Friday, June 10, 2016

Transformation and Heat: An Interview with David Felder

In our final profile of June in Buffalo faculty composers, we sit down with David Felder, JiB's Artistic Director and Birge-Cary Chair in Music Composition at UB.  Felder has been directing the festival since 1985, when he restarted it with a new vision aimed toward providing young composers with a chance to hear their works realized by professional ensembles.  During this year's festival, three of Felder's works will be performed:  Dal Niente will present Rare Air (2008), a collection of short movements for clarinet, piano, and electronics, and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra will perform Linebacker Music (1994).  The festival will also feature the premiere of Felder's newest work, Netivot, a virtuosic three-movement composition for string quartet and electronics, which was composed for the Arditti QuartetNetivot marks the third work Felder has composed for the Ardittis, a collaboration which began in 1986 with Third Face, and continued through 2007's Stuck-stücke (a selection from the latter, performed by the Ardittis, can be heard below).

Edge of the Center sat down with Felder to discuss Netivot, as well as the other pieces and the festival itself:

What were your main goals when you began composing Netivot?

Netivot is my third quartet for the Ardittis.  I have had a longer relationship personally and professionally with Irvine and that extraordinary group than with any other performers.  I think of the quartets I've written as a body, an entity with a variety of parts, and it is my hope to compose more quartets. This one is markedly different that the first two—in working with the group over this long period of time one is not only permitted but encouraged to innovate.  I explored an inner world in this work, with only a few regions of the more typically extroverted and kinetic music that I'd previously composed for the quartet.

The piece draws a lot from vowel formants, is there an underlying text from which these sounds are drawn?  What role do the electronics play in the piece?

The work revolves around sources that will have to remain largely offstage.  Let me just say that there is source material but it is not text per se—the musical material is abstracted from an array of some biblical text.  The relationship between the electronics and the onstage materials of the quartet is entirely consistent with what I've always done.  They are fully integrated into a whole musical object at each moment and are designed to create a multi-dimensional representation of that moment.

What do the Hebrew movement headings refer to ("Devekut," "Hitbodedut," "àmud ànan/àmud èsh"), and how significant are these extra-musical references to the work?

The overall title refers to spiritual pathways, connections among many identifiable nodal points, or regions, each one a continuity of experiencing, not an aim in itself.  The first movement works with powers of concentration and fine attention; the second movement responds to an unfolding metaphoric, imagistic landscape as a consequent of the first movement and begins to develop rudimentary song from an intonation of specific scale points and formants—musical objects as things arise and disappear; and in the last movement, the linear becomes vertical in two chorales;  The third movement's title refers to pillars of cloud and of fire.  Each region has its own feel, but all of the individual phrases and materials are made of the same basic stuff.

Many of your recent pieces make reference (implicitly or explicitly) to spiritual concepts and/or practices.  Typically, one associates the idea of "spiritual music" with more muted and reflective characteristics, but your works are often, as you say, "extroverted and kinetic." Where is the connection for you between spirituality and such powerful physical gestures?

Alchemically speaking, transformation from one thing to another requires heat.

The piece is very difficult and demanding, even in places where the sounding result is more subdued.  Is the drama of performative virtuosity something you specifically sought out in this piece, or is it simply a result of the harmonic and textural ideas you were working with?  Since you worked closely with the Ardittis during the process of composition, what would you say their contribution was to the realization of the work?

Just a few points here—the formation itself is a kind of Ferrari, and in my first two quartets I intended to exploit the more overt aspects of performative virtuosity.  But the Ardittis can do just about anything, and so looking at other aspects of virtuoso performance was a great opportunity for me—I intended to explore a finer inner micro-world and to ask the quartet to merge the live performance with the multi-layered of electronics.  Next March, we will present the work in what we hope will be its final shape—my great friend Elliot Caplan is collaborating with us on a video portion, and the work will be presented here in that way.  In working with the quartet, they graciously provided recorded feedback on several occasions during the process.  I absolutely need real acoustic feedback when I write, especially in a work which is 'new' for me, and I am deeply grateful to the quartet for their immense help throughout the process.  Working with them has been one of my great joys in my creative career.

With regard to the other works on the festival, Rare Air, as a series of miniatures, seems to be unique among your works.  What attracted you to smaller forms in this piece, and how do you think it differs from your other works?

Since our culture seems to place incredible value on ad campaigns and commercials, with thematically linked and developing characters who we can identify and presumably identify with (the GEICO Neanderthal, Flo the Progressive saleswoman, etc.), I decided to make a set of commercials with linked thematic materials that would interrupt the regular flow of a concert.  Clarinetist Jean Kopperud encouraged me to do something I had always wanted to do, but hadn't, and so…

I am guessing by Rare Air's movement titles "Boxmundsson" and "Boxmunsdottir", that the piece has some relation to BoxMan, your earlier work for trombone and electronics?  Is that correct?

I love the Nordic tradition in family naming, so we have dottirs and ssuns, with cartoon versions of cantus firmi expropriated from my earlier piece BoxMan and realized anew for bass clarinet and piano.

You say in Linebacker Music's program note that the piece is based around a series of 'macro-crescendos', can you elaborate on this idea?

Linebacker is a kind of concert overture that offers a tribute to the physical.  It was composed during my time as composer-in-residence with the BPO in the early-mid 90's, and was designed to speak to our local community as a part of its charge.  It turns the Buffalo Bills 'shout' theme on its head, and attempts to replicate imagining the experience of being in a lot of traffic, in the way that a linebacker in football has to sort through the tremendous wash all around in order to deliver impact.  There are a set of hits at the end of the piece followed by a sad little moan intended to remind the locals that yes, indeed, we went to four Superbowls in a row and lost them all.

Finally, June in Buffalo celebrated a big anniversary last year, with it being the 40th anniversary of the festival and your 30th anniversary as Artistic Director.  With this being the first year after such a milestone, where do you see the festival moving forward, beginning with this year and in years to come?

The festival is always a function of the individuals who are brought together for the week, all of the composers and performers.  Nothing changes about that; but we’ll have new groups and new composers coming more regularly in each of the next years and for the foreseeable future.  It is exciting each year to be a part of those dynamics.  There could be some occasional thematically based years sprinkled in as well…

We'll look forward to hearing Netivot's first performance, as well as Rare Air and Linebacker Music.  We're also excited to see where the festival takes audiences and participants this year, and how it will continue to grow and transform in years to come.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra: Games of Colors

The last of the June in Buffalo resident ensemble's we'll profile is the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.  This year, the BPO continues its annual tradition of closing out the festival with a concert of orchestral works by faculty composers, and this year's program will feature works by Abrahamsen, Felder, Stucky, and Ung, under the direction of BPO music director, JoAnn Falletta.

JoAnn Falletta
Falletta has been praised by the Washington Post as having "Toscanini’s tight control over ensemble, Walter’s affectionate balancing of inner voices, Stokowski’s gutsy showmanship, and a controlled frenzy worthy of Bernstein."  In addition to being the BPO's music director, she directs the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and serves as Principal Guest Conductor of the Brevard Music Center.  Under her direction, the BPO has recorded frequently for the Naxos label, earning six Grammy nominations, and received a double Grammy Award in 2009 for their recording of John Corigliano’s Mr. Tambourine Man:  Seven Poems of Bob Dylan (2003) with Hila Plitmann.

Sunday's BPO program will open with David Felder's Linebacker Music, a work commissioned by the orchestra during the early-1990s, when the Buffalo Bills were one of the country's most successful teams (making it to the super bowl four consecutive years).  Felder's piece "epitomize[s] the strength, speed, power, and indeed the fury and violence of the game of football."  Herman Trotter of the Buffalo News said of the piece:  "Don't expect Linebacker Music to remind you of The Blue Danube. Wholly consistent with its subject matter, it has a very declamatory opening, then proceeds to be stridently aggressive and percussion-laced, and to convey a feeling of massive strength at all times."  (To read more about the piece, see our interview with the composer).

Chinary Ung's Water Rings "Overture" (1993) will follow.  The work, while much more subdued than his other works (avoiding the dramatic gestures common to the Spirals series), maintains the expressive language the composer is known for.  Ung wrote the work quickly, and it functions as a sort of improvisation, with the composer positioned inside the orchestra, playing it as if it were the traditional Cambodian Pinpeat ensemble.  As such, the piece, as the program note explains, "uses dance rhythms and folk tunes from Cambodia, and while the instrumental writing is not as florid as his other works, the parts are drawn with the same characteristic nuance, elegantly shaped and generously inflected."

Steven Stucky
The concert will close with Jeu de timbres, a brief, single-movement composition by Steven Stucky.  The new music world was shocked and saddened to hear of his death from cancer earlier this year, as he was one of the most widely performed and celebrated American composers.  Stucky was a June in Buffalo regular, and was on the faculty at last year's festival (see our profile of Stucky from last year's series on JiB faculty), at which audiences heard his 2005 Piano Quartet performed by Performance Institute faculty, and Refrains (1979) for percussion quintet realized by Talujon.  This year will mark the second time the BPO has performed Jeu de timbres at the festival, the first being when Stucky himself was on faculty in 2012.  That performance was praised by Allan Kozinn of the New York Times as "packed with shimmering string and woodwind textures yet with a changeability and bite that are among the most recognizable hallmarks of Mr. Stucky’s music."  Stucky himself described the piece as "[spending] most of its energy on rhythmic verve and luminous orchestral colors.  […]  The title (play, or game, of musical colors) both alludes to these Gallic tendencies in general and makes a small, specific inside joke: jeu de timbres is the French name for the orchestra bells or glockenspiel, an instrument that makes an occasional appearance in this piece.  There are other inside jokes, too, including two admiring glances at works by Ravel—one oblique, the other (at the end) quite direct."

We look forward to hearing Buffalo's orchestra close out the festival as it always does, with exciting new works by faculty composers, presenting all variety of dramatic gestures and games of color.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Arditti Quartet: Prolific Collaboration

Arditti Quartet
Few ensembles have made as significant a mark on the world of contemporary composition as the Arditti Quartet.  Since their formation by first violinist Irvine Arditti in 1974, hundreds of pieces have been composed especially for them, and many of these works—by the likes of Andriessen, Birtwistle, Cage, Carter, Ferneyhough, Gubaidulina, Kurtág, Lachenmann, Ligeti, Nancarrow, Sciarrino, Stockhausen, and Xenakis among many others—have themselves had significant resonances throughout the music world.  This year, June in Buffalo is excited to count the Ardittis as one of the festival's many renowned resident ensembles.

The Arditti Quartet has received a number of prestigious awards for their contributions to the field, including winning the Deutsche Schallplatten Preis multiple times, as well as Gramophone Awards for "Best Recording of Contemporary Music" in 1999 for recordings of Carter and again in 2002 for recordings of Birtwistle.  Also in 1999, they became the only ensemble to receive the celebrated Ernst von Siemens Music Prize for "Lifetime Achievement" in music.  More recently, they were awarded the "Coup de Coeur" prize by the Academie Charles Cros in France for their work in disseminating contemporary music.

Prolific both onstage and in the studio, the Arditti Quartet has recorded over 200 CDs, creating one of the most extensive collections of contemporary quartet literature.  Significant entries include the first digital recordings of the complete string chamber music of the Second Viennese School, the complete chamber music of Xenakis (see below for a classic recording of 1978's Ikhoor), and Stockhausen's (in)famous Helicopter Quartet, among other significant works by the likes of Berio, Nono, Rihm, Harvey, Gerhard, and Paredes.  Because the quartet finds that close collaboration with composers is essential to interpreting the broad spectrum of works in the field, many of these recordings are made with the composers on hand in the studio.  The same is true for their concert performances, as the Ardittis attempt to work with every composer whose music they play.  This ethic expands into their educational work as well:  through masterclasses and workshops for young performers and composers, the quartet has had a significant role in guiding a younger generation of artists around the world.  This will continue at June in Buffalo, as the Ardittis will present two workshops at which they will perform works by emerging composers.

Franco Donatoni
In addition to these workshops, the quartet will present an evening program which will feature works by JiB faculty, alongside Franco Donatoni's La Souris sans sourire ("The Mouse without a Smile," 1988).  Donatoni's work is marked by a comic frenzy, with Carl Stalling-esque evocations of exaggerated gestures and animated pursuits.  The program will also include Joshua Fineberg's La Quintina (2012) a work inspired by the repertoire of Sardinian vocal polyphony in which four singers manage to create an phantom fifth voice via overtones and intonation (for more on this piece, see our profile on Fineberg).  

The program then moves into Hans Abrahamsen's Fourth Quartet, a work originally commissioned for the Ardittis in the early 1990s, but which was only recently completed.  The piece is marked by a quiet, soft music of icy string harmonics, which the composer describes in German as "hoch im Himmel gesungen…" ("High singing in heaven…").  The piece consists of four movements each with their own scordatura.  The opening texture of the first movement treads territory not unlike that of Abrahamsen's Schnee:  high, delicate—even brittle—airy melodies.  The compose describes the following movements:
The second movement is fast and "movement and joy"-like.  It consists of two duets and a reverse-style counterpoint.  […]  "Dark, heavy and earthy" is the third movement and its pizzicato recalls big black raindrops falling to the ground.  It is the dark and grainy counterpart to the first movement, whereas the fourth movement corresponds to the second.  The fourth movement was planned as a dark and heavy counterpart but it turned out to be like "babbling" music of a child.
Finally, the piece will close with the world premiere of David Felder's Netivot, for quartet and electronics, a work that manages an effective balance between dense virtuosity and pensive reflection through an evocative harmonic language extracted from vowel formants.  (More on this piece in our upcoming profile of David Felder).

In performing these works, as well as the works of the festival's young composers, the Arditti continue their longstanding tradition of assisting artists in realizing their ideas, a collaborative practice which has and which will continue to make them an integral ensemble in the contemporary field.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Magnus Andersson: Precision and Clarity

Magnus Andersson performs at JiB 2011
Among the special guests at June in Buffalo this year is Swedish performer Magnus Andersson.  Andersson is one of the most renowned guitarists in the contemporary music field, and has played an important role in the creation of the instrument's modern repertoire.

Andersson studied at London's Trinity College of Music and later at the Viotti Music Academy in Vercelli, Italy.  He was awarded the Composers Union Interpreter Prize in 1983, received the Swedish Gramophone Prize in 1985 and 1986, and was nominated for a Swedish Grammy in 1992.  In 1984 he was awarded the Kranischsteiner Prize at the International Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt.  That same year he founded Darmstadt's guitar class, which he taught until 1996.  He currently teaches at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, and was artistic director of the Stockholm New Music Festival in 2006 and 2008.  Andersson is a founding member of the chamber music group Ensemble SON, and has toured widely in a trio with cellist Rohan de Saram and bassoonist Pascal Gallois.  He has performed the premieres of numerous important contemporary works including Ferneyhough's Kurze Schatten II (1989), Franco Donatoni's Ase (Algo II), James Dillon's Shrouded Mirrors (1987), Sven-David Sandström's Away From (1982), and Mark Applebaum's DNA, as well as guitar concertos by Pisati, Sandström, and Donatoni.

Among the works Andersson will perform at June in Buffalo are Stefano Scodanibbio's Dos Abismos, another work composed especially for him, and one marked by a number of difficult techniques (one-handed harmonics, contrapuntal hammer-ons, etc.).  Andersson will also perform two works by Josh Levine:  Former Selves (2007) and Glimpses (1986)Levine, a guitar player himself, describes his approach to the instrument in the former piece:  
The second movement, "Bridges in the middle of the ocean," begins with the solo guitar playing quick, ephemeral gestures and fragments of indistinct melodies as it journeys through a mostly silent space.  Mere vestiges of the instrument’s typical sonority characterize its strange, veiled sound world:  high residual pitches produced when the string strikes the fret, each accompanied by the woody thud of the  finger hitting the fretboard.
Finally, Andersson will join Dal Niente for a performance of Hans Abrahamsen's Winternacht, an earlier piece in that composer's oeuvre which Poul Ruders has described as "very precise and dreamingly poetic [...] almost classical in terms of clarity and discipline in orchestration and form."  Such a description seems an apt representation of Andersson's own approach to his instrument, which is always marked by a firm technical precision that does not eschew the 'dreamy' or impressionistic.  Indeed, this is why composers as varied as Ferneyhough, Scodanibbio, and Applebaum are continually drawn to write for him, and what makes him well-equipped to perform the music of Levine and Abrahamsen.  We'll look forward to his performances this week!

Monday, June 6, 2016

Hans Abrahamsen: Untouched Music

Hans Abrahamsen
This year, June in Buffalo is excited to welcome to the festival for the first time Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen.  A skilled orchestrator as renowned for his arrangements as his compositions, Abrahamsen has been celebrated for his monodrama, let me tell you (2013)—which received the 2016 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition—and his canonic Schnee (2006-08), for two pianos, percussion, and contrasting trios, which has been frequently identified as one of the landmark pieces of the early century.  Paul Griffiths has described the composer's music as "Resonant with the western tradition in all its facets, with ancient folk melody, with nature, with the vibrant structure of sound itself, [it] yet has the freshness of something untouched—untouched, and touching by being so."

Abrahamsen's music has a gained a reputation for its literal and figurative evocations of winterscapes, and even Griffiths' reference to the "untouched" quality of his work alludes to the condition of freshly fallen snow.  This is perhaps most apparent in Schnee, but is also present in his earlier work Winternacht (1976-78), as well as in the "glacial world of high harmonics" elicited by his Fourth String Quartet, the glistening austerity of let me tell you, and the solitary winterreise of Left, alone (2014-15), a concerto for piano left hand.  It would be understandable for a composer to feel some anxiety about being branded 'the winter composer', but Abrahamsen maintains the confidence of an artist who has created an aesthetic realm of their own, and who is content to reside there comfortably:  the composer is currently composing an opera based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen.

The composer was perhaps not always so comfortable, famously taking a break from composition that lasted nearly a decade in the early 1990s.  Before that, the Ligeti student's early works were associated with a Danish trend called the "New Simplicity," which reacted against the complexity of the Darmstadt school by seeking a music that increased objectivity by, in Erik Jakobsen's words, "[aiming] to liberate musical material from the composer’s personal attitudes and feelings."  [NB:  This is distinct from the later, more subjective German style of the same name, of which Wolfgang Rihm is the most recognizable adherent.]  Abrahamsen's orchestral piece Skum (1970) most clearly demonstrates this early approach.  By the mid-1970s, however, he had developed a more distinct style, as evident in the orchestral nocturne Nacht und Trompeten (1981), the frigid underbrush of Winternacht, and perhaps most famously, in the seven piano studies of 1984 (later expanded to ten studies).  In the following decade, the composer's compositional activity ceased, though he continued arranging, producing adaptations of works by Bach and Nielsen.  One must admit a certain level of artist boldness to not only know when to stop composing, but more significantly, when to start again.  It was after this break that Abrahamsen's music began to bear the "untouched" quality spoken of earlier, as if the composer found a way to reset, and to make a new music unhindered by his previous explorations.

His later style is marked by a pronounced intimacy, even in the larger ensemble works like Schnee.  This is perhaps most evident in a piece like Wald (2009), in which the micropolyphony of his former teacher is matched with modal folk-music melodies in a variation form that is at turns rhythmically erratic and ominously understated (see below).  The Four Pieces for Orchestra (2004), arrangements of his earlier piano studies, emphasize his unique orchestrational perspective, employing a large ensemble that includes a full percussion battery and Wagner tubas.

Audiences at June in Buffalo will hear Signal Ensemble perform Schnee on the evening of Friday June 10th (for more on that performance, see our Signal profile).  In addition, the Arditti Quartet will present the composer's Fourth Quartet (2012).  "[It] has become in its way a serene and cool piece," Abrahamsen says of the piece, which the composer began before his hiatus.  "So the Quartet has been finished luckily after twenty years—it was already in 1990 that I was commissioned by Wittener Tage für Neue Musik to write the piece for Arditti Quartet."  Dal Niente will perform the aforementioned Winternacht, a four-movement work whose title comes from a poem by Georg Trakl.  "The music has a strong impressionistic quality," says Poul Ruders, "four introverted still lives of the velvety, dark iceness of a silvery winter night (one can veritably sense the fairy tale-like sleigh ride in the two outer movements)."  Those outer movements are dedicated to Trakl, while the more classical form of the third movement bears a dedication to Stravinsky, and the eccentric density of the second is an hommage to M.C. Escher.  Finally, the earliest work of Abrahamsen's presented at the festival will be 1975's Stratifications, performed by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.  "The stratifications referred to in the title unfold on two different levels," the composer explains.  "There is the stratification of the time dimension produced by the opposition of contrasting parts; at the same time the polyphony, the presence of several simultaneously sounding layers, is of great importance to the music."  Several elements of the early New Simplicity style are superimposed into a more complex amalgam. "It is like seeing lantern slides.  But this 'fictive form crackles and the music gets attentive and real.  [It] is in a nightmare condition, where it is not getting anywhere in spite of a great dynamic display.  But finally is liberating itself and rising 'in triumph'."

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Hanna Eimermacher: On Movement and Space

Hanna Eimermacher
Continuing our profiles of June in Buffalo faculty composers, we look at the music of Hanna Eimermacher.  Eimermacher has studied in Bremen, Graz, Frankfurt, and Buffalo, with Younghi Pagh-Paan, Beat Furrer, Pierluigi Billone, Mark Andre, and David Felder.  She has received a number of prestigious prizes and awards, including the Berlin-Rheinsberger Kompositionspreis (2012), a scholarship of the Deutsche Bundesregierung for Villa Massimo Rome (2014), and, most recently, a scholarship to study in Villa Concordia in Bamberg where she currently resides.  She has had works commissioned by SWR Südwestrundfunk, MaerzMusik Berliner Festspiele, Donaueschinger Musiktage, Deutsche Oper Berlin, and the Frankfurt Opera, and has worked with new music ensembles such as Ensemble Modern, Ensemble Interface, Ensemble Moto Perpetuo, and Klangforum Wien, for whom she is currently composing a music theatre piece.

Much of Eimermacher's music focuses on, in the composer's words, "the relationship between ear and eye:  sound, light, movement, picture, and space."  For her, this stems from the observation that "composition includes all these elements and the deep connection between them."  Such ideas manifest in a variety of different ways.  For instance, Hommage an den Klimerkasten (2011) takes its influence from a sculpture by the Swiss surrealist/existentialist artist, Alberto Giacometti.  The piece examines the ways that the perception of space can be impacted by the articulation of sounds in the quietest dynamic ranges.  Such sonic subtlety requires extremes of focus on the part of both the audience and the performer—for whom the fragility of these sounds require significant instrumental skill—and such sounds will be perceived differently in different spaces, indeed, in different locations in the same space.  "The piano fixes the axis of the piece, leading the other instruments in relationships of contrast and fusion with the details of their sonorities."  Commissioned by the French Ministry of Culture, the piece can be heard below in a performance by Ensemble Linea.

A related focus on space can be seen in Überall ist Wunderland, a large-ensemble work in which the twenty-three performers are positioned across a wide stage in a symmetrical manner.  The piece takes advantage of the spatial positioning to create canons and dialogues that move back-and-forth across the performance area.  When the performers are not playing, they stand still and stare forward in a statuesque manner, creating a ritualistic character to the overall performance (a factor most apparent during the final silence during which they all lean slightly toward stage right).  The work therefore explores the relationship between body, movement, and stage, and in a larger sense, between sound, location, and form.  (A live performance can be seen here.)

Audiences at June in Buffalo will hear the Slee Sinfonietta perform Eimermacher's Luftpost für L. (2012) for two 'celli and percussion, a work marked by even greater subtlety than the two pieces above, as soft 'cello oscillations encircle one another, occasionally undergirded by erratic bass drum pulses.  Ensemble Uusinta's program will feature two of the composer's works:  Transparenz (2003) for three percussionists playing glass bottles, accompanied by fixed media electronics; and Kannst du diesen verkehrt iegenden Vogel sehen? (2008) for bass flute and accordion.  Both works have a unique mix of innocence and sophistication—the former in the understated simplicity of their materials (most apparent in the delicate austerity of the bottle sounds in Transparenz), the latter in the way these materials are developed and incorporated into the composer's ongoing explorations of movement, space, and form.

We're looking forward to hearing not only Eimermacher's music, but also to hear her elaborate on these explorations during her lecture (June 9th, 10:00am).  Her perspective will be a valuable one to fellow composers and interested audiences alike.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Josh Levine: Imagination and Memory

June in Buffalo has been an international festival since its inception, attracting composers, performers, and other artists from around the world.  Its aesthetic has always been a broad one, where one is likely to hear American experimentalists programmed alongside the European avant garde.  It is for this reason, that Josh Levine makes a perfect addition to the JiB faculty, as he is an American composer with significant international ties, and a broadly cosmopolitan aesthetic.

Josh Levine
While he was born in Oregon, Levine originally trained as a classical guitarist in Basel, Switzerland.  He continued his musical studies in the same country as he switched to composition, studying with Balz Trümpy.  He later studied at the Paris Conservatory with Guy Reibel, and worked at IRCAM, later returning to the US to earn his PhD from UC San Diego, where he studied principally with Brian Ferneyhough.  Since then, his music has been internationally recognized and has received several awards, including First Prize and a Euphonie d'Or at the Bourges International Electroacoustic Music Competition.  His works have been commissioned by widely-recognized soloists including Aiyun Huang, Marcus Weiss, and Jürg Wyttenbach, as well as ensembles such as the soundSCAPE Trio, Calliope Duo, Ensemble Contrechamps, and Les Solistes de l’Ensemble Intercontemporain.  He currently serves as Assistant Professor of Composition at Oberlin.

For Levine, music is a locus where the unity of imagination and memory can be found.
The musical work is, for me, a site where the irrational and the rational, the sensual and the conceptual, and, most basically, sound and silence, spar and dance and transcend their seeming dichotomies.  Through ever-evolving interpretations of recurring musical materials, I explore the unity of memory and imagination—remembering as an act of imagining, and imagining as an act of remembering.  My composing is inspired by movement and the contemplation of change, whether in the physical world or in the psyche.
Despite the abstractness of such conceptual imagery, Levine's music is dynamic and rooted in the concreteness of the physical gesture.  "The physicality of musical performance and our emotional identification as listeners with its energy, gestures, and implicit drama are among its further driving forces."  His early work in the field of electroacoustic music led to an interest in temporal fluidity and harmonic nuance, as well as an attention to detail that seeks to bring "a richer resonance to every moment."  Such temporal and timbral examination can be heard in Levine's recent acousmatic piece, Oneirograph, which uses violin samples as its source material, but pulls open these sounds, finding vast resonant soundscapes within.  The piece's title refers to an instrument for measuring dreams—dreams, of course, being another site in which the divisions between memory and imagination become suspect.

This year's festival will see the performances of three of Levine's pieces.  The Slee Sinfonietta will present two of these.  The first, Four places, many more times (2011), is a percussion quartet which revolves around twelve specially tuned metal pipes.  Continuing Levine's interest in flexible perceptions of time, the composer describes the work as a series of "'sound objects' [which] shift and spin through space and different time zones in a kind of timbral kaleidoscope."  The second, Former Selves, for solo guitar, ensemble, and electronics features JiB special guest Magnus Andersson.  Approaching the idea of memory from a different angle, this work incorporates elements from several of the composer's earlier works, both as musical gestures articulated by the performers, as well as samples which are transformed by the electronics—even to the extent of incorporating recorded material from the piece's own 2007 premiere.  Levine describes the relationship between the soloist and ensemble:  
[The ensemble's music moves in largely homophonic blocks, like forms emerging from a void and receding again for no apparent reason.  The guitar does not participate in their creation, but passes between them.  As the homophony gradually unravels, the guitar in its turn begins to find openings into the ensemble, eventually (re)discovering there the full sound of its voice.
Levine, Former Selves (2007)
Finally, the Uusinta Ensemble will open their program with Levine's Glimpses (1986), an earlier work which reverses the play of memory found in Former Selves:  rather than pulling from previous works, Glimpses consists of material that would preoccupy the composer for years to come—that is, musical ideas that would be continuously remembered.  "The listener 'glimpses' moments of parallel musical narratives, aural images whose incompleteness leaves their possible pasts and futures to the imagination.  Much of the material is heard again in new contexts, but it rarely seems the same."  This work also features Andersson on guitar, who whispers a description of this material during the work's own performance, referring to them as "points of embarkation on a bankless river."

As a guitarist himself, it is no surprise that Levine's work often emphasizes that instrument, and as a performer, Levine has performed with the likes of Ensemble Contrechamps, the Basel ISCM Ensemble, the Nouvel Ensemble Contemporain, SONOR, and members of the sfSoundgroup.  He has recorded works by Mark Applebaum and Kristian Ireland on the Innova label.

As a dedicated teacher, Levine takes great joy in hearing the different approaches the students embrace in their own music.  As he explains:
I love it when a student comes in to the lesson, puts the music on the music stand, and it may be—in fact, it's almost surely going to be—in a style, or with a particular aesthetic orientation that doesn't correspond to what I personally would write.  But it's so fascinatingly done—it explores in such a beautiful way certain ideas, instrumental colors, or sounds that I've never quite explored in that way, and yet that I can empathize with and communicate with both through the score and through my personal relationship to them.
There is perhaps no better place for Levine to encounter the varied aesthetic orientations of young artists than at June in Buffalo, and we are excited for the composers who will learn from their dialogues with him, as they reckon with their own imaginations and memories.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Dal Niente: Young Punks and Established Masters

Ensemble Dal Niente
This year, among the resident ensembles at the June in Buffalo festival will be a Chicago-based ensemble the New York Times has called a "superb contemporary-music collective", Dal Niente.  The ensemble's evocative name ("from nothing") comes from Helmut Lachenmann's Dal niente (Interieur III), a work whose "revolutionary style" has served as an inspiration to its members.  The name also refers to the group's humble beginnings:  initially formed as a collective of graduate composers at Northwestern University, the ensemble's introduction to the international music community was quickly boosted during their Darmstadt residency in 2012, at which they became the first ensemble to be awarded the prestigious Kranichstein Music Prize.  Since then, Dal Niente has made it their mission to present new works in ways that "redefine the listening experience and advance the art form", through "immersive experiences which connect audiences with the music of today."  They have been quite successful with the latter, as the Chicago Tribune has described them as "a model of what contemporary music needs, but seldom gets, to reach and engage a wider public."

Dal Niente are nothing if not active, and have built a reputation for exciting and prolific programming.  Some recent projects include "Canciones", a three-week tour of Latin America, including stops in Colombia, Mexico, and Panama which featured four world premieres, as well as the Chicago premiere of Georg Friedrich Haas's in vainwidely recognized as one of the early masterpieces of the 21st century.  The ensemble's varied concert series have included Proximity Portraits, which seek to introduce local audiences to international composers whose music is rarely performed in the group's native Chicago (a series which has thus far featured music by Andriessen, Ligeti, Stockhausen, and Claude Vivier), and Punks, a project which "celebrates composers whose independent spirit has led to musical experiences that are uniquely original and ambitious in reinventing the art form."  The latter series has featured music by Raphaël Cendo and Natacha Diels, and a collaboration with Greg Saunier of the band Deerhoof, who arranged the Deerhoof Chamber Variations for the ensemble.  This latter collaboration eventually led to the ensemble's most recent project, a collaboration with Deerhoof for a recording of Saunier's Variations, as well as a new work composed by Marcos Balter.

Dal Niente is known locally for their Hard Music, Hard Liquor series, which features music that requires extreme virtuosity from its performers.  Other recent projects include the audio/video concert Coming Togetherwhich featured works by American composers enhanced with live video art by the new media artist Alejandro Acierto.  One of the centerpieces of this program is Assemblage by trombonist/improviser/composer George Lewis, which can be seen below:

At June in Buffalo, Dal Niente will perform a program that will feature works by faculty composers, including Chinary Ung's Singing Inside Aura and Winternacht by Hans Abrahamsen.  No stranger to the former's music, the ensemble performed the Chicago premiere of Schnee in 2014, which Ensemble Signal will present at this year's JiB (for more on that performance, see our profile on Signal).  The program will also feature David Felder's Rare Air, for bass clarinet, piano, and electronics.  The four-movement work, originally composed for Jean Kopperud's Rated X project, is a collection of miniatures that feature an exotic menagerie of virtuosic extended techniques that create a strange-but-enticing sonic environment.  Finally, the ensemble will present Joshua Fineberg's Paradigms, for ensemble and electronics.  This latter piece is based on compositional models, as the composer explains:
I recorded several passages of instrumental music [which] were then analyzed; not, however, in the ordinary manner […].  Instead, I sought to extract the essence of the color, sound and motion not of these passages in their abstract existence, but of their realization.  To find a model in which each individual instrument playing in a precise way is fused together in one global timbre.  This global timbre then, once understood, could serve as my new model, to be re-interpreted, re-evaluated and again transformed into a new musical structure.
Dal Niente has made educational outreach an integral part of its mission, and have participated in composition workshops and masterclasses at a number of colleges and universities.  Since their formation in 2004, the ensemble has developed a particular skill for helping composers realize their visions, whether they be young punks or established masters.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Chinary Ung: Voices, Oracles, and Spirals

This week, we continue our profile series on June in Buffalo faculty artists with Chinary Ung, a composer the Center is excited to welcome to the festival for the first time.

Chinary Ung playing the roneat-ek
Chinary Ung was born in Takéo, Cambodia, where he studied traditional Khmer music and was a member of the first graduating class of Cambodia’s National Music Conservatory.  There he became a skilled performer on the roneat-ek, a boat-shaped xylophone of the Pinpeat tradition (used in the ceremonial music of Cambodian royal courts and temples).  Ung moved to the US in 1964, to study clarinet with Charles Russo at the Manhattan School of Music.  Ten years later, he graduated with a DMA in composition from Columbia University, where he studied with Mario Davidovsky and Chou Wen-chung.  Since 1995, he has taught at UC San Diego, where he is currently a Distinguished Professor of composition.

Ung has received a number of prestigious honors and awards, including those from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Kennedy Center and the Guggenheim, and the Koussevitzky, Ford, and Rockefeller foundations.  In 1989, he became the first American to win the celebrated Grawemeyer Award for music composition.

Ung has developed a reputation for his organic blend Western harmonic techniques with Eastern melodic accents.  The New York Times has said his music bears "an exotic, winding and at times gracefully ornamental character, and its dense textures dance between tonality and atonality.  Those who feel terror at the mention of multi-culturalism might listen to some of Mr. Ung's pieces.  They show that disparate musical traditions can be combined compellingly."  Attendees at June in Buffalo will hear such qualities in a number of performances, such as when Uusinta Ensemble performs 2004's Oracle for pierrot and percussion, a work which takes inspiration from the titular Nechung Oracle consulted by the Dalai Lama before his exile from Tibet (listen here).  

Chinary Ung, Spiral XI: Mother and Child, manuscript
One dramatic feature of Oracle that is common to Ung's music is that of performers vocalizing while playing their instruments.  His wife, violist Susan Ung, has become an expert in this skill.  The composer explains his frequent employment of this technique:
As a child growing up in a small village surrounded by rice fields, I was exposed to this practice as a part of folk music, and would later hear the music of other cultures share this approach.  In contemporary Western music, however, vocalization was most often used as a special effect.  I would eventually seek to incorporate vocalization in a more comprehensive manner that was integral to the work while reflecting a similar timelessness and cultural resonance as in the folk music I remembered.
Susan Ung will join Dal Niente for a JiB performance of Ung's Singing Inside Aura (2013), a piece which require the viola soloist to vocalize throughout.  The composer Adam Greene describes the piece:
[Singing Inside Aura's] notated tempo, forty-three beats per minute, suggests ritual or ceremony, when indeed a strict pulse is audible.  The ensemble texture is gossamer, threads combining into fabric.  […]  The viola and voice parts are inextricable and largely heterophonic, that is, much of the time they’re varied versions of the same melodic line.  That line or double line—matched, on occasion, in some of the ensemble instruments as well—is complex in its detail but as a result flexible and organic, like speech or improvisation.
Speaking/singing performers also appear throughout Ung's Spiral series, a collection of solo, chamber, and orchestral pieces that currently consists of fourteen works.  2007's Spiral XI: Mother and Child, for solo viola can be heard below, in a performance by Susan Ung.  For the composer, according to Greene, "the Spiral series he viewed the concept of the spiral primarily as a means of describing technical processes he had developed for dealing with pitch and large-scale form."

At June in Buffalo's final concert on June 12, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra will perform Water Rings "Overture" (1993), a work marked by its expert use of instrumental color and skilled orchestration.  Ung has perhaps been most widely recognized for his orchestral writing—the Grawemeyer being awarded to him for his 1986 work Inner Voices, commissioned by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts for Dennis Russell Davies and the Philadelphia Orchestra.  This earlier piece was described by the NY Times as "[overlaying] a richly colored backdrop of 1960's-style orchestral sound color, flecked with exotic percussion, with Cambodian-flavored melodies, most strikingly from the violas.  […It's an] evocative and engaging and a genuine contribution toward the serious fusion of Eastern and Western musical traditions."

These qualities are still present in more recent works, such as Water Rings, as the BPO's JiB audience will no doubt be able to recognize.  We look forward to hearing not only his music, but his insights into composition, orchestration, as well as voices, oracles, and spirals.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Ensemble SIGNAL: Popups and Canons

UB's spring semester opened with Ensemble SIGNAL's residency at the University's new Creative Arts Initiative—a residency that included a masterclass, an open rehearsal, a discussion on artistic entrepreneurship, and Performance in the Dark, a concert of works by Steve Reich and Georg Friedrich Haas (read more about it here).  That was just the first of two non-consecutive weeks of SIGNAL's residency, and the second week took place earlier this month, bookending the semester with exciting events featuring the NY-based ensemble.

SIGNAL's Bill Solomon performs a
solo kalimba micro-concert
The second week began on May 2, with "popup concerts" at various locations around UB's North Campus.  Consisting of 15 'micro-concerts' in a span of 30 minutes, each popup concert featured one or two of the ensemble's musicians playing brief (3-15 minutes) unannounced lunchtime concerts around the campus.  The following day featured a workshop performance of the minimalist classic In C by Terry Riley.    For this event, the ensemble invited anyone able to read music and play an instrument to sit in with them through a reading of Riley's work, introducing UB students and community members not only to the famous piece's challenging form, but also to the excitement of playing alongside some of the most skilled new music performers.  The residency concluded with a celebratory concert of works by Steve Reich.  SIGNAL have long been renowned for their interpretations of Reich's music, especially their Harmonia Mundi recording of Music for 18 Musicians (which received a Diapason d’or in June 2015 and appeared on the Billboard Classical Crossover charts in May 2015).  This concert featured several of the composer's "hits" (1972's Clapping Music, and 1985's New York Counterpoint), as well as two recent works:  Radio Rewrite (2012), based on themes from two Radiohead songs, and Quartet (2013) for two vibraphones and two pianos.

But SIGNAL is not finished yet!  The ensemble will be back next month as one of the six resident ensembles at June in Buffalo.  At this year's festival, they will perform a concert of works by JiB participants (June 7, 4:00pm, Baird Recital Hall), taking their experience collaborating with renowned composers to JiB's young artists, helping them articulate their musical visions and offering authentic interpretations of their works.  SIGNAL will also perform an evening concert (June 10, 7:30pm, Lippes Concert Hall), which will consist of a single large-scale work:  Schnee by Hans Abrahamsen.  The Danish composer—who will be on the composition faculty at this year's festival—composed Schnee ("Snow") in 2008, and the work has since been called a "hidden gem" by the New York Times.  The piece has its roots in 8 Canons, a collection of Bach arrangements which used repetition and slow durations to open up a new way of looking at time in these often taken-for-granted works:
I became totally absorbed into this music and arranged them with the intention of the music being repeated many, many times, as a kind of minimal music.  Obviously, I didn't know which durations Bach had in mind, but by listening to his canons in this way, a profound new moving world of circular time was opened to me.  Depending on the perspective on these canons, the music and its time can stand still or move either backwards or forwards.
One of these arranged canons, Kanon zu acht Stimmen, BWV 1072, can be heard below in Abrahamsen's arrangement.

Schnee emerged through a similar idea, and, using the Bach arrangements as a model, Abrahamsen composed a pair of two large-scale canons for nine instruments divided into two halves (piano and 3 strings, piano and 3 winds, with percussion in the middle).
In my own work, an ongoing idea has persisted, of at some point writing a work consisting of a number of canonical movements that would explore this universe of time.  […]  In Schnee, a few simple and fundamental musical questions are explored.  […]  Can a phrase be answering?  Or questioning?  [Schnee's] two canons are identical like a painting in two versions, but with different colors.  And where the first one does not include the space, the second one does, as well as containing more canonical traces.

The piece soon expanded into ten canons which gracefully unfold over the course of an hour.  The airy, ghostly music begins with whispering, feather-soft gestures, and reduces itself from there as the piece develops.  The performers are told to detune their instruments between movements, moving lower and lower as the piece progresses, creating stranger and more otherworldly sounds.  The work's frigid title makes reference to Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen", and many of the sparse melodies have a frosty lightness to them, sounding almost like snow falling gracefully downward.

Brad Lubman
SIGNAL is directed by Brad Lubman, who is a special guest at this year's festival.  Lubman has played an important role in contemporary music for the past twenty years, acting not only as the founding co-Artistic and Music Director of SIGNAL, but also as a frequent guest conductor of many of the world's leading ensembles (including Ensemble Modern, London Sinfonietta, Klangforum Wien, ASKO Ensemble, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, WDR Symphony Cologne, Finnish Radio Symphony, and the Center's own Slee Sinfonietta). Currently on faculty at the Eastman School of Music, Lubman is known for his versatile conducting technique and skilled realizations of contemporary and classical works alike.

We're excited that Brad Lubman and SIGNAL will be returning to this year's festival (for more on the long, productive relationship between the ensemble and June in Buffalo, see last year's profile).  Whether realizing classical minimalist works with UB students, premiering new works by emerging composers, or articulating the delicate subtleties of wintery canons, SIGNAL is always a reliable source for strong, proficient performances.

Monday, May 2, 2016

JACK Quartet Returns for Composer Workshop

JACK Quartet at One M&T Plaza, 2013
This week, the Center is excited to welcome back the JACK Quartet for a composer workshop in Baird Recital Hall.  Longtime friends of the Center, the JACK Quartet have taken part in many Center events, beginning with their first residency in October 2009, during which they worked with student composers and presented a concert that featured works by Xenakis, Sciarrino, Robert Morris, and Elliott Sharp.  Two years later, the quartet returned with Aaron Cassidy for a joint residency that included a concert featuring the composer's first quartet (and which also included John Cage's String Quartet in Four Parts and concluded with Ligeti's famous second quartet).  One of their most memorable performances was a concert at Buffalo's One M&T Plaza which kicked off the 2013 June in Buffalo Festival and Performance Institute.  The performance, part of Eric Huebner's "Music in Buffalo's Historic Places" series, consisted only of Morton Feldman's immense 100-minute String Quartet No. 1.

JACK Quartet at June in Buffalo 2013
This week, the ensemble—tireless advocates of new music that they are—will present a composer workshop, realizing new works by four UB graduate composers:  Roberto Azaretto, Alex Huddleston, Nathan Kelly, and Su Lee.  Known for their work helping young composers realize their ideas—the Toronto Star described them as the "musical vehicle of choice to the next great composers who walk among us"—the event is sure to be enlightening for composers and audience alike.

The members of the JACK Quartet met while studying at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY.  Having studied with the Arditti Quartet, Kronos Quartet, and members of the Ensemble Intercontemporain (under the direction of Pierre Boulez), the quartet—consisting of John Pickford Richards, Ari Streisfeld, Christopher Otto, and Kevin McFarland—developed their sophisticated new music chops, quickly becoming one of the most active quartets on the scene.  They have collaborated with a number of renowned composers, including John Luther Adams, Caroline Shaw, Helmut Lachenmann, Steve Reich, Matthias Pintscher, and John Zorn, with upcoming performances including premieres by Derek Bermel, Roger Reynolds, Toby Twining, and Georg Friedrich Haas.  It's no wonder the Washington Post referred to them as "the go-to quartet for contemporary music, tying impeccable musicianship to intellectual ferocity and a take-no-prisoners sense of commitment."

Monday, April 18, 2016

Slee Sinfonietta: On Mobiles and Dances

This week, the Slee Sinfonietta presents their first concert of the Spring season, conducted by UB Percussion Professor, Tom Kolor.  The program brings together two works from a pair of seminal American experimentalists:  John Cage and Earle Brown.  The Sinfonietta's program combines two large-scale works by these artists which, while less well known than some of their more famous pieces (e.g., Imaginary Landscapes or Folio), offer a distinct and unique perspective on the insights and accomplishments of these two important composers.

Earle Brown - Novara
The program begins with Brown's Novara (1962), for flute, bass clarinet, trumpet, piano, and strings.  The piece was originally commissioned by Lukas Foss for a Fromm concert at the Tanglewood Festival, where the premiere was conducted by Brown himself.  The conductor plays a unique role in Novara:  in this "open form" or "mobile" piece, all the musical possibilities are notated by the composer and laid out before the performers as a series of events (in numbered boxes).  The conductor, as the composer explains, "is free to conduct the events in any sequence or juxtaposition, in changing tempi, loudness, and in general mold and form the piece."  The virtuosity of Brown's compositional technique is on display in the flexibility and malleability of his musical material.  In the Sinfonietta's performance, Kolor will guide the ensemble in spontaneous, on-the-spot decisions about how to realize the piece.  The work therefore becomes a collaboration between composer and conductor—and the specific realization changes from performance to performance.  This open approach to form, while still relying on a fixed underlying structure, was something Brown found inspiration from in other media:
The concept of the elements being mobile was inspired by the mobiles of Alexander Calder, in which, similar to this work, there are basic units subject to innumerable different relationships or forms.  The concept of the work being conducted and formed spontaneously in performance was originally inspired by the "action-painting" techniques and works of Jackson Pollock in the late 1940s, in which the immediacy and the directness […] produces such an intensity in the working and in the result.

Merce Cunningham & John Cage
The concert will conclude with Cage's Sixteen Dances (1951), for flute, trumpet, four percussionists, piano, violin, and cello.  This 50-minute work was originally used to accompany Merce Cunningham's dance piece, Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three.  Cunningham's choreography was concerned with expressive behavior, specifically, as the artist explains, "the nine permanent emotions of Indian classical aesthetics, four light and four dark with tranquility the ninth and pervading one."  The piece's structure is designed to feature or illustrate each emotion (alternating light/dark) with interludes acting as bridges between each movement (i.e., each emotion).  Cage's compositional approach in the Sixteen Dances was unique—it being the last piece he composed before turning emphatically toward chance procedures.  For this work, he created a "sound gamut", a collection of 64 isolated sound events which he laid out on an 8x8 chart.  Then, as James Pritchett explains, "Composition […] became a matter of moving from place to place on the chart, picking one sound out after another, then stringing them together rhythmically into phrases."  The resulting piece is generally sparse in texture, but often rhythmic, quickly-moving, and light on its feet (as one would expect of a dance).  It's whimsy and levity are often underscored by a poignant mystique characteristic of much of Cage's early work, with frequent repetition and subtle variations underscoring the objectivity of the musical material.  

It was the aforementioned act of composing according to chart movements that eventually led Cage to chance music:  "Somehow, I reached the conclusion that I could compose according to moves on these charts instead of according to my own taste."

After this exciting program, the Sinfonietta is only getting started.  They will also be among the many resident ensembles at June in Buffalo 2016, where they'll perform a full concert of works by JiB faculty composers.  Meanwhile, members of the Sinfonietta will help realize new works by the participant composers.  It will be an exciting week in which the ensemble continues to live up to its mission to bring important works, new and newer, to fruition.