Friday, April 21, 2017

Signal: New Music Dream Team

This week, in our series of profiles of June in Buffalo resident ensembles, we introduce Signal. A “new music dream team” (TimeOutNY) of players highly regarded as soloists in their own right, Signal continues its annual residency at June in Buffalo. The ensemble will present four works by faculty composers: ensemble works by David Dzubay and Eivind Buene, and violin concertos—with guest soloist Irvine Arditti—by Brian Ferneyhough and June in Buffalo director David Felder. The Felder piece will be a preview of a new work for solo violin and ensemble, featuring a few movements from what will eventually be a 25 minute multi-movement work. June in Buffalo audiences will recall the ensemble’s excellent performances in past festivals—for instance of Hans Abrahamsen’s Schnee in 2016, David Felder’s Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux in 2015, or Brian Ferneyhough’s Terrain (with Irvine Arditti) in 2013.

Founded in 2008, Signal has been recognized as one of the leading new music ensembles in the US. In the past, they have appeared at festivals and venues such as Lincoln Center Festival, Walt Disney Concert Hall, BIG EARS Festival, Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall, Tanglewood Music Festival of Contemporary Music, Ojai Music Festival, Miller Theatre, (le) Poisson Rouge, Cleveland Museum of Art, the Wordless Music Series, and the Bang on a Can Marathon. The group has released nine albums to international, acclaim including a coveted Diapason d’Or and an appearance on the Billboard Classical Crossover charts. Emphasizing close collaboration with composers, the group has worked with many of today’s most well-known composers, including Steve Reich, Helmut Lachenmann, Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Oliver Knussen, Hilda Paredes, and Charles Wuorinen.

Notable past projects have included stage works such as Steve Reich’s video opera Three Tales, David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe’s video opera Shelter, and Lincoln Center Festival’s production of Monkey: Journey to The West, with music by Damon Albarn, directed by Chen Shi-Zheng. The ensemble has maintained a particularly close relationship with Steve Reich, giving a headline performance of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Radio Rewrite at the 2014 BIG EARS Festival in Knoxville, TN, and co-commissioning a new work for 19 musicians by Reich to be premiered during 2017. Signal’s current season has included events for Reich’s 80th Birthday at the Guggenheim and Miller Theatre, a concert curated by Reich at Carnegie Hall with works by Terry Riley and John Adams, and a portrait concert of Johannes Maria Staud at the Miller Theatre; the season closes with a revival of Ornette Coleman’s neglected chamber music and film music at the Lincoln Center Festival.

At this year’s June in Buffalo, the ensemble will be led by its long-time conductor Brad Lubman. Lubman. A leading conductor of new music, Lubman has appeared with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, National Symphony, and major radio orchestras in France, Finland, Germany, and the Netherlands, and with many of the world’s leading new music groups, such as Ensemble Modern, London Sinfonietta, Klangforum Wien, Ensemble MusikFabrik, Asko|Schönberg Ensemble Amsterdam, Ensemble Resonanz, Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, Chicago Symphony MusicNOW, and Steve Reich and Musicians. Currently on faculty at Eastman School of Music and the Bang on a Can Summer Institute, the conductor has premiered works such as Steve Reich’s Three Tales, Daniel Variations, Radio Rewrite, and Variations for Vibes, Pianos and Strings, and works by Helmut Lachenmann, Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Philip Glass, Charles Wuorinen, John Zorn, and Hilda Paredes.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

MIVOS Quartet: Expanding the String Quartet

The Center for 21st Century Music is excited to welcome the MIVOS Quartet as a resident ensemble at this year’s June in Buffalo Festival. The ensemble, who previously visited the University at Buffalo for a residency in 2014, will perform works by faculty composers Jeffrey Mumford, Eivind Buene, Henrik Hellstenius, and Brian Ferneyhough.

Founded in 2008, the group has quickly gained recognition as “one of America’s most daring and ferocious new-music ensembles” (The Chicago Reader). The quartet’s festival appearances include the New York Phil Biennial, Wien Modern (Austria), the Darmstadt Internationalen Ferienkurse für Neue Musik (Germany), Asphalt Festival (Düsseldorf, Germany), HellHOT! New Music Festival (Hong Kong), Shanghai New Music Week (Shanghai, China), Edgefest (Ann Arbor, MI), Música de Agora na Bahia (Brazil), Aldeburgh Music (UK), and Lo Spririto della musica di Venezia (La Fenice Theater, Italy). Central to the quartet’s mission is advocacy for new works by living composers; commissioned composers include Sam Pluta (Lucerne Festival Commission), Dan Blake (Jerome Commission), Mark Barden (Wien Modern Festival Commission), Richard Carrick (Fromm Commission), George Lewis (ECLAT Festival Commission) Eric Wubbels (CMA Commission), Kate Soper, Scott Wollschleger, Patrick Higgins (ZS), and poet/musician Saul Williams.

In its commissioning projects, the group has often collaborated with guest artists from fields other than notated concert music, opening up previously unexplored possibilities for the string quartet. For instance, the quartet has collaborated with improvisers such as Ned Rothenberg, Timucin Sahin, and Dan Blake in the creation of new works for improvising instrumentalist with string quartet (MIVOS’s collaborative work with Ned Rothenberg was performed live in Buffalo in 2011, presented by Hallwalls). MIVOS has also collaborated with media artists in multimedia works, such as a 2014 collaboration with Samson Young on an interactive work for “extremely amplified” string quartet, 20-channel spatialized sound, 8 video tracks, and EEG (brainwave) sensors. Significantly, quite a few of the quartet’s projects are concert length works, facilitating a depth, immersion, and ambition that might not emerge within the confines of the customary 7-22 minute duration typical of many new music festival commissions.

Complementing their endeavor to expand the string quartet through improvisation and interactive multimedia, the group has also collaborated with spoken word artist Saul Williams. In this project, composers Ted Hearne, Jace Clayton, and the quartet’s own members created material for string quartet to be played alongside Williams’s live performance of his poems. An article from Minnesota Public Radio gives more detail about the innovative project.
Finally, one cannot help but be struck by the volume of the group’s activities that have unfolded in a mere nine years. In addition the genre-bending collaborations described above, the group has release five full albums—including two albums devoted to notated works—and has appeared on numerous other recordings as well. The internet thankfully offers ample documentation of their performances: the group’s soundcloud page is a great place to start; be sure to also check out the plentiful videos available on youtube and vimeo.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Slee Sinfonietta: New Perspectives on Familiar Classics

The Center for 21st Century Music presents the Slee Sinfonietta, conducted by Robert Treviño, on April 11. On this concert, the Sinfonietta will perform two rarely-heard arrangements of well-known turn-of-the-20th-century masterpieces: Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) and Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth). Both works will be presented in chamber-scale arrangements by Arnold Schoenberg (the latter completed by German musicologist Rainer Reihn).

The arrangements originated in the Society for the Private Performance of Music (Verein für Musikalische Privataufführungen), a weekly concert series spearheaded by Schoenberg in Vienna during 1918-1922. In response to the hostile disruptions that often greeted public presentations of their music, Schoenberg—together with friends and students—founded the Society, whose concerts were open only to subscribers. Critics were barred, as was applause and other overt expressions of approval or disapproval; concert programs were not revealed in advance. The Society’s concerts focused on music written after 1890, including works by Schoenberg, his students (Anton Webern, Alban Berg), and predecessors (Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss), as well as works by non-Germanic composers pursuing contrasting aesthetic directions: Ferrucio Busoni, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie, Alexander Scriabin, and Igor Stravinsky.

The Society’s private, ground-up enterprise necessitated a low-budget operating style, resulting in the need to arrange large ensemble works for a more affordable chamber music format. During the Society’s four years, Schoenberg and members of his circle arranged numerous works for concerts, often for a core group consisting of an abbreviated orchestra of sorts, with single woodwinds, piano, harmonium, and single strings. However, it would be simplistic to understand the Society’s interest in truncated orchestral ensembles solely in terms of financial constraints. Schoenberg had in fact been exploring the possibilities of similar ensembles in his works for a decade prior to the Society’s foundation, for instance, in his 1908 Chamber Symphony no. 1, or the 1912 work Pierrot Lunaire; the chamber medium appealed because of its possibilities for intricate contrapuntal detail, close performer-composer interchange, and clear textures in contrast to the hazy fluidity of the post-Wagnerian orchestra. This new approach to orchestration was also of interest to Schoenberg’s contemporaries like Stravinsky (cf. Pribaoutki, L’Histoire du Soldat), and together these efforts might be understood as a precedent for today’s new music sinfonietta ensemble with one orchestral instrument to a part. Therefore, the Society’s arrangements can be read as fascinating documents of a cross-historical dialogue, of how composers on the threshold of a major shift in thinking about orchestration thought about the work of their predecessors.

Schoenberg arranged Debussy’s 1894 orchestral tone poem Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune for a chamber ensemble of single woodwinds, harmonium, piano, antique cymbals, and single strings. The arrangement retains many materials in woodwinds and strings, while transferring woodwind harmony parts to harmonium, the harp part to piano, and splitting the horn part between the two keyboard instruments. As Debussy scholar Richard Parks notes, the arrangement preserves the underlying structural architecture of Debussy’s orchestration—overlapping entrances and exits to obscure structural boundaries, heightening syntactic ambiguity. Beyond this, however, the arrangement fundamentally alters the original: the newfound clarity of texture emphasizes harmony over color, rendering the original’s steamy impressionist landscapes into the chamber music’s solid portrait perspective. This change poses a striking reinterpretation of the piece, downplaying its link to its predecessor Wagner in favor of its descendant Stravinsky, and in turn inviting listeners to hear it less as a terminal development of Romanticism and more as a proto-Modernism.

Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, a hybrid symphony/song cycle for two voices and orchestra completed 1909, might have seemed relatively contemporary to the Society in relation to Debussy’s 1894 Prélude. Even while the arrangements use similar instrumental forces, the Mahler is far less at odds with the Society’s arranging practices than the Debussy. Specifically, Mahler’s work delights in hauntingly sparse moments of chamber music in the midst of its orchestral textures, particularly in its inner movements, and in the desolate cadenzas of its final movement, in sharp contrast to the blurry impressionist textures of the Prélude. In this sense, Das Lied—roughly contemporary with Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony no. 1—might be understood as a forerunner of the Society’s arranging style. As such, Schoenberg’s arrangement does not so much desiccate the original’s lushness, as with the Debussy, as much as further pare down its threadbare constitution. Even while this approach flattens the force and depth of the occasional orchestral tutti passage, it sheds poignant light on the originality of the work’s sparer moments.

For this performance the Sinfonietta will be conducted by Robert Treviño, and will be joined by vocalists Amanda Pabyan (soprano) and Corby Welch (tenor) for the Mahler. Treviño, who will be familiar to Sinfonietta audiences from past appearances with the group, was recently named music director of the Basque National Orchestra, and was previously associate conductor at the Cincinnati Symphony and New York City Opera. Like Treviño, the singers are also rising talents, rapidly gaining accolades for performances at renowned musical institutions. Pabyan has appeared as featured soloist at the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera, and with the symphonies of Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and Seattle, while Welch’s solo performances include the Staatsoper Hamburg, Aix-en-Provence Festival, Schleswig-Holstein Festival, Schwetzingen Festival, and with the Berlin Radio Orchestra, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Lahti Symphony, RIAS Kammerchor, Stuttgart Radio Orchestra, and WDR Orchestra (Cologne).

The Sinfonietta will also be performing in June at this year's June in Buffalo--stay tuned for details.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Jeffrey Mumford: Flourishing Paths

This post, next in our series of posts profiling June in Buffalo faculty composers, introduces the work of Jeffrey Mumford. Currently Distinguished Professor in the Division of Arts and Humanities at Lorain Community College, Mumford has accumulated an exceptional list of accolades, such as grants and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, American Music Center (now part of New Music USA), Ohio Arts Council, ASCAP Foundation, Meet the Composer, American Academy of Arts & Letters, Fromm Music Foundation, Amphion Foundation, and McKim Fund (Library of Congress), and performances by orchestras such as the National Symphony Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and American Composers Orchestra. This year’s June in Buffalo festival will feature performances of three works by Mumford: a garden of flourishing paths (2008) for mixed quintet, the promise of the far horizon (2002) for string quartet, and . . . and symphonies of deepening light . . . expanding . . . ever cavernous (2008) for orchestra. The composer will also give lecture on his music and give masterclasses to participant composers.

A garden of flourishing paths, striking in its approaches to harmony and texture, offers a compelling introduction to his music; a recording of the work is available here. While the work’s pitch language recalls numerous high modernist characteristics—its emphasis on tonally dissonant intervals, wide leaps, and pitch collections not reducible to a single diatonic scale—it subtly references tonal idioms, and cultivates a remarkable tension between modernist atonality and historical tonality. In the midst of the music’s overall chromatic flux, diatonic collections come subtly into focus, pulling pitches into their gravitational field, and establishing local islands of stability, as in the alternating B minor and G minor orientations of the work’s second movement. This activates a fascinating ambiguity in pitches’ functions: sometimes pitches are caught up into tonal hierarchies of scale, chord, and pitch center, and sometimes pitches are simply a singular, unrepeatable event accorded no more or less weight than surrounding pitches. Mumford pulls off this difficult balancing act with astonishing finesse. It would be easy for the tonal connotations to submerge into the dense detail, and, conversely, it would be even easier for tonal gravity to emerge as something of a “bully,” altogether wiping out the functional weight of non-diatonic pitches. However, the composer does not succumb to either pitfall: the tonal connotations are clear but not heavy handed. In other words, the piece’s engagement with tonality does not simplify or conventionalize its pitch language, but rather increases its dimensionality, as tonality enters into dialogue with other modes of listening.

In its approach to texture, the work achieves a similarly sophisticated dialogue between modernism and historical Western art music. In the first movement of a garden of flourishing paths, the music straddles the boundary between Darmstadt-school style pointillism and traditional counterpoint. The rapid succession of notes discontinuous in register and timbre recalls the former, while each instrument’s occasional coalescence into continuous, rhythmically regular sequences of pitches recalls the latter. As with the music’s approach to pitch, this dialectic asks listeners to negotiate between incompatible modes of listening: there is never a definitively “correct,” objective standpoint from which to listen. Dialectical oppositions pointillism/counterpoint, tonality/atonality, and, perhaps additionally, melodic figure/physical energy create a rich interplay of surface and depth, of expectation and realization in this texture. Perhaps this multi-dimensionality embodies the “flourishing paths” of the work’s title.

To learn more about Jeffrey Mumford’s work, check out his website (with numerous recordings in the “Works and First Performances” section), read interviews with him, and check out his recent talk about diversity and inclusion in new music. 

Monday, March 27, 2017

Hilda Paredes: Revelations in Time

The Center for 21st Century Music welcomes guest composer Hilda Paredes later this week for a masterclass and lecture with graduate composition students. Her visit coincides with the Arditti Quartet’s residency at the Center, during which the quartet will give a concert featuring Paredes’s 2014 piece Bitacora capilar (Capillary Log). More detail about the Arditti Quartet residency is available on a past post on this blog.

Paredes is one of the leading Mexican composers of her generation. Based in London since 1979, her music has been recognized with awards from the Arts Council of Great Britain, the Rockefeller Fund for Culture Mexico/USA, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Sistema Nacional de Creadores (FONCA), performances by ensembles such as the Arditti Quartet, Aventure, Court Circuit, Ensemble Modern, Ensemble Recherche, Ensemble Signal, Ensamble Sospeso,  London Sinfonietta, Lontano,  Neue Vocalsolisten, Ensamble Sospeso, L’Instant donné, London Sinfonietta, Lontano, and the English National Opera, at festivals such as Huddersfield, Edinburgh, Eclat, Ultraschall, Musica, Wien Modern, Akiyoshidai, Takefu Festivals, Archipel ans Music monat, Warsaw Autumn, Ultima, Melbourne, Ars Musica, and Festival Internacional Cervantino. She has been visiting professor at the Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya en Barcelona, and in 2007 was Darius Milhuad Visiting Professor at Mills College, a prestigious position previously held by Pauline Oliveros, Roscoe Mitchell, George Lewis, Gordon Mumma, and Alvin Curran.

Paredes’s piece Revelación (2010-2011) for ensemble offers a clear introduction to how the composer approaches material and form. The excerpt above thematizes a dialectic between a linear, accumulative harnessing of kinetic energies on a local level and a paratactic, non-directional succession of contrasting panels on a global level. The opening panel (0:00-1:41) presents an increasingly directed accumulation of melodic mobility. By 1:41 the energy disperses, and in a seemingly unmotivated yet entirely convincing transition, a cross-fade of sorts, the staccato texture of the second panel enters.

As a musical space, the second panel is entirely “other” to the first panel, building kinetic energies from isolated gestures of pure physicality (i.e. a bouncing violin bow) rather than from  melodic figures. The second panel is in no way an “organic” outgrowth of the first; it is wholly exterior to it, punctuating and relativizing it, dispersing and redirecting its energy; the revelations of the title might be connected to this temporal experience. To this listener, the subtle sleight of hand through which Paredes traces convincing local continuities between seemingly disconnected objects is a strikingly successful feature of this piece. Her strategy of connecting disparate musical spaces by maintaining rhythmic momentum links her work to her former teacher Franco Donatoni, but the strategy is applied in a wholly personal way. The combination of goal-oriented local syntax with a discontinuous, non-goal oriented global syntax lends the former—despite its conventionality within the past three centuries of Western art music—a distinctive and unexpected weightless. The conventionality of local materials and syntax is put in quotation marks as their formal frame emerges, lending them a surprising freshness. Far removed from, say, the driven expressionist pathos of Ferneyhough or Rihm, the gestures of Paredes’s piece coalesce into linear accumulations only to evaporate, forgetting their identities and reformulating into something wholly new.

To learn more about her work, check out her website, with numerous links to recordings, and also have a look at the numerous videos of her work available online.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Arditti Quartet Returns to Buffalo

The Center for 21st Century Music welcomes the Arditti Quartet for a concert and workshop March 30 and 31. Founded in 1974, the quartet is arguably the most acclaimed string quartet in new music. The group has received a myriad of accolades. For their discography of over 200 albums, they have received multiple Gramophone (“Grammy”) Awards and Deutsche Schallplattenpreisen, and a Coup de Coeur Prize and Grand Prix from the Academie Charles Cros in 2004. The group has played at most major new music festivals worldwide, and is the only ensemble to receive the Ernst von Siemens Prize for lifetime achievement. The quartet has frequently visited UB over the past few decades, and has forged a particularly close collaborative relationship with the Center’s director, SUNY Distinguished Professor David Felder, whose three string quartets were written for and premiered by the group.

However, to understand the quartet’s project in terms of traditional kinds of institutional validation does not quite do it justice. Beyond recognition for its concerts and recordings, the quartet has played a crucial role in keeping the string quartet alive as a significant medium for music making. When the group emerged in the 1970s, it appeared that the string quartet was on its way to becoming an obsolete instrumental combination like the viol consort or Baroque trio sonata ensemble. In the years after WWII, all aspects of the canon of Western art music were viewed with suspicion, particularly by younger European composers; in this context, the ensemble’s roots in the European Enlightenment, its connotations of rational intersubjective discourse, and its instruments’ association with particular constructions of subjective expression, led most forward-thinking composers to avoid writing string quartets in the decades after WWII. It was due to the efforts of the Arditti Quartet—alongside the LaSalle, Berner, and Kronos Quartets—that composers returned to the medium with increased interest.

The Arditti’s cultivation of new repertoire for string quartet depended on close collaborative relationships with composers. Often the group collaborated with senior composers who were writing their first significant works for string quartet, resulting in works such as Iannis Xenakis’s Tetras, featuring restless glissandi and frenetic bowing, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helicopter Quartet, where each player plays from their own airborne helicopter with audio transmitted to a concert hall, and Conlon Nancarrow’s String Quartet no. 3, the belatedly-recognized composer’s attempt to translate the hyperactive polyrhythms of his player piano studies into the quartet medium. The Ardittis attracted a similar level of attention for their collaborations with younger composers. In collaborating with Brian Ferneyhough—a faculty composer at this year’s June in Buffalo—the group played a key role in formulating a performance practice for his extremely difficult music, creating strategies for navigating its multi-layered notational detail and instrumental physicality. In working with Helmut Lachenmann on his second string quartet, the quartet built on the Berner Quartet’s earlier work, codifying and expanding a palette of extended playing techniques now widely known to composers and performers alike. The list of works premiered by the quartet is massive, ranging from senior composers of the 1970s to current PhD students.

For its concert at the Center on March 31, the quartet will perform three recent works by long-time collaborators: Harrison Birtwistle’s The Silk House Sequences, Hilda Paredes’s Bitacora capilar, and Center director David Felder’s new quartet Netivot. The Felder work, which was premiered at last year’s June in Buffalo, will be presented in a new version with video by Elliot Caplan. Here is a recording of the June in Buffalo performance:

Later in 2017, the quartet’s founder and first violinist Irvine Arditti will return to Buffalo as a guest soloist at June in Buffalo. Also renowned as a soloist, he will give a solo recital featuring works of David Felder, Henrik Hellstenius, and Roger Reynolds on June 8th. On June 10th, he will join Ensemble Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman, for Brian Ferneyhough’s Terrain and parts of a new violin concerto by David Felder.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Ensemble Mise-En: Beauty and Decoration

This week the Center for 21st Century Music welcomes guest ensemble ENSEMBLE MISE-EN for a concert and workshop. The ensemble is a NYC-based collective of young performers, founded in 2011 and led by composer Moon Young Ha. The group’s name originates from Korean words--mee (beauty) and zahn (decorate)--and crystallizes the ensemble’s focus, as a “multi-national personnel…unabashedly promotes 'beautiful' artwork to increasingly diverse audiences.” In a short six years, Mise-En has quickly established itself, with performances at le poisson rouge, Bohemian National Hall, Italian Academy, Tenri Cultural Institute, a residency at the cell, and partnerships with Washington Square Contemporary Music Society, International Alliance for Women in Music, Austrian Cultural Forum New York, Open Meadows Foundation, New York University, New York Foundation for the Arts, I-Park, Goethe-Institute Boston, Villa Gillet and others.

In addition to these guest appearances, the ensemble has also presented its own events, often at its own space, MISE-EN_PLACE, opened in 2014 in Brooklyn. Noted by the New York Times for “examining unusual corners of the composition world,” a common thread Mise-En’s events is advocacy for under-recognized composers and alternative canons. Mise-En’s portrait concerts have featured the work of Franco Donatoni, Sofia Gubaidulina, Edison Denisov, and Claude Vivier--highlighting alternative modernisms--and have introduced American audiences to European composers such as Bent Sørensen and Wolfgang Mitterer. Along similar lines, the ensemble’s “Connections” series explores unexpected commonalities between works across differences in geography and age. Finally, Mise-En’s eponymous annual festival is unique in the contemporary music landscape for its focus on an impressively international group of emerging composers.

While at UB, the group will present a workshop of new works by UB PhD students together with a concert of works from the ensemble’s repertoire. The concert features five works written by emerging composers in the past two years plus an older work by a senior composer. Robert A. Baker’s all the lights are gathered in your eyes might be described as reliefs, counterposing materials with highly contrasting energies; an excerpt of the piece is available here. Sergio Augusto Cote Barco’s Rand (see above for recording) begins with similarly stark contrasts, which loosen as the piece unfolds.

In contrast to the discontinuities and contrasts of the latter two pieces, Anna Meadors’s Flight and Fredric Rzewski’s Moonrise with Memories explore varieties of regular rhythmic pulsation and repetition. Rzewski’s piece features a melodic bass trombone solo accompanied by six unspecified instruments playing repetitive, rhythmically regular materials in canon, in what might be understood as a personal response to Steve Reich’s proposal to build music from gradual constructive processes (a recording is available on Spotify, and a score is available on IMSLP). In contrast, Meadors’s piece (see above for recording) looks at (post)-minimalist possibilities decades later, bringing familiar minimalist devices like regular pulsation and gradual harmonic change into dialogue with  notions of drama and contrast characteristic of Western art music in the 18th- and 19th-centuries.

Harmony comes to the forefront in Amanda Feery’s Those So Moral, which constructs a strikingly fresh approach to conjunct voice-leading. The work’s voice-leading strongly references the ostensibly tonal intervals of the perfect fourth and fifth, but defamiliarizes them through the use of glissandi, close intervals resulting in beating, and klangfarbenmelodie. The concert also includes ensemble director Moon Young Ha’s (in)stillness.

To find out more about Ensemble Mise-En, have a look at their website, soundcloud page, and the ample documentation of their performances available on youtube.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Hans Thomalla: Traces of Meaning

The Center for 21st Century Music is pleased to host Hans Thomalla as guest composer this friday, March 10. During his visit, Thomalla will conduct a masterclass with PhD composition students and present a lecture on his recent works.

Thomalla is currently Associate Professor of Composition at Northwestern University, where he founded and currently directs the Institute for New Music, Northwestern’s counterpart to UB’s Center for 21st Century Music. The composer was previously Dramaturge and Musical Advisor of the Dramaturgie at the Stuttgart Opera before moving to the US for doctoral studies at Stanford University, where he studied with friend of the Center Brian Ferneyhough. His output ranges from chamber music to orchestral works to two recent operas, “Fremd” and “Kaspar Hauser.”

Thomalla’s compositions foreground how musical meaning is made. Approaching music as a language of sorts, his works explore how raw, ephemeral, multi-dimensional sound comes to carry quasi-linguistic meaning. His works often examine a particular historical musical vocable from a variety of angles by deconstructing materials from past Western musics.

Many of Thomalla’s works explore the dynamics of musical meaning within the context of a particular instrument’s history and culture. The beginning of his early piece wild.thing proceeds from a deconstruction of the drumset. Historically, percussion instruments in Western art music have always been the “odd ones out,” as they are unpitched while Western art music’s language revolves fundamentally around pitch. This dilemma has often been resolved by relegating the instruments to a marginal role such as time keeping, resulting in a tension between the instruments’ timbral richness and procrustean beds of musical order they are forced into. This might explain why meanings historically associated with percussion relate to this dialectic between freedom and order—from the martial associations of the snare drum, to the Utopian connotations of the climactic cymbal crash in 19th century orchestral music, to the (problematically colonialist) aura of liberated sexuality implicit in late 19th century exoticist percussion (particularly in “Spanish”-tinged works by Bizet, Rimsky-Korsakov, Chabrier, and others).

Wild.thing begins from a sound object that dramatizes this tension, namely a drum solo from the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s noted live performance of the song “Wild Thing” at the Monterey Pop Festival. The drum solo, something of a coda to the song (which accompanies Hendrix as he prepares to light his guitar on fire), liberates the drums from the constraints of time-keeping, if not from regular rhythm altogether, but, at the same time, it is built from the highly ramified snare drum rudiments of the military march. Thomalla’s wild.thing takes excerpts (starting at 6:11 in this video) from the solo as the basis for the percussion parts, deconstructing them through filtering processes reminiscent of his former teacher Brian Ferneyhough. The piece could be understood as a kind of parallel universe to the Hendrix/Mitchell original, exploring what might be possible if the coda’s gesture of sonic liberation were taken as the starting point for the construction of a musical language.

In reimagining their sources, Thomalla’s compositions perhaps aim less to transform found material for the sake of novelty than to open up the material's dimensionality. Wild.thing seems to imagine how its source material might take on possibilities denied in its original context—specifically, how the drum set might exist in a musical order less bent on repressing its noisiness and corporeality.  The composer’s interest in historical materials stems not at all from a conservative desire to “return to the past,” but instead from a desire to imagine the past as open, and to better understand its bearing on the present, thereby making possible alternative futures. From this standpoint, Thomalla’s compositions might be understood less as closed masterpieces and more as catalysts for a broader critical practice of listening, to be applied potentially to any relevant piece of music.

At the Center, we greatly anticipate discussing these issues with Thomalla later this week. His website is here, and his publisher’s website is here. Below is a video of a more recent composition, Albumblatt.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Eivind Buene: Landscapes and Ruins

This week’s post introduces the work of Norwegian composer Eivind Buene, who will be a faculty composer at this year’s June in Buffalo festival. For nearly two decades he has been active on the European new music festival scene, with commissions from Ensemble Intercontemporain, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and Fondation Royaumont, and performances at the Berlin Philharmonie, Centre Pompidou, and Carnegie Hall. The scope of his artistic activities is unusually broad, with frequent collaborations with improvising musicians, and, since 2010, the publication of multiple novels and collections of essays. He is currently on faculty at the Norwegian Academy of Music.

This year’s June in Buffalo will feature live performances of four works from Buene’s Possible Cities/Essential Landscapes cycle (2005-2009): Grid, Landscape with Ruins, Ultrabucolic Studies, and Nature Morte. The cycle as a whole consists of nine pieces for varying chamber ensembles that explore processes of growth and decay, as well as hybrids of cyclic and organic form, inspired by Italo Calvino's book Invisible CitiesA recording of the complete cycle, performed by the Cikada Ensemble—also a guest at this year’s June in Buffalo—is available on Youtube and Spotify.

The cycle is built from elemental, pliable building blocks, for instance, as Grid begins with three such building blocks: glissandi, double-stop sequences, and sustained tones. In this case, the elements are characterized most strongly in the domain of pitch; elsewhere in the piece, their identities have more to do with their physical process of production, for instance in the sustained “scratch tone” (performed with unusually high bow pressure) that enters later in the piece. These elements are subject to wide ranging transformations, and indeed this is where the music’s interest lies. Sequences of elements sculpt kinetic energies in a compelling drama, one that does not overtly reference earlier formal models but engages in a dialogue with earlier tonal music’s preoccupation with accumulation and dissipation of momentum. In less skilled hands, the music’s (perhaps deliberately) anonymous materials might come across as lifeless and academic, but Buene’s successful use of sectionalized, often proportionally imbalanced forms together with inventive ensemble textures lends the materials a striking character, depth, and energy.

Landscape with Ruins for piano trio is a striking example of Buene’s capacity for textural invention. The piano and the string instruments (violin and cello) seem to inhabit different worlds, and yet seem to coexist in an inexplicable way. For much of the first half of the piece, the piano’s material is chordal and measured, referencing tonal sonorities and occasionally barely disguised tonal chord progressions (the influence of former UB professor Morton Feldman is evident), while the string instruments’ material is floridly melodic and restless. While the two layers frequently follow independent phrase structures, they occasionally converge on common points of motion and repose. The layers struggle to communicate with each other but depend on each other in some vital way, something that is made manifest as the piano and strings effectively switch material identities towards the piece’s end.

Perhaps the “landscape” of the title refers to this multiplicity of perspective; traditionally, the landscape is the opposite of the portrait, offering expanse and multiplicity in place of the portrait’s closed, singular perspective. In Buene's work, polyphony refuses containment within the interiority of tonal models of counterpoint. Landscape with Ruins: disintegrating traces of human(ist) culture—traces of historical tonality, with their connotations of the “civilized” European Enlightenment—are embedded in a scene that exceeds tonal countepoint and its reductionist modes of listening.

Ensemble Dal Niente: Music from Nothing

This profile of Ensemble Dal Niente kicks off a series of profiles introducing composers and ensembles featured at this year’s June in Buffalo festival. Founded in 2004 by students at Northwestern University, the ensemble's professional profile has risen at a noteworthy pace. The group’s acclaimed performances at the Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music were a crucial break, as the ensemble took top prizes (2010 & 2012) and then returned as invited guests (2014). This recognition led to invitations to perform at concert series and festivals such as Concerts from the Library of Congress, Ecstatic Music Festival, Festival International Chihuahua, Latino Music Festival, Music Arte Panama, Ravinia Festival, and SALT Festival, to conduct workshops at universities such as Northwestern, Chicago, Harvard, Stanford, Indiana, Illinois, and Western Michigan, and to record on labels such as New Amsterdam, New Focus, Navona, Parlour Tapes+, and Carrier labels.

Ensemble Dal Niente performs at June in Buffalo 2016
The group has developed a range of innovative approaches to concert curation. Perhaps most striking is Dal Niente’s annual “THE PARTY,” a marathon concert in “a non-traditional performance space, a flexible floor plan,” where music is “paired with food and beverages,” in “a relaxed environment where audiences can mingle and move around, and musical performances that run the gamut from the hilarious to the sublime.” Hard Music, Hard Liquor” concerts are another Dal Niente fixture, featuring group’s phenomenal players in adventurous ultra-virtuosic solo and chamber works, which are often innovative new works by emerging composers. The group also ventures outside the bounds of new concert music, for instance in their genre-bending collaboration with the rock group Deerhoof and composer Marcos Balter, resulting in a critically-acclaimed 2016 album on New Amsterdam records.

Dal Niente’s story is different from that of many other new music groups in light of its origins in a Midwestern city. The group has not only succeed despite the obstacles inherent in this trajectory (such as limited access to well-funded new music presenters and to important professional networks, etc.), but has also helped put the wider Chicago new music scene on the map, together with groups like the International Contemporary Ensemble, Eighth Blackbird, and recent Grammy award winners Third Coast Percussion. Today, the city is a destination in its own right for new music activity (probably more so than any other non-coastal US city), with significant new ensembles (, mocrep, Fonema Consort), festivals (Frequency, Ear Taxi), record labels (Parlour Tapes+) and publications (Cacophony Magazine) emerging regularly across the city. As more attention is paid to new music scenes in mid-sized and middle-American cities, the work of Dal Niente and others in Chicago appear in retrospect to have played a pioneering role in new models of arts programming. Dal Niente's name, meaning "from nothing" in Italian (taken from the title of an important work by Helmut Lachenmann), alludes to these humble beginnings.

Dal Niente has forged a range of connections with the Center for 21st Century Music over the years. The ensemble was an invited guest at last year’s June in Buffalo, where their performances were well received. However, the group’s relationship with the Center goes back much further in its work with UB doctoral composition students, particularly alumnae/alumni Megan Beugger, Aaron Cassidy, and Evan Johnson, and current PhD candidate Colin Tucker. In 2012, Johnson received a Meet the Composer Commissioning Music/USA grant for a new work for the group, which was premiered on a high-profile concert at the Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music in Germany; the piece was awarded a prestigious Stipendpreis. Both Tucker and Beugger wrote solo works for the group’s violinist, Austin Wulliman, and all four UB composers have been regularly programmed by the group.

At UB we look forward to Dal Niente’s return this June. In the meantime, you can check out their website, audio clips from the group’s commercially available recordings, videos, photos, and the group’s blog.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Student Activities 2016

PhD composition students at the Center for 21st Century Music had a busy year in 2016, with high profile festival appearances, portrait concerts, and a prominent role in a new book surveying the recent history of experimental music, among other successes.

In 2016, UB PhD composers’ work was featured at leading festivals and venues throughout North America and Europe. Weijun Chen received the Jacob Druckman Prize, resulting in the commission of a new work, Dancer (orchestral version), premiered last summer by the Aspen Philharmonic at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado. Chen's music also made an appearance at New York City’s MATA Festival, where Dancer (chamber version) was performed by Ensemble Linea. Matt Sargent, now Visiting Assistant Professor of Electronic Music and Sound at Bard College, composed Three Illuminations for Ensemble Mise-En during a residency at I-Park International. The work was premiered at NYC’s National Opera Center and was later selected for the prestigious 2017 ISCM World Music Days; other pieces by Sargent were presented at the New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival, Chicago’s Frequency Festival, and Germany’s Darmstadt Ferienkurse für Neue Musik. On a more local note, this year’s June in Buffalo festival featured works by four UB doctoral composers Weijun Chen, Brien Hendersen, Igor Coelho Arantes Santana Marques, and Colin Tucker, performed by Ensembles Uusinta and Dal Niente.

Two UB PhD composers were the recognized by portrait concerts devoted solely to their work, a rare honor for young composers. Colin Tucker’s maps of disintegration and forgetfulness, a series of works for small ensembles, was featured on a concert at Detroit’s Trinosophes, while Matt Sargent’s music was the sole focus of no less than three individual portrait concerts, presented by The Wulf, the Silpe Gallery of the University of Hartford (CT), and the Woodstock Artist Association and Museum. The former two events featured Sargent’s new work Tide for UB alumnus TJ Borden for solo cello and electronics.

Other UB composers were active creating work in a wide range of mediums. In the realm of chamber music, Derick Evans was commissioned along with Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw to write a new piece for the River Town Duo, while Roberto Azaretto’s Abrasion platforms was commissioned by Argentina’s Fundación MúsicaAntiquaNova for Thomas Skeweres and Yui Iwata. For Ensemble Linéa’s April visit to the Center for 21st Century Music, Roberto Azaretto, Matt Chamberlain, Weijun Chen, Meredith Gilna, Alex Huddleston, and Su Lee wrote new works for the group. UB doctoral composers have also been active writing for virtuoso soloists who specialize in new music: Colin Tucker’s center unmoored in the presence of infinite fringes was premiered by tuba soloist Aaron Hynds at Bowling Green State University, while Jessie Downs’s Torpid Smoke was premiered by percussion soloist Christian Smith at the Basel Music Academy. Downs, in addition to Meredith Gilna, also composed new works for UCSD doctoral flutist Michael Matsuno, who visited UB to premiere the works last March. Beyond chamber music, UB PhD composers took on ambitious large-scale projects, such as Matt Sargent’s trumpet concerto “The Singing Shore,” premiered at the River Concert Series in St. Mary's City, MD, by soloist Jeff Silberschlag and the Chesapeake Orchestra, and Colin Tucker’s voice-dross, a five-channel, two-room, long-term sound installation at Detroit’s Spread Art.

In addition to recognition by performers, festivals, and venues, the music of UB composers featured prominently in the book Experimental Music since 1970 by Jennie Gottschalk, published by Bloomsbury this past summer. In surveying experimental music practices, the book discusses works by current PhD student Matt Sargent, PhD alumni G. Douglas Barrett, Megan Beugger, Aaron Cassidy, and Evan Johnson alongside those of master composers—such as Maryanne Amacher, Cornelius Cardew, Julius Eastman, and MaxNeuhaus—who were Creative Associates at UB during the 1960s and 70s.

In addition to their compositional endeavors, UB composers were also active in performance and curation, initiating innovative musical programming locally, nationally, and internationally. Matt Chamberlain was active internationally as a conductor, conducting two works by Josh Levine with the Slee Sinfonietta at June in Buffalo as well as conducting his own work In Ignorance at the Budapest New Music Center as part of a master course with Peter Eötvös and friend of the Center Jean-Philippe Wurtz.

UB’s doctoral composers were especially active in the field of vocal music. Jessie Downs founded Sotto Voce, a vocal ensemble focusing on works by emerging composers whose members include PhD composer alumni Ethan Hayden and Zane Merritt. During 2016, the ensemble presented two programs of demanding recent works by local, national, and international composers. Esin Gündüz, as a vocalist, was active as member of the free jazz ensemble resAUnance—whose debut album received praise internationally—and also joined a quartet led by free jazz legend Juini Booth. In the realm of concert music, she created a site-specific duo project “Senso di Voce” with oboist Megan Kyle at Buffalo’s Silo City, re-contextualizing Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music through contemporary improvisation in the site’s reverberant acoustic. The event was featured in WNED public radio and other local press

Null Point, a curatorial initiative for new music in Buffalo led by Colin Tucker, also had an active year. During 2016 the initiative received competitive grants for its projects: New Music USA supported a recording project with Ithaca-based composer/percussionist Sarah Hennies at Silo City, while New York State Council on the Arts supported a series of workshops introducing youth in underserved neighborhoods to experimental music. PhD composers Jessie Downs, Esin Gündüz, and Colin Tucker, as well as alumni Ethan Hayden and Zane Merritt, were involved in developing and teaching the workshops. In the realm of performance, Null Point presented the North American premiere of James Saunders’s Surfaces as part of the Echo Art Fair. The piece—an open-ended series of prompts for sound making with unspecified surfaces—was brought into dialogue with Buffalo’s unique, historic built environment in a site-specific durational performance where all sounds were generated from the disintegrating floors of the vacant Buffalo Gear and Axle Plant.