Thursday, March 19, 2015

Charles Wuorinen: Craft and Communication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 12, 2015

New York New Music Ensemble: An Interview with Jean Kopperud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But you also work with younger, less established composers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Brian Ferneyhough: On Suddenness & Plötzlichkeit

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

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

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

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

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

—Ethan Hayden

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Talujon Percussion: A Rustle and a Bang along 25 years

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Steven Stucky: The Joyous Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Meridian Arts Ensemble: At Home in the Grit

It is hard work being a contemporary music ensemble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Martin Bresnick: Music of the extra inch

It begins with a crash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Performances, Commissions, Residencies: A busy Fall for UB Composers

Our composers have been up to really extraordinary things, and the Fall semester saw many of them composing new works, receiving commissions, and having works performed by some of the most skilled performers in the field.  Neither snow, nor rain, nor lake-effect thundersnow stays these composers from constantly creating new and exciting work!  Here is just a sample of what some of the group are up to:

Nathan Heidelberger has been hard at work on his dissertation, an extended single-movement work for string quartet.  The first two sections of the piece were read and recorded last Fall during the Mivos Quartet's residency at the Center, and he was enthusiastic about the results.  In addition, Nathan and pianist Daniel Walden were recently granted a Special Award from the Yvar Mikhashoff Trust for New Music (named for the virtuoso pianist who was a professor of music at UB from 1973-1993).  Nathan describes their next project:  "The grant will help support an upcoming collaborative project:  a recital-length program that will combine a new multi-movement piano solo of mine with a complete performance of the Luigi Rossi manuscript, a collection of bizarre 16th-century Italian harpsichord music that includes the only extant keyboard work by Carlo Gesualdo."  You can hear Daniel's performance of Nathan's song cycle Descriptions of the Moon, with vocalist Marine Fribourg ,below:

Robert Azaretto had two new works premiered in the Fall.  His solo piano piece, lago. paisajismo abstracto. 2., was premiered in Buenos Aires by Bruno Mesz in the gorgeous Teatro Nacional Cervantes, Argentina's national theatre.  His flute and bass clarinet duo, paisajismo abstracto. 4., was premiered at the Distat Terra festival in Choele Choel.  The latter piece was commissioned by Musica AntiquaNova for Austria's Duo Soufflé.

Matt Sargent
Matt Sargent has had a very busy Fall semester.  He collaborated on a duo concert of electroacoustic music with turntablist Dani Dobkin, which was presented at the Hartford Art School in November.  Then in December, the Ghost Ensemble performed his work Tide for nine "sliding instruments."  The Undue Percussion Duo (featuring percussionists Nick Fox and Trevor Saint) included Matt's stunning small stones in a program they played on six-city Midwestern tour in October.  Saint is a frequent collaborator of Matt's, and will be performing a new work of his for solo glockenspiel in March.  Matt will see another premiere in March:  he was commissioned to write More Snow to Fall, a work for two electric guitars and 'cello, which will be premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland.

Colin Tucker has received several commissions, and is no doubt hard at work composing new works.  Richard Haynes, clarinetist of ELISION, Weston Olencki, trombonist of Wild Rumpus/Fonema Consort, and Aaron Hynds, a tubist at Bowling Green State University all commissioned new solo works from Colin.  He also had several works performed in the Fall.  His solo saxophone work futures unmade in the boundlessness of the instant was performed at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur by Joshua Hyde, and was taken on a tour of Ohio universities by the New York-based saxophonist, Geoff Landmann.  In addition, his sound installation, voice dross, was commissioned by the Echo Art Fair, where it was installed in September.

Chun Ting Pang's Pulsating Garden—a commission by Hong Kong Composers' Guild—was premiered during the guild's annual new music festival, Musicarama, by Korea's Ensemble Eclat.  In addition, his Vocalize the Voicelessness for trombone, percussion, 'cello, and piano will have its German premiere in March by Ensemble Ascolta.  Chun Ting also became the composer-in-residence of the Hong Kong-based Zheng Quartet, ZhengMusic (the zheng is a Chinese zither).  A new commission for the quartet will be performed during this season.

Zane Merritt
photo by Megan Metté
Zane Merritt had two new works premiered in the Fall:  his chamber ensemble piece Sex-Bot (serial no. 5347) becomes self-aware and falls in love with an Allen wrench was premiered by Wooden Cities in October (read more about that performance here), and his orchestral work Dramatic Individuals was premiered by the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra in November.  This weekend, he and UB 'cello professor Jonathan Golove will premiere his Mercury Aqua Mirage for theremin 'cello and electric guitar at the SUNY New Music and Culture Symposium.  At the same event he will perform solo guitar works by fellow UB composers Nathan Heidelberger, Colin Tucker, and Meredith Gilna, and will premiere a new work by Megan Grace Beugger.  Megan will have two pieces played at this symposium:  in addition to her new guitar piece, her percussion duo Daring Doris will also be performed.  Megan is also gearing up for this year's MATA Festival in New York, which will see a performance of her piece for piano-dancer, Liason.

Several composers attended festivals and conferences in the Fall.  Su Lee was one of of eight composers selected to attend the Goethe-Institut Boston's December symposium.  There, she took part in composition workshops with composers Raphaël Cendo and Isabel Mundry.  Su was also commissioned to write a new piece for the New York-based ensemble mise-en, which the group will premiere during their 2015/16 season.  Weijun Chen's work In Search of a Shore was heard at the Composition in Asia Festival in Tampa, and he is planning on presenting other pieces at several conferences in the Spring, including the RED NOTE New Music Festival Composition Workshop (Normal, IL), the Mise-En Music Festival (New York, NY), and the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition 30th Anniversary Conference (Louisville, KY), where his string quartet, Canoe, will be performed by TALEA Ensemble.  Just this week, Weijun has been named a composition fellow at this summer's Aspen Festival.

Esin Gündüz recently revised a piece she composed for the Meridian Arts Ensemble (during their Fall 2011 residency at the Center) for performance by the Cleveland-based Factory Seconds Trio.  The revised work will be premiered at Baldwin Wallce Conservatory this spring.  She is also hard at work on a commissioned work for violists Yuri Gandelsman and Tuba Ozkan, which will be performed in September at Turkey's Mersin State Conservatory.  As the composer-in-residence at Buffalo's Friends of Vienna, Esin is writing another trio which will see an October premiere.  Also active with the Buffalo-based ResAUnance, Esin (a skilled vocalist) recently made a debut recording of folksong arrangements and original works with the improvisatory ensemble, which should be mixed and mastered by mid-semester.

Ethan Hayden had several works performed in the Fall, including his percussion quintet Clicks & Beeps, which was performed by the Concert Percussion Ensemble at Florida Atlantic University, and his four-voice arrangement of Kurt Schwitter's Ribble Bobble Pimlico, which was performed by ThingNY at two concerts in November.  He performed his (tRas) for solo voice and electronics at the INTIME symposium in Coventry, UK in October.  Ethan is also the artist-in-residence this year at the Electronic Poetry Center's annual Digital Poetry & Dance concert, at which he'll be premiering a suite of new pieces for voice, video, and electronic sounds called "…ce dangereux supplément…".

Matthew Chamberlain spent his Fall finishing a string trio commissioned by Ensemble Chartreuse, as well as a guitar solo that will soon be premiered by Zane Merritt.  Matthew is also the director of UB's Contemporary Music Ensemble, and is often hard at work preparing new works for performance with that group.

Clinton Haycraft
Several composers have been collaborating with choreographer Melanie Aceto, from UB's Department of Theatre and Dance.  Clinton Haycraft's work, Advocate, for violins, was choreographed by Aceto, and has already seen three performances throughout the Western New York area.  Jiryus Ballan collaborated with Aceto and UB percussionist Alexander Chimienti on a series of works.  After joining Aceto's modern dance class as an accompanist (Jiryus is an accomplished Buzuq player), he and Chimienti began an ongoing collaboration that began with live improvisation and eventually coalesced into 25 tracks of recorded compositions.  For Jiryus, a key part of the project was the intercultural exchange.  "I think the most important thing was the combination of different musical elements from diverse cultures.  For example, I used quarter tones in some of the tracks and employed the Maqam [a system of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music]."  He compares this kind of compositional process to the manner in which traditional folk music is created.  "In my culture (Palestinian), the folk music was created by the people.  They repeated melodies and they remembered them by heart and with time these melodies attained their own unique characteristics."  An excerpt of some of these collaborations can be heard below:

With all this activity just last semester, we can't wait to see what's next for these composers in the coming months!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Join us for June in Buffalo 2015!

Flyer from the first
June in Buffalo, 1975

2015 is shaping up to be a thrilling year for June in Buffalo, the Center's annual festival and conference dedicated to composers.  June in Buffalo (June 1-7) offers an intensive schedule of seminars, lectures, workshops, professional presentations, participant forums, and open rehearsals in addition to concert after concert of excellent performances.  This year the festival celebrates its 40th anniversary, and the 30th anniversary of David Felder's tenure as artistic director.  It also marks the second year of the June in Buffalo Performance Institute (May 29-June 7), which invites young performers with an interest in contemporary music to take part in a master classes, lessons, and seminars with some of the strongest performers in the contemporary music field.

David Felder
The composition faculty at this year's JiB features some of the most adventurous composers working today, representing a wide variety of musical perspectives and compositional strategies.  The Center is excited to welcome Martin Bresnick, David Felder, Brian Ferneyhough, Bernard Rands, Augusta Read Thomas, Roger Reynolds, Harvey Sollberger, and Charles Wuorinen to this year's festival, where they will teach masterclasses, give seminars, and have their works performed (and in some cases, premiered).  These eight composers are some of those who have been important to the continued success of June in Buffalo, and it will be great to have them back in our midst this summer. The Performance Institute faculty includes some of the most skilled performers in the field, including institute director Eric Huebner (piano), Jonathan Golove (‘cello), Tom Kolor, (percussion), Jean Kopperud (clarinet), Jon Nelson (trumpet), Yuki Numata Resnick (violin).

Brian Ferneyhough at JiB 2013
Among the resident ensembles at this year's festival, are the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Ensemble SIGNAL, Meridian Arts Ensemble, the New York New Music Ensemble, the Slee Sinfonietta, and Talujon Percussion Ensemble, in addition to special guests Irvine Arditti, Heather Buck, Ethan Herschenfeld, and Brad Lubman.  With such a roster of internationally-renowned interpreters of contemporary music, it's tough not to be excited about all the concerts—and if there's one thing June and Buffalo is known for, it's all the innovative music that is constantly being performed.  With afternoon and evening concerts by such top-notch contemporary ensembles happening every day, and a wide breath of musical aesthetics represented, there's definitely something for everyone with adventurous taste and open ears.

Talujon at JiB 2013
Some of the great performances we're looking forward to include the New York New Music Ensemble playing Lukas Foss's Echoi and Performance Institute director Eric Huebner playing all (that's right) of Roger Reynolds' piano études.  The festival will see the third performance of David Felder's colossal song cycle Les Quatres Temps Cardinaux by Ensemble SIGNAL and the Slee Sinfonietta (click here to read more about the last performance).  There will be an evening of percussion music at which Talujon Percussion Quartet will perform works by Martin Bresnick, Steven Stucky, and Iannis Xenakis, and Ensemble SIGNAL's Bill Solomon will play Ferneyhough's spiky solo piece, Bone Alphabet.  The inimitable Meridian Arts Ensemble will present a program including Felder's Canzone XXXI and Charles Wuorinen's Brass Quintet (which was premiered at June in Buffalo fifteen years ago), and Eric Huebner and Irvine Arditti will play Elliott Carter's complex Duo for Violin and Piano.  The festival will wrap up with a special performance by the Buffalo Philharmonic, conducted by Stefan Sanders, playing Felder's Six Poems from Nerudas "Alturas..." and Morton Feldman's exquisitely-titled On Time and the Instrumental Factor.

Irvine Arditti at JiB 2014
In what is fast becoming a June in Buffalo tradition, Irvine Arditti will mesmerize the audience with an intimate solo recital in UB's Baird Recital Hall.  There is something particularly enjoyable about seeing an audience of young composers watch in wide-eyed disbelief as the virtuoso violinist effortlessly plows through complex works like Sciarrino's Sei Capricci.  This year, Arditti's concert will feature works by Roger Reynolds and Brian Ferneyhough, in addition to the delicate fragility of Morton Feldman's For Aaron Copland.

Kleinhans Music Hall
While most of the events take place at UB's North Campus, for the past several years, the festival has made a point of utilizing some of the fantastic spaces in the city proper (I remember, in particular, an electrifying performance by the Genkin Philharmonic at Hallwall's at JiB 2011).  This year, the festival will feature two downtown performances on Friday, June 5th.  First, Eric Huebner's Music in Buffalo's Historic Places series will host a concert at the majestic Kleinhans Music Hall, home to the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.  The concert will feature performances by Performance Institute faculty and students playing classic works by composers who have a history of association with June in Buffalo.  Afterwards, the festival moves down the street to one of Buffalo's youngest venues, Pausa Art House, for a solo concert by JiB faculty composer Harvey Sollberger, who will perform works for flute and accordion(!).  From a concert by up-and-coming performers at a hall which is a National Historic Landmark, to a concert in a sharp new venue by a composer who was present at June in Buffalo's revival in 1986, the evening will be a lively tour through the past and present of both the festival, and its city—definitely not to be missed!

Augusta Read Thomas leading a masterclass at JiB 2013
Each of the invited participant composers will have one of her/his pieces performed during the festival.  Young composers have the option of writing for Meridian Arts Ensemble, NYNME, Talujon, or members of the Slee Sinfonietta (included in the latter are the Performance Institute faculty performers).  While composers are encouraged to write for members of the aforementioned ensembles, solos or duos for any orchestral instruments will also be considered.  Participant composers will also have the opportunity to present their work in masterclasses with the JiB faculty composers.  This year, with eight senior composers in attendance, participants won't be able to work with every faculty composer, but each young composer will have the chance to work with a randomly selected subset of the faculty.  Application info is available online, the (postmark) deadline for submission is February 16, 2015.  Fees for participant composers are $750, with optional on-campus housing for $350.

If you want to come to June in Buffalo and be a part of the celebration, but you don't have time between now and June to compose a new piece for brass quintet or pierrot ensemble, there's great news:  you can apply as an auditor.  Auditors get to be a part of all the festivities, attending concerts and composer seminars, and are even able to present their work in masterclasses.  The only difference between auditors and participants is that the former don't have their pieces performed.  There is also a significantly reduced fee for auditors ($250).

Performance Institute alum
TJ Borden performs at JiB 2013
Performers invited to attend the Performance Institute will take part in master classes, lessons, and seminars with the performance faculty, and will work together through intensive rehearsals and workshops to prepare ensemble and solo works for performance at the aforementioned concert in Kleinhans.  Application info the JiB Performance Institute is available online, and the deadline for submission is March 2, 2015.  Fees for participants are $950, with optional on-campus housing for $450.

There is lots of exciting music to make and even more to hear.  We hope to see you at this year's festival!