SONiC October 19 by the Dutch Ensemble Klang.

Of O Death, Bettison says, “It was written for Ensemble Klang between 2005-7 and is my longest piece to date. It’s about 65 minutes long and I wrote it very much in collaboration with the group. We were lucky enough to have a situation in which I was able to try things out on the group over a long period. This was very important in writing it. The piece is in seven movements and is a kind of instrumental requiem, which references popular music elements (especially blues) and kind of grafts them on to the requiem structure. It’s something that I fell into quite naturally.  This I think is tied to my idea of ‘Cinderella instruments:’ eschewing the “classical” tradition somewhat.”

Bettison continues, “The thing that a lot of people don’t know about me is that I come from a very strict classical background. I was a violinist; indeed I went to a specialist music school in London as a violinist from the age of 10. My rebellion to being in a hot-house classical music environment was getting into metal, playing the drums and listening to avant-garde classical music that was seen as outside the ‘canon’ and I think that carried on into my music. So, to psychoanalyze myself for a minute, I think I’ve done both things in a response (quite a delayed response!) to the classical tradition precisely because I feel so at home in that tradition.”

Whether it’s a gesture of critical response or one of inquisitive exploration, crossover between musical traditions is nothing new per se. But today, genre bending, such as Bettison’s references to blues, metal, et cetera, is celebrated. True, there was a time when a gulf existed between “high” and “low” art, at least in some people’s minds (particularly those of the parochial and/or polemical bent). Increasingly in recent years, genres are blurring. Classical composers frequently incorporate materials from pop, jazz, and ethnic musical traditions. Correspondingly, a number of musicians primarily known as pop artists are exploring concert music, creating hybridized works from their own particular vantage point. And musicians like Bryce Dessner, who have significant pedigree in both genres, prove such distinctions largely meaningless today. Dessner is probably best known as the guitarist for the rock band The National. But he also has a Master’s degree in Classical Guitar Performance from the Yale School of Music and performs regularly with the “indie classical” ensemble Clogs. As a guitarist, he performed at the recent Steve Reich celebration at Carnegie Hall, joining members of Bang on a Can for their performance of Reich’s recent foray into rock instrumentation: “2×5.”

Bryce Dessner. Photo: Keith Klenowski.

Dessner says, “I think my electric guitar-playing has informed my composing and my classical training has in turn benefited my work with the National. I don’t consider my activities to be two separate pursuits; they’re both aspects of the same goal: to make creative music that pays attention to detail.”

Most of Dessner’s own instrumental compositions have an extra-musical source of inspiration, from visual art, mythology, or literature. St. Carolyn by the Sea is inspired by a section of Jack Kerouac’s 1962 novel Big Sur. Big Sur has this sense of sweep and variety of mood shifts that evokes, in a way, a kind of orchestration. I’ve created a work that employs the entire ACO but, at their suggestion, also incorporates two electric guitar parts: these will be played by my brother Aaron and me. I want to stress that our role is really as members of the ensemble: this is not a guitar concerto. We have little solo passages here and there, but then so do many other players in the orchestra.”

“I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to write for chamber orchestras in the past, but this work for the ACO will be the first time that I’m getting the chance to write for a full orchestra. It’s such a rare opportunity. Even today, it’s still challenging to get orchestras to program new music. And, of course, it’s very expensive to rehearse and present a new piece. What the ACO does in presenting so many composers’ work is truly an unusual situation.”

It’s heartening that so many composers and performers are going to be included in the “unusual situation” that is SONiC. Despite their disparate backgrounds, they are brought together by a fascination with sound and a determination to make the concert hall an adventurous and engaging place to be: one filled with a fresh sense of discovery.

Composer Christian Carey is Senior Editor at Sequenza 21 and teaches at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.