Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Bernard Rands Honored with SUNY Honorary Doctorate

On October 24, the Center for 21st Century Music’s resident chamber ensemble, the Slee Sinfonietta, presents a portrait concert of Bernard Rands, as the composer receives an honorary doctorate from the State University of New York (ticket information is available here). The concert features two large-scale works by Rands, together with works by his former teacher, the late Luciano Berio, and by his former student, Center for 21st Century Music Artistic Director and SUNY Distinguished Professor David Felder.

Rands is among the most lauded living composers. He won the Pulitzer Prize (1984), a Grammy award (2000), the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award (1986), and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2004. His work has consistently been featured by the most prestigious art music institutions globally. He was composer in residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra for seven years, and his works have been conducted by the likes of Barenboim, Boulez, Davis, Eschenbach, Maazel, Marriner, Mehta, Muti, Ozawa, Rilling, Salonen, Sawallisch, Schwarz, Slatkin, Spano, von Dohnanyi, and Zinman, among many others, and commissioned by Suntory Concert Hall in Tokyo, the New York Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Cincinnati Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, The Philadelphia Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Internationale Bach Akademie, the Eastman Wind Ensemble, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra.
In 2014, Rands’s 80th birthday was marked by the premiere of a piano concerto by Jonathan Biss, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Spano, followed by repeat performances by Biss with the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, and with the BBC Scottish Orchestra conducted by Markus Stenz at the BBC Proms. That year, the BBC also devoted its three-day FOCUS festival entirely to Rands’s music, the Tanglewood Festival presented the premiere of Folk Songs (also featured on the Slee Sinfonietta’s upcoming concert), and Bridge Records released a CD "Bernard Rands – Piano Music 1960 – 2010" featuring the playing of Ursula Oppens and Robert Levin.
In 2014, Rands also appeared as faculty composer at June in Buffalo, where numerous large-scale works were presented: his complete piano preludes, two ensemble works, and his orchestral piece …where the murmurs die…. Rands has a decades long history appearing as faculty composer at June in Buffalo, where he has appeared particularly frequently (2006, 2009, 2010, 2014, 2015) since the formation of the Center for 21st Century Music.

The Slee Sinfonietta portrait concert will feature two Rands works, “now again” – fragments from Sappho and Folk Songs, both for voices and chamber orchestra. “now again” (2006) sets poetic fragments of ancient Greek poet Sappho for three voices and chamber orchestra. Fanfare magazine writes that the piece presents “a montage of fragments [that] somehow coalesces to create a portrait of Sappho and her ancient world…it's a puzzle that comes together to form more puzzles.” The work has been widely praised in high-profile newspaper reviews, with the Philadelphia Inquirer writing that “as with all great pieces, so much was implied by so little,” while the Chicago Sun Times praising its “welcome marriage of precise technique and sensuous lyricism and scoring.” Also on the program is Rands’s recent Folk Songs (2014), nine re-imaginings of folk songs in their original languages; the composer calls the work “semi-autobiographical” because each song originates in a region where he has spent significant time: Bavaria, England, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, USA, and Wales.

The program also features works by Rands’s former teacher Luciano Berio and former student David Felder, connecting Rands’s lauded works in a broader historical context and connecting them to the Center for 21st Century Music. Berio’s Linea (1973) is a virtuoso work for two pianos and percussion emphasizing constant and often drastic variation of a simple melody. David Felder’s Coleccion Nocturna (1983) for clarinet (doubling on bass clarinet), piano, and tape also takes processes of variation as its point of departure, presenting five variations on what the composer describes as "a wholly self-contained musical object" from his piano solo Rocket Summer. Significantly, the piece was the final piece written during Felder’s doctoral studies with Rands at UCSD.

The concert also commemorates Rands’s role in the revival of June in Buffalo in the late 1980s. Started in 1975 by then Edgard Varèse Distinguished Professor Morton Feldman, the festival had since lapsed into inactivity in the years before the festival’s current director David Felder arrived at UB. Felder restarted June in Buffalo in 1986, expanding it with opportunities for student composers to have works performed at a professional level (a model that his since been adopted by new music festivals worldwide). This format was based on an earlier festival Felder had spearheaded while Visiting Professor at California State University—Long Beach in the early 1980s, a festival which had featured Rands and Felder’s earlier teacher Donald Erb as faculty composers. Rands played an integral role in the transplantation of this model to UB, lending energy, time, and expertise by setting up contacts with funding agencies, sending students to the festival, and talking up the festival throughout the new music world.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Eric Huebner and Steven Beck perform Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Mantra”

On Saturday, October 14, the Center for 21st Century Music presents a performance of Karlheinz’s Stockhausen’s acclaimed concert-length work Mantra, featuring UB piano professor Eric Huebner and guest pianist Steven Beck. Performed only rarely due to its length and logistical complexities (see below), Mantra is a historically significant piece, particularly notable for augmenting the piano with percussion and live electronics and for pioneering a new musical style that is both melodic and modernist.

The 65 minute work for two pianists (each also with woodblocks and crotales) and live electronics (primarily ring modulators) was completed in 1970. Mantra marks a striking shift in Stockhausen’s style, and more broadly, as Robin Maconie writes, it “defines Stockhausen’s aims for the 1970s” and beyond, presaging the melodic structures that form the bedrock of LICHT, the cycle of seven operas that preoccupied the composer from 1977 to 2003. While many of Stockhausen’s works from the 1960s feature extended playing techniques (Mikrophonie I) and unusual sound sources like radios (Kurzwellen), Mantra features equal-tempered pitches on pianos. Likewise, while many of his 1960s works explored notational indeterminacy via open form (Momente), open-ended symbolic notations (Plus-Minus), and verbal prompts for “intuitive music” (Aus den Sieben Tagen), Mantra is a through-composed score in staff notation.

The work’s title refers to a 13 note melodic cell (heard near the work’s outset) that forms the piece’s foundation: the entirety of the piece can be related to it through audibly traceable processes of repetition and variation. The pitch, rhythmic, and textural attributes of this cell function as “kernel” for piece as a whole, in a synthesis between the serial procedures of Stockhausen’s 1950s music and 18th-19th century practices of organic thematic transformation. See below for a video of the composer explaining the work’s construction in detail.

Both pianists bring to the performance extensive backgrounds in new music and classical music. Eric Huebner is currently Associate Professor at the University at Buffalo, pianist of the New York Philharmonic, and adjunct faculty at the Juilliard School. After making his debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at age 17, he has appeared at prestigious venues such as the Ojai Festival, Monday Evening Concerts, Carnegie’s Zankel and Weill Recital Halls, Miller Theatre, Merkin Hall, (le) Poisson Rouge, and Roulette. From 2011-12 he was a member of the award-winning chamber ensemble Antares, and he has also appeared with numerous NYC-based contemporary music ensembles, including the International Contemporary Ensemble, Talea, New York New Music Ensemble, American Contemporary Music Ensemble, Manhattan Sinfonietta, So Percussion and the American Modern Ensemble. His performances have been broadcast on PBS, NPR, WNYC (New York), Radio Bremen (Germany), ORF (Austria) and the BBC, and recorded on Col Legno, Centaur, Bridge, Albany, Tzadik, Innova, New Focus Recordings and Mode Records.

Huebner will be joined by Steven Beck, a frequent guest performer at June in Buffalo. As soloist, Beck has appeared with the National Symphony Orchestra, the New Juillliard Ensemble (under David Robertson), and the Virginia Symphony. He has performed at prestigious venues such as the Kennedy Center, Alice Tully Hall, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, Merkin Hall, Miller Theater, and Tonic, Aspen Music Festival, Lincoln Center Out of Doors, and Bargemusic, and with respected ensembles such as Talea Ensemble, Speculum Musicae, the Da Capo Chamber Players, the Manhattan String Quartet, the Pacifica String Quartet, The Metropolis Ensemble, the New York New Music Ensemble, the Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble, and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble.

The performance has been in the works for a long time. Huebner writes that “it's been my dream to play Mantra since I first learned of the piece in high school.” Inspired by a recording featuring former UB professor Yvar Mikhashoff, Huebner came close to mounting a performance while a student at Juilliard but did not have access to the requisite resources. As Huebner explains, the piece is very much a team effort, requiring a range of highly specialized tasks in performance as well as behind the scenes. UB music department music technology director Christopher Jacobs will run  sound, while the department’s piano technician Devin Zimmer built custom crotale mounts to fit inside the pianos. Percussionists Tom Kolor (UB Associate Professor of Music), Daniel Druckman (New York Philharmonic), and Greg Zuber (Metropolitan Opera Orchestra Principal Percussionist) assisted in procuring the necessary crotales and wood blocks needed for the piece, some of which are not commonly used. Additionally, Huebner and Beck will use an electronics interface designed by pianist Ryan MacEvoy McCullough, integrating the original analog electronics into iPads connected to laptops, controlled directly by both performers. Huebner writes that, “I'm extremely grateful for the support of the Robert and Carol Morris Center for 21st Century Music and its director, David Felder for making this performance possible…[Steven Beck and I] are hoping our performance at UB will be the first of many.”

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Student Activities 2017

During 2017, PhD students at the Center for 21st Century Music have received national and international recognition through festival appearances, grants, awards, commissions, performances, and curatorial activities.

Music by Center PhD students appeared at festivals around the US, Canada, and Europe this year. Weijun Chen was selected for two prestigious national residencies—the Atlantic Center for the Arts (with faculty composer Derek Bermel) and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Matt Sargent’s music was featured on Columbia University’s “Re-embodied Sound” Symposium, the first event of its kind examining possibilities with transducers in music and sound art. Jessie Downs appeared as both composer and vocalist at Longy School of Music's Divergent Studio and Loadbang's Contemporary Chamber Connection; the former presented a performance of her composition Shadow a Thing. Downs was also a featured composer at Vocalypse's Opera from Scratch Workshop in Halifax, Canada, and was selected to attend the upcoming Royaumont Contemporary Voice workshop with Juliet Fraser. Matthew Chamberlain recently returned home from the Royaumont Voix Nouvelles (New Voices) Composition Workshop in France, where a new piece was performed by Quatuor Tana and Ensemble Multilatérale, leading to a commission for a new work for pianist Claudia Chan in 2018. Matthew’s appearance at Royaumont was part of the inaugural year of an exchange program between Voix Nouvelles and the Center’s June in Buffalo Festival.

Matthew Chamberlain’s commission from Royaumont was one of a number of prestigious commissions, grants, and awards received by Center PhD students during 2017. Matt Sargent was awarded a commissions from the Hartford Independent Chamber Orchestra and the Switch~ Ensemble. The latter project was awarded a New Music USA Project Grant, to support the ensemble touring the piece across upstate NY in Winter 2018, including a local stop at Buffalo State College. Recognition of Center PhD students' work has been not only national but also international: Igor Coelho Arantes Santana Marques’s Escenas, arranged for string orchestra and piano, was a finalist in the 4th Música Hoje National Composition Competition in Curitiba, Brazil.

In 2017, Center PhD students received performances across the US, Canada, Europe, and South America. Two PhD students are beginning to develop a long-term collaborative relationship with the rising Ensemble Mise-En: Meredith Gilna’s Gravity Shuffle will be performed by the ensemble October 5, and a new work of hers, written especially for the ensemble, will be premiered by the group on October 16; Matt Sargent’s piano solo Going, gone was also written for the ensemble, who have programmed it multiple times, most recently in April. Sargent’s works were also programmed at EMS Stockholm (Sweden), Reykjavik Art Museum (Iceland), on the cutting-edge music series Indexical (at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History), and on UC San Diego’s new SlowSD Festival of Slow Music. Other notable performances of works by Center PhD composers include the Spektral Quartet’s performance of Weijun Chen’s Canoe at Western Michigan University and Michael Matsuno’s premiere of a new work for flute and electronics at Harvard University.

Numerous Center composition students are also active as curators, performers, and conductors, seeking to be directly involved in the performance and presentation of their own works and those of fellow living composers. Matthew Chamberlain has been active as a conductor, premiering Center PhD alumnus Nathan Heidelberger’s Faust Projecta theatrical adaption of Faust with live music for an ensemble (supported by UB’s Creative Arts Initiative), and conducting premieres of student pieces at June in Buffalo. In October, Matthew will conduct the Slee Sinfonietta in two pieces by Bernard Rands on a concert to celebrate his receiving an honorary doctorate from SUNY (stay tuned for a future post about this concert). Next spring, Oberlin Conservatory has invited Matthew to be artist in residence, where he will conduct Du Yun's Pulitzer Prize winning opera Angel's Bone as well as work with the Conservatory's contemporary music ensemble and Sinfonietta on a new piece commissioned by them.

Null Point, an initiative for new music and sound art led by PhD candidate Colin Tucker, gave the world premiere of PLACE, a previously unrealized extended outdoor piece written in 1975 (!) by David Dunn, who is now a highly recognized figure in American experimental music. Supported by New York State Council on the Arts and UB Department of Music, the project was co-curated by Tucker and Center PhD alumnus Ethan Hayden, both of whom also performed in the piece alongside current Center PhD students Jessie Downs, PhD alumnus Zane Merritt, and former June in Buffalo guest artist (and UB music student) Jonathan Hepfer. The project received press attention internationally in the The Wire as well as locally, and will be the subject of an extensive publication to be released this coming winter.

Tucker was also part of a team who curated an exchange project with Norwegian musicians which culminated in 2017’s June in Buffalo Festival. As this publication described in a previous post, Tucker, together with Center Director David Felder and Norwegian Academy of Music Professors Henrik Hellstenius and Kjell Tore Innervik, Norwegian ensembles Cikada Trio and Bifrost Ensemble and Norwegian composers Henrik Hellstenius and Eivind Buene appeared at this year's June in Buffalo. The Bifrost Ensemble—a group of graduate performance students at the Norwegian Academy led by Innervik—presented a concert of world premieres of works by Center PhD students Roberto Azaretto, Derick Evans, and Colin Tucker and Norwegian Academy graduate students. The new pieces were also performed at NYC's Norwegian Seamen's Church and will be performed in the near future in Oslo. The exchange between the Center, the Norwegian Academy, and Cikada, will occur again in 2019, when it will be expanded to include more student composers from both UB and the Academy.

Sotto Voce Vocal Collective, led by PhD student Jessie Downs, celebrated its first full year as an ensemble, with five self-produced concerts and notable guest appearances. Sotto Voce performed on the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s retrospective of the music of former UB graduate composer and Creative Associate Julius Eastman (previewed in a widely read New York Times article), and joined Null Point as featured artists in the inaugural event of a new performance series at Buffalo’s newest arts space, the Cass ProjectAmong its members are Center PhD student Brien Henderson and PhD alumnus Ethan Hayden. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Robert Carl: Crystallizing Time

The Center for 21st Century Music welcomes Robert Carl on September 29 for an artist talk and masterclass with graduate students. Currently chair of the composition department at the Hartt School of Music, University of Hartford (CT), Carl’s distinguished career began with an especially varied and extensive education, followed by performances at venues like Carnegie Hall, IRCAM, and New Music America, and awards, fellowships, and residencies from a surprisingly exhaustive list of major institutions.

Carl’s degree studies took place at Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Chicago. He also received a Lurcy Fellow for study at France’s highly regarded Conservatoire Nationale Supérieure and Université Paris-Sorbonne in 1980-81. His principal teachers included Iannis Xenakis, Betsy Jolas, Ralph Shapey, George Rochberg, Jonathan Kramer, George Crumb, Richard Wernick, and Robert Morris—an unusually diverse group of composers, both aesthetically and geographically. He has received awards and fellowships from most major national American granting institutions (American Academy of Arts and Letters, National Endowment for the Arts, Chamber Music America, and Tanglewood, and residencies from many of the most prestigious national and international residency sites (Copland House, Camargo Foundation, Bogliasco Foundation, Rockefeller International Study Center (Bellagio, IT), Youkobo ArtSpace, Tokyo Wonder, Site Yaddo, Djerassi Foundation, Ragdale Foundation, Ucross Foundation, and the MacDowell and Millay Colonies).

Carl’s early compositions cultivated dialogue between contrasting historical styles, perhaps most strikingly in the 1992 saxophone quartet Duke Meets Mort. This work takes harmonic commonalities between the musics of Duke Ellington and (former UB professor) Morton Feldman as a point of departure, imagining Ellington’s Mood Indigo in the musical voice of Feldman. In the video below, Carl speaks about this work.

In Carl’s recent work, reference to historical styles is less explicit and less specific. The 2008 Fourth Symphony constructs wave-like accumulations and dispersals of kinetic energy. The music emphasizes shifts in kinetic energy through interaction between textures distinct in rhythmic and melodic momentum; by approaching these two parameters, as well as harmonic rhythm, in counterpoint against each other, the piece achieves a multidimensionality of directional energies that is rare in post-tonal music. In the symphony, historical referentiality is hardly absent but is more diffuse than in the composer’s earlier work: Fourth Symphony converses with generalized symphonic conventions like four-movement form, figural/orchestrational topoi, and sweeping gestural rhetoric.

A common thread throughout Carl’s oeuvre is a focus on temporal experience. While the symphony emphasizes momentary shifts in density and momentum, the earlier saxophone quartet explores the implications of slowing down a historical musical material, subjecting it to (creatively imprecise) temporal magnification. In his artist statement, Carl writes that:
My work has always been concerned with time. At first this meant inventing musical techniques and forms that allowed for a peculiar flow of musical events, dynamic yet not always straightforward. Later, my "pre-musical" background as a historian reasserted itself, bringing more and more artifacts of my earlier life, earlier music, and other eras into my music, in a play of memory and shadow.
The composer thinks about time and temporal experience through concrete, even tactile metaphors:
For me, time is a substance both malleable and “crystallizable”. By shaping form in a manner similar to making a sculpture, I have found that I am able to create an ever-broader sense of space in my pieces, even when they are information-rich. As a result I hope that by creating a sense of amplitude into which the listener can enter, and trying to synthesize diverse historical elements, I can create something of a model for how s/he can cope with our increasingly fragmented, intense, and vertiginous experience of life today, and find a sense of energizing peace.
That “spatialization” of time is now allied in Carl’s practice to his exploration of harmony over the past 15 years (of which the Fourth Symphony is a prime example). He writes:

Tied into this sense of space, of rendering even complex events clear, is the way I’ve come to conceive of harmony in the last decade or so. I’ve been using “screens” of overtones from which to derive new harmonic combinations, and whose common partials create links for modulation. So far--it my ear at least--the result is a sound that’s fresh and satisfying. It also sounds “natural”, whatever that means. I do feel, however, that the flow and shape of my pieces is closer to natural phenomena than ever before, and the music is more “itself” than ever, with less need to symbolize something.

And having begun this practice with harmonic structures that follow overtone relations but remain in equal temperament, the composer as also begun a series of recent works to “unmask” the true relations with works that follow the same strategies but use just intonation.

Also active as a writer on new music, Carl has completed two books: an in-depth study of (former UB Creative Associate) Terry Riley’s minimalist masterwork In C, and a collection of essays on composition and new music entitled Survivable Music: The Emerging Common Practice. He also regularly contributes to Fanfare magazine and New Music Box. As editor, he completed his former teacher Jonathan Kramer’s Postmodern Music, Postmodern Listening, left unfinished by the late composer, and edited an issue of Contemporary Music Review on historicism in late 20th century American music. Carl’s writing spans a range of approaches, from academic musicology to more open-ended speculation on the realities of being a working composer: 
One world I live in is more scholarly, so it demands research, references, footnotes. Another is critical, intuitive and usually focused on a particular piece, artist, or some mix thereof. [Survivable Music] is something in between. …I’d like to think this is criticism in an elevated sense of the word, an examination of current musical practice, aesthetics, and possibilities, attempting to draw conclusions, and maybe shed some new insights…The form is the essay, the tone is that of a lecture, often very much off-the-cuff. Or perhaps it’s more precise to say these are journalistic dispatches from the aesthetic front.

To learn more about Robert Carl’s work, check out his interview with New Music Box below, or  visit his extensive website.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians: Difference in Focus

The Center for 21st Century Music welcomes Ensemble Signal on September 19 for a performance of Steve Reich’s concert-length Music for 18 Musicians. Please note that the concert begins at the later-than-usual time of 9pm; it will be preceded by a talk by Signal’s co-artistic directors Brad Lubman and Lauren Radnofsky at 8:15pm. Previously, this blog examined long-standing collaborative relationships that led to the concert: between Signal and Steve Reich, and between UB’s music department and the composer. In this post, I introduce the piece itself and contextualize it within a broader history of minimalist music.

Completed in 1976, Music for 18 Musicians is often understood as a turning point within Reich’s compositional development, as a pivot from his strictly-composed, experimental early works to his more conventionally “musical” later works. It also functioned as a pivot in Reich's reputation, catapulting him to widespread renown within both art music and pop music worlds—orchestral commissions followed it, while the ECM recording of the piece sold over 10,000 copies and a live performance of the piece sold out the New York nightclub The Bottom Line. 

To understand where the piece came from, it is productive to consider the intensive earlier musical investigations of Reich and fellow minimalists. Historically, minimalism could be understood as an attempt to negate tonal modes of listening through the use of a limited palette of musical material. While numerous composers of the 1950s (John Cage, Milton Babbitt, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis) tried to challenge tonal listening habits by expanding and exhausting bandwidths of material, the younger minimalists attempted to achieve a similar end result through opposite means. If the former composers used discontinuity to overwhelm listeners’ capacities for syntactic listening, the latter use repetition and prolongation to underwhelm this mode of listening, instead encouraging a listening focused on the here and now of live performance.

The degree zero of early minimalism might be LaMonte Young’s X for Henry Flynt (1960), in which a heavy sound or cluster is repeated uniformly, regularly, and for a long period. This is music in extreme close up; there is no possibility of zooming out to orient oneself through anything resembling musical syntax. The piece’s restricted space simultaneously closes and opens: it impedes the possibility of tonal listening, but activates intensified focus on the particulars of the repeated sound’s envelope and spectrum, its interaction with acoustic space, and its status in listeners’ perception and memory. Two successive repetitions of the sound are never identical; the piece frames repetition as a guise for focused perception of subtle differences. Was the most recent repetition of the sound different from the last? If so, did I merely perceive it as being different? In this case, did my ever-changing memory bank of sounds play a role in reframing my perception? In encountering this piece, listeners listen to their own listening. The music does not have “objective” content that exists independently of the act of listening, as in tonal music; its content is the act of listening. Thus while listening in tonal music requires decoding "objective" content; listening in X for Henry Flynt invites open-ended exploration of ambiguous boundary spaces—between same and different, between sound object and perception, and between perception and memory. These broad parameters of listening pertain to much later minimalist music.

For early minimalist composers Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Tony Conrad, and Young, a key challenge was that of orchestrating duration. How can the composer “keep the ball in the air” without resorting to tonal approaches to time? How long must repetition and/or prolongation proceed to disorient tonal listening expectations; at what point does an aesthetically unproductive boredom set in? How can the composer create decisive shifts of perspective even while maintaining the continuity necessary to keep listening in the here and now?

Terry Riley (a former UB Creative Associate) answered these questions with bottom-up variation processes applied to looped melodic cells, while Young and Tony Conrad (a former UB professor) answered these questions through harmony based on resonance. For the younger minimalists Reich and Glass, these procedures perhaps too closely resembled traditional “composerly” decision making, and yet at the same time may have seemed quite arbitrary. In the mid to late 1960s, both Reich and Glass both sought out deterministic algorithmic processes that could determine the unfolding of melodic/rhythmic cells.

While Glass worked with processes of melodic growth and decay, Reich worked with a stricter, deterministic method, focusing on “phasing”—of gradually moving two identical sonic loops out of phase, incrementally changing the phase difference until the material comes back into phase with itself. This provided a strikingly economical way of encouraging listeners to listen to a simple, short sonic object with perpetually changing focus. As Reich explained in his essay “Music as a Gradual Process,” the anonymous, controlling nature of these processes appealed to him; their transparent nature allowed them to shift attention away from syntax and related tonal categories, towards the “impersonal, unintended, psycho-acoustic by-products of the intended process.”

Reich's phasing pieces first employed recorded samples of voices--It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966)--and then later used live instrumentalists. After working exclusively with phasing for five years, he developed additional ways to vary fixed cells of material: “gradually substituting beats for rests (or rests for beats) within a constantly repeating rhythmic cycle,” “the gradual changing of timbre while rhythm and pitch remain constant.” These techniques feature prominently in Drumming, where they allow the composer to explore a concert-length duration.

In Music for 18 Musicians, Reich further expands his collection of variation processes, allowing for greater scope and flexibility in varying fixed rhythmic and melodic cells. Notably, certain more "conventional" musical possibilities excluded from his previous music take on a prominent role in this piece: harmony, dynamics, and core orchestral instruments (violin, cello, clarinet, bass clarinet). The piece employs the largest ensemble Reich had used to date—his trademark keyboard instruments constitute the core of the ensemble (6 percussionists on marimba, xylophone, and vibraphone without motor and 4 pianists), augmented by melodic instruments (violin, cello, 2 clarinets/bass clarinets) and voices (4 female voices).

Like Reich’s earlier work, Music for 18 is built around a central melodic/rhythmic cell, introduced after the piece's introductory section. (This cell is rhythmically identical to that used in Reich’s earlier piece Clapping Music.) This cell, like a similar one used in Drumming, is 12 pulses long; beneath its surface syncopations, it poses a deeper ambiguity to listeners: is the cell as a whole divided in 3 (3 groups of 4 pulses) or 4 (4 groups of 3 pulses)? While in earlier works, Reich presents traces of two incompatible ways of metrically interpreting a rhythmic cell, in Music for 18, the cell is accompanied by sustaining instruments alternating between two harmonies; the timing of harmonic changes momentarily tips the scales towards a single metric interpretation of the figure.

Indeed, harmony is more to the fore in Music for 18 than in any prior Reich piece. Broadly, the work uses sonorities reminiscent of tonal harmony but decontextualizes them from directional syntactic implications through frozen non-chord tones, unusual registral orderings, lengthy prolongation, and by oscillating between pairs of non-functionally-related chords. While in the domain of rhythm, the work explores contrasting metric interpretations of a 12-pulse rhythmic cell, in the domain of harmony, the work explores contrasting harmonic interpretations of a melody built from the tones of the A major scale. Each of the work’s 11 sections is based on a limited chord or harmonic field, each proposing a unique pitch center orienting the tones of the A major scale: section 1 implies D Lydian, section 2 B Dorian, section 3 F# Aeolian, and so on. (The sequence of 11 chords is also played at the work’s beginning and end, animated with regular pulses.)

Significantly, where Reich's earlier pieces approached form as the gradual unfolding of a linear process (i.e. phasing), form in Music for 18 is more exploratory and flexible, presenting a non-teleological sequence of perspectives on a common rhythmic/melodic object. Music for 18 thus evinces a broader aesthetic shift in Reich's work: while the early phasing pieces use deterministic processes to uncover possibilities that might elude a more conventional composerly intuition, Music reintroduces some of these considerations into the new approaches to structure and listening developed in the earlier works.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Signal plays Reich at the Center: A Culmination of Partnerships

The Center for 21st Century Music is delighted to welcome Ensemble Signal on September 19 for a performance of Steve Reich’s concert-length Music for 18 Musicians. Please note that the concert begins at the later-than-usual time of 9pm; it will be preceded by a talk by Signal’s co-artistic directors Brad Lubman and Lauren Radnofsky at 8:15pm. Coming on the heels of the release of Signal’s acclaimed recording of the piece, the performance marks the culmination of partnerships between Signal and Reich and between the Center and Reich, detailed below. This blog will publish another post in the coming days introducing the piece itself.

Released in 2015, Signal’s studio recording of Music for 18 Musicians has been praised widely and effusively. Awarded the prestigious Diapason d’Or Award (given by reviewers of the French Diapason magazine), the recording received high praise from the composer himself, who wrote that “Signal has made an extraordinary recording of Music for 18 Musicians. Fast moving, spot on and emotionally charged.” Critics have given the album similarly glowing praise, with David Weininger of the Boston Globe writing that “two excellent recordings of Steve Reich’s epoch-making “Music for 18 Musicians” exist already…[including] one by Steve Reich and Musicians…But this new version, by the New York-based Ensemble Signal, bests them both.” The album is available to stream on Spotify; a clip of a live performance of the piece by Signal is available here

Signal’s commitment to Reich’s music goes far beyond this piece. In 2016, the ensemble was involved in 80th birthday concerts of the composer's music at the Miller Theatre, Guggenheim Museum, Carnegie Hall, and Cal Performances, playing Reich’s early works, recent works, and everything in between. This season, Signal has premiered a new Reich work entitled Runner, with upcoming repeat performances at Carnegie Hall and Washington Performing Arts.

Signal’s music director Brad Lubman brings an even more extensive engagement with Reich’s work. Among the many world premieres Lubman has conducted, four are Reich works: Three Tales, Daniel Variations, Radio Rewrite, and Variations for Vibes, Pianos and Strings. Lubman went on to record Radio Rewrite--inspired by songs of the rock band Radiohead--with Signal. The conductor has written and spoken extensively about Reich’s music: in an article on the composer’s website, in an interview with the Rochester City Newspaper, and in an extended audio conversation with Reich himself moderated by WXXI’s Brenda Tremblay (see below).

The UB Music Department’s relationship with Reich goes back even further, to the 1970s, when Reich was on the cusp of his present-day fame. The Creative Associates—an ensemble consisting of fellows at the department’s Center of the Creative and Performing Arts—took Reich’s early work Clapping Music on its 1975 European tour, which included engagements at the BBC, West German Radio, and Warsaw Autumn Festival. The next year, at the second-ever June in Buffalo Festival, then-director Morton Feldman featured the younger composer’s music, which may have had a subtle influence on Feldman’s later explorations of repeated and nearly-repeated patterns. (This period of vibrant activity in the department has since been documented in detail in the book This Life of Sounds: Evenings for New Music in Buffalo, written by former managing director of the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts, Renée Levine Packer.)

Reich has since been invited to June in Buffalo as composition faculty—in 1987, 2000, 2003, and in 2010, when he received an honorary doctorate from the university. A range of his works have been performed at June in Buffalo: everything from large-scale works like City Life and Three Tales (the latter piece for film and ensemble was part of the 2003 festival’s “Music and Image” focus), chamber works like the Pulitzer-prize winner Double Sextet, and rarely performed works like Six Pianos.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Announcing the 2017-2018 Season

The Robert & Carol Morris Center for 21st Century Music
2017-2018 Calendar of Events

(All concerts in Lippes Concert Hall in Slee Hall unless otherwise noted)

Slee Sinfonietta

SEPTEMBER 19, 2017
9:00 PM
Slee Sinfonietta presents:
Ensemble Signal
Brad Lubman, conductor
Steve Reich – Music for 18 Musicians

OCTOBER 24, 2017
7:30 PM
Slee Sinfonietta
Bernard Rands portrait concert and SUNY Honorary Degree conferral
Bernard Rands – Folk Songs
Bernard Rands – “now again” – fragments from Sappho
Luciano Berio – Linea
David Felder – Coleccion Nocturna

APRIL 24, 2018
7:30 PM
Slee Sinfonietta Presents:
Brad Lubman, conductor
Charles Wuorinen portrait concert
Charles Wuorinen – Spin 5
Charles Wuorinen – Megalith
Charles Wuorinen – Iridule

(Ensemble Signal)

Visiting Artist Series

7:30 PM
Thomas Moore, pianist
Morton Feldman – Triadic Memories

SEPTEMBER 29, 2017
Composer Robert Carl (Hartt School of Music)

NOVEMBER 3, 2017
Composer Eric Moe (University of Pittsburgh)

NOVEMBER 6-8, 2017
Ensemble Linea in residence with Irvine Arditti
November 6: Workshop of UB graduate composers with Ensemble Linea
NOVEMBER 8, 2017
7:30 PM
Ensemble Linea in concert with Irvine Arditti
Featuring the World Premiere of David Felder’s violin concerto Jeu de Tarot

FEBRUARY 16, 2018
Composer Aaron Cassidy (University of Huddersfield)

APRIL 16-17, 2018
April 16: Workshop of UB graduate composers with Ensemble Court-Circuit
APRIL 17, 2018
7:30 PM
Ensemble Court-Circuit in concert

Composer Evan Johnson (Boston, MA)

(Ensemble Court Circuit)

Co-Sponsored Events

OCTOBER 13, 2017
7:30 PM
Wolf-Steger Fund Concert
Faculty performers include Jonathan Golove, cello, Eric Huebner, piano, and Tiffany Du Mouchelle, soprano.
Program: TBA

OCTOBER 14, 2017
7:30 PM
Eric Huebner and Steve Beck, pianists

JUNE 4-10, 2018
David Felder, Artistic Director

Senior Composers:

Resident Ensembles:

Special Guests:

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Music in the Here and Now: Feldman’s Triadic Memories

Next week, the Center for 21st Century Music opens its 2017-18 concert series by celebrating its roots with a performance of former UB professor Morton Feldman’s concert-length solo piano work Triadic Memories. Composed in Buffalo in 1981, the work will be performed by Thomas Moore, a pianist particularly well-versed in the music of American experimentalists like Feldman. Listeners will have the opportunity to sit on the stage of Slee Hall, a unique opportunity for an up-close live encounter with a major work of modernist music.

Like many of Feldman’s late works, Triadic Memories is an immersive, extended work that can be an unforgettable experience in live performance. Indeed, the work’s material emphasizes the liveness of performing and listening. Triadic Memories employs a strikingly limited palette of material—extremely quiet throughout, the piece spins out short (often monophonic) melodic patterns, themselves composed of a highly restricted repertoire of rhythmic cells and pitches. The effect here is to focus an almost microscopic attention on otherwise overlooked aspects of musical experience: the tactility of playing the piano, and the mysterious workings of listeners’ memory.

Performing Feldman

Pianist Philip Thomas writes that Feldman’s music is “a more physical and tactile approach to sound than perhaps any previous music.” The quietness and sparseness of his music engages the performer towards a heightened focus on touch and tone. “In asking the pianist to play, as he so often does, 'as soft as possible', the pianist is forced to examine his/her touch so that the hammer strikes the string in such a way as to produce a sound of the highest quality,” writes Thomas.

Engaging with the piano in this way opens up a new approach to virtuosity—not an extroverted virtuosity characterized by speed or density, but an introverted virtuosity marked by tension between the music’s hushed, restricted tessitura and the knife-edge concentration required to perform it. Thomas writes that “it is amongst the most difficult music to play. The challenge to play a single note or collection of notes very softly, absolutely clearly, is at times a terrifying prospect and demands of the pianist nerves of steel.”

Feldman’s delicate, tactile approach to the piano is perhaps no surprise given his contact with contemporary abstract painters, particularly Mark Rothko. In Rothko’s paintings, there is a similarly reduced palette of material, emphasizing subtle contrasts in hue and brushwork. By Feldman’s own account, conversations with abstract painters like Rothko at New York city’s famed Cedar Bar were formative in his early development as a composer.

In his performances of Feldman, Thomas Moore brings years of personal contact with the composer and his circle. His commitment to the work of Feldman and like-minded composers goes back four decades, and extends beyond performing, into writing and broadcasting. Notably, during the 1970s and 80s, Moore produced weekly programs on new music for Baltimore-Washington area public radio stations, including interviews with Cage, Feldman, Feldman’s UB colleague Yvar Mikhashoff, and friend of the Center Roger Reynolds, among others. John Cage praised Moore, not only as pianist, but for his total artistic activities, writing that “I am delighted that Thomas Moore plays my music, studies and thinks, writes and talks about it.”

Listening to Feldman

If Feldman’s emphasis on tactility calls attention to the liveness of performing, an emphasis upon memory calls attention to the liveness of listening. That is, the extended use of repetition and near-repetition disrupts ordinary thematic or narrative modes of listening. In the thicket of barely different melodic variations, listeners lose their bearings of what is similar and what is different. While sonata forms uses rhetoric, texture, and melodic profile to articulate unambiguous relationships of similarity and difference, late Feldman pieces use subtle variation procedures to disorient distinctions between similarity and difference. By emphasizing melodic variation as such, Feldman suggests that the possibility of more traditional melodic procedures; by frustrating these expectations, the work activates attention to the performative, contingent, personal nature of memory. Feldman wrote that this piece

was a conscious attempt at ‘formalizing’ a disorientation of memory. Chords are heard repeated without any discernible pattern. In this regularity (though there are slight gradations of tempo) there is a suggestion that what we hear is functional and directional, but we soon realize that this is an illusion; a bit like walking the streets of Berlin, where all the buildings look alike, even if they’re not.

As with Feldman’s approach to the piano, his approach to form was also informed by visual art—in this case, Middle Eastern rugs. Attracted to the play of similar and almost similar patterns over a large visual scale, Feldman collected and studied these rugs during his later years.