Since I’ve been at the University of Michigan, I’ve frequently pondered the nature of the “American” sound in contemporary music. I recognize the present state of American contemporary music a melting pot of almost every style imaginable, but I wonder further about common threads, the deeper musical and intellectual ideas American composers – my generation in particular – share.

I had the opportunity this past Sunday and Monday to experience a sample population – albeit it very small – of talented, ambitious student composers when I attended concerts at my undergraduate alma mater, Rice University, and my current school, the University of Michigan. I’ve been Sequenza21’s UMich beat writer since September, so I thought I’d use this unusual coincidence to analyze, a little more deeply, the commonalities and differences between these sets of musical minds. Though I have the larger community of composers in mind, my conclusions are relevant to/dependent on my individual experience and – alas – are limited in scope. If nothing else, I hope the following opinions will spark/provoke members of different musical networks to investigate the relationship between their personal or group sound and the rest of our musical society.

I’ll begin with what I think is the biggest difference between the two schools’ sound worlds: popular music influences more heavily permeate the new music at Michigan, both directly and indirectly. Freshman Zac Lavender’s Song Cycle in Three Movements is the most transparent illustration of this impulse I’ve heard all year at Michigan. The work consists of three pop songs that interpret common psychological themes in popular music (i.e. personal insecurity, the pressure of deciding one’s future, etc.) and are scored for a singer-guitarist and rotating battery of strings, drum set and electric bass. The individual songs were catchy – the second song, 17 Days Ago, is still stuck in my head – and the string parts were akin to producer/arranger George Martin’s work with The Beatles.

Based on last year, the much smaller composition studio at Rice could only boast one student with similar tastes: Joelle Zigman. I am not sure how her music has changed since I graduated, but her growth in the two years I knew her yielded a fusion of a pop-style musical surface with the more complicated textures and techniques she had learned as a student of contemporary music. Development like this is not unusual for composers, because many of us deeply love popular music. The degree of influence composer’s allow popular music to have in their concert works seems to be growing with time, and it wouldn’t surprise me if young composers’ works began to increasingly resemble the popular music they interact with daily.

As I see it, this inclusion of popular music into concerts works arises from the same urge for simplicity that attracts composers to neo-classicism, which also present in the music of both schools’ composition students. At the Rice composers’ concert, classicizing elements included the title of Ross Griffey’s Aria and Furioso for viola and piano and the instrumentation of Jennifer Dirkes’s solo viola da gamba work Playtime. Rice Sophomore Andrew Schneider made neo-classicism more than nominal in the jaunty counterpoint of Grave – Ben Allegretto, the first movement of an unfinished Sinfonia for wind quintet. At Michigan, Yaniv Segal’s solo piano work in memory of was similar to Mr. Schneider’s Sinfonia in its emotive and subtly decorated references to 19th-century romanticism; whereas, Judy Bozone’s string quartet work, Corners, effected an extended transformation on the initial neo-classical impulse of clear Renaissance-style counterpoint.

Though clearly a popular trend at each school, the individual composers distinguished themselves by using classical models at varying levels of transparency. Aria and Furioso, for example, has little blatantly neo-classical content beyond its name, whereas Playtime very cleverly alludes to the viola da gamba’s native style through the reinterpretation of baroque-era cadential figures, among other devices. Sinfonia, in memory of and Corners borrow more largely from earlier periods of style but are successful at removing their models from their original context by incorporating incongruous harmonic progressions, textures, phrasings and other musical elements. As the deepest level of abstraction, Michigan masters student Michael-Thomas Foumai’s solo viola work Coronal Loops does not expressly employ classical materials or models, but – at least, to me – connoted the brand of regal virtuosity associated with the great string concerti of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Contrastingly, I experienced more trouble characterizing the rest of the concerts’ music because the works’ did not fall under one overriding historic/stylistic umbrella. For example, Rice DMA student Stephen Bachicha’s song for soprano and pierrot ensemble, To A Soldier, and Michian DMA student Subaram Raman’s work for three speakers and three cellos, …for I do not know myself, possess potent and self-contained musical personalities that were closely dependent to their texts. In other words, these works’ expressivity conveys literal concepts, which poignantly manifest themselves in the shell-shocked and scattered textures of To A Soldier and Mr. Raman’s elegant two-part story telling wherein the cello parts mirror and supplement the linguistic and narrative journeys of his narrators.

The remaining pieces of the concerts’ programs possessed these kind of extra-musical guide posts, but in a much more abstract form than what I’ve already discussed. For example, Rice Junior Keith Allegretti’s Mating Dances is deliberately programmatic – each movement sonically illustrates the reproductive cycles of different creatures – but possesses such a concise and clear musical figure, the works were more than simple portraiture. Similarly, Aleks Savitski’s – a new student at Rice I haven’t met – Trio Bakhchisari is a musical reflection of a 16th-century Crimean palace, but the emotional journey depicted in the music is so strong it overtakes the subject of the work and creates a composite intellectual/emotional body much more powerful than its musical and programmatic components.

Michigan DMA student Wil Pertzthe Drink of the wise #25, Shape Shift (V) and new Rice masters student Benjamin Krause’s Night Tides lie at the extreme level of abstraction, as far as last Sunday and Monday’s music is concerned. Mr. Pertz’ piece juxtaposed a soprano singing a made-up language and a whispering chorus of responses in English. The accompaniment of electronics and two harps, along with the abstract spoken part and unusual solo vocal techniques delivered the Drink of the wise #25 to an unusually charismatic expressive sphere. Night Tides was much more intimate – scored for flute and piano – and simultaneously established and explored a detailed, individual musical landscape. Mr. Krause performed the work fantastically, engendering his expressive and densely atonal textures with clear structures and a palpable rhetorical/narrative arc.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I had to leave the 2+ hour-long Rice concert early to accommodate another engagement and missed Charles Halka’s piece, Por la Fuerza las Tierras. Based on the music of his I heard last year, I imagine the piece was well crafted and successful.

To conclude, I believe the first two musical impulses I’ve covered are evolutionary forms of precedents set by an older generation of composers such as William Bolcom and the founders of Bang On A Can. Furthermore, from comments shared in master classes, I know these and similar composers’ (i.e. Robert Beaser, Donald Crockett, etc.) aesthetic decisions were deliberately reactionary to the high-modernist/serial dogma dominating musical academia in the 1960s and 70s. The rich and fibrous musical environment I’ve observed at Rice and Michigan is clearly a consequence of this anti-modernist rebellion, but my colleagues (and I, sometimes) who follow in its footsteps cannot be driven by the same provocations: the same pressures – from peers and professors – don’t exist today.

How, then, does this strong personal drive manifest itself among today’s young composers if – given the aesthetic freedoms we enjoy in school – we don’t have strong walls to react against? Based on the music I heard last week at Rice and Michigan, I think this part of being a composer has become individual than ever. Of course, new peer pressures and group mentalities persist among the composers I’ve interacted with, but the music that stands out the most is that which sincerely conveys the idiosyncrasies of its creators. As far as I could tell from one hearing, most every composer whose music was on display last weekend put a clear piece of themselves in their music. With this in mind, I believe, regardless of a piece’s style, instrumentation or daring, all the great music on these concerts – all the great American music out there I haven’t yet heard – has one thing in common: sincerity.

One thought on “Sampling sound worlds”
  1. How are we defining “pop-music surface” this week? As music with perceptible melody, functional harmonies, a discernible rhythmic pulse and audible musical organization?

    If so, here’s a quick fact check — that’s what defined serious music for several thousand years. Up until some masterminds in the 1950s decided that perceptible melodies and functional harmonies and a discernible rhythmic pulse and audible musical organization were backwards-looking outworn remnants of a dead musical past.

    Fortunately, contemporary music advances one funeral at a time and these masterminds have departed this mortal veil for whatever realms await people with zero musical talent. Their legacy, alas, lingers on, like a bad case of mold in the shower.

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