Wednesday, April 15, 2015

June in Buffalo Participant Composers Announced!


The Center is also excited to announce the emerging composers whose work will be featured at this summer's June in Buffalo festival.  After receiving a very large number of applications representing students from eleven countries, twenty-one US states, and more than three dozen universities, the following composers will be joining us for our annual festival of new and adventurous music:


Participant composers at JiB 2013
Iddo Aharony, University of Chicago
Can Bilir, Cornell University
Shuyue Cao, Mannes College
Tyler Capp, University of Missouri, KC
Matthew Chamberlain, University at Buffalo
Niki Charlafti, New England Conservatory
Weijun Chen, University at Buffalo
James Chu, Peabody Conservatory
Steven Crane, University of Minnesota
Lisa Eleazarian, Illinois State University
Louis Goldford, Indiana University
Elliot Grabill, New York University
Paul Hembree, Univ. of California, San Diego
Travis Huff, East Carolina University
Student composers in a masterclass with Steven Stucky
Ryan Jesperson, University of Missouri, KC
Texu Kim, Indiana University
Ying-Ting Lin, University at Buffalo
Zane Merritt, University at Buffalo
Fernanda Navarro, UC San Diego
David Nguyen, UI Urbana-Champaign
Timothy Page, University of Chicago
Ori Talmon, Univ. of California, San Diego
Liliya Ugay, Yale University
Stephen Yip, Rice University
Hangrui Zhang, University of Cincinnati
Tiange Zhou, Yale University

Join us in June to hear new works by each of these young musicians!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Slee Sinfonietta: American Mavericks


This week marked the beginning of a city-wide festival called Ives:  An American Maverick, which celebrates the music of the country's earliest experimental composer.  Beginning with a masterclass at UB led by vocalist William Sharp, the festival will feature two Ives portrait concerts by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, choral arrangements of Ives's songs presented by the Harmonia Chamber Singers, and presentations at the Burchfield Penney and Erie Public Library.

The festival will conclude next Tuesday (4/14) with a performance in Lippes Concert Hall by the Slee Sinfonietta, the Center for 21st Century Music's resident chamber orchestra.  Conducted by the extraordinarily skilled Brad Lubman, the Sinfonietta's program will feature two key works by Ives, "A Set of Pieces" for chamber orchestra, and the widely-regarded Three Places in New England, Ives's first orchestral set.  Capping of a week of programs focusing on Ives and his work, the Sinfonietta's program also begins to move beyond the work of Ives, to the next generation of composers who were so influenced by him, including works by Lou Harrison, Carl Ruggles, and Conlon Nancarrow.

Lou Harrison
Harrison was a prolific composer who became known for his experiments with just intonation and non-Western instruments (especially Gamelan instruments, and some new instruments designed and built to his own specifications).  Harrison had a close and productive relationship with Ives, editing and preparing several of his pieces for performance.  Writing to Ives in 1936 to request some scores for study and performance, Harrison received a whole crate of the composer's music, which he lived with and studied closely for the following decade.  In 1946, Harrison conducted the premiere of Ives's Third Symphony, a work he had edited from the original manuscript.  The performance won Ives the 1947 Pulitzer Prize, whose prize money he insisted on splitting with Harrison (accompanied by a note with a characteristic Ivesian bite:  "Prizes are for mediocrity, now please take half of it.").  The Sinfonietta will feature Harrison's memorial piece to the elder composer, 1963's At the Tomb of Charles Ives for trombone, two psalteries, two dulcimers, three harps, tam-tam, and strings.  The work (premiered and recorded by Lukas Foss) features string instruments retuned to Harrison's Free Style intonation system, a complex experimental gamut based on pure intervals.

Portrait of Carl Ruggles by Thomas Hart Benton
One of Harrison's great unfinished projects was a book about the music of another composer featured on Tuesday's program, Carl Ruggles.  (Harrison only completed a short essay on the composer, which was published in a 1946 issue of View).  Ruggles composed a stark body of just a few dissonantly contrapuntal works in the Ultramodernist style.  The composer shares a number of characteristics with Ives:  both were regarded initially only by a small circle of fellow experimenters, both were constantly revising their works—a quality the prolific Harrison described as "never wanting anything finished"—and both were highly influenced by the American transcendental poets of the nineteenth century.  This is a feature most evident in the work the Sinfonietta will present next week, Ruggles' Vox clamans in deserto for soprano and chamber orchestra, which sets texts by Robert Browning and Walt Whitman, and which will be sung by Julia Bentley.

The last composer featured on the Sinfonietta's program is Conlon Nancarrow.  While never a close associate of Ives like Harrison and Ruggles, Nancarrow continues the very Ivesian tradition of experimental composition in isolation.  An American composer who spent most of his life in Mexico City to avoid anti-communist activity in the U.S. (he fought with the Republican Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War), Nancarrow composed an extensive series of works that experimented with highly complex rhythmic canons and isorhythms.  Composing in exile, the majority of his works were written for player piano, one of the few instruments that could perfectly execute his jazz-inspired rhythmic complexity.  Like Ives, Nancarrow's work was only recognized towards the end of his life, when younger composers like Peter Garland and Charles Amirkhanian began publishing scores and recordings of his work.  This late fame led him to receive a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" and a number of commissions for non-mechanized instruments, including his Piece No. 2 for small orchestra (1986), which the Sinfonietta will perform next week.

The Slee Sinfonietta reads a work by Dan Bassin,
who has also conducted the ensemble
This concert is just the beginning of what is a busy and exciting spring for the Sinfonietta.  The day after next week's Mavericks concert, the ensemble will conduct a reading/recording session of a new work by UB Ph.D. candidate Chun Ting Pang called Living Dust.  (A skilled composer, Pang himself has had an eventful year, which you can read more about here). This continues a long tradition of the Sinfonietta reading dissertation works by accomplished graduate composers.

The Sinfonietta will wrap up its concert season with two performances at June in Buffalo.  The festival will see chamber works by student composers played by members of the ensemble, followed by a performance of David Felder's Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux by a large ensemble combining the Slee Sinfonietta with New York's SIGNAL Ensemble, in what is sure to be an exciting concert.  As the Center's resident chamber orcehstra, the Sinfonietta has performed at every June in Buffalo since 2000.  At their first JiB concert, the Sinfonietta performed works by Bernard Rands, Roger Reynolds, and Augusta Read Thomas (all of whom will return to the JiB faculty this year) including a world premiere work by each of these composers, commissioned especially for the festival.  The concert featured three different conductors, with Harvey Sollberger, Brad Lubman, and Magnus Mårtensson each leading the ensemble on a different piece.  

The Sinfonietta was conceived, formed, founded, and programmed by Artistic Director David Felder from 1996 to the present.  It was one of the Center's first programs to be funded by Robert and Carol Morris, and the ensemble has been supported by the Morrises since its inception in the late 1990s.  Since then, it has played a key role both in June in Buffalo and at the Center throughout the years.  We're thrilled that this year's festival continues the tradition of adventurous new music being presented by the Center's house ensemble!

Slee Sinfonietta
Ives and Beyond

Brad Lubman, conductor
Julia Bentley, mezzo-soprano
Works by Ives, Harrison, Ruggles, and Nancarrow

Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Lippes Concert Hall in Slee Hall
7:30pm
$15/$10




—Ethan Hayden

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Augusta Read Thomas: The Whole is Other


The German psychologist Kurt Koffka famously summarized Gestalt theory with the phrase, "the whole is other than the sum of its parts."  Koffka emphasized that in Gestalt psychology, the whole has an existence which is unique, independent of its component elements.  While we can recognize the various parts of, say, the sound of a bell (quick attack, long sustain, inharmonic timbre), our experience of the whole bell sound is entirely separate from our awareness of its individual features.  The whole is other than the sum of its parts.

Augusta Read Thomas at Jib 2010
This concept is key to Augusta Read Thomas's music, because throughout her oeuvre, the composer is attempting—and succeeding—at something impossibly contradictory:  a music which is at once intricately crafted with meticulous precision, but which sounds spontaneous and improvisational.  Thomas's music is incredibly detailed, constructed from a keen awareness of instrumental technique, tonal and timbral nuance, and a harmonic sophistication matched by only a small handful of contemporaries.  These are the "parts" of her music, manifested through explicit notation and attention to detail.  "One of the things that interests me a great deal is for the music to be very nuanced.  So the notations are extremely specific, and I think that lends itself to a clear and crisp execution of the piece," Thomas says in an interview with New Music Box.  "Yet on the other hand, I want the pieces to sound really spontaneous—'There it goes!  The orchestra’s playing, and the train has left the station!' [It] almost sounds as if they’re improvising."  Herein lies the contradictory "whole" of Thomas music—the effect of unplanned animation, whimsical energy, vibrant organicism.  While a listener may be aware of the careful, deliberate construction of Thomas's music, the experience is one of flowing caprice, a music of sudden shifts that are both unexpected and inevitable.  The whole is other than the sum of its parts.

Few composers have managed to successfully achieve this tightrope-walk of carefully-composed spontaneity.  Debussy comes to mind, and Thomas's music certainly maintains a Debussian finesse, heard in the intricate diaphanousness of 2010's Jubilee for orchestra or the refined lyricism of 2005's violin concerto, Carillon Sky.  But her music also often features a ferocious dynamism, as colors and shapes collide with one another with a forcefulness that calls to mind Varèse's sinewy harmonic intersections (see for example, her early orchestral piece, Words of the Sea).  Throughout her work, however, remains this ("Koffka-esque"?) distinction between whole and part that the composer herself is well aware of:  "If I could try to describe the way I think of music, I would draw a big circle.  Then inside of it, I would put a lot of words, such as counterpoint, harmony, rhythm, harmonic rhythm, pitch, flow, flux, density, tessitura, balance, and so on and so forth. For me, it’s a big huge gestalt.  […]  They’re all connected with this beautiful web, and so while I could talk about rhythm independently, or I could talk about harmony independently, for me, they instantly plug back into that gestalt."


Augusta Read Thomas is one of the hardest working composers active today.  Just this year, she has already had four pieces premiered (including Selene, premiered last month by friends of the Center JACK Quartet and Third Coast Percussion, and the orchestral ballet EOS: Goddess of the Dawn premiered by the Utah Symphony in February) with two more upcoming this month (including the Parker Quartet's premiere of Helix Spirals next week at Harvard).  She spends eight to ten hours a day composing—an activity she typically does on her feet, standing at large draft tables, as she describes in the video below.  Her prolific work schedule has resulted in an impressively expansive catalog of works, and has made Thomas one of the most frequently-performed living composers.  She has been recognized by both the American Academy of Arts and Letters (inducted in 2009) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (inducted in 2012), and, most recently, she won the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra's Composer Award for 2015-16, the oldest award of its kind in the nation (previous winners have included William Schuman, Walter Piston, and Morton Gould).  It would be entirely forgivable if such an active composer had no time or interest in teaching, but Thomas is very passionate about teaching, an activity she sees as a "natural extension of [her] creative process."  She currently teaches at the University of Chicago, where she is one of seven University Professors, and regularly teaches at the Tanglewood Music Center during the summer.  Next year, she will be spearheading the Ear Taxi Festival, which celebrates Chicago's strong new music scene.


We are thrilled that Augusta Read Thomas will be joining us during this anniversary year at June in Buffalo.  The composer has been an invaluable member of the JiB faculty over the years, regularly presenting new and exciting works, and providing sharp insights and guidance to young composers.  Perhaps the most affecting aspect of Thomas's relationship with the festival is that she was once herself one of those emerging composers who came through the festival as a student, before returning years later as a member of the faculty.  "I first came to June in Buffalo in 1988, while I was a student of Jacob Druckman at Yale.  I had a great time.  It was enriching in terms of learning the music of others, hearing beautiful concerts, and having lots of time for informal discussions about music.  I loved it!  I went back at least once more as a student in the early 1990s."

Thomas has high praise for the festival, pointing out how beneficial it's been to so many emerging composers over the years:  "I think the festival has boosted the careers of lots of students—and there have been many over the years (30 years times 25-30 students each year).  It's really been something that's helped a lot of composers, even if it's just one recording or one connection made—a composer can meet someone they'll know as a colleague for the rest of their career.  There are all kinds of things like that which are difficult to put a finger on, but which are part of the culture of the festival."

Augusta Read Thomas rehearses Aureole with
the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra at JiB 2013
June in Buffalo has seen some great performances of Thomas's works over the years.  In 2002, she came to the festival as a special guest, where her Rumi Settings were performed by Movses Pogossian and Jonathan Golove.  Stephen Gosling of the New York New Music Ensemble has given two stunning performances of her Six Piano Etudes (one in 2006, and the other in 2010).  A particularly memorable performance was in 2010, when her violin concerto Carillon Sky was performed by Yuki Numata Resnick, with Brad Lubman conducting the Slee Sinfonietta.  "I remember just being riveted.  I thought it was spectacular and shimmeringly brilliant!" Thomas recalls. The Buffalo Philharmonic's festival-concluding concerts have twice featured Thomas's work, including a 2010 performance of Terpischore's Dream, and a 2013 performance of the luminous Aureole, both conducted by JoAnn Falletta.  "Being a composer that's written a lot of orchestral music, it's nice to have an orchestral piece done at a festival," says Thomas.  "June in Buffalo is able to feature the music of composers that are writing for orchestra (and electronics and chamber music as well).  The performances that have been given of both faculty and student works have always been at the highest level.  I commend that to the festival and those organizing it.  And David Felder has done a wonderful job as director, so three cheers for David from me!"

This year, we can look forward to two pieces which will be played on the June 5th Performance Institute concert:  1999's Passion Prayers for solo 'cello and six instruments, and 2007's Scat for chamber ensemble, both conducted by Daniel Bassin.  We're thrilled that Augusta Read Thomas will once again bring her work, insight, passion, and musicality to the festival, demonstrating both the parts and the whole of her craft to emerging composers and audiences alike.


—Ethan Hayden

Friday, March 27, 2015

Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra: A City and Its Orchestra


"About that music festival I've been thinking of—You know how they talk about April in Paris?  Well, I think we should call it June in Buffalo.  Yeah, why not?" — Morton Feldman*

June in Buffalo is an international festival that attracts some of the most widely-renowned artists from across the world.  But it is first and foremost a festival in Buffalo, and there is perhaps no ensemble more firmly and proudly Buffalo than the city's orchestra.  Founded in 1935, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra has been one of the city's most important cultural institutions for eighty years.  The orchestra has become an integral part of June in Buffalo, concluding the festival each year with its Sunday afternoon concert of new orchestral compositions.

The BPO was founded shortly before the Great Depression, during which it was supported by funds from the Works Progress Administration and Emergency Relief Bureau.  Over the years, the orchestra has had some of the most significant artists of the twentieth century serve as music director, including William Steinberg, Josef Krips, Lukas Foss, Michael Tilson Thomas, Maximiano Valdez, Semyon Bychkov and Julius Rudel.  Always actively recording, the orchestra has released a number of significant LPs over the years, including the world premiere recording of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7 "Leningrad" in 1946.  In 1977, under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, BPO recorded a successful LP titled Gershwin on Broadway.  The recording made such an impact on Woody Allen, that the director used several of the LP's selections in the soundtrack to his 1979 film, Manhattan.  Under the current direction of JoAnn Falletta, the orchestra has released thirty-two CDs, including a Grammy-winning recording of John Corigliano's Mr. Tambourine Man:  Seven Poems of Bob Dylan (2003).


Lukas Foss
When Lukas Foss took over the BPO's directorship in 1963, the composer/conductor led the orchestra in new, experimental directions.  At his opening night at the baton, Foss programmed Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, a work still considered at that time to be shockingly avant garde.  Foss continued his cutting-edge programming throughout his tenure, which included performances of Stockhausen's Momente, and works by John Cage.  This adventurous spirit continued under the direction of Foss's successor, Michael Tilson Thomas, who premiered some important works by Morton Feldman (The Viola in My Live IV, Voices and Instruments II), and programmed Lutosławski's Concerto for Orchestra and several works by American experimental luminaries Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles.

The orchestra has always had a close relationship with its city.  At the 2012 Spring for Music festival at Carnegie Hall, the BPO broke the record for hometown fan attendance.  From 1992-96, JiB artistic director, David Felder was the orchestra's Meet the Composer Composer-in-Residence.  During these years, the Buffalo-based composer wrote a number of new orchestral works for the BPO, including Three Pieces for Orchestra, composed for the ensemble's 60th anniversary.  [The first of these pieces, Linebacker Music, was composed in the midst of the early-1990s Buffalo Bills string of successes—a Buffalo composer writing a piece for a Buffalo orchestra, about the city's most beloved pastime].

Charles Ives
The BPO has continued its devotion to new music with its annual EarShot New Music Readings, a program put on in collaboration with the American Composers Orchestra, which presents new orchestral works by emerging composers.  This month, the BPO will return to the work of Charles Ives as it takes part in the Charles Ives: An American Maverick festival.  The week-long festival will include two Ives portrait concerts (April 11 & 12) by the BPO, at which the orchestra will present the composer's Second Symphony, The Unanswered QuestionVariations on America, Henry Brandt's orchestration of "The Alcotts" (from the Concord Sonata) and John Adams's orchestration of Ives's Five Songs.  The festival also includes performances by the Slee Sinfonietta (performing works by Ives, Ruggles, Nancarrow, and Harrison), Harmonia Chamber Singers, a UB masterclass with baritone William Sharp, and presentations at the Burchfield Penney and Erie Public Library.


Eliot Fisk plays Beaser's Guitar Concerto
with the BPO at JiB 2012
The BPO has a long history with June in Buffalo, and the festival has seen a number of significant performances by the orchestra.  One memorable concert took place at JiB 1997, at which the BPO played Feldman's 'Cello and Orchestra (1972), Edgard Varèse's Octandre (1923), and Charles Wuorinen's River of Light.  Notably, this program featured Jonathan Golove (of this year's Performance Institute faculty) playing Feldman's wistful 'cello concerto, and Wuorinen himself conducting his orchestral ballet.  The year before that, the orchestra played a program featuring Felder's Three Pieces, Donald Erb's Solstice, and Toru Takemitsu's Requiem.  The latter piece, composed forty years earlier, was performed in memory of its composer, who passed away earlier that year.  This concert was echoed a decade later at JiB 2009, when the BPO reprised the program, substituting Takemitsu's piece with a related memorial work by their former director:  Lukas Foss's For Tōru (1996) for flute and orchestra.  Other significant performances of recent years have included a 2012 program which included Felder's dynamic Incendio, Fred Lerhdahl's Cross-Currents, Steven Stucky's Jeu de Timbres, and Robert Beaser's Guitar Concerto, which featured a moving performance by world-renowned guitarist Eliot Fisk.

BPO Associate Conductor,
Stefan Sanders
We're thrilled that the BPO will continue its tradition of enriching Buffalo with exciting orchestral performances at this year's festival, under the baton of associate conductor Stefan Sanders.  We can look forward to them wrapping up June in Buffalo with a program featuring the music of the festival's artistic directors past and present:  opening with Morton Feldman's On Time and the Instrumental Factor (1969), and concluding with David Felder's Six Poems from Neruda's "Alturas" (also composed during his BPO residency).  It's sure to be an exciting concert that will conclude a fantastic week of new music from around the world, performed in Buffalo.


—Ethan Hayden

*Quoted in Renée Levine Packer, This Life of Sounds: Evenings for New Music in Buffalo (Oxford University Press, 2010), 143.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Charles Wuorinen: Craft and Communication


Charles Wuorinen
Music critic Michael Steinberg famously observed that the music of Charles Wuorinen manages something which perhaps seemed impossible throughout much of the early twentieth century:  a musical reconciliation of the Schoenbergian and Stravinskian compositional traditions. Indeed, in Wuorinen one can hear both the muscular physicality and quick wit of Stravinsky and the structural rigor and systematic consistency of late Schoenberg, both traditions connected and extended into a dynamic new compositional language.

The first word that occurs to me when I think of Wuorinen's music is craft.  Having composed over 260 works, Wuorinen's output is one based in a meticulous study of past styles, and written with painstaking exactitude.  Works like the third Piano Sonata, Archæopteryx, and Epithalamium require a certain diligent focus and calculated intentionality on the part of the performer, but on hearing such works its difficult not to hear the same diligence on the composer's part.  Wuorinen is famously a composer who wakes each morning and composes for most of the day, and this devotion to craft is clearly audible in his work.  Take for instance, his recent Trio for flute, bass clarinet, and piano (2008), in which snaky, angular lines create tense, constantly transforming contrapuntal webs, which occasionally erupt into sonorous bursts of energy.  The piece virtuosically weaves a narrative through which the ensemble acts both as a trio of independent agents and as a unified body moving together with the agility of a school of fish (listen below).


It is perhaps this devotion to craft that inspired Vera Stravinsky to entrust some of her late husband's unfinished compositional fragments to Wuorinen, which the composer used to construct A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky (1975), a work which contains both a simulacrum of Stravinsky's late style and a clear expression of Wuorinen's own voice.  Indeed, Wuorinen's voice, both through his singular musical output and his lectures and writings, has been one of the most passionate and eloquent advocates for American serialism, most notably in his 1979 compositional treatise, Simple Composition.

Charles Wuorinen conducting at Guggenheim
After receiving acclaim for a number of early works (including his chamber concertos for 'cello and flute), Wuorinen was appointed to a teaching post at Columbia University in 1964.  There, he worked with the now-legendary RCA Mark II Synthesizer at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.  Despite being a ground-breaking piece of equipment which is frequently mentioned in histories of electronic music, the Mark II was used in the creation of only a small handful of pieces, one of which was Wuorinen's Time's Encomium, a thirty-minute electronic tour de force which won the composer the 1970 Pulitizer Prize, making Wuorinen the youngest composer at the time to be awarded the honor.  Since then, Wuorinen has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, Guggenheim Fellowship, and an induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

One of Wuorinen's significant early achievements was the founding of the Group for Contemporary Music in 1962 with Harvey Sollberger (another JiB faculty composer) and Joel Krosnick.  The first new music ensemble to be based at a university and directed by composers, the GCM quickly received acclaim for its virtuosic performances (including Wuorinen's own skilled piano playing and conducting) and innovative programming (the ensemble premiered significant works by Wolpe, Babbitt, Carter, and Davidovsky).  The  GCM's success inspired the Rockefeller Foundation to fund several similar composer-led ensembles at other universities, including UB's Center for the Creative Associates, an ensemble which regularly included Wuorinen's work in their programming.  The June in Buffalo festival was established in 1975 partly as a way for the Creative Associates to take advantage of Rockefeller funding during the slower summer months, branching out from an innovative ensemble to a widely respected international festival.

Wuorinen speaking at JiB 2013 after receiving his honorary doctorate
We are thrilled that Charles Wuorinen will be joining the June in Buffalo faculty during this anniversary year.  Wuorinen's connection to the festival stretches back many years, and he has been a frequent member of the June in Buffalo faculty.  When David Felder restarted the festival in 1985, Wuorinen was one of a core group of composers who quickly lent their support, and contributed to the festival's revitalization.  At June in Buffalo 2013, Wuorinen was presented with an honorary doctorate by UB, at a brief ceremony preceding a concert that featured a performance of the composer's It Happens Like This by the Slee Sinfonietta.  June in Buffalo has been the site of many exciting performances of Wuorinen's work, including a memorable performance of The Dante Trilogy at June in Buffalo 2003.  This year, we can look forward to the New York New Music Ensemble's performance of New York Notes (1982), and the Meridian Arts Ensemble's performance of Wuorinen's Brass Quintet (read more about the former in last week's interview with Jean Kopperud).

Tom Randle and Daniel Okulitch in Brokeback Mountain
One of Wuorinen's most ambitious projects in recent years has been the 2012 opera, Brokeback Mountain, based on the same Annie Proulx short story that inspired the 2005 film.  The opera, composed for Madrid's Teatro Real, concerns itself with a star-crossed love affair, but unlike traditional operatic subjects, the focus on gay love in an hostile environment (both social and physical—the opera is set in the wild Wyoming mountains) creates a subject matter which, in the composer's words, "has some resonance today, unlike the old-fashioned operatic issues, which are of no interest whatever, in the social context today" (click here to see the composer discuss the opera in detail).  Centered essentially around what Zachary Woolfe calls "a tragedy about the inability to communicate", the opera moves gradually from Schoenbergian sprecstimme to traditional operatic singing, exploring the difficulty of emotional expression.  It seems oddly fitting that an opera about the inability to communicate should be written by a composer with such a strong and fluent compositional voice.  Indeed, it necessitates such a composer, who through years devoted to his craft can eloquently express anything, including the very trials of expression itself.


—Ethan Hayden

Thursday, March 12, 2015

New York New Music Ensemble: An Interview with Jean Kopperud


Next year, the New York New Music Ensemble celebrates its 40th year making music.  Having commissioned, performed, and recorded works by some of the most important composers of our time, the group has been active, as JT Rinker puts it, "since 'new music' was new."  Indeed, some of the ensemble's 120 commissions have become key works in the canon of American composition, including Jacob Druckman's Come Round (1992), Harvey Sollberger's The Advancing Moment (1993), and Charles Wuorinen's The Great Procession (1996).  The ensemble has worked closely with many important artists, including Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Donald Martino, Stephen Dembski, Chou Wen-Chung, Arthur Kreiger, and Edmund Campion.  In fact, it is through the tireless work of NYNME that many important works and composers have become widely recognized.  The ensemble, once described as "tense, vicious, and aggressive," has branched out from a core catalog of intellectually rigorous pieces by the American avant garde to a diverse palette that include interactive technologies, theatre music, and important works by composers from around the world.  Just this month, the ensemble played a Kaija Saariaho portrait concert that featured several works for instruments and electronics.

NYNME performing at 2011 Latin Roots Festival
NYNME's relationship with June in Buffalo extends back many years.  The ensemble has been regularly attending the festival since the early 1990s, and has contributed to it's reputation of featuring stellar performances by expert musicians.  Having played and premiered countless works at JiB, and maintaining close relationships with many composers who have been active at the festival, we are excited that they will be joining us during this anniversary year.  This June, NYNME will present a concert of works featuring Wuorinen's New York Notes (1982), Sollberger's The Advancing Moment, Martin Bresnick's Bird as Prophet (2003), and Lukas Foss's classic Echoi (1963).  Foss, the former co-director of the Center for Creative and Performing Arts at UB (whose Evenings for New Music concerts laid the groundwork for what eventually became June in Buffalo) will be the subject of a portrait CD that NYNME will begin recording this summer.

I had a chance to sit down with Jean Kopperud, clarinetist with NYNME and a member of this year's Performance Institute faculty, to ask her about this year's festival.


What are you looking forward to about June in Buffalo 2015?

I love June in Buffalo.  I love it when NYNME comes up here to my home.  We've known David Felder a long time, he brought us here years ago.  It's a great festival, and it's the nicest part of the year in Buffalo!  We're playing great pieces by Sollberger, Wuorinen, Bresnick, and Foss.  Echoi is an incredible piece—a masterpiece.  So it will be a lot of fun.  

You're also playing New York Notes, which was a NYNME commission.  That's a piece you've played several times at the festival.  Do you have any special memories relating to this work?

Actually I do.  There was one year when James Baker was conducting, and we walked into the dress rehearsal and just laid the piece down like it was a recording.  Almost never in my life have I felt in a dress rehearsal like we as a group were stunning, but on this run we caught on fire.  I mean, Charles' jaw dropped.  It was just a dress rehearsal, but it was one of those moments that really defined who we are as a group.

You have a long relationship with Charles Wuorinen, he's composed several works for you, and has conducted NYNME on occasion.  And there are several other composers with whom you have longstanding relationships.  It's one thing to commission a single work from a composer, but what's it like having a continuing relationship over many years?

Well, it only continues if everyone is happy on both sides, and Charles has written us amazing pieces, works that will stand the test of time.  His music comes beautifully scored and it feels like it's been written for us.  If you can find someone who does that, that's special.  I've done a lot of commissions and I find that there's this huge range.  Sometimes someone writes a piece and it's clearly not for you, they weren't thinking about you or your strengths.  And then you get some other composer and it's so tailored to you, you think "they got it!"  That's one of the risks of commissioning, you don't know if it's going to be good, or if it's going to work, or how playable it's going to be.  But with some composers you know more.  If you have two or three great pieces from a composer, like we do with Charles, there's something there.

But you also work with younger, less established composers.

We do commission younger composers we don't know, people whose music we've just heard and liked.  That's what's great about June in Buffalo, it's always fun to play the young composers' music.  But a lot of times that's how we decide who to commission when we pick a 'young stranger'—we've done one of these things like June in Buffalo and we've liked their music and said, "Let's get them while they're young."

Jean Kopperud plays the hose on David Felder's Rare Air
You'll be on the Performance Institute faculty, and you're known for your unique way of working with musicians, especially in your On The Edge class that you teach at UB.  Can you describe your approach to working with young performers?

The thing about On The Edge is I work on everything but the music.  I don't do any musical coaching, that's the job of the teacher or the chamber music coach.  What I end up working on is all the other stuff:  how they prepare, focus, warm up, their mental attitude.  Basically, I look at a student and ask:  what's standing between them and being 100%?  So each person in the class is working on something quite different.  With some people it's about inner self talk, with some its about balance and the physical usage of their body.  For a lot of people, it's about performance anxiety, though that's typically a small part of it.  I can usually take care of performance anxiety pretty quickly.  It's usually other stuff in the end.  The hardest fixes are people who haven't learned how to focus, that usually takes longer.  Learning an intense focus is a bigger job, and many musicians don't even realize that they aren't present when they perform.

What's a skill that you teach that can improve focus?

I teach juggling to all my students.  Because it's not thought-oriented—it's just hand-eye coordination—it smooths out your brain waves.  In order to actually focus, your brain can't be jagged.  I juggle before every concert.  If I have no warm-up time, that would be the one thing I would do.  It's even more important than warming up the instrument.  In order to juggle you have to pay attention, otherwise you drop the balls, so it's a very clear indicator:  when you drop the balls something is amiss.  So I will just juggle until I feel a sense of calm come over me.  It's easier than meditating.  It also warms up the hands, and it works for writing blocks—and it's a diagnostic for whether I'm ready or not.


Jean Kopperud and NYNME both will be huge assets to June in Buffalo this year.  Whether it's Kopperud teaching balance, focus, and juggling at the Performance Institute, or NYNME's impeccable balance, focus, and juggling of complex counterpoint in performance, it's sure to be an exciting week of new music.


—Ethan Hayden

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Brian Ferneyhough: On Suddenness & Plötzlichkeit


A recent orchestral piece by Brian Ferneyhough bears the German title, "Plötzlichkeit," a term which can be roughly translated as "suddenness."  In the piece, radically disjunct gestures emerge from all corners of the orchestra, both disparate solo lines and dynamic tuttis, each successive gesture obliterating the last.  The term plötzlichkeit seems to be not only a fitting description of the unrestrained energy of this piece, but of much of the composer's oeuvre.  Ferneyhough's music, (in)famous for its density, complexity, and the demands it puts on its performers, seems to exist in a perpetual state of plötzlichkeit—that is, in a perpetual state of lacking a perpetual state, of being constantly interrupted, manipulated, suspended or superseded.  The intricacy of pieces like Superscriptio, Lemma-Icon-Epigram, and Etudes Transcendantales place the performers (and, indeed, the audience) in a situation in which the demands of each gesture leave them, in the composer's words, "in a constant state of 'surprise attack', as the horizon of memory closes around them."  Without the ability to rely on their memories, performer and audience are trapped in an eternal present, or rather, in an endless succession of divergent presents, a state of intense plötzlichkeit.


The preface to Ferneyhough's early flute solo, Cassandra's Dream Song elaborates on this tension between notated complexity and the difficulty of execution:  "A valid realization will only result from a rigorous attempt to reproduce as many of the textural details as possible:  such divergencies and 'impurities' as then follow from the natural limitations of the instrument itself may be taken to be the intentions of the composer."  In later pieces, as noted by Paul Griffiths, such "divergencies and impurities" are as much a result of the performer's constant state of 'suddenness' as they are of the instrument's own limitations.  Ferneyhough is therefore not a composer of "complex" notational gestures, but rather a composer of dynamic energies and states of being.  In fact, his music calls into question the very ontology of classical music:  his pieces do not exist on the written page, nor in the frantic animation of its realization but in, as he puts it, "that realm of non-equivalence separating the two."

We are thrilled that Ferneyhough will be joining the composition faculty at this year's June in Buffalo, and we're looking forward to hearing his works performed by some of the most skilled players in the field.  Among the composer's pieces which will be heard at this year's festival are the densely polyphonic Bone Alphabet (1992) for solo percussion (to be played by SIGNAL Ensemble's Bill Solomon) and the virtuosic violin solo, Unsichtbare Farben, which will be performed by its dedicatee, Irvine Arditti.

Brian Ferneyhough at JiB 2013
As a frequent guest to the festival (he was on the faculty at JiB 2005 & 2013), Ferneyhough's pieces have been consistent showstoppers, his lectures and masterclasses reliable sources of profound insight and instruction.  I can remember sitting in on a composer masterclass at JiB 2013 that I found particularly illuminating.  A young composer presented a compelling work in which, after several minutes of well-crafted, conventionally-notated music,  the score was interrupted by a brief, graphically-notated measure bearing the instruction:  "with uncontained insanity."  Ferneyhough astutely noted that this brief interruption undermined its own intent.  He stated that leaving "insanity" up to what was essentially performer improvisation would lead to a restrained kind of insanity (which is in fact, the definition of sanity), and that limiting "uncontained insanity" to a single measure was, in fact, to contain it.  He suggested instead that this section be composed out (denying the performer the chance to improvise insanity) and extended (so as to keep it uncontained).  Underlying this observation was a shrewd insight:  crazy people don't know they are crazy, they instead grapple with their perceived reality with agitated fervor and intensity.  If one is to expect "insanity" from a performer, it is perhaps best to place them in a performative situation that would test their very sanity, rather than asking them to approximate it of their own accord.  This seemed not only a valid suggestion for improving this already-strong student work, but indeed, a key aspect of Ferneyhough's own approach.  He was prescribing a rationally-composed irrationality, an architecturally structured absurdity.  He was prescribing plötzlichkeit.

There is, of course, far more to the composer's work than simple performer crazy-making.  Perhaps the greatest strength of Ferneyhough's music is the way it recaptures and re-imagines expression itself.  While much Post-War music used complexity and systemization as ways to bypass expression, Ferneyhough uses these same devices it in its service.  For him, "texture and structure are the two vehicles of expressive form", and works like Bone Alphabet and Unsichtbare Farben demonstrate this in spades.  While some would criticize his music for its density and complexity, no one could say that it is cold or mechanistic.  Instead, it is brimming with life, a dynamic dance of diverse energies.  Ferneyhough's music is an enactment of a psychic drama: the id of unrestrained insanity kept in check by the expressive energy of structure's super-ego, both working simultaneously in opposition and in concert toward the construction of an art that is at once a finely crafted artifact an ever-changing sonic conflict.  It is a music of crystalline design, marred by a multitude of "divergencies and impurities", and continuously engaged in the suddenness of the present.


—Ethan Hayden

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Talujon Percussion: A Rustle and a Bang along 25 years


Lots of contemporary music ensembles have a specialty.  From some ensembles, you can expect a keen ear for the eclectic "Fourth Stream" of downtown minimalism; from others, an expertise in the complex inner workings of American serialism; while others still can summon the most otherworldly sounds from their instruments in service of the more abstract works of the European avant garde.

Surveying the repertoire of Talujon Percussion Ensemble, one finds a perplexing diversity.  The ensemble—described by the New York Times as possessing an edgy, unflagging energy while performing frenzied explosions of percussion madness—is one we're excited to count among the internationally renowned artists in residence at this year's June in Buffalo.  Rather than a single stylistic specialty, Talujon seems to specialize in a stunning sensitivity to a wide span of compositional languages.  If you need an ensemble that can expertly execute staples like Clapping Music or First Construction, or players that can breathe new life into standards like Having Never Written a Note for Percussion or Credo in US, you'd be hard-pressed to find a stronger and more willing group—indeed, Talujon has skillfully performed all of these.  If you need an ensemble that can can blaze through modern classics like Xenakis's Pléiades or Steve Reich's Drumming with effortless fluency, Talujon can more than accommodate—in fact, the latter has become one of the group's signature pieces (listen below).  But perhaps the most exciting aspect of the group is the scope of their rep:  while many percussion ensembles try their hands at American favorites like Reich and Cage, how many also dive into the labyrinthine textures of French works like Manoury's Les Livres des Claviers or Grisey's monumental Le Noire do l'Etoile?  How many can match the visceral intellect of Xenakis with the delicate simplicity of Scelsi and Takemitsu—and perform each with equal relish and precision?  How many percussion ensembles commission works from both post-minimal pioneers like Julia Wolfe and sonic experimenters like Alvin Lucier?


One of the most affecting concerts I can remember was during the ensemble's 2010 residency at the Center.  After opening with a flawless execution of Drumming and stunning with the dynamic, full-spectrum energy of Wolfe's drumset quartet Dark Full Ride, Talujon turned to Sciarrino's Un fruscio lungo trent’anni, a piece whose instrumentation consists of shaken pine branches, stirred water, and scraped glass bottles, performed surrounding the audience.  Rich in silences and glorious near-silences, the piece displayed the breadth of Talujon's sonic sensitivity.  In retrospect, I can think of no better piece to follow Wolfe's intense percussive excursion.

This is the enigma of Talujon:  their specialty lies not in knowing the ins and outs of a single subset of the new music scene, but in seeking out exciting works from every corner of the globe, working with adventurous composers who are constantly finding new ways to expand the ensemble's sonic palette, and having a skillful command of their instruments (which of course, for percussionists, is practically any sound-producing body).

PI faculty member
 Tom Kolor
This skillful command is part of what makes it so exciting that Talujon will be a part of the second June in Buffalo Performance Institute (and that UB's Tom Kolor, a Talujon member, will be on the PI faculty).  Emerging performers of contemporary music can look forward to master classes and workshops with the ensemble, at which Talujon's insight and musical acumen is sure to help guide them toward a mastery of the many lexica of contemporary music.  Like Meridian Arts Ensemble (with whom Talujon will be performing a concert at JiB) Talujon is an ensemble of composers, and the group has premiered many works written by individual members or composed collectively as a group.  Well-attuned to the problems and pleasures of writing for percussion, they will certainly be able to assist emerging composers in getting their ideas across effectively.

2015 is an anniversary year for June in Buffalo, as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the festival and the 30th anniversary of David Felder's tenure as artistic director.  It is also an anniversary year for Talujon:  formed in 1990, the ensemble is celebrating its 25th year.  Showing no sign of stopping, Talujon will surely continue to expand the contemporary percussion repertoire, taking the field in new directions for years to come—starting with the works they'll premiere at this year's festival.  I think back to Sciarrino's Un fruscio lungo trent’anni, whose title translates to "a rustle along thirty years":  congratulations to Talujon, as they celebrate many rustles, bangs, and complex phasing polyrhythms along their twenty-five years.


—Ethan Hayden

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Steven Stucky: The Joyous Science


An entry in Ralph Waldo Emerson's Journals reads:
"In every week there is some hour when I read my commission in every cipher of nature, and know that I was made for another office, a professor of the Joyous Science, a detector and delineator of occult harmonies and unpublished beauties, a herald of civility, nobility, learning, and wisdom; an affirmer of the One Law, yet as one who should affirm it in music or dancing, a priest of the Soul, yet one who would better love to celebrate it through the beauty of health and harmonious power."
Emerson refers to his craft as one combining the seriousness, discipline, and rigor of the intellect with the more lyrical, abstract realm of the soul.  He describes his calling, "the Joyous Science," as a systematic and methodical pursuit of affirming the beautiful, true, and transcendent.  A variation of the phrase "the Joyous Science," was later used by Nietzsche as the title of a volume containing both scrupulous philosophical observations and an appendix of songs (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, or The Gay Science, 1882).  This combination of intellect and passion, sentiment and sentience, is at the heart of the music of the composer we profile this week, Steven Stucky.

Steven Stucky
Stucky's music often acts as a direct translation between the technical and the transcendent.  A recent example can be found in his 2011 orchestral work, Silent Spring.  Written for the Pittsburgh Symphony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson's seminal work on conservation and ecology, the piece tackles the challenge of crafting artistic expression from empirical observations, or as the composer puts it:  "Silent Spring is almost all science. How to make music about that?"  However, by seeking out the 'eloquent lyricism' in Carson's writing, Stucky manages to create an orchestral tone poem that, in Emerson's words, 'delineates the unpublished beauties' of Carson's text.  Where Carson gives us data, Stucky gives us a non-representational expression of the same truth.  "My Silent Spring [is a] space in which to contemplate one’s own fears, hopes, and dreams."

The New York Times has described Stucky's music as being written in an "intricate, pungent yet transparent and, in the best sense, accessible musical language."  The composer's works have always been marked by an exacting precision, even while being less abrasive than some of the spikier works of the American avant garde.  Stucky once wrote, with regard to a program in which his music was performed alongside Elliott Carter's and (fellow JiB composer) Bernard Rands's:  "While [Rands's] music and mine sound softer-edged than Carter's, in fact behind the scenes he and I are two of the most careful, calculating craftsmen I know—to say nothing of Ligeti or Kurtág. We know, as Carter knows, that technical finesse and intellectual control are indispensable tools for communicating feeling."  For Stucky, the complexity is often in the details, expressing itself in virtuosic orchestration, subtle melodic turns, and a willingness to carefully and continuously sculpt musical material until all traces of the rigorous work of composition disappear behind the music's "beauty of health and harmonious power."

This is a feature that is evident in the composer's collection of choral pieces, Cradle Songs (1997).  Recorded on the Grammy-winning Chanticleer album, Colors of Love, the first of these pieces, "Rouxinol do pico preto," is so delicate, ethereal, and harmonically captivating, it's easy to miss the compositional virtuosity on display.  For instance, consider the focus on the text's sibilants and the way they are positioned to mark the beginnings of each phrase with rhythmic clarity and hypnotic precision.  You can hear this piece below, performed by Canada's Musica Intima.


We're excited that Stucky will be among the many internationally-renowned composers who will on the faculty at this year's June in Buffalo festival.  The winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for his Second Concerto for Orchestra, Stucky served as resident composer and new music advisor at the Los Angeles Philharmonic for over two decades, and is permanently employed as Composer-in-Residence of the Aspen Music Festival and School.  He taught at Cornell University, where he founded Ensemble X, until last year, when he joined the faculty of The Juilliard School.  He has written commissioned works for many American orchestras and ensembles, including the New York Philharmonic, Dallas Symphony, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Berkeley Symphony, Washington Choral Society, and the New York Virtuoso Singers.  Well known for his expertise on Lutosławski’s music, he has been recognized with the Lutosławski Society’s medal and an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his monograph on the composer, Lutosławski and His Music (1981).

Stucky maintains humility despite his renown, stating once that he belongs "to that great throng of composers who spend their whole lives trying to be almost as good as Massenet."  He sees himself as an artist well aware of historical precedent, "standing on the shoulders of those who have cleared the path ahead."  And to a younger generation of composers, he is himself an important part of that history.  For this reason, we're excited to have him at this year's festival, so emerging composers can learn from his exacting expertise, benefitting from the path that he himself has cleared, and learning from him the art of the Joyous Science.


—Ethan Hayden

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Meridian Arts Ensemble: At Home in the Grit


It is hard work being a contemporary music ensemble.

No one knows that more than the Meridian Arts Ensemble, the foremost brass quintet in the contemporary music scene today.  The Meridians have been playing angular, complex, exhilarating music since 1987.  Having performed over fifty premieres on four continents, the NY-based brass quintet have maintained a reputation for presenting difficult, adventurous works to diverse audiences.

Over the coming weeks, Edge of the Center will be profiling the many internationally-renowned artists who will be participating in this year's June in Buffalo festival, and we're excited to count the intrepid Meridian Arts Ensemble among them.  

The Meridians began to receive critical and popular acclaim in the early nineties, particularly for their arrangements of the music of Frank Zappa, a composer with whom they worked closely.  To this day, they remain one of Zappa's foremost interpreters, and suites of Zappa arrangements appear on four of their nine recordings:  from 1991's Smart Went Crazy, with its agile maneuvering through "Dupree's Paradise" to Ear, Mind, I's lush helping of "Lumpy Gravy" (1998).  But the Meridians' repertoire expands far beyond Zappa's oeuvre—they are equally proficient with music of the American academy (Charles Wuorinen, Ira Taxin), works from the downtown scene (Elliott Sharp, Nick Didkovsky), music of Central and South America (Tania León, Hermeto Pascoal), klezmer (Frank London), jazz fusion (Randy Brecker, Herbie Hancock) and Baroque and Renaissance music.


Despite their broad palette, the Meridian's concerts never seem unfocused or too broad in scope.  Their repertoire remains united by centering on works by extraordinary—and often unknown—composers.  The group tends to favor collaborating with composers informed by both unorthodox rock music and the spikier edge of the avant garde (e.g., David Sanford, Kirk Nurock).  The Meridians are as engaging playing a well-executed program of classical works at the Library of Congress as they are wailing at a European Jazz Festival (and, in fact, their recent concert DVD shows them doing both with effortless agility).  Many times, when a classical ensemble plays rock or jazz arrangements, there seems to be an awkward element of irony involved, like the ensemble is "slumming", briefly stepping into the grit for novelty's sake.  But the Meridians are at home in the grit, equally well-versed in the vernaculars of Babbitt and Beefheart.  This extensive fluency is a testament to the ensemble's strong, dauntless musicianship.  It is a common cliché in music writing to praise a group by saying they are difficult to categorize or define, but with the Meridians, one has no difficulty in summing them up in a single phrase:  they're simply excellent musicians.

Below is a recent video of the ensemble performing an excerpt of Andrew Rindfleisch's In The Zone (2009).


It's great to have the Meridians at June in Buffalo, especially on this anniversary year.  The ensemble has been an important part of the festival's history, regularly returning to play exciting new brass works.  In 2001, the ensemble made up the core group of the JIBBRASSWORKS project, a large 23-player brass band that performed works of excruciating complexity and stunning beauty, including Xenakis's Khalperr and LaMonte Young's For Brass.

Meridian trumpeter (and Performance Institute Faculty) Jon Nelson offers the following thoughts about the group's first June in Buffalo, and about Meridian's general approach to performing new works:
I think our first June in Buffalo was 1990 or so. David Felder probably heard that we were a young and scrappy brass group that wasn't like all the others… he was right.  I suppose at that time, our two biggest mentors were Zappa and Babbitt.  Both of those guys aspired to excellence and carried a lot of irreverence.  We liked that.  That kind of summed up  (and still does) our mission as a group.  We have steered away from what's in fashion in New Music (if there could be such a thing), and have always gone for music that makes a bold statement.  We didn't chase "famous" composers for commissions, but rather sought out composers who would write for brass in a way that was unlike all brass pieces written before.  Its riskier when you play with the unknown.  Regarding interpretation, its our job to be the filter through which the music can be transmitted truthfully and accurately. Then you let the audiences make up their own minds.  That's a Boulez thing:  realize the piece clearly and let it do its work.  So that's what we have tried to do in the commissions, recordings, and in working with young composers.
At this year's festival, Meridian will play a concert with Talujon Percussion Ensemble at which the group will perform David Felder's dynamic Canzonne XXXI (1993) and Charles Wuorinen's recent Brass Quintet (2009).  In addition, trombonist Benjamin Herrington will join pianist Eric Huebner and percussionist Tom Kolor to play Wuorinen's Trombone Trio (1985) at a Performance Institute concert early in the week.  In addition, the Meridians will perform two concerts of works by June in Buffalo participant composers.  With several composers in the ensemble—including Nelson and hornist Daniel Grabois—the Meridians will be more than able to engage with these emerging composers, and help them execute their ideas in the most efficient and effective ways.

It is perhaps Zappa himself who sums it up best, when he said simply of the Meridians, "Go and see 'em."  So at this year's June in Buffalo, come and see 'em—and if yer a composer, write for 'em too!


—Ethan Hayden

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Martin Bresnick: Music of the extra inch



It begins with a crash.

The opening of Martin Bresnick's BE JUST! reveals the composer's adept skill at crafting evocative musical material, and then immediately subverting it.

It begins with a crash, but this crash is not nearly as ominous or seductive as the motoric texture that emerges in its wake.  Only in Bresnick's music can such a crash be undermined by a simple string of repeated piano and vibraphone notes, intermittent violin harmonics, and dizzying clarinet fragments.  Over the course of the four-minute piece, this steadily driving texture is stabbed, interjected, and flipped on its head.  When it is finally interrupted by the crash with which the piece began, it quickly coalesces and re-emerges, building to fearsome and defiant climax.  Named for the would-be inscription from Kafka's "In the Penal Colony", the piece weaves a narrative of increasing struggle, and of a momentum which is continuously disrupted.

Over the coming weeks, Edge of the Center will be profiling the many internationally-renowned artists who will be participating in this year's June in Buffalo festival.  This week, we look at faculty composer Martin Bresnick.

Bresnick's work is often hard to pin down.  While there are undeniable aspects of (post-) minimalism, these are often capsized by a densely chromatic harmonic lexicon.  Yet this very chromaticism often dissolves into more open, Copland-esque sonorities.  As Kyle Gann notes, Bresnick's music has a thorny elegance, "His gestures can be murky at the same time that his pitch logic, often couched Brahmslike in hovering thirds and sixths, can be luminously transparent."  While his work often features lively—even joyful—rhythmic exuberance, there remain dark undertones, as if his work is haunted by a kind of 21st century American expressionism.

Bresnick perhaps acquired this stylistic eclecticism from György Ligeti, with whom he studied in the early 1970s.  The similarities are fitting:  while Ligeti was inspired from sources as diverse as West African drumming, American minimalism, Hungarian folk music, and the European avant garde, his music never smacked of musical tourism or cultural appropriation.  Likewise, Bresnick's music always only sounds like Bresnick.  Whether he is writing works inspired by Kafka texts, or Indigenous American folk songs, he maintains a flexible compositional language that is once consistent and diverse.  "I had to develop a method of composition that would be sufficiently free but also sufficiently integrally-made so that it could support anywhere I wanted to go."

While never overt or polemical, Bresnick's work often hints at a progressive political perspective, which has been at work in the composer's output since the beginning.  "It's true that my music is often concerned with the insulted, the oppressed, the downtrodden—the Sancho Panzas rather than the Don Quixotes, the horse of Alexander the Great rather than Alexander himself."  Bresnick here refers to Bucephalus, his second string quartet, written in 1984, named for the general's famous steed.  The work alternates between extremes of ferocious double-stop attacks, spikily disjunct, sinewy gestures, and briefer glimpses at a transcendent ethereality.  As composer and Bresnick student Christopher Theofanidis observes, this is characteristic of Bresnick's work:  "Behind the music is this Beethovenian rigor.  You struggle to get where you’re going, and although unexpected moments of grace come up, it’s the struggle itself that is fundamental."


Bresnick is widely respected as a composition teacher, and is perhaps as renowned for his teaching as he is for his music.  Among his students are composers as varied as film composer Marco Beltrami, recent Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Puts, orchestral composers Theofanidis and Daniel Kellogg, jazz pianist Jack Perla, and, perhaps most famously, members of the Bang on a Can collective (David Lang, Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, Evan Ziporyn).  As reviewer Joshua Kosman puts it, "If there is no very obvious Bresnick style, there is no Bresnick school either."

As a teacher, Bresnick is at once pragmatic and intellectual—his expansive knowledge of music history, literature, and philosophy allow him to consider the more abstract, scholarly aspects of art, while maintaining an ebullient, down-to-earth practicality, never losing sight of the essential components of compositional craft.  David Lang has compared studying with Bresnick to a kind of musical therapy:  "He’ll listen to you and then ask you the question that makes you think one inch farther than you’ve thought so far.  He’s not telling you what to write, but asking you to think more carefully about what you were doing already."

Some writers have been quick to draw comparisons between Bresnick and Nadia Boulanger, the French pedagogue who rigorously trained an earlier (and equally varied) generation of American composers (including Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Philip Glass, and Quincy Jones).  Refusing such analogies, Bresnick instead sees himself as more of a Camille Pissarro, the early Impressionist painter (and Jewish anarchist—a detail not overlooked by Bresnick) who engaged in mutual influence with younger artists like Gauguin, Degas, Monet, and Van Gogh.  "Even after all these years I don’t see myself as somebody on a mountaintop with a bunch of tablets," Bresnick remarks in a profile by Steve Smith.  "I see myself as one of the chosen, wandering in the desert.  I’ve just been out there longer.  When people come to me for teaching, I think they see that this is a person who has blood on his clothes and has been torn up a bit in his struggle, just as they struggle to achieve something."

We're excited that Bresnick will be joining us at June in Buffalo this year, encouraging the next generation of composers to think one inch farther, and continuing to engage with them in the struggle.


—Ethan Hayden