Archive for the “Contemporary Classical Music” Category

Too long has music been subject to the limitations of the human hand,
and subject as well to the interfering interpretations of a middle-man:
the performer.  A composer wants to speak to his public direct.  Machines (if properly constructed and properly written for) are capable of niceties of emotional expression impossible to a human performer.

I came across the above statement from Percy Grainger (quoted in Richard Taruskin’s monumental Oxford History of Western Music [volume 5: The Late Twentieth Century]) while preparing a lecture this week on the impact of electronic music in 20th century music.  I myself have never been much of a practitioner of electroacoustic composition, although I have done some tinkering around studios during my student years, but I have a number of friends and colleagues who are incredibly passionate about electronic music.  What none of them share, however, is a sense that the inabilities of performers drives them into the computer music studio (most of these composers — people like Alexandra Gardner, Evan Chambers, Daniel Eichenbaum, Sam Pellman, Steven Gorbos, and many others — in fact are quite adept and comfortable writing for live performers as they are working in the computer studio).

I understand the historical context in which Grainger made this statement.  The first half of the 20th century was a time rife with musical experimentation and a very real sense—one that still permeates some musicological circles—that a drastic break from past practice had been accomplished.  This sense of giddy experimentation was accompanied by growing frustration from composers at the inability of certain performers to adequately realize the sounds these men and, increasingly, women were envisioning, particularly in the area of rhythm.   Composers as diverse as John Cage, Edgard Varèse, Conlon Nancarrow and, as we’ve seen, Percy Grainger, were driven to reveries in which they imagined a music made entirely through mechanical means.  Varèse realized this vision in a justly famous composition, Poème Électronique, but had to wait almost two decades before the technology existed to create this work.  Nancarrow, dissatisfied with the abilities of performers to realize his mathematically complex rhythmic relationships retreated musically into the pre-electronic automata of the pianola or player piano (much as his political views forced him into exile in Mexico shortly after his return from fighting in the Spanish Civil War).  Neither Varèse nor Nancarrow, however, ultimately rejected live performance; Varèse continuing to compose for combined instrumental and electronic forces into the 1950s and Nancarrow lived long enough to see and work with performers who had developed the technique to realize many of his player piano Studies on the standard concert grand as well as in transcriptions for large ensembles.

Why do I ramble like this?  Well, to me the relationship between a composer and a performer is one of the most rewarding professional relationships one can have.  Not only that, for a working composer it is simply essential to develop strong relationships with performers, who, other than the composer him/herself is the strongest advocate for a work or even a body of work.  Not only that, but to read such a thought from Grainger, who aside from being a composer (known primarily today for infectious and extremely charming and clever music for wind ensemble, much of it utilizing folk music from the British isles) was quite accomplished as a pianist is surprising and a bit shocking.  It made me wonder, also: are such views prevalent among any composers working today?  Are any of you fellow composers out there dissatisfied with the level of performance available to you (or perhaps it is simply the unavailability of performance outlets) and thus driven toward electroacoustic composition not for the compositional possibilities and expanded palette such electronic tools present but because, quite simply, electronic realization is the best performance you dream about?

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[Ed. -- An early joiner at s21, composer Armando Bayolo has been off on his own personal career adventure for a while now. Firmly planted in Washington D.C., teaching and running his own ensemble, we asked if he'd like to share some of his recent experiences, and maybe give us an occasional D.C. update.  Armando has kindly penned this introduction:]

I am a composer.

That doesn’t mean what it used to mean, however.  Webster’s Online defines “composer” as “one that composes; especially: a person who writes music.”  This is certainly true; a composer writes music.  But a composer, at least if  s/he expects to have anything like a career as a composer, is often, if not always, forced to be many things.

What are we as composers?  Besides writing music — which is the central and most important activity to my own work as a musician — I teach music theory at one of the east coast’s oldest conservatories, I am (or was, as this activity has unfortunately taken a back seat recently) a pianist, a conductor, a writer and impresario.  I have also had to take on a role as a manager and publisher for my own work (If I am not for myself, as Rabbi Hillel said, who will be for me?).  This is nothing new, of course, as composers going back at least as far as Beethoven complained about all of the activities essential to being allowed to make music for a living that inherently get in the way of the process of making music (and this is certainly not exclusive to composers!). One role that is perhaps less common which I’ve undertaken in the last five years is that of advocate for other composers through my work as conductor and Artistic Director of Great Noise Ensemble.

In 2005 I found myself at a bit of a crossroads.  Throughout my student years I expected my career to follow the more typical route of settling into an academic position after finishing my graduate studies.  After a brief stint as a visiting professor in Portland, Oregon, and thanks to various factors finding myself without a regular teaching job, my family and I resettled in suburban Washington, D.C. where my wife grew up.  The early years before the move weren’t unproductive, but they were a critical and difficult time — a time, I now know, which every creative artist faces at one point or another.  In my case I realized that, rather than waiting to see “where I would land”, I’d try founding a new music ensemble (something I’d been wanting to do since graduate school) within the context of an academic program. Why not look for like-minded people in the area, see if we could put together some concerts and see where that would take us?

In the summer of 2005 I placed a classified ad on Craigslist.com with a sort of loose vision, a list of composers I would like to perform (Andriessen, Adams, Ligeti, etc.) and the idea that we should treat it a bit as a garage band and see where it would take us.  About seven people answered that ad, of which about four or five came to the informational meeting a month later… Except that those four people had spread the word and brought friends, so we had more like nine people at the first meeting.  The same thing happened at the next meeting and, in the end, we ended up with a full sinfonietta of about 16 instrumentalists plus two singers.

Great Noise Ensemble is about to wrap up its fifth season on April 30.  Our sixth season begins in October with the most ambitious project we have ever undertaken, a rare performance of Louis Andriessen’s 1984-88 “opera,” De Materie.  Great Noise will be the first ensemble of American professional musicians to perform this piece.  It was a dream and a hope of mine to do this piece, and, frankly, I never thought we would be in a position to perform it so early in our history.  The rest of the season will see performances of large and small works by established AND emerging composers, as well as readings of works in progress by students at the Catholic University of America (where we’ve been in residence since 2008).

Great Noise Ensemble has become as central to my work as a musician as my own composition and I see it, along with my teaching activities, as an important responsibility of being a successful American composer.  (This notion of being a successful composer is itself odd and one with which I have yet to come to terms, since success as a composer is not necessarily linked, in our world, with financial/material success.  But that is a topic for another essay.)  It is not just my music that matters.  All contemporary concert music (or art music; I don’t like the label “classical” and, while I’ve been lumped within the “alt-classical” movement by certain critics, I’m not 100% comfortable with that term either) is important.  It reflects the soul of our nation, even while remaining largely hidden behind much more commercially viable musics.  Composers (and performers) are all in this together.

I see my role in American music, such as it is, as being similar to a guerrilla fighter.  I operate under the radar, merging between concerts with the (academic) mainstream only to emerge, every six weeks or so, to strike another salvo on behalf of contemporary art music.  In this small way I hope to be part of the change I see happening (that must happen if our musical institutions are to survive) in American concert music every day.  And so I co-opt a phrase from one of recent history’s most polemically polarizing figures when I say, “hasta la victoria, siempre!”

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One of our most spiritedly discussed posts in recent memory raised the issues of composition competitions and application fees.

While a wide range of opinions were expressed, one consistent issue raised was the necessity for composers to invest their resources wisely in profile-building activities. Here in the forum, let’s talk shop about this. Which activities are most important for composers to pursue: competitions, festivals, recordings, publications, etc.?

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What are the trends you see in contemporary classical today that are most salutary, hopeful or, conversely, most in need of remediation? Are there ways in which the Sequenza 21 community can work to address them?

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Accessible Contemporary Music is a non-profit group out of Chicago. Their goal?

It is our artistic mission to promote the performance and understanding of contemporary music, especially the music of living composers. We have as our target audience both those already acquainted with contemporary music and those who may not even realize that there are people still composing concert music today.

To that end they run a very nice concert series, all kinds of classes and workshops, and what I want to tell you about, namely the Weekly Reading series beginning again this November:

Weekly Readings was begun in the 2004-2005 season to address the growing number of composers who find themselves without available professionals to read and perform their music. Each week members of ACM and professional guest musicians from the Chicago area meet and conduct a prepared reading of a different new piece of music by a living composer who has submitted a piece to us specifically for this project.

Not only does the piece get read and performed at the series, each piece will also receive consideration for a future ACM concert. And for $10 they can get you a CD of the reading, too. Follow the link for the complete description and guidelines.

Seems to me that this is a great idea, and a real boon for a lot of composers out there without players at your beck & call. Writing music is fine, but the reality of what you’re writing doesn’t happen until you actually hear those dots, blobs and scratches in the hands of real performers. Kudos to ACM!

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Jim Sector over at the Albany Symphony told me about competition kicking off just now, that some of you might be game for:

The Albany Symphony Orchestra (ASO) is proud to announce the orchestra’s first young composer competition: the “Composer to Center Stage” Reading Session. The ASO will hold an open call for scores starting on September 14th, 2009 and ending November 14th, 2009, available nationally to young and emerging composers looking to refine and develop their orchestral craft. From the pool of applicants, three composers will be selected to join the ASO in March 2010 to attend an open forum, hosted by nationally-acclaimed composer John Harbison, and to attend the ASO’s March 26th concert featuring Mr. Harbison’s music. In May, these finalists will be brought back during the orchestra’s annual American Music Festival, where they will have their pieces read by the symphony on May 22nd, meeting again with Mr. Harbison for feedback. An honorarium will be awarded to finalists, and both travel and housing will be provided for their trips to Albany.

A few of the more important rules for this one:

- Applicant must be either a US citizen or non-citizen lawfully and permanently residing, or studying full-time, in the United States.
- There are no age restrictions; however, applicants should be composers at the early stages of their professional careers.
- Each composer may submit only one composition for consideration.
- Only works that will not have been performed or read by a professional orchestra nor received a public performance prior to the reading date are eligible.
- Only works completed within the last five years will be considered.
- Works may be up to 15 minutes in length. Sections of longer works will be considered.
- Instrumentation should not exceed ASO’s standard symphonic complement. Works with instrumentation which exceed the above will be considered only with advance approval.
- Not eligible are concertos, choral works, works with excessive electronic elements.
- Works with Electronic elements are discouraged, but will be considered on a case-bycase basis. For works with electronics, MIDI, and/or digital technologies: include a one page statement describing the rationale for its use, as well as any pertinent production requirements and technical specifications.
- If selected, composers must provide professional, legible orchestral parts and scores prepared according to guidelines established by the Major Orchestral Librarians Association.
- The quality of the score submitted is the primary evaluation criteria. It is therefore in the applicant’s best interest that the score be clear, accurate, and the best representation of the composer’s work.

If you’re interested just contact Mr. Sector at jims@albanysymphony.com, and he can send you the complete application & guidelines.

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haydnIt’s still the 200th anniversary of Franz Josef Haydn’s death, and in honor I thought I’d borrow a few words from Chris Wendt’s Haydn bio on Chris’ “Here of a Sunday Morning” website. But what I’d like you to do, is read it as if it’s being written about some “maverick” in the last 20 years — Picking up what you know outside academia, living on ramen in cheap apartments giving a couple lessons & freelance, a couple lucky connections, landing a sweet commercial gig but with a lot of dogwork, copyright violations  and pirated music that paradoxically work in your favor…

At St. Stephen’s Haydn received instruction in voice, violin, and keyboard, but little general education except for a smattering of Latin. In 1745 he was joined there by his younger brother Michael, and almost immediately the gifted younger sibling assumed the elder’s position as soloist. Passing out of the limelight probably encouraged Haydn in his natural bent for composition, but he received little help: Reutter, himself a professional composer, gave the youngster only two lessons. As Haydn’s voice changed, his position as a chorister became increasingly untenable. In late 1749 he was dismissed peremptorily over a practical joke.

Taking an attic room next door to St. Michael’s Church, he made ends meet by giving violin and keyboard lessons, working as a free-lance musician in churches, and performing in (and sometimes composing for) groups playing the open-air evening serenades so popular in Vienna. At the same time he began an intensive study of counterpoint (using the writings of Fux) and figured bass (using Mattheson). The results of his industry were clearly evident by 1751, when Pietro Metastasio, the renowned poet and architect of opera seria, engaged Haydn to tutor a gifted girl, Marianna Martines. [...In 1753] Martines began vocal studies with Nicola Porpora; through her and Metastasio, Haydn gained an entree to that famous opera composer.

Haydn proposed to serve as Porpora’s factotum in return for instruction; although this arrangement was undertaken for no more than three months, Haydn later credited Porpora with teaching him “the true fundamentals of composition.” [....]

Haydn had worked scarcely a year when the prince died on March 18, 1762. If Haydn was once again plunged into uncertainty about his future, his fears would have been dispelled quickly, for Nikolaus, brother and successor to Paul Anton, possessed an appetite for music that was, if anything, even keener than his predecessor’s. Haydn’s original contract stipulated that he report to the prince in the morning and again in the afternoon to see if music making was wanted. This arrangement probably continued with Nikolaus, whose evenings were given over to theater and music theater. Daily music making often meant accompanying the prince in divertimentos for his favored instrument, the baryton, typically in concert with viola and cello (Haydn created a repertory of at least 126 such works in the years 1765-76); it sometimes meant playing solo keyboard works. Twice a week, orchestral “academies” were held; for these Haydn could probably count on assembling, before 1776, two oboes, two horns, one bassoon, and nine strings (disposed 3-3-1-1-1), with himself the leader; trumpets and drums were added on festive occasions. [....]

In his contract of 1761 it was stipulated that Haydn “neither communicate [his] compositions to any other person, nor allow them to be copied … and not compose for any other person without the knowledge and permission of His Highness.” This injunction did little to slow the dissemination of Haydn’s works abroad. Between 1764 and 1780, 51 authentic chamber works and 43 authentic symphonies had their first publications in unauthorized editions in Paris, Amsterdam, and London. These 94 works are but the tip of an iceberg that includes pirated republications, a large number of circulating manuscript copies, and many spurious works. The extent of Haydn’s complicity in this dissemination is not known, but he cannot have been pleased to go without recompense for his labors. From this flagrant piracy two results ensued. First, in 1779 Haydn obtained from Prince Nikolaus the freedom to write for and publish with whomever he pleased. Second, by the early 1780s Haydn had become one of the best-known and most sought after composers in Europe.

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As artists in music, what are we worth? And I’m not talking about prize tagging. To put it in Frank Zappa’s words: “what can you do that’s fantastic?”

In one way or another most of us here make music, but it’s not like the only-plumber-in-town scenario. There’s an ungodly number of musicians out there (a lot of whom call themselves artists).

So what’s our worth? What is it that makes us truly stand out from each other? Is it a matter of business or a matter of art? Is it a matter of power? Are we expecting something from music or are we trying to give something to it? What should the question be, is it worth it or am I worth it?

Some of the reasons I pose these questions are:
- I try not to take art for granted.
- The evident standardization of people, even so-called artists.
- The current state of the world; a world degraded by overemphasizing economics, and which tries to heal itself exclusively through those same means.
- The current state of the place I live, the North of Mexico, where Culture (with a capital C) is literally being assassinated.
- Because I like teasing you.

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With JiB’s annual weeklong festival about halfway through already, I thought I’d suggest the festival as a topic of conversation on the composer’s forum. Who’s been to June in Buffalo and would like to share some memorable experiences?

 Here’s one I posted on my blog (www.sequenza21.com/carey) earlier this week:

 

June in Buffalo Memory: Pinch hitter

 

In 1999, I was invited to June in Buffalo for a second time. My string quartet was slated for premiere by the Cassatt Quartet: an excellent opportunity for a composer at any age, but particularly exciting for a young pup still in grad school!

The piece mixed aspects of 12-tone writing with swing-era jazz, and finding the correct balance between these two different demeanors was a tricky compositional and interpretive challenge.

Fortunately, the Cassatt members were very generous with their time. I met with them in New York City to rehearse the quartet, and things went quite well.

But when I arrived in Buffalo, I learned that their cellist had fallen ill and wouldn’t be able to play on the concert; the festival’s opener. While having any ensemble member cancel is concerning, it was particularly worrisome that the cellist was unavailable. I’d written the quartet in such a way that the cello served as the de facto “˜rhythm section’ of the piece, frequently articulating the pulse with walking bass lines.

But into the breach stepped Christopher Finckel; an excellent new music player who was also playing at the festival. Chris learned, rehearsed, and performed the quartet in one day. His pinch-hitting rescued the concert and earned a young composer’s lasting gratitude.

 

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Being myself a composer who’s worked a LOT with dancers, I can say that there’s not much more synergistic a musical experience. While the communication can sometimes be strange and strained, with mutual openess and patience all of that gives way to a work where both arts can penetrate and change the other in remarkable and surprising ways.

Composer Chris Becker (whose wonderful CD Saints and Devils got a lot of play on my stereo last year) is right now collaborating with choreographer Sasha Soreff on a piece for an upcoming performance in late June. As he works through it, Chris is going to try to blog a bit about the whole process. It promises to be an informative read, so check in there regularly.

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