I think I overdosed on student composers’ music (part 1)
The positive aspect of having too much of a good thing is that you’ve consumed something good. For me in the last week, the object of my over-consumption has been new works by student composers, not only created by colleagues of mine at the University of Michigan, but the representatives of the University of Iowa, Indiana University and the University of Cincinnati who attended the 2011 Midwest Composers Symposium. Topping off the weekend-long buffet of freshly baked music was Monday evening’s second student composers’ concert of the year here at Michigan (which I will cover in the next installment in this pair of reviews). Suffice it to say, I heard a lot of music in those four days, so I will do my best to cover what passed by my ears.
Midwest (as the event will be dubbed from now on) is an annually occurring conference of student composers held at one of the four member institutions (UM, UI, IU and CCM) on a rotating basis. For more background information check out last year’s post on the symposium. I participated in the Michigan delegation this year and traveled to Bloomington, Indiana (IU was the host this time ’round) with my work for two marimbas “Dark Spiral” (here’s a video). There were four concerts altogether, one Friday evening and three on Saturday offering over 30 individual works to an audience of composers, performers and professors. Intervening between the morning and afternoon concert Saturday was a very thought-provoking discussion session wherein each school elected students to give a brief presentation on a musical topic of their choice. I really enjoyed the interactions spawned by this feature of the event and I hope it is retained and, perhaps, expanded in the future.
I apologize in advance to all those performers and composers I am unable to devote much time to in the forthcoming paragraphs. The extreme volume of music presented to me forces me – understandably I hope – to be uncomfortably brief. Before getting specific I want to emphasize that every school represented themselves extremely well, in my opinion. Each offered a variety of styles and ensembles making the slate of proffered works as diverse as it was ample.
Now to the music.
Friday’s concert featured the “large ensemble” works, including performances by the Indiana University Chamber Orchestra, Contemporary Vocal Ensemble and New Music Ensemble. There were many remarkably beautiful moments in the first two works, Natalie Williams‘ Les Chant du Malador (2011) and Stas Omelchenko‘s Musings… (2011), particularly the third movement of Ms. Williams’ piece, which alludes to tonality in a very refracted way that is convincing and engaging without being too on-the-nose. These chamber orchestra works were followed by two very well-received (at least with my crew) choral pieces: Lindsey Jacob‘s Continue to Exist (2006) and Ji Young Kim‘s Reflections on Waiting for Mama (2011). Ms. Kim’s work is particularly striking in how it uses onomatopoeia to imitate the native language of her text’s subject, Korean. The piece balances the choir’s texture wonderfully, using precisely located solos to convey and magnify the work’s narrative backbone. The final two works on the evening’s program were Paul Dooley‘s Point Blank (which I already reviewed) and Justin Grossman‘s At Last the Secret is Out (2010), pairing very nicely together to conclude the first evening and set the bar very high for Saturday’s music.
Midwest restarted at 10 AM the next morning with a concert of 9 works, two of which (Justin Aftab‘s Landscape 4:54 and Andy Ly‘s In the Style Of…) I’ve already reviewed. The opening pieces were Matt Smart‘s alluring, color/timbre-focused string quartet Chiasma and Chaz Allen‘s Magnitude for clarinet and piano. I’ve heard Magnitude three times now, and it has grown on my highly favorable initial response with each listening. Essentially contrasting intimate moments with energetic bursts, Magnitude‘s intricate structure is based on a sort of exponential growth of material transformation with ideas returning in decreasingly recognizable forms until the piece is seized with the spirit of its highest energy moments and pounds itself into a rousing conclusion. The next three pieces were all very different. Carrie Magin‘s violin/marimba duo Capriccio (2010) showed off Ms. Magin as a tremendous performer and an insightful composer insofar as she skillfully balances this unusual duo . Sang Mi Ahn‘s Hwae-Sang uses four movements to explore the full breadth of timbre on two violins, recapping the individual colors of the first three movements in the work’s energetic, ‘moto perpetuo’ finale. The excerpted second movement of Stephen Weimer‘s Stray (2010) was the first of two really excellent works with saxophone performed on Saturday. Mr. Weimer deftly controls the colors of the piano and saxophone throughout, a quality shared by two excerpted movements from Stephanie Piecynski‘s Five Piano Preludes (2011). The two Preludes are consummate miniatures, and were particularly attentive to and successful at endowing their material with a strong, memorable identity. I still remember being taken by the color of the super-high flourishes in the first movement and following, with great suspense, the music’s expansion to the entire range of the instrument. Preludes was the penultimate work on the concert which concluded with Melody Eötvös‘ darkly dramatic, quarrelsome string quartet, How Dragonflies Cross the Ocean (2011).
Saturday’s second concert featured 10 pieces, beginning with Carlo Vincetti Frizzo‘s A La Noche (2010), a superbly engaging work for soprano soloist, small women’s chorus, harp, cello and percussion. Above all, I feel Mr. Frizzo handles the percussion in spectacular fashion, using it to ornament the sounds of his other musical forces. Adding a captivating performance from soprano Paloma Friedhoff Bello to Mr. Frizzo’s fantastic scoring, A la noche is an embarrassment of musical riches. Next was Yunsoo Kim‘s Duo (2011), a mischievous cycle of maniacal gestures for trumpet and bass trombone, and Sangbong Nam‘s startling fixed electronic work, Awaken (2010). Based on the sound of a bell, Awaken (here’s a video), is one of the more structurally thoughtful electronic works I’ve heard. Gradually leading the listener from a transparent, relatable sound (the bell), to more abstract, heavily processed derivations of the work’s initial passages, Mr. Nam brings the listener back to beginning at just the right time, setting up his puckish ending. Joseph Prestamo‘s Sketches followed Awaken, and I have already review it.
The next work, Zach Zubow‘s Sundown (2010) for string quartet, unfolds in two parts. At first, the music is very much centered on color and timbre (accomplished through the use of different extended techniques). Then, a palpable harmonic center comes in, and eventually Mr. Zubow mixes the coloristic focus of the preceding music with a new sense of line. Following Sundown was Roger Zare‘s Fight or Flight (2011) (here’s a video) for violin and guitar. Opening with unison material, it doesn’t take long for the Violin to emerge as the piece’s most prominent figure, with the guitar providing an energetic and percussive accompaniment. There is a brief lyrical section, but the overall affect of the work is frenetic and entertaining. Excerpts from Pierre Derycz‘s previously reviewed Trois Morceaux Morose intervened before we heard Joel Matthys‘ Terms of Venery (2011) for baritone soloist and percussion. One of the more imaginative works of the whole conference, Mr. Matthys uses the percussionist to provide spoken word on top of playing marimba and flower pots. This dramatic element fit the music perfectly, and added an unforgettably charming quality to this unusual composition. Michael Schachter‘s Jig, which appeared in my last post, filled the penultimate position on the program with Ryan Chase‘s excellently scored, evocative (of the Western United States) Gold Rush (2011), for five violins, wrapped up Midwest’s third concert.
From its first piece, Demiurge (2011) by Bryan Percoco, the final concert of Midwest featured a suitably incredible amount of variety with its 10 featured compositions. Demiurge was the first of two electro-acoustic pieces on the evening’s menu, featuring amplified bassoon along with electric bass and amplified piano. The clarity of Demiurge‘s modal melodies and fast, pulsing rhythms contrasted strongly with the dialogue of fastidious counterpoint and ingenuous homophony in Brian Penkrot’s String Quartet no. 1 (2010). My piece was next, and it was followed by Ty Niemeyer‘s solo viola work What the Viola Tells Me (2011) and Bin Li‘s brass quintet Fanfare for Five (2011). Mr. Niemeyer impressively limits the color of several movements (i.e. one uses col legno prominently, another is only harmonics) while maintaining the music’s level of engagement. Mr. Li’s work is more contained and thoroughly dramatic, scored skillfully for the ensemble to create a compelling series of musical moods.
The next piece, Mike Sweeney‘s Mr. Brain, was incontrovertibly one of the most memorable of the entire symposium. An outrageous electro-acoustic romp, the work opposes a variably processed, computerized speaking voice with a large chamber ensemble. Unbelievably, Mr. Brain finds a tasteful, captivating way to use an otherwise obnoxious synth bass part and auto-tuning/vocoding in the electronics. Complex and convivial, Mr. Sweeney controls his materials masterfully, producing a feeling of chaos that is ultimately gratified through specific twists and turns in the piece’s form. Shane Hoose‘s Three Brief Pieces (2011) followed Mr. Brain. I was very fond of the Mr. Hoose’s approach to harmony, which, in this piece, centers on a lot of triads, but uses them in a pleasantly convoluted manner. Next was Zac Lavender‘s The Study of Waves (again, covered in my last post), which was followed by Aaron Perrine‘s Bridge Suite (2011) for alto saxophone and cello. Saxophonist Nathan Bogert was stunning, unbelievably stunning at the hands of Mr. Perrine’s intimate score, which delicately (and successfully) balances the texture and prominence of each instrument. The final piece of Midwest was Gabriel Lubell‘s He Guards the Vision of the Sunset Sky (2011), for saxophone and string quintet (the kind with two cellos). Opening with glassy strings and, ultimately, a floating saxophone line, He Guards shifts between pulsating energy and moments of contemplation. The saxophone is both omniscient and participatory, though it tends to sail above the activity of the strings, particularly as the piece winds to the end and the quintet’s music becomes increasingly aggressive.
Ok, with that review taken care of, stay tuned this weekend for my review of last Monday’s student composers’ concert.