In October, 2010 Great Noise Ensemble and I will be presenting the first performance by a professional American Ensemble of Louis Andriessen’s seminal work of music theater, De Materie. In the coming weeks and months until then, I hope to update you on the progress of this complex endeavor in these pages. Today, a bit of an introduction into my obsession with this piece.
I. Confessions of an Obsessive
Louis Andriessen changed my life.
Not him, personally. I’ve had very little personal contact with him, and that mostly at formal talks and the like until very recently. No, it is his work which has had a long and lasting effect on my own work as a composer. I am neither unique nor premature in this.
Still, Louis Andriessen’s music changed my life. Specifically one piece of his changed my musical outlook: De Materie (“Matter,” 1984-88).
De Materie is a two hour long work in four parts structured loosely as a choral symphony but often staged as an opera. It is very tightly constructed, with a number of pre-compositional formal/acoustic decisions informing its organization. These are numerous, and vary between each of its four parts, but there are two, basic organizational principles that bring unity to the whole: tempo is used as a structural procedure (at a ratio of 8:6:5:4) and the so-called “1-2-3-4” chord (F-B flat-C-E), which informs the harmony throughout each of De Materie’s four parts. There’s a lot more to it than that, of course (the elements of popular music included in the third part, “De Stijl,” are a big one with composers of my generation in particular), but these organizational principles showed me a way to organize large scale pieces in a logical way while still utilizing both tonal and post-tonal procedures.
I did not compose the same way after that first encounter as a graduate student. It was, in short, a revelation. I have been obsessed with this piece since then.
Now, I am not only a composer but a conductor, albeit one whose performing activities are often tied to his compositional interests. These activities, coupled with my obsession with De Materie instilled in me the desire to bring about a performance of this piece for some time. Because of its gargantuan size and the enormous forces required to perform it, De Materie is not performed very often in its totality. The first American performance of the piece did not take place until 2004 (almost 20 years after its completion) and that by the same Dutch ensemble, Schoenberg/ASKO, that premiered it in 1988. As soon as I’d started my own ensemble, Great Noise, I had wanted to plan a performance of De Materie and be the part of the first performance by a group of American musicians. I was beaten to this by the ensembles of Williams College, who performed the piece in 2008. In October, however, I will lead the first performance of De Materie by a group of professional American musicians at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. with Great Noise Ensemble and the Vocal Arts Ensemble of the National Gallery. This is an event that, for me, has been almost four years in the making. In the coming weeks I hope to document as best as I can the preparations towards this momentous occasion.
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Friend of S21 Alexandra Gardner blogs this week on why she composes. Her answers are simple and to the point and pretty much sum it up for me: it’s fun (even when it’s frustrating), I have to (I’m reminded of Olivier Messiaen’s somewhat precious but beautifully apt answer to this question when the author Claude Samuel posed it to him: you may as well ask why an apple tree produces apples! I simply don’t know how to do anything else), and sometimes my music reaches someone, be it a performer or an audience member, in a way that other music reaches me. That is a truly precious and beautiful gift to be able not just to give, but to receive (it is a humbling gift to know if a work of mine has meant something to just one person).
One other reason that I compose (and created and conduct an ensemble) is that I think it is important, culturally, aesthetically and politically. It is said that the health of a nation’s soul is measured in its art. In our nation it is very easy to be discouraged by the lack of importance given to the arts, particularly new art music. In a time when making a living solely as a composer, let alone reaching a wide audience, is a near impossibility for most of us it is a patriotic act to be a composer PRECISELY because we are apparently so unimportant to the culture at large. What we do IS important. What we do has GREAT VALUE. For what we do is make music that ideally goes BEYOND the three minute pop song; music that acknowledges the intelligence of its audience, rather than take it for granted; music that challenges our ever decreasing attention spans and asks its audience to be transported beyond mundane reality to comment upon it or perhaps even at times transcend it.
At least that’s why I do it.
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Pardon the pasting of a call for scores directly, but I thought some of you fellow composers out there might be interested in the following:
The Catholic University of America’s student chapter of the Society of Composers, Inc. and Great Noise Ensemble present:
New Voices @ CUA: Festival of New Vocal Music
Sept. 10–11, 2010
Call for Scores
DEADLINE FOR SUBMISSION: JUNE 20, 2010
Please direct all submissions and questions to: CUANewVoices@gmail.com
Submission Forms and further information available at https://cua-sci.campusgroups.com
The SCI Chapter of the composition division of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at The Catholic University of America, in partnership with ensemble-in-residence Great Noise Ensemble, will host a two-day festival of new vocal music from September 10 to 11, 2010, in Washington, D.C. The festival will include four concerts performed over the two days and will feature performances in the campus chapel, the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music’s Ward Recital Hall, and a nontraditional venue in the Washington, D.C., area. Friday evening’s concert will feature works by students at CUA and performances by Great Noise Ensemble. The works of selected composers will be performed at one of three concerts on Saturday, again featuring performers from Great Noise Ensemble and the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music.
About Great Noise Ensemble
With 19 world premieres and counting, Great Noise Ensemble is a working embodiment of its mission to fight for the performance of new works and to promote emerging talent in contemporary music. Conductor and composer Armando Bayolo founded the group in 2005, and the ensemble is an integral part of the new music culture in Washington, D.C. Please see www.greatnoiseensemble.com for more information on the group.
Composers are encouraged to submit works appropriate for programming in the following broad categories: sacred music, concert music, and cabaret/musical theatre songs. Composers may submit up to five works; the first submission is free, and each subsequent submission (up to 5 total) is $5 per piece. Multi-movement works such as song cycles, etc., qualify as a single work. Music should be for solo voices (no choral works); duets, etc., are acceptable, but no more than one on a part, and may include up to six other instruments or 2.0 channel electronics. While composers are welcome to provide their own vocalists, the instrumentalists for festival performances will be drawn from Great Noise Ensemble. Great Noise Ensemble’s core instrumentation is as follows: 1 flute, 1 oboe, 1 clarinet/saxophone, 1 horn, 1 trumpet, 1 tuba, 1 percussion, 2 violins, 1 viola, 1 cello, 1 double bass, 1 piano, and 1 guitar/banjo/mandolin, though other instruments may be available as well. Submissions of sacred music intended for performance on the Saturday morning chapel concert may also include pipe organ. Composers whose works are selected are required to attend. A $15 registration fee, payable upon arrival at the festival, is applied to printing/promotion costs associated with the festival.
Please submit items as attachments to an e-mail.
1. Score(s) in .pdf format
2. Submission Form
3. Recording in .mp3 format
Entry Fee: First work free; each work thereafter (up to 5 works total) is $5 per work payable via
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After wrapping up Great Noise Ensemble’s 2009-10 concert season last Friday and wrapping up the academic year this week, my thoughts are a little rambling. So, here are some nuggets I’ve been thinking about which, while not providing the basis for long essays, necessarily, I hope will generate some interesting discussion:
In conversation with California based percussionist Chris Froh last week we both realized that the west coast, particularly the bay area, once the bastion of countercultural art music, where minimalism was born and where John Adams migrated in order to escape east coast modernism, has become the bastion of…east coast modernism. Meanwhile, if you want to hear rock/jazz infused post-minimalist/totalist music, you go to…Princeton? When did this switch happen and how?
I’ve had my theory students finish up their last semester of undergraduate theory by reading Evan Ziporyn’s 1991 article, “Who Listens if you Care?” (a copy of which can be found here: http://www.arts.rpi.edu/century/AC/Ziporyn%20Who%20Listens%20if%20You%20Care.pdf) and confronting the issues he raises (before the internet, no less!) about ownership, copyright, appropriation, multiculturalism, the mainstream vs. the “Other” and the nature of success as a composer. Is one a composer if one practices what Ziporyn calls “Marxist Music” (or what the composer John Oswald calls “Plunderphonics”)? Should, as Ziporyn asks, simply “shut up and listen?” (Well, sometimes, yes.)
Oscar Bettison’s “O Death” (which Ensemble Klang recently recorded and have made available for sale or stream here: http://music.ensembleklang.com/album/o-death-oscar-bettison) may be the most viscerally stunning piece of music I’ve encountered in a long time. I’m not usually drawn to music like this, but this piece’s power is undeniable (and I’m not just saying that because Oscar–full disclosure– is a colleague).
Why do we compose? The most succesful composers among us (think Phil Glass and John Adams, although John Williams, whose audience is, ostensibly, much bigger, still could fit in this question) doesn’t reach the kind of audience that even a mildly succesful pop/rock/indie/world/non-classical act reaches, let alone someone like Lady Ga-ga. Is it important to reach a wide audience, or is it just a matter of reaching somebody, ANYBODY, even if it’s only ourselves?
Scott Spiegelberg over at Musical Perceptions asks a very interesting question in reaction to a recent comment by composer Stephen Hartke on eighth blackbird’s blog regarding the differences in the pop vs. classical concert experiences (http://musicalperceptions.blogspot.com/2010/05/great-artpop-divide.html). Is there a difference? What do you guys think?
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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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On Monday at Westminster, we have the final concert for the composition class. While we’ve studied a number of pieces this semester, I’d like to give the students a list of suggested further listening. What would you recommend as a list of 10-20 pieces for a student composer – to provoke, inspire, and enrich their knowledge of the repertory?
Kitty with 'table from openphoto.net
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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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