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It’s not uncommon to see articles both decrying the sad state of affairs in classical music as a whole as well as celebrating the new opportunities that are available for both composers and performers with the right amount of musical and entrepreneurial skill, luck and perseverance. A prime example of one that covers both issues was recently published as a transcript of a speech given by the Guardian’s Tom Service with the intentionally controversial title “So long, and thanks for all the noise: 2010 and the end of musical history”. Well-spoken and thoughtful (and without the acidity of many critics from across the pond), Service writes:

My sense is that many young composers now realise that the game is up, that the conventional paths to fame and, er, fortune in contemporary classical culture just aren’t worth the candle. Instead, they’re better off on their own, not least because their music doesn’t fit the line-ups of an orchestra, or even the 1 to a part ensembles of the Sinfonietta, or the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, or Liverpool’s Ensemble 10:10, or Manchester’s Psappha – a line-up and repertoire whose time has probably also come, has also become a living history more than something genuinely contemporary. Composers still need to make choices, of course; being open to the rest of the world does not guarantee the creation of great, or even good art in an of itself, and they will have to find their own limitations, draw their own lines in the shifting sands of musical culture. But composing without the fear of traducing the absurd unwritten laws of modernist composition will only be a good thing. Like Reich and Glass before them, today’s composers have the chance to build their own communities of listeners and audiences – whether in the flesh or on-line – and make the music that matters to them for people who care about it – and actually enjoy it.

Service brings up many good points and pulls no punches, laying responsibility on the future of new/concert/art/whatever music (rightly so) at the feet of the composers both young & old as well as the performing and academic institutions that help to foster contemporary musical art. In my own opinion, the idea that it’s perfectly legitimate to use whatever medium/style/technique that allows a composer to bring his/her voice into being has been growing and gaining momentum for years now, and more articles like this are surely in store. What has not yet been discussed nearly enough – and this may take quite some time – is the ramifications of our ever-increasingly “big-tent” art form on both those who create and those who analyze and interpret those creations. I can see where Service is coming from with his suggestion of the “end of musical history” as it has been characterized up till now, though I’d prefer the “beginning of a new musical history” myself.

Read the rest here.

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Hopefully you’ve been following Armando Bayolo’s postings on our Forum about his adventures with Louis Andriessen’s De Materie – I’ve known about it for over a year now and it’s intensely satisfying seeing a good friend’s massive endeavors come to fruition. If you’re even remotely close to Washington DC tonight, there’s nothing culturally more important on the Eastern Seaboard than Great Noise Ensemble’s performance of this massive work by one of the 20th century’s most important composers. From the GNE website:

De Materie incorporates eclectic musical influences, ranging from Johann Sebastian Bach and Igor Stravinsky to the old Netherlands chanson “L’homme armé” and 20th-century boogie-woogie. GNE stretches the limits of both their personnel roster and their performing ambitions with this opera, which clocks in at over 70 performers including a sixty-member orchestra, chorus, vocal soloists and narrators.

6:30 – tonight – at the National Gallery of Art (directions here). If I wasn’t so far away I’d be there, but there’s a lot of you out there that are, so go already…and shake Armando’s hand afterwards – he’ll deserve it.

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Thursday evening was a good night for new music, as a new chamber ensemble formed by Baltimore-based composer David Smooke gave its maiden voyage performance at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania to an enthusiastic and supportive audience. Sporting the memorable moniker of the League of the Unsound Sound (LotUS), the first performance was a hybrid of members of the core ensemble with guest performers, as pianist and Mercyhurst faculty Shirley Yoo, percussionist Tim Feeney and Smooke on toy piano were joined by percussionist David Schotzko and pianist Stephen Buck.

Upon entering the recital hall, one was immediately drawn to the figures of Feeney, Schotzko and Smooke posed across the state like statues as the audience filed in. While the concertgoers casually chatted and checked their programs, Schotzko began to move his arms slowly and deliberately as Feeney muttered under his breath as he sparsely played a hand drum; it took a few moments to realize that the pre-concert had already commenced with Feeney performing Georges Aperghis‘ Le Corps à Corps while Schotzko was simultaneously enacting Huang Ruo’s performance art work Sound of Hand. After Feeney’s mutterings evolved into shouts and nonsensical rants, both percussionists returned to their silent poses as Smooke began a brief but stimulating improvisation on his instrument of choice, the toy piano.

The concert proper started off with a fantastic performance of John Cage’s Credo; Yoo’s deft performance of the radio brought smiles as one of the FM channels abruptly stated something about “dealing with only part of the breast” (a post-concert debate over whether or not she had found a sex show or a cooking channel ensued) in the middle of the piece. Buck and Yoo proceeded to throw themselves into the U.S. premiere of Arlene Sierra’s Of Risk and Memory for two pianos with gusto – it’s a great work and will hopefully find more performances on this side of the pond. Smooke and Feeney participated in another improvisation, this time with Smooke bowing and plucking on the inside of the toy piano while Feeney effortlessly coaxed a wide range of sounds from a tom-tom. The first half concluded with Thierry De Mey’s Table Music, which seemed to be a crowd favorite. Stephen Buck and David Schotzko explored the serene musings of Peter Garland’s Peñasco Blanco, which was an effective tonic to some of the earlier experimental works. The concert came to a bombastic close with my favorite work of the evening, David Smooke’s work for two pianos and two percussion, Hurricane Charm.

Future LotUS concerts are scheduled at the State University of New York at Fredonia on February 19, Catholic University in Washington D.C. on March 19, and The Windup Space in Baltimore on March 20 and will include the entire core ensemble with violinist Courtney Orlando, violist Wendy Richman, bassoonist Michael Harley, and bassist Michael Formanek as well as Yoo, Feeney and Smooke.

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The first episode just went up today…Joel Puckett & DJ Sparr have some brief  interviews with Christopher Rouse, Robert Beaser, Augusta Read Thomas and Oscar Bettison. Keep up with ’em online here.

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2010 celebrates 35 years of the new music festival June in Buffalo and the 25th year that it has been under the direction of composer David Felder. Based at the University of Buffalo, the festival has brought many leading composers and performers together since Morton Feldman started it in 1975 (a wonderful online exhibit on June in Buffalo has been put together by the UB Library and can be found here). This year’s festival kicked off last night with performances of Steve Reich’s Sextet and Double Sextet by the chamber ensemble Signal, who have quickly become a major force in today’s new music scene. Reich was first featured at JiB in 1976 with performances of his Clapping Music, Piano Phase, Drumming, Music for Pieces of Wood, and Music for 18 Musicians, so this was a fitting tribute to Feldman’s original concept.

That Signal, under the direction of Brad Lubman, could put together a stellar performance of Reich’s works did not come as a surprise – they have been methodically ticking off each of his major chamber works one by one since their inception in 2008. What was surprising, however, was the enthusiasm and unbridled joy with which they pulled the audience into the work; every single performer on both works seemed like they were having the time of their lives, and Lubman was practically dancing more than once during his conducting of the Double Sextet. Reich himself was not a passive listener; throughout both works he was huddled with Signal’s sound engineer, alternatively making subtle adjustments to the overall balance and leaning back to enjoy his creations. After having seen the performers at their most intense, it was gratifying to hear one of them explain to me afterwards that they had realized  during the concert the immensity and honor of what they were doing – something I could tell that was not lost on the audience.

The full schedule of June in Buffalo, including performances by Ensemble SurPlus, Ensemble Laboratorium, Arditti Quartet, Slee Sinfonietta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra featuring works by JiB senior faculty Augusta Read Thomas, Bernard Rands, Roger Reynolds, Oliver Pasquet and David Felder can be found here.

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While a fair amount of attention has been given to the American Composers Orchestra Underwood New Music Readings (namely here, here, here, here annnnd…here) which took place this past Saturday, Miller Theatre wasn’t the only place where new orchestral works were getting read & performed. Saturday was also the culmination of both the Albany Symphony‘s first annual Composer to Center Stage Festival Reading Session and their American Music Festival at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. As the spring semester at SUNY Fredonia was so kind to have come to an end, I decided  to make the 6-hour drive up to Albany and check it out myself.

The Reading Session featured works by three up-and-comers from the usual suspects of graduate programs: 200 OK by Robert Honstein (Yale), Siren Song by Wang Lu (Columbia) and  In the Hour of Exile by Elizabeth Lim (Julliard). All three works demonstrated strong knowledge of the orchestra as an instrument and awareness of the various ingredients that seem to be common in today’s orchestral palette. The selection committee was smart to have chosen works with disparate styles – each piece had a completely different sound and color than the others. While each work was impressive in its own right, it was the Albany Symphony under the direction of its powerhouse conductor David Alan Miller that shone the brightest; I’ve conducted a fair amount of composer sessions myself, and Miller and the orchestra gave a textbook demonstration of how it should be done. 40 minutes were given to each composer’s piece and the metamorphosis from the first attempts to the final run-through of each work was really spectacular. Afterwards there was an insightful post-mortem out in the lobby with the participants, Miller, and the resident composers whose works would be performed that evening: John Harbison, Stacy Garrop, and James Primosch; it was great to hear discussion that not only covered technical issues, but explored the very idea of whether or not a chamber work may be suitable for orchestral treatment.

Just a few short hours later, the Symphony convened again in the hall to perform four works, including two world premieres and the live performance before a recording premiere. The Albany Symphony had already performed Garrop’s orchestral work Becoming Medusa in the fall as part of her year-long residency with the orchestra, and she explained how David Alan Miller had suggested the idea that the piece could act as the first movement of a symphony. The result of that suggestion was two movements that opened the concert – The Lovely Sirens (2nd mvt.), which had the woodwind Sirens enticing the sailors in the brass section to their bombastic doom, and The Fates of Man (3rd mvt.), which pitted a solo cello (representing Man) against the full forces of the orchestra (representing the three Fates), pleading for control of his existence…judging by the clever way the cello is kept from finishing its final idea, it’s not hard to figure out who won that debate.

James Primosch’s Luminism was based off of the Luminist style of Hudson River school of painters from the mid-19th century -another suggestion from David Alan Miller, who doesn’t seem to be afraid to give informed direction to his commissioned composers – and  the Symphony did a fine job of balancing the Impressionistic ensemble writing and the various solos and duets that Primosch interspersed throughout the work. In preparation for a recording session the following day, Miller ended the program with John Harbison’s Gatsby Suite, which was created by yet another conductor suggestion, this time from David Zinman. A very effective distillation of his opera, the Suite features a period-style dance band (violin, soprano sax, trumpet, trombone, banjo, piano, tuba and drumset) within the middle of the orchestra, and the execution was seamless in the transitions between the two groups – this should get a lot of performances once the recording becomes available.

Overall, the adventure to Albany was an extremely enjoyable and informative one (I spent several hours in the car talking into my iPhone about ideas for new orchestral works). David Alan Miller is deserving of all the hype I’ve heard about him for years, and the orchestra made me realize that new music for orchestra is not a dead art at all, but one that needs able and interested performers to bring it to life. The concert (as well as previous concerts featuring music by Garrop, Harbison and Timo Andres) can be found at the Albany Symphony’s InstantEncore page (a site which seems to be gaining momentum in the few short years it’s been in existence).

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University of Washington Professor Huck Hodge and University of Missouri at Kansas City Professor Paul Rudy have been awarded the 2010 Rome Prize in Music. Hodge, a graduate of Columbia University, was awarded the Luciano Berio Rome Prize to compose two works: Augurios for ensemble and Scenes from Faust for symphonic wind ensemble. Rudy, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Colorado at Boulder, was awarded the Elliott Carter Rome Prize for his 2012 Stories Nos. 5-7 and a Saxophone Concerto for the jazz saxophonist Bobby Watson.

Hot off the wires:

The American Academy in Rome is pleased to announce the winners of the 2010-2011 Rome Prize. The Rome Prize is awarded annually through an open national competition that is juried by leading artists and scholars in the fellowship categories. Forty-eight individuals were invited to make up nine peer juries to review the applications this year. Recipients of the 114th annual Rome Prize Competition are provided with a fellowship that includes a stipend, a study or studio, and room and board for a period of 6 months to 2 years in Rome, Italy.

Adele Chatfield-Taylor, FAAR’84, President of the American Academy in Rome, stated: “We are delighted to announce that Trustees of the American Academy in Rome awarded the Rome Prize fellowships earlier today, honoring a tradition that has supported artists and scholars for over 116 years. We look forward to welcoming the 33 Rome Prize recipients this September in Rome.”

The 2010-2011 Rome Prize winners are Seth G. Bernard, M. Shane Bjornlie, Dike Blair, Casey Lance Brown, Thomas J. Campanella, Felipe Dulzaides, Holly Flora, Fritz Haeg, Huck Hodge, Stephanie Malia Hom, Jay Hopler, Lauren M. Kinnee, Ersela Kripa, John Matteo, Heather McGowan, Jeremy Mende, Kathryn Blair Moore, Stephen Mueller, Stephanie Nadalo, Barbara Naddeo, Sarah Oppenheimer, Mark Rabinowitz, Andrew M. Riggsby, Elizabeth C. Robinson, Paul Rudy, Laurie W. Rush, Jennifer Scappettone, Joshua G. Stein, Carly Jane Steinborn, Tyler T. Travillian, Adrian Van Allen, Michael J. Waters, and Karen Yasinsky.

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From the Pulitzer site:

For distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year, Ten thousand dollars ($10,000).

Awarded to “Violin Concerto” by Jennifer Higdon (Lawdon Press), premiered on February 6, 2009, in Indianapolis, IN, a deeply engaging piece that combines flowing lyricism with dazzling virtuosity .


Also nominated as finalists in this category were: “String Quartet No. 3,” by Fred Lerdahl, premiered on December 8, 2009, in Cleveland, Ohio, a remarkable work that displays impeccable technical facility and palpable emotion; and “Steel Hammer,” by Julia Wolfe (G. Schirmer, Inc.), premiered on November 13, 2009, in Gainesville, FL, an innovative composition that, with voices and old-time instruments, turns the old folk tune “John Henry” into an epic distillation of Appalachia.

Judges included Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Joseph Schwanter, South Dakota Symphony conductor Delta David Gier, composer and USF professor of jazz studies Chuck Owen, author and NY Times dance critic John Rockwell and composer Maria Schneider.

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In reaction to a roundtable discussion on the subject of copyright on The Hooded Utilitarian blog, NYC composer Jonathan Newman hits several nails squarely on the head:

I realize how mercenary this sounds, but how about making art AND money? Ultimately I’m unclear how copyleft (or free culture in general) can maintain my middle class income. As far as I can tell, the current copyright laws are what do that.

All that being said, I’m actually a fan of Free. I give away content like crazy on my website…mp3 downloads…score of the pieces as PDFs, etc. I give away CDs, even commercial ones, like candy. I give away many (expensive to produce) printed scores. Because I do believe that giving away significant content–not just useless crap, but stuff people can use–in many ways does help create that “fan base” one hears the astute bands and rock stars talk about … those fans that downloaded the album for free, but who later on shell out 300 bucks to go to the tour show and buy the $25 t-shirts. Which right there crystallizes the line for the Free argument. You don’t see “Pay what you want” Radiohead (I’m a fan) letting their devoted following into the show for free. (Or do you? I don’t really know.)

So among this noise, some content is always controlled by the owner. It’s not all free, it’s just a question of what content is deemed not free. For me, it’s the performance materials. That’s the paper (maybe someday it won’t be, I’m looking at you iPads) musicians rehearse and perform from. I rent it, I sell it, I control it. Nothing drives me more bat-shit crazy than seeing other composers give away their stuff. A website full of scores and parts… “Come play my music! I won’t charge! I just want you to play it to Get My Name Out There!” Well, a) I hope you have another job, b) you just made mine a lot harder, and c) the end user (who, sure, now knows your name) thinks your stuff isn’t even worth the paper it’s printed on.

Check out the entire post here.

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To say that there was a bit of discussion on the announcement that eighth blackbird was going to be hosting their first composition competition would be a gross understatement…let’s say that it did not go unnoticed or unheard. To that point, it seems that such discussions can carry some weight, because eighth blackbird has just announced that the competition has been postponed and will be undergoing a re-work:

eighth blackbird announced its new composition competition in early February. The initial response was positive and enthusiastic, but over time aspects of the competition began to attract scrutiny. While some of the negative reactions took us by surprise, we did recognize the legitimacy of much of the criticism.

As a result of the many constructive and informative comments we’ve received, we have decided to postpone the competition.

We remain committed to this venture, and intend to relaunch it by June.  In the meantime, we will continue exploring how to create an event that is accessible, equitable and exciting for all involved. Any works that are currently being written will remain eligible for the relaunched competition, and any application money already submitted will be refunded.

Thank you very much for your patience and support as we determine how best to proceed.

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