Posts Tagged “Michigan”

For those of you in the Southeastern part of Michigan and looking for something to do tomorrow through Friday, Eastern Michigan University is holding their 17th biennial Music Now Festival Feb. 16-18.

Here is a link to the School of Music & Dance home page with more details about the program, which sounds pretty interesting (interesting enough for me to go tomorrow, at least).

Thursday and Friday’s concerts feature the chamber and large ensemble works (respectively) of Dan Welcher and tomorrow night’s concert is a mixed bag, I’m looking forward to it.

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The first student composers’ concert of the new year at the University of Michigan took place last Monday, January 31st. Although brief, this evening of premieres and experiments was just as potent, moving and successful as the other student-run new music events I’ve shared with the Sequenza21. Offering a diverse menu of solo, chamber and electronic compositions, Monday’s concert made yet another statement toward the rich and vast musical community operating in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The evening opened in grand style with Wil PertzThe Drink of the Wise #25 Origins (Ti), an aleatoric piece for 16 players divided into four choirs: strings, winds, brass and percussion. The music starts with quietly tinkling wood and metal percussion instruments, and then layers of string harmonics, brief woodwind melodies and, dramatically rich brass chords are added above. The music drives strongly toward sonic expansion, and gradually builds intensity culminating with a striking switch from metal and wood percussion instruments to djembe drums. Mr. Pertz even constructed a complementary visual layout for the music: the percussionists wore body paint and, as the music achieved its climax, the string players began to walk around the stage.

Next on the program was Donia Jarrar’s electronic composition The Dictator Balances on His Inside Edge. Though originally composed with a generic extra-musical program, Ms. Jarrar took time before the piece to connect the political implications to the current unrest in Egypt. The Dictator Balances is a “classic” electronic composition, building a complex and enthralling field of sounds from recordings of Ms. Jarrar performing various figure skating techniques. The most memorable aural event was a slowly intensifying swooshing noise, which could easily represent the churning of growing popular protest against any autocrat, not least President Mubarak.

Similarly compelling was David Biedenbender’s electronic piece cold.hard.steel, which appeared a later on the program. Like Ms. Jarrar’s work, cold.hard.steel used recurring sonic motives to create a clear aural narrative in the absence of “pure” musical material. Here, Mr. Biedenbender grabbed my ear with a striking contrast: cold metallic sounds juxtaposed with the sound of human breathing. The resulting affect was engagingly grim, and remained as such even when the clear opening gave way to heavier processing. Though the sound world changed from chillingly raw to rationally synthesized, Mr. Biedenbender found clever ways to preserve the identity of his most memorable sounds, constantly referring back to the work’s frighteningly visceral beginning.

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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.

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Its not often I leave a new music concert and my ears are ringing, but Friday night’s performance of the University of Michigan Contemporary Directions Ensemble (CDE) pumped up the volume with works by Jefferson Friedman, Stephen Hartke and Bang-On-A-Can founders Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon.

The evening started off with Mr. Friedman’s 78 for pierrot ensemble, an upbeat mixed meter groove centering around a repetitive riff alternatively appearing in minor and major modes. As CDE conductor Christopher James Lees explained in his pre-concert remark, the program was designed to explore the “New York” sound, because the featured composers either live in New York now or grew up there. Maestro Lees noted the confluence of rock, jazz and contemporary music that surrounded these composers as they developed their mature sound. 78 clearly connected to these roots with its syncopated, pentatonic theme juxtaposed against the inside-the-piano techniques and extended tertian harmonies of a soft chorale. The work proved to be an excellent starting point for the concert because its successors carried these populist and eclectic tendencies to opposite extremes.

For example, Stephen Hartke’s violin duo Oh Them Rats Is Mean In My Kitchen amplified the allusion to jazz and other improvised music with a free-flowing structure and a textural dichotomy of solo-accompaniment or rhythmic/melodic unity. Oh Them Rats most elegant demonstrates the connection between these composers and the modernism of the 1970s and 60s with its balance between bluesy melodies and dissonant harmonies. The arc of the work, in fact, expressed a subtle emergence of the blues scale as a primary melodic source from beginning to end. Accordingly, the piece climaxed with a smeared blues-scale melody played by both violins but out of tune and asynchronously such that it sounded like shoddy overdubbing on an old Muddy Waters record.

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The University of Michigan’s final student composers’ concert of 2010 took place this last Monday, November 29, in Stamps Auditorium, part of the University’s Walgreen Drama Center. This collection of performances was unexpected; so many composers submitted material for November 15’s composers’ concert, a brief third concert of the term was necessary.

Whereas the concert earlier this month was unique with its multiple composer-performers, Monday’s event possessed a more subtle distinction: a strong stylistic dichotomy emerged among the works, essentially pitting modernist and traditional forces in opposition to each other. From a qualitative standpoint, I found this duality inconsequential because all of the evening’s acoustic works had something in common: they expressed their structures with the recurrence of clearly identifiable themes. Although the two electronic pieces on the concert used different formal techniques, they also contained clear and satisfying dramatic lines. As a result, I felt the evening’s music was tied together despite the starkly contrasting musical tastes presented on the program.

First on the concert was Bret Bohman’s she comes back as fire (2010), a three-movement work for string quartet. This piece is the complete version of something I heard, and reviewed, in October at Michigan’s and I was happy to reacquaint myself with the first movement’s unforgettable midsection – an aria where the first violin saunters in its highest register above a placid accompaniment. The rest of the piece explores and culminates material from the first movement, varying the music’s atmosphere little even though new content is introduced. Ultimately, Mr. Bohman references the memorable first violin solo in she comes back as fire’s final movement, but the surrounding music is too chaotic for its reappearance to establish a sense of repose. Mr, Bohman used his themes economically, which illuminated much of the work’s structure on the first listen. I am also sure further interaction with she comes back as fire would, more deeply, reveal a tightly wound and efficient network of musical material.

Next on the program was Patrick Behnke’s viola and violin duet, Miranda at the Edge of the Water (2010). Mr. Behnke currently studies viola at the University of Michigan and delivered a fine performance alongside violinist Jordan Broder. Loosely based on certain Indian rhythmic modes, Miranda at the Edge of the Water proceeded in a pseudo-improvisatory manner from an opening drone through a variety of dance-like passages and finally back to the static beginning, which evoked Mr. Behnke’s South Asian influences. I say “pseudo improvisatory” because the piece progressed like a stream-of-conscientiousness, and the violin and viola alternated the responsibility of leading the duo to its next musical destination, often via imitation. Mr. Behnke’s note explained connections not just to Indian music, but to Bela Bartok and Jimi Hendrix as well; yet, I heard another association – Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabulation. One of the few recurring sections featured a modal melody accompanied by its supporting triad. Particularly at the end of Miranda at the Edge of the Water, this technique gave the music a reverent and meditative quality, fitting Mr. Behnke’s description, “the violin ascends to the heavens. All is over.”

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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.

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From left to right, Roger Reynolds, Donald Scavarda, Gordon Mumma and Robert Ashley. Photo courtesy of Subaram Raman.

Last night, Rackham Auditorium on Washington Street in Ann Arbor, MI became a sort of communal time machine. Complete with a vintage magnetic tape reel, electronic synthesizer and “public disturbance”, performed by students from the University of Michigan School of Music’s Composition Department, the hall carried its occupants back to the revolutionary decade of the 1960s when a group of young, local composers called the ONCE Group started a groundbreaking and historic contemporary music festival. These composers were Roger Reynolds, Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma, Donald Scavarda (pictured to the right) and the late George Cacioppo, and the music they created for the ONCE festivals was on display last night to reenact the sounds of the original events.

The concert kicked off ONCE. MORE., an interdisciplinary celebration of ONCE and its related cultural period in American history, by presenting over three hours of music by the founding composers. After remarks by the co-directors of the concert series, University of Michigan School of Music Professor of Composition Michael Daugherty and Professor of Performing Arts and Technology Mary Simoni, the music began with Roger Reynolds’ Mosaic (1962) for flute and piano. Notably vibrant in its use of instrumental colors, many of which were produced via extended techniques, Mosaic seemed too introverted to be a concert opener. Nevertheless, University of Michigan Professor of Flute Amy Porter and Professor of Piano Performance John Ellis succeeded to draw me in to a complex musical world wherein the limits of acoustic instrumental sound were well traversed. I was left with the impression that the flute and piano behaved as one sound producing body, yielding an aural landscape that both yearned for and hinted at electronic music.

Next on the program was Robert Ashley’s in memoriam…Crazy Horse (symphony) (1963), which hands an ensemble of 32 players a series of graphic scores and lets them interpret the symbols as they wish. Crazy Horse and its companion piece on the second part of the concert, in memoriam…Esteban Gomez (quartet) (1963) epitomize the experimental and avant-garde sentiments that spawned the original ONCE concerts. As you would expect, these two improvised pieces were very different, but I felt like Crazy Horse was delivered more successfully.  Mark Kirschenmann’s Creative Arts Orchestra presented in memoriam…Crazy Horse cohesively, developing specific sound ideas (i.e. verbal/oral noise, sustained tones/harmonies, dense polyphony, etc.) and passing them among the different instrumental forces on stage. In contrast, the University of Michigan’s Digital Music Ensemble’s performance of in memoriam…Esteban Gomez was unfortunately static and I was chagrined by their heavy use of modern sound manipulation technologies. However, it speaks to the flexibility of graphic notation that a piece like in memoriam…Esteban Gomez can be realized so differently at separate points in history and still fulfill the composer’s intention.

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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, 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.

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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.

On this note, I believe CCM likes to take subtle risks in their music (Paul Schuette‘s “Complete Fragments” was installed in the lobby of Werner Recital Hall, for example), UM’s Daugherty influence makes their pieces agressive (David Biedenbender‘s “you’ve been talking in your sleep” and William Zuckerman‘s “Ajax” come to mind), and IU writes conservative but solid, well-constructed pieces (like Timothy Miller‘s “Sketches on Scars.”)

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