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“For me the only new music would be music that a composer of genius successfully created on the periphery of all the movements of our time and in the face of all current slogans and manifestos. Generally speaking, whatever the intellectual movements in force, not enough attention is paid to matters of temperament and originality…” –Henri Dutilleux

On 22 April, the newly established Ensemble: périphérie will begin its inaugural tour. The ensemble’s mission is to promote contemporary music by presenting stimulating and inspiring concerts of new chamber works, by commissioning new works from both emerging and established composers, and by inviting audiences to join us in recognizing great art of our time. One of the primary goals of E:p is to bring greater exposure to composers and works that are underperformed and neglected—that is, music that lies on the periphery.

From our “Call for Scores,” we received over 130 high-quality submissions and selected the following composers for performance: David Smooke, Philippe Bodin, Mike Barnett, and Mark Zuckerman.  We also commissioned a new work by German composer Klaus Hübler, and will perform works by Russian composer Irina Dubkova, and German composer Robert H. P. Platz, one of our advisory board members.

If you are in the area, please come to one of our upcoming performances:

22 April at 7:00 pm – Daehler-Kitchin Auditorium, Coe College, Cedar Rapids, IA

24 April at 7:30 pm – Riverside Recital Hall, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, hosted by the Center for New Music

25 April at 7:30 pm – University of Minnesota, Morris

Please also check our website for more information, and for audio excerpts of the works performed (coming soon).

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Photo by David Regen

Below is information about a spectacular performance installation in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC.  An interview with Amir Khosrowpour, one of the participating pianists, will be forthcoming.

Performance 9: Allora & Calzadilla
at The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street New York, NY 10019
The Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium, second floor
December 8, 2010 – January 10, 2011

Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on Ode to Joy, No. 1, modified Bechstein piano, 40 x 65 x 84 5/8 inches.

For the ninth installment of the Performance Exhibition Series, the artists Jennifer Allora (b. 1974) and Guillermo Calzadilla (b. 1971) present Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on Ode to Joy for a Prepared Piano (2008). For this piece, the artists carved a hole in the center of a grand piano, through which a pianist plays the famous Fourth Movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, usually referred to as “Ode to Joy.” The performer leans over the keyboard and plays upside down and backwards, while moving with the piano across the vast atrium. The result is a structurally incomplete version of the ode—the hole in the piano renders two octaves inoperative—that fundamentally transforms both the player/instrument dynamic and the signature melody, underlining the contradictions and ambiguities of a song that has long been invoked as a symbol of humanist values and national pride.

Organized by Klaus Biesenbach, MoMA Chief Curator at Large and Director, MoMA PS1; and Jenny Schlenzka, Assistant Curator for Performance, Department of Media and Performance Art.

Performances take place hourly, starting at 11:30 a.m., every day the museum is open.

Here are articles from the NYTimes, and NYC Culture, as well as a NYTimes Video.

Happy Holidays!

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The Composer’s Experience

As a 2010 recipient of the Aaron Copland Award, I have the honor and priveldge of inhabiting Aaron Copland’s former New York residence, in Cortlandt Manor, NY. Surrounded by Copland’s scores, recordings, and memorabilia, I am beginning to get a sense of the man – the person behind the historical figure. Among his many personal items, which are on display throughout the house, is a series of four handwritten pages, numbered sequentially, titled: The Composer’s Experience. I am told by the administrative assistant in the next building that they are lecture notes, from a series of talks Copland gave in the 1960‘s. Protected under glass in the living room, one has difficulty reading the faded penmanship, but through concentrated effort, the majority can be deciphered. At the top of the first page are several statements that outline the opening of his lesson. One in particular caught my attention:

What it feels like to be a serious composer, especially in an industrial community like America.

Page 1 of Copland's notes (used with permission of the Copland House)

The statement is one that I believe many American composers have struggled with at one time or another. How do we as artists express ourselves in a community which has very little tradition in a mechanico-scientific age, particularly when compared to the rich traditions of Europe.1 Although I believe that the tenor of today is no longer considered “industrial” per se, it is an age of technology, which contains therein the same societal predispositions as those during Copland’s early – mid career. Our culture is one that focuses, primarily, on “industry.” We owe a lot to industry of course, for without it, our country would not be where it is today; however, there must also be room in every society for the arts, and the irrevocable connection with the creative artist. Copland felt, and I agree, that there is an absolute need to produce creative artists as they give substance and meaning to ‘la condition humaine.’ 2

Copland believed that the dilemma of the composer, as indicated in his notes, is that the average citizen has no real concept of creative activity, and that this was evidenced in the fact that American culture placed emphasis on the possession and reproduction of the finest.3 Of course, “the finest reproduction” is also synonymous with “the best copy.” Furthermore, one can extrapolate from that statement that the average citizen has/had little interest in the creative individual.

Faced with this knowledge, how do we emerge as artists in an environment that perpetuates sameness, and a lack of interest in artistry? – Where the vast majority of people would rather listen to Brittany Spears’ latest rearrangement of her previous album (a rearrangement itself), than to invoke the ability to actively listen, and in turn, find something truly profound and meaningful in the work of Copland’s so-called serious artist?

My own experience proves that even in a non-artistic environment the drive towards cultural expression is strong.4

Page 2 of Copland's notes. (Used with the permission of the Copland House)

What Copland suggests is, that if one struggles hard, and long enough, the drive, and need, to find the truth – defined as the undeniable, distinctive, inner voice of the creative individual – in one’s art, outweighs the prevailing societal mentality. For Copland, he was attempting to define what American music was, during a time, when there really was no musical identity for America, in particular when compared to the long history and traditions found in Europe, and as seen from the larger, global musical community, as evidenced below.

a)The trend towards Europe
b) The trend towards originality
c) The preoccupation with Americanism
1)  America as seen from Europe
2) Previous attempts at Americanism in music 5

Today, we have the luxury of clarifying our musical personas because of what Copland, and others, did to define the “American style” of what he called serious music. The irony is that while we now have the luxury of openly creating our own musical identity, we grapple with a community that cares mostly for conformity. Alex Ross recently wrote an article entitled: Why Do We Hate Modern Classical Music? The article can be read here:

Ross highlights some recent proponents of modern classical music who have met with an interested and mostly enthusiastic public. Perhaps we are on the verge of the next big evolution in American serious music (however we define that term), and perhaps soon, we will see a more edified public, a more willing and open-minded audience.

It is likewise reassuring to see the malagrugrous endeavors of one who helped to define an era of music, and to know that perhaps our own equally demanding efforts are not in vain. I will leave you with one final quote, from Copland’s Autobiography, which rests on the shelf in his former studio:

The fact is that the creative artist is a kind of gambler, since there are no guarantees of success. Yet, every true artist has a sense of the importance of his or her own contribution, if only because the artist knows in his deepest innards that only the individual can conceive what he or she alone can create…

…the truth is out there.

1. Outline, page 1.

2. Page 1.

3. Page 1.

4. Outline, page 2.

5. Page 2.

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Friday night I attended a Contact! series concert presented by ensembles of the New York Philharmonic in Symphony Space. The program consisted of a world premiere by Magnus Lindberg, the Marie-Josee Kravis Composer-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic, and Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil by Gerard Grisey. I was completely encouraged by the event.

The Contact! series was devised as a way for audiences to connect with composers and music of our time, and is precisely the type of event that contemporary music needs. Hosted by WNYC’s John Schaefer, the concert began with an informal discussion of Lindberg’s new work, Souvenir, and how the work was related to the music of Grisey. Lindberg stated that primarily his piece was inspired by the compositional philosophy of Grisey’s so-called spectralism, a self-imposed label by Grisey, which he later lamented.

Souvenir, atypical of Lindberg’s output in that the work consists of three movements, rather than a one-movement sectional form, was presented flawlessly. Written for a full orchestral complement, one instrument per part (except for two horns), the work was a dazzling display of an affluent orchestrational technique, save for a few moments where the strings were drowned out by the winds, brass, and percussion. The work exhibited a vast palate of color, as one expects in Lindberg’s music, and clear architectonic pillars, reached mellifluously through linear melodic cells which culminated in constellations of sound. My one regret is that the piece lacked the feral vibrance that his earlier music so eloquently maintained, although there is no doubt that Souvenir was still a clear statement in Lindberg’s unique compositional voice.

The second half of the program was a presentation of Grisey’s Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil. Gilbert gave a very frank description of the piece: There are moments that are quite boring, but these moments are important because they allow the climactic gestures more space, more room to breathe. I found this a refreshing and honest description, particularly coming from a conductor, whose concerns are usually politically driven toward “pleasing the crowd.” It was further evidence of a desire to “teach” and “connect” with the audience on a musical, and yet less formalistic, level. There were no apologies, and no unnecessary compositional descriptions. Gilbert made a point of stating that Grisey’s compositional system was as unimportant as Mozart’s. It was a simple dialogue which resulted in the following outcomes: (1) Here is the piece.  (2) Here are some elements which you may find interesting.  (3) Don’t bore yourself with the details, and simply allow yourself to experience the work. The listeners were encouraged to meet the music on the terms of the individual composition. The performance was superb, and Barbara Hannigan is an absolutely amazing soprano and musician.

In my opinion, this concert is a perfect example of why contemporary music needs to be heard live. Yes, recordings are great, and once a friend told me that: “a performance doesn’t matter – it comes and just as quickly, is gone. A good recording is most important.” While I agree that a great recording is a wonderful way to preserve a performance, and is great to use for festival applications, etc., it is not a substitute for the living organism that is a live musical performance. Connecting with audiences is of the utmost importance; And I do not mean that one must prescribe to a particular aesthetic to connect, but rather one must physically connect with audiences. In the concert halls of Europe during the classical era, and the salons of the Romantic era, the composers were present – and the audience was not primarily an audience of other composers. It was an audience of people; curious and active listeners. For me the proof that “contact” had been made were statements made by the audience attendees sitting to my immediate left and right. The lady on my left, who was clearly around when the Declaration of Independence was signed, looked at me after the Grisey and said: “I really want to hear that again. In a better space, like Carnegie Hall.” The young lady to my right, who is also the director of the Japanese Culture Center in NY, and was not a trained musician stated: “Wow! I have never heard anything like that. It was incredible!”

Too often, listeners complain of bad encounters with new music because they go into a concert with a certain expectation. I often encourage listeners to attend concerts of new music with open ears – “Don’t expect anything. Keep your mind open to the possibility that you may hear something outside of the realm of your normal perspective. Then, active listening can occur.” This is precisely the atmosphere of the Contact! series.

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Last May I began my monthly task of searching for composition competitions, calls for scores, etc., and came upon the Indianapolis Composition Competition.  I noted the substantial cash award, plus the performance by the ICO as part of Indiana State University’s 44th Contemporary Music Festival.  The announcement stated that:

The Indiana State University Contemporary Music Festival/Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra Composition Competition was established to recognize outstanding composers of orchestral music. In addition to a monetary prize, the composer receiving first place will be invited to attend a performance of the winning composition by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra as part of the Festival’s activities. The winner also will be invited to speak at the Festival on a topic relating to his or her music. Other guests featured at the three-day Festival include the Principal Guest Composer, Gabriela Lena Frank, guest pianist Michael Kirkendoll, guest scholars, and composers participating in the Music Now concert. Since its beginning, more than 200 established and emerging composers—including eighteen winners of the Pulitzer Prize and five winners of the Grawemeyer Award—have participated in the Festival.

My immediate reaction (particularly to the bolded sentence) was “Ok, Joe, you have 0.01% chance of even being seriously considered. Is it really worth the time and $20 entry fee?”  I pondered my options for a bit and came to the conclusion, that yes, it was worth the time and entry fee, because if I did NOT enter, then I had a 0.0% chance of obtaining anything.  So, I entered, and had completely forgotten about the competition until I received an email and letter last week stating that I had, in fact, won the award.  I was stunned.  OK – now what?

I contacted the hosts and awarding organization and thanked them for the award, and told them that I was honored and happy to accept.  They said “Great!  Now send us the parts!”  I responded, “OK, I will!”  I hung up.  Then a sense of dread immediately ensued – I was planning to make some minor revisions to the piece following its premiere in April 2010 and I had not yet done so.  I reminded myself to stay calm, clear my mind, and then I set to work.  I finished the revisions in a couple of afternoons, and am now preparing the parts.

Now that the initial shock of winning the award and the stages of hurried preparations are behind me, I reflected upon my initial thought – not to enter – and must laugh a bit at myself.  Had I not entered, I would not have won.  My advice to all of the “young and emerging composers?”  Enter every competition you can.  If you do not have a piece that fits the instrumentation, then take a year and write one for the next year’s competition (if it is annual).  I am not suggesting that composers should “dive-bomb” every competition, rather we should take the time to search for competitions and calls for scores (I do this once every month), mark the competitions that we feel are important, and work diligently toward our goals.  We are the best arbiters of our music.  If we do not make the effort, who will?

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[Ed. note -- please welcome a new contributor to S21, composer Joseph Dangerfield.  As a Fulbright Scholar, Joe spent time at both the Moscow Conservatory and Maastricht Conservatorium, and is currently Assistant Professor at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.]

..       ..       ..       ..

The act of composition, by which I mean the act of artistic creation, is, in reality, very private.  We all have private thoughts and ideas, some of which we share with others; some we keep to ourselves.  During the conception of those ideas, do we share our train of thought with others?  I would say, not typically.  So, why was I worrying about what an audience might think of a piece that I had not yet written?  Upon careful reflection of the question, my answer astounded me: I considered the audience in the early stages of my work because the academic environment in which I was typically surrounded virtually demanded it.  In other words, I felt the subconscious need to “please” the local academy with my work, for various reasons.  While lecturing and composing on a Fulbright Grant in Europe (2009-10), I felt no need to consider the academy, the audience, even in a peripheral sense, or anyone else.  I was able to focus on my musical and artistic intentions, and compose while thinking only of myself and the performers for whom I was writing.  The end result was a piece that I am very proud of, which received an exceptional performance, and an outstanding response from the audience.

While abroad, I also did a lot of reading, which I normally cannot find the time to do in the typical academic year. However, the most engaging book I encountered this year was Glenn Watkins’, The Gesualdo Hex.  One of the passages that I found particularly enlightening, with regard to my current quandary, was about composers and serialism, and how the discussion about the merits of such a doctrinaire system ensued during the 1950′s and 60′s.

Watkins begins by stating that Schoenberg, after the period of composition for which he was strictly “serial,” became less interested in allowing the system to control what he wrote, referencing Schoenberg’s late style, and his lengthy correspondence with Leibowitz.[1] The communications between them are quite telling, and give an excellent insight into Schoenberg and his music.  Watkins further provides evidence that Boulez was only interested in strict serialism for approximately two years (1950-52), following which he warned composers against such ” arithmetic masturbation.”[2] Berio eventually also agreed with this statement saying that serialism lead to a “tendency to deal with formalities rather than substance.”[3] Watkins goes on to state that according to William Bolcom, “Milton Babbitt’s scientism in the United States came from a different perspective that ultimately congealed in the university composer, who was challenged to provide an intellectual cachet to match that of engineering, philosophy, or science departments.” Watkins further quotes Bolcom: “Composition had to become ‘intellectually respectable’…and serialism felt like science.”[4] Watkins concludes by providing other examples of composers who went through a window of system-controlled composition to find their unique voice.  One element that appears to be consistent is that each composer at one point determined that a system was not a replacement for artistic creativity, rather it was one useful tool that could be changed and manipulated to meet one’s artistic needs.

Obviously, there are a lot of similarities between Watkins’ statements and the internal debate that I was having, which led me to the following questions:

1)    Are we as composers, today, pressured to write in a particular way or ‘style’ that is perpetuated by the academy, our teachers, or even the audience?

2)    If so, how do we overcome the pressure, use what we find relevant, and set out to create an art that is uniquely our own?

Now before you say: “Yes, yes, Joe.  We are well aware that serialism can be arithmetically stifling,” I want to point out that the most interesting part of my current conundrum is that the pressure that I feel at home is not to write music of the so-called avant-garde, which I like, but to write more conservative music.  At the college where I am currently an assistant professor, concerts of contemporary music receive an audience of maybe twenty; most of them begrudging students that are there to meet specific course requirements.  I am told that is because it is a “conservative community,” and no one is interested in and/or understands new music.  That statement concerns me as an educator; others are willing to simply allow that moniker to be the reason for not trying to expand the community’s understanding of ‘music as art.’  For instance, while living in Cologne, Germany last year, I worked with German composer/conductor Robert H.P. Platz, a protégé of Karlheinz Stockhausen.  The city of Cologne is a beacon for contemporary music.  There are concerts presented daily, and usually, to full halls.  Robert and I had several discussions about music, modernity, and how fortunate he was to reside in such a place.  He told me that “Cologne was not always a center for new music – It is so now due to the forty years that Stockhausen worked to educate the public.  He also invited innumerable composers to Cologne for concerts, thereby exposing everyone to a variety of new music.  Now there is a network in Cologne that is sustainable.” 

I had a similar experience working at the Moscow Conservatory with Ukrainian-born Russian composer Vladimir Tarnopolski and the Ensemble Studio New Music.  Tarnopolski, now a professor of composition at the conservatory, was once a student of Edison Denisov.  After Denisov’s departure from Moscow to Paris, due to the stifling atmosphere created by the totalitarian regime, Tarnopolski worked tirelessly to bring contemporary music to the forefront of the Russian consciousness; A difficult task following the Soviet era.  In 1989, he initiated the Association of Contemporary Music in Moscow.  In 1993, he formed the Centre for Contemporary Music in Moscow, and its premiere ensemble, the Ensemble Studio New Music.  The conservatory even created a special department to house the centre and the ensemble.  In 1994 Tarnopolski began an annual festival of international music called the Moscow Forum, the main focus of which is the integration of Eastern European contemporary music with contemporary music from Western countries.  What began as a single-minded effort is now a tireless force.  The Centre, its ensemble, and the festival all enjoy enormous success, and perform works by some of today’s most interesting and vibrant composers.

Now that I am back in America, I have renewed hope and vigor, and a healthy dose of self-confidence, which I believe I allowed to wane over the past few years.  A colleague and I have formed a new ensemble, called ensemble: Périphérie, whose mission is to promote contemporary music by presenting stimulating and inspiring concerts of new chamber works, by commissioning new works from both emerging and established composers, and by inviting audiences to join us in recognizing great art of our time. One of the primary goals of ensemble: Périphérie is to bring greater exposure to composers and works that are underperformed and neglected–that is, music that lies on the periphery.  Our hope is, that with time and effort, we will be able to help bring contemporary music to the forefront of American culture, in the same way that contemporary art has enjoyed prominence here. 

for more information about ensemble: Périphérie, please visit our website: http://www.ensembleperipherie.com/Index.htm  for more information on Joseph Dangerfield, please visit: http://www.josephdangerfield.com/index3.html or his blog: http://domainemusical.wordpress.com/

[1] Glenn Watkins, The Gesualdo Hex, (Norton, 2010), p. 125-128.

[2] Michael Hicks, “Exorcism and Epiphany: Luciano Berio’s Nones,” Perspectives of New Music 27 (1989): 254.

[3] Luciano Berio, “Meditation on a Twelve-Tone Horse,” Christian Science Monitor, 15 July 1968.

[4] Watkins, The Gesualdo Hex, (Norton, 2010), p. 125.

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