Two of my colleagues gave a joint seminar on Friday, each discussing a piece that was premiered last year, each piece a reflection on the concerto tradition.
Michael Rothkopf went first, with a presentation on Gitanjali for flute and computer. Michael has been working for years with interactive electronics, music in which a computer responds in real time to decisions made by a live performer. One of the challenges, he said, of working with this medium is the fact that one cannot really get a sense of the range of possible responses (by the computer) without listening to multiple performances. That’s where the concerto tradition came in. Adapting the 18th-century concerto first-movement form, with a double exposition, gave him an opportunity to run through the same material twice, each time getting different results from the computerized interaction. In each exposition, the flute plays the same rhythms, but with different notes, reminiscent of the way Bach brings back the opening rhythmic scheme with completely different notes in a number of works (see, for example, the Sarabande from the d minor French Suite). The rhythmic consistency in the flute anchors the disparate responses of the computerized interaction.
Then Kenneth Frazelle spoke about his Triple Concerto for violin, cello and piano with orchestra. Ken began the process of writing this piece, as he frequently does, by listening to as many works for this medium as he could get his hands on, noting how various composers from the past have handled the ensemble. Rather than strictly treating the trio as a set group vs. the orchestra, he settled on a three-movement form, designating a lead soloist for each movement: the piano begins the piece with an emphatic call to arms (and fingers), the cello leads the soulful variations of the second movement, and the third movement features the light-hearted antics of the violin.
I hope all of our students spend the rest of their lives writing exactly the music they want to write, and the music they want to hear. But I couldn’t help noting, after experiencing these two dramatically different compositions, how many of the performances one gets come from this old impetus: performer says “write me a piece,” and composer responds with music that somehow showcases the performer’s gifts: the concerto tradition. It’s a beautiful relationship, and these two works presented wonderful examples for young composers, the challenge of giving voice to another, or speaking with someone else’s voice, always conveying one’s own ideas, yet tailoring those ideas in a way that gracefully defers to the strengths of the collaborator.