Hidden within the typical drive-to-cadence activities that closed the 2010 Fall semester here at the University of Michigan were three special performances showcasing the creativity and boldness of student composers David Biedenbender, Roger Zare and William Zuckerman. The premieres of their works – Three Rilke Poems, Janus, and By the way: Music in Pluralism, respectively – demonstrated the profits of well executed collaborations with all of the following: a third-party ensemble, a soloist, and other forms of media. I am proud to report the largely unqualified success of these endeavors and suspect these works are part of a more general movement in the new music community to work closely with performers and performance groups on large-scale projects.
First, I will talk about David Biedenbender’s Three Rilke Poems, on which he worked closely with the University of Michigan Chamber Choir under the direction of Maestro Jerry Blackstone. For two reasons, this chamber choir collaboration was the most traditional out of the three works I’m discussing: it is not at all uncommon to work with choral ensembles, and Mr. Biedenbender’s music was fairly straightforward in terms of content. However, these realities should not diminish the absolutely overwhelming poignancy of his composition.
Three Rilke Poems had an overall structure of slow-faster-slow, though the two slow movements possessed highly contrasting materials and were not connected. The faster middle movement, Herbst, had a very elegant opening where Mr. Biedenbender layered opposing ostinati, creating a crackling bed of additive rhythms upon which he introduced the primary melodies for the piece. The practicalities of choir performance often obligate a composer to use more a more traditional harmonic language when writing a choral composition. While this was true about Three Rilke Poems, Mr. Biedenbender found many ways to undermine the order of his tertian or modal systems, such as the layered rhythms at the beginning of Herbst. Consequently, though Three Rilke Poems relied heavily on triads and diatonic dissonances, it was a clearly modern composition.
From left to right: Donald Scavarda, Gordon Mumma, Robert Ashley and Roger Reynolds take the stage after Thurday's ONCE. NOW. concert. Photo courtesy of Subaram Raman.
Although Ann Arbor’s ONCE. MORE. festival, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the ONCE Group composers, does not end until tonight, the events with the surviving founders of the groundbreaking concert series – Roger Reynolds, Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma and Donald Scavarda – concluded Thursday evening. That night’s ONCE. NOW. concert featured more recent works by these four composers.
Robert Ashley’s Van Cao’s Meditation (1991), for piano, opened the evening. The piece was resonant, repetitive, and reminded me of Satie’s Ogives in spirit. Essentially, Van Cao’s Meditation milled about one confined group of a few notes which covered all registers of the piano and, at the end of each phrase, settled on an octave which was not part of this more prevalent pitch collection. The piece was over half and hour long, so the music’s motion through time was made interesting by altering the dynamics and lengths of phrases.
More importantly, the performance is meant to be intensely physical – as Ashley said before the piece, the player must have the music, “in their body” – and Pianist Ming-Hsiu Yen succeeded in delivering the work in a beautifully corporeal way. Most profound was the flowing of Ming-Hsu’s arms as she ascended and descended the arpeggiated figure at the heart of the piece. Perhaps because the work’s musical landscape is so static, Ashley placed a higher premium on the physical aspects of Thursday’s performance, even going so far as to request Ming-Hsiu wear a sleeveless top in the concert. These inferences notwithstanding, Ashley’s piece, despite its epic length, was a wild success on Thursday and many people I talked to after the concert said their reaction to Van Cao’s Meditation was profoundly visceral.
Gordon Mumma’s Than Particle (1985) was next on the program and featured one of the most well-received performances of this week’s concerts. University of Michigan Associate Professor of Percussion Joseph Gramley dazzled in this duet between a percussion soloist and electronic sounds. The synthesized part is from a long-obsolete Yamaha computer program, but Mumma insists on using this version of the electronics because, “some of the synthesized percussion sounds are absurd”. Mr. Gramley’s performance was commandingly athletic and lyrical, particularly when he abandoned his mallets for his fingertips. The percussion part at these moments was unbelievably delicate and juxtaposed humorously with the clumsy timbre of the electronics. Deservedly, Mr. Gramley earned the evening’s first curtain call.
Tomorrow and Thursday are two special nights for contemporary music in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This week, the University Musical Society is celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the ONCE composers, a group of University of Michigan student composers whose 1960s new music festivals gained worldwide acclaim. The surviving members of the group, which was founded by Roger Reynolds, Robert Ashley, Donald Scavarda, Gordon Mumma, and the late George Cacioppo, have come back to Ann Arbor to revisit the revolutionary spirit that inspired them and recognize what they’ve achieved in the years since they left Michigan.
The local media here in southeast Michigan have previewed this week’s event with great success, so head the to following links if you’d like to read what annarbor.com, the metrotimes and the Detroit Free Press have to say about the history of the ONCE group. I will be Sequenza 21’s eyes and ears observing the rehearsals and other behind-the-scenes activities that will make these concerts happen. Additionally, I will review both performances and talk to each of the composers at Wednesday’s “Conversation with the ONCE Composers”.
For now, I have the pleasure of watching the ONCE composers in rehearsal, which is a beautiful experience. First of all, they are clearly thrilled to be in Ann Arbor; this is clear in their smiles, the enthusiasm with which they interact with their performers and, most poignantly, in the playful anecdotes the ONCE members have shared with each other between rehearsal times. Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma have been warm and enthusiastic to their performers, the former even joked with Dr. John Ellis – chair of piano performance at Michigan – earlier today, quipping, “that last phrase is one I never got right,” in reference to his solo piano piece Large Size Mograph.
Roger Reynolds’ professionalism is admirable: he understands how to get exactly what he wants from his players without being curt or overbearing. Thursday night’s concert, which features recently written works by the ONCE composers, includes Reynolds’ Ariadne’s Thread for string quartet and electronics. He has handled the quartet masterfully so far, explaining to them the vision he had beyond his complex musical language and guiding them with generalities towards the affect he desires.
If you are in the Ann Arbor area tomorrow or Thursday at 8 PM, head to Rackham Auditorium on the University of Michigan’s Central Campus to share in the past and present of this important movement in American music (tickets are also $2!). If not, stay tuned to Sequenza 21 for updates on this event all week long. The programs for the concerts and a description of the rest of the ONCE MORE festival is available here.
Skull courtesy of Casa Ramirez (photo by Chris Becker)
Skeletons! Witches! Vampires! No, I’m not talking about candidates in Houston’s midterm elections. I’m talking about Halloween and the two days that follow known as Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. Like many other places in the Southern U.S., Houston culture is a healthy mix of the supernatural and the spiritual. In the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Meurtos, food, beverages, and sweets are placed on homemade alters as gifts for the spiritual manifestations of those who have passed who will, over the course of the 48 hours that is All Saints Day and All Soul’s Day, visit the people they knew before the afterlife. Gift giving and the ephemeral nature of playing music – particularly improvised music – have all been on my mind lately.
In his recent book Tradition and Transgression about composer John Zorn, author John Brackett includes a chapter describing Zorn’s music from the perspective of “the gift and gift giving.” The composer receives a “gift” from an artist – maybe an artist from an earlier time – in the form of creative inspiration and techniques that can be applied to their respective medium and then passes the “gift” along in various forms of musical homage. There are so many examples of this practice in music. Many compositions by Charles Mingus are named for musicians he knew and loved and directly referenced in melody, harmony, and/or rhythm (A few examples are Reincarnation of a Lovebird, So Long Eric and Goodbye Porkpie Hat for Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy and Lester Young respectively). Certainly there are parallels between creating art and celebrating our ancestors. Maybe there’s actually no difference between the two actions?
Who are some of the composers, friends, and/or family members you yourself have paid homage to in musical form?
Alexandra Adshead and Chris Becker at Avant Garden (photo by Jonathan Jindra)
For the month of November, the tireless Dave Dove and his organization Nameless Sound continue their They Who Sound “First Time Duo” series at Houston’s Avant Garden, every Monday from 7pm to 9pm. Each week, two to four improvisers who have never played together share the stage to perform a set of entirely improvised music. This is a great concept, and I wonder if it could expand beyond its current network of free improvisers to include pairings with members of Houston’s classical, jazz, and rock communities. Maybe some students from Houston’s School for the Performing Arts could share the stage with people with a history in Houston’s free improv and/or so-called noise scenes and try to find some common ground?
Also at Avant Garden on the last Wednesday of every month, keyboardist Robert Pearson presents a program of experimental music (Robert was kind enough to invite me and Alex to play last Wednesday, and we had a ball). These Wednesday shows are also an opportunity to hear Robert who doesn’t play like anyone I’ve ever heard before. Imagine Matthew Shipp, former Birdsongs of the Mesozoic Roger Miller, and Erik Satie all at 200 bpm and you sort of get an aural impression of what Robert sounds like on the keys. The resulting music is almost Zen-like in spite (or maybe because of) the tempi. Go hear him for yourself!
On November 2, 2010, 7pm at Talento Bilingue de Houston, Cuban tenor Alejandro Salvia Cobas and belly dancer provocateur Ms. Y.E.T. perform at show of artist and longtime A.I.D.S. activist Lourdes Lopez Moreno’s show of hand built clay skeletons. Moreno’s work will be on display through November 7th. A short, spooky video featuring Cobas’ voice is up on YouTube.
On November 7, 7:30pm at Zilkha Hall, Houston’s composer led contemporary music organization Musiqa celebrates the work of Benjamin Patterson, a groundbreaking artist who was a founding member of the avant-garde group, Fluxus, and whose work explores the experimental and improvisational possibilities in music. The concert Born in a State of Flux(us) is free, and Patterson will be there for what should be a crazy evening.
The University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) proudly hosted last weekend’s meeting of the MidWest Composers Symposium, a consortium currently made up of the composition departments from CCM, Indiana University and the Universities of Iowa and Michigan.
The Symposium dates back to the 1960s, and, according to University of Michigan Professor of Composition Evan Chambers, arose dually from the prevailing sentiment that American contemporary music was not respected globally and the fact that, at that time, it was exceptionally challenging for student composers to get their works performed. “Each of the [charter] schools was known for different kinds of composition,” Professor Chambers explained in a phone interview, “there was no other way to find out what was happening between these institutions.”
Because I was unable to attend last weekend’s festival, I checked in with the event’s student co-director Jennifer Jolley, a current doctoral candidate in composition at CCM. Jennifer received her undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music and then took time off to teach, perform and accompany in Vermont. She began studying at CCM in 2007 and organized this year’s MidWest Composers Symposium with fellow graduate composition student Angelique Poteat.
S21: What were the greatest organization challenges you faced in pulling together this year’s MidWest Composers Symposium?
CCM is unfortunately on the quarter system, which meant that our classes started on September 22; therefore we only had a month to plan everything. Angelique Poteat (my co-director) and I gave our composers two weeks to assemble their pieces and performers, and that left us a mere two weeks to put everything together. We couldn’t figure out the concert order until CCM submitted their contribution, and we wanted to give the new CCM students a chance to submit a piece for the symposium.
S21: At its founding, each member of the MidWest Composers Symposium possessed unique musical tendencies; for example, the University of Iowa was know for preferring experimental compositional techniques. Do similar musical identities still exist from one member institution to another? If so, what were the weekend’s most remarkable examples of this diversity?
I believe they do, although this year UI did not submit as many electronic/experimental pieces as they have in the past! In fact, Angelique Poteat’s “Cyclic Complement” for bass clarinet and fixed format (CCM), Melody Eötvös‘s “Die hohle Höhle” for 5.1 surround playback (IU), Jerod Sommerfeldt‘s video “Linear” used sounds constructed in Pd (CCM), and Zach Zubow‘s “Fugitive Yellow Shirt” for violin and electronics (UI) were highlights from the experimental end; Mr. Zubow’s piece being one of the few electronic submissions from UI.
I can imagine going paperless, even internet-less, but going music-less? Impossible! Thanks to people as energetic and creative as Juilliard-trained violinist, Mark Peskanov, this is unlikely to happen.
Peskanov is the man behind Brooklyn’s ‘Bargemusic’, a series attracting music mavens and sporadic music lovers alike. At least four times a week, the ancient 100-foot barge at Fulton Ferry Landing sways gently to the rhythm of Peskanov’s diverse program offerings featuring emerging, as well as sought-after, performers from the world of classical music and jazz.
This summer, the floating concert hall’s 176 seats were filled daily, sometimes even twice a day. “We present 52 weeks of continuous programming, all year around”, Peskanov explains. “It is, in a real sense, music in motion.”
Bargemusic is very much part of its Brooklyn neighborhood. “A grocery store is open every day of the week, as well”, says Peskanov. “People are used to just showing up, and there is something going on. Some artists – not all of them very well known to the public – perform many times during a season; the choice of programming informs the choices of artists, and vice versa”.
Above all, the series strives to be inclusive. Kids come free, and at $35 a ticket per adult, some families bring many, and come often. “We remain a venue with a friendly, family-style character. When you arrive late for a performance, because the weather is bad, you are not going to stay outside in the rain.”
For a long time, Bargemusic was not even set up to accept credit cards, let alone online booking. All reservations were handled the old-fashioned way – by phone. “We are in the process of adapting, technology-wise”, Peskanov promises.
Word about Bargemusic is spreading, even without a lot of advertising. “Our artists are of a certain level, and we do want to make them happy. It is the personal approach that is really special. I work closely with the artists, and often perform together with them. Many are good friends and acquaintances of mine, and I share my own experiences as a musician. Everything I do is informed by that. I played in many different concert halls, and with many illustrious artists … music is a gift to express.” When talking about his responsibility towards younger performers, Peskanov is taking a page out of the book of Isaac Stern, whom he performed with himself and not only admires as a great artist, but also as a great educator. “The best way to learn is to be on stage. Anything can happen”.
There are few institutions in America with a richer history than the University of Michigan School of Music, Theater and Dance and the composition department there has a particularly impressive tradition. With past and present faculty and students including Michael Daugherty, Bright Sheng, William Bolcom and George Crumb, UM composers have had a hand in much of contemporary American music history including the homegrown Once Festival and other movements such as Bang on a Can. Moreover, with alumni currently holding faculty positions at premiere music schools across the country (including UM), it seems safe to say that – despite the impossibility of pinpointing the best composition department in the country – Michigan’s legacy is gilded with rare prestige.
I am not here to sell the UM to Sequenza 21 readers, but Michigan’s reputation in composition is a quietly held secret, becoming increasingly obscured in recent decades as the landscape of American music education gained more parity. The test of time proves Michigan is neither an aging dinosaur nor a flash in the pan, and my experience here – though a brief three weeks – has evinced further proof that the UM’s prowess in music is no accident.
With all this pomp, you may think the UM has cast a spell on me, but that is not the case. Just like any other music school, Michigan has limitations and specialties, but its environment is very special. Ann Arbor is extraordinarily supportive of the arts, particularly in relation to its population (114, 024), and in the last week I have gone to four remarkably well-attended concerts, namely because three featured contemporary compositions.
The first concert offered a selection of French organ and harpsichord music from the late 17th and early 18th century, which was followed later that evening by the Michigan Chamber Players’ performance of two homegrown compositions: Andrew Bishop’s The Juke Joints in Burgundy (Blues in Burgundy) and Paul Schoenfield’s Ghetto Songs. The former was an exercise in timbre (scored for flute, harp and contrabass) and merging diverse influences. As Bishop explained in his program note, Juke Joints alludes to various French musical sources, but has a clear jazz orientation and climaxes with an extended jam between the three players. Ghetto Songs was decidedly more serious in tone, setting holocaust-era Yiddish poetry in a tastefully versatile musical landscape, which was at once evocative, suspenseful and somber.
To have Schoenfield and Bishop’s compositions featured on a Michigan Chamber Players concert is not unusual because both are faculty members at the UM School of Music. More remarkable is that Juke Joints and Ghetto Songs shared the stage with Charles Martin Loeffler’s Two Rhapsodies for Oboe, Viola and Piano (1905) and Johannes Brahms’ Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano (1891). Perhaps in larger cities, classic repertoire is frequently juxtaposed with contemporary music, but one can’t forget we are in Ann Arbor, MI with just over 100,000 residents. Moreover, two orchestra concerts from this last weekend also programmed recent compositions along side more standard pieces. Coming from my undergraduate in Houston, a city of more than 2,000,000 with an orchestra whose 2010-2011 season’s most recently written offering is Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, I am stunned in the best way possible that the Ann Arbor community so enthusiastically receives modern music.
Of course, cultural centers like Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago can provide similar experiences for young, learning composers. But, there is one thing Ann Arbor has that most other places don’t: pride in their own. As cheesy as this sounds, I think it lies at the heart of the community’s receptive attitude towards a repertoire other audiences would scoff at. As evidence I give you Sunday’s Ann Arbor Symphony concert so-called “Made in Michigan”. Here, Shostakovich and Saint-Saens sat second fiddle to Bill Bolcom, William Albright and Michael Daugherty and – with the help of command performances like flautist Amy Porter’s delivery of Daugherty’s concerto, Trail of Tears – the audience received their music with respectful avidity. Two nights prior, I witnessed an astounding display of the Ann Arbor community’s musical perspicacity as they recognized the high quality with which the University Symphony Orchestra performed Chen Yi’s Percussion Concerto and were not fooled by the familiarity of Berlioz’s Roman Carnival and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, both of which were not performed as well, and the audience’s reaction reflected the difference.
I am sure, by now, you are all wondering why this makes Ann Arbor a special place. The University of Michigan is like a jewel to the state, and its products, whether football or composers are always treated with respect by the Michigan community. The ability to hear a wide range of music on a regular basis is, by itself, no special quality, but when paired with the intimacy of Ann Arbor, the cultural environment of the University of Michigan becomes rather extraordinary. At worst, Ann Arbor is a close second to the country’s brightest cultural hotspots, but I imagine these locales don’t deliver the same nourishment of a tight-knit and supportive intellectual ecosystem. Again, I do not think this makes Michigan any better than the other places a composer can get an education these days, but it provides a rare platform for any young musicians burgeoning talents. I look forward to reporting more about his exceptional dot on the American musical map as my time here progresses.
It looks like this year will be even more delicious than last year with more performances, more baked goods, and a silent auction. All of the ensembles with tables have been invited to offer special items for auction (with all the money going directly to the ensemble); look for updates to the auction items here. Want a piano lesson with Kathy Supové or a custom album written and recorded just for you by Loadbang? The silent auction is where you’ll have the chance.
I said it last year, and I’ll say it again: even if you don’t care for all the music, it’s hard to deny the sense of community from having so many different groups all in the same room – we are all in this together! Tip of the hat to Newspeak, Ensemble de Sade, and the Exapno New Music Center for making it happen.
Finally, I’m not totally sure if you can still reserve a table as an ensemble, but if you are interested I would ask. If you are interested in helping out I’m sure they would love to hear from you as well: firstname.lastname@example.org
New Music, Beer, and Cookies. Seriously, what else could you possible ask for?!
In this space just a year ago we told you about Asphalt Orchestra‘s Lincoln Center Out of Doors hit-the-streets, in-you-face debut last summer. Well, what a year they’ve had! In August they performed during lunchtime at Philadelphiaʼs 30th Street Amtrak Station; it’s a testament to the band’s transcendence of genre that The Philadelphia Inquirer named that show one of the 10 Best Classical Performances of 2009, even though it took place in a train station and featured almost no classical music! In late 2009 the band was selected to play the official opening of Lincoln Centerʼs newest space, the David Rubenstein Atrium, and garnered even more critical hoo-hahs. Their ever-changing set list now includes commissions from Tyondai Braxton of Battles, Stew and Heidi Rodewald of The Negro Problem and Passing Strange, celebrated Balkan musician-composer Goran Bregovic, as well as new arrangements of Björk, jazz legend Charles Mingus, Swedish metal pioneers Meshuggah, the eminent American experimental composers Conlon Nancarrow and Frank Zappa, the playful Brazilian songwriter Tom Ze and the iconic Zimbabwean artist Thomas Mapfumo.
AO brings together some of the best rock, jazz and classical musicians in New York City and beyond: Jessica Schmitz (piccolo), Ken Thomson (saxophone), Peter Hess (saxophone), Alex Hamlin (saxophone), Shane Endsley (trumpet), Stephanie Richards (trumpet), Alan Ferber (trombone), Jen Baker (trombone), Kenneth Bentley (sousaphone), Yuri Yamashita (percussion), Sunny Jain (percussion) and Nick Jenkins (percussion). Is it classical? Yes. Is it rock, prog, jazz, world-party street band? Yes. Is it useless to try and pigeonhole this vital bridge between the arty and the party? Yes.
Among their here-there-and-everywhere, they’ll be premiering new commissions by David Byrne and Annie Clark, and Yoko Ono (they’ve been rehearsing with both Ono and Byrne the past weeks). If that weren’t enough, following their own set on August 5th they’ll be featured in the Taylor 2 performance of Paul Taylor’s piece “3 Epitaphs,” in celebration of Taylor’s 80th birthday. Appearing with the company’s dancers, the band will premiere new arrangements of pieces originally played by the Laneville-Johnson Union Brass Band.
But wait, there’s still more! AO’s eponymous first CD on Cantaloupe Music just dropped today, allowing happy listeners around the world to hear much of this music. The recording was made live-in-studio at Water Music Studios, Hoboken, NJ, in August 2009; here’s the tracklist:
1. Frank Zappa: Zomby Woof
2. Goran Bregovic: Champagne
3. Charles Mingus: The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers (arr. Jose Davila)
4. Meshuggah: Electric Red (arr. Derek Johnson)
5. Bjork: Hyperballad (arr. Alan Ferber)
6. Stew and Heidi Rodewald: Carlton
7. Tyondai Braxton: Pulse March