Sunday, May 28, 2017

Transatlantic Music Exchange: Cikada Trio and Bifrost Ensemble

June in Buffalo marks the culmination of an exchange project between composers and performers in Buffalo and Oslo, Norway. Organized by June in Buffalo Director and UB Distinguished Professor of Composition David Felder, Norwegian Academy of Music Professor of Composition Henrik Hellstenius, Norwegian Academy of Music Associate Professor of Percussion Kjell Tore Innervik, and UB PhD candidate in composition Colin Tucker, the project will bring two Norwegian ensembles—Cikada Trio and Bifrost Ensemble—to the June in Buffalo Festival, alongside two faculty composers—Henrik Hellstenius and Eivind Buene—from the Norwegian Academy of Music.

Cikada Trio, a subset of the larger Cikada Ensemble, returns to Buffalo after an acclaimed visit to the Center for 21st Century Music in 2010. At this year’s June in Buffalo, a trio of longtime Cikada members—Anne Karine Hauge, flute; Rolf Borch, clarinet; and Kenneth Karlsson, piano—will perform works by living Norwegian composers: faculty composers Henrik Hellstenius and Eivind Buene as well as Maja Ratkje and Asbjørn Schaathun. One theme running across the concert is the re-imagining of found material: Buene’s Landscape with Ruins alludes to fragments of tonal vocables, while Ratkje’s Two small pieces for Arnold S. takes its point of departure from two chords found in Arnold Schoenberg’s Little Piano Pieces op. 19; Schaathun’s Stravinsky goes Bach and Schaathun goes Frescobaldi is also based on small fragments, in this case from Stravinsky’s Cappriccio and Concerto for Piano and Winds. In previous posts, this publication profiled two composers--Eivind Buene and Henrik Hellstenius--featured on this program.

Active for over two decades, the ensemble is renowned for its high-profile festival appearances and recordings alike. From its earliest days, Cikada distinguished itself by pursuing ambitious projects—music of great performative difficulty by Liza Lim, James Dillon, and Richard Barrett, multimedia collaborations, and numerous concert length works, for instance, by Martin Raune Bauck and Richard Barrett (the latter in collaboration with the Australian ELISION Ensemble). The ensemble is also known for its long-term collaborations with Scandinavian composers; the trio’s program at this year’s festival, featuring works by four living Norwegian composers is evidence of the ample fruits of this endeavor.

Cikada is now a widely recognized senior ensemble in the Scandinavian new music scene; complementing this, this year’s festival features a young, up-and-coming ensemble from Oslo. Bifrost Ensemble is a recently formed sextet (trumpet, clarinet, percussion, harp, violin, and cello) made up of graduate students in performance at the Norwegian Academy of Music. Advised by percussion faculty member Kjell Tore Innervik, the group will give world premiere performances of works by graduate student composers from UB (Roberto Azaretto, Derick Evans, and Colin Tucker) and the Norwegian Academy (Jonas Skaarud) at June in Buffalo. 

Jonas Skaarud, Il vento

Two of the composers spoke with Edge of the Center about their new works. Jonas Skaarud’s Il vento to ha lasciata un’eco chiara, nei sensi, delle cose ch’ài vedute – confuse – il giorno takes its title and inspiration from a poem by Sandro Penna. Skaarud writes that
The piece is about chrysanthemums, shivering lakes, yellowgreen trees in the sunlight and other nice pictures. But often they pass quickly. And while you try to grasp them, they reshape and reshape. And they pass. And you try to grasp them, and they reshape.

Exploring ephemerality from another angle, Colin Tucker’s a rift, like the breath drawn in, immaculate thematizes incompatible tensions between melody and instrument. Tucker writes that
If 19th century Western art music’s aesthetics of melodic lyricism sought to transcend the materiality of the instrumental medium, scripting musical sound as a transparent vessel for ineffable meaning, the present work materializes these aesthetics’ conditions of impossibility, staging melody’s submersion into its physical medium. The instruments strain to enunciate melodic fragments against the headwinds of hushed, high tessituras and instrument-specific techniques that magnify unpredictable interactions between performers’ bodies and their instruments: air sound (clarinet), quiet tremolo from a close distance (percussion and harp), and extremely slow bow (strings).

Colin Tucker, a rift

The program will also include Innervik’s interpretation of former UB professor Morton Feldman’s King of Denmark, a “graph piece” from 1964 to be played at a very quiet dynamic, using only fingers and hands on a variety of instruments. Shortly after its Buffalo presentation, the program will travel to New York City for a concert at the Norwegian Seamen’s Church (317 E 52nd St.), on June 8 at 6pm. Plans are underway for further performances of the new works in Oslo.

Feldman, King of Denmark, performed by UB Percussion Professor Tom Kolor

Thursday, May 25, 2017

June in Buffalo 2017 Participants

The June in Buffalo Festival is pleased to announce its 2017 composer participants: 

Phil Acimovic
Roberto Azaretto
Michael Bang
Joseph Bohigian
Lily Chen
Yu-Chun Chien
Paul Duffy
Derick Evans
Meredith Gilna
Kolten Heeren
Alex Huddleston
Zhuosheng Jin
Jihyun Kim
Jiyoung Ko
Leslie Lang
Sunyeong Pak
Jakub Polaczyk
Matt Simon
Ben Stevenson
Adam Strawbridge
Adrien Trybucki
Colin Tucker
Jacob Walls
Jung Yoon Wie

The June in Buffalo Festival takes place June 5-11 2017 on the University at Buffalo campus. June in Buffalo offers an intensive schedule of seminars, lectures, workshops, professional presentations, participant forums and open rehearsals as well as afternoon and evening concerts open to the general public and critics. Each of the invited composers will have one of their pieces performed during the festival. Evening performances feature faculty composers, resident ensembles and soloists renowned internationally as interpreters of contemporary music. Faculty composers include Eivind BueneDavid DzubayDavid Felder, Brian FerneyhoughHenrik Hellstenius, and Jeffrey Mumford, while resident performers include Dal NienteMivos QuartetEnsemble SIGNAL, Slee Sinfonietta. Buffalo Philharmonic OrchestraCikada Trio, and Irvine Arditti.

A schedule of all June in Buffalo concerts is available here.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Henrik Hellstenius: Voyages and Rifts

June in Buffalo is delighted to welcome Henrik Hellstenius as a faculty composer in 2017. Hellstenius will be featured at June in Buffalo alongside composer Eivind Buene, the Cikada Trio, and the Bifrost Ensembles as part of a broader musical exchange between Buffalo and Oslo during 2017, to be profiled in a future blog post. Currently professor of composition at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, Hellstenius has written music that has appeared on 22 commercially available recordings, spanning chamber music, orchestra, opera, electroacoustic music, and music for theatre. This year’s June in Buffalo will feature performances of Hellstenius’s chamber and solo music. During the festival, Hellstenius will also give a lecture and will give feedback to participant-composers in masterclasses.

Rift, a string trio from 2014, will be performed by the MIVOS Quartet; Trio Aristos’s recording of the work is available on Tidal, Spotify, and iTunes. Perhaps most immediately striking about the piece’s musical language is its approach to accumulating and dissipating gestural energy. While the piece follows a familiar global shape of accumulation to a high point (4:50 in the Trio Aristos recording) followed by dissipation, this shape unfolds in unpredictable and remarkable ways on a local level. In accumulating momentum over the piece’s first five minutes, the piece charts a patient, often discontinuous trajectory. Much of the first half of the piece attempts to gather rhythmic energy on descending scalar figures, as if trying to roll down a hill; these efforts rarely sustain themselves, and often end up far afield of their goal. At times, one’s location within the global energy shape is clear, but at other times, it is not apparent at all, making for an exciting play of expectation and realization as the piece unfolds. The piece’s nuanced dramatic shape is undoubtedly assisted by the piece’s subtle pitch language. Pitches are derived from spectral chords, yielding a colorful range of microtonal intervals. These intervals—sometimes reminiscent of tonal sonorities—together with the piece’s widely varying registral spacing in a striking sound world wholly distinct from the saturated chromaticism of high modernist atonality.

June in Buffalo will also feature a performance by Irvine Arditti (of the Arditti Quartet) of the violin solo The Argonaut (2010). You can hear a performance of the work by Emily Fowler in the recording above. Drawn from the material of a larger instrumental theatre piece Victoria Counting for staged violinist. Hellstenius writes that “the title refers to the seamen following Ulysses on his many voyages,” based on Heiner Müller’s text Landscape with Argonauts.

This year’s festival will also feature a new Hellstenius piece Unfolded, as it were, performed by the Cikada Trio, who commissioned the piece. The composer writes that

This piece shifts between short sections, or moments, with repetition of a sparse material of chords and sound objects, and moves towards a more linear music. It begins in an environment of small cells of noise sound and repeated musical objects. Then it moves towards the linear outstretched music, unfolding gradually a long garland or chain of tight piano chords forming the nave the last part of the piece. The piece develops from fragmented music towards compound music, from objects towards process. 

Despite the attention that his music has received across Europe, Hellstenius’s music has rarely been performed in the US. This year’s June in Buffalo, with performances of multiple recent works by top new music ensembles, provides optimal introduction to his music.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Juliet Fraser: Wondering, Reaching, Grasping

This week renowned British soprano Juliet Fraser visits the Center for 21st Century Music for a residency. Fraser, principal soprano and co-founder of the Exaudi Vocal Ensemble, will present a solo concert Thursday featuring an extended vocal work by former UB Professor Morton Feldman. In addition to a concert, she will conduct a new workshop with graduate composition students, focusing on a new work for solo voice by PhD composition student Jessie Downs. Drawing on her experiences performing contemporary vocal ensemble music, Fraser will also coach the local Sotto Voce Vocal Collective on its interpretations of works by James Weeks and Lauren Redhead to be featured on an upcoming concert.

Active in performing a wide range of repertoire, Fraser has performed classical and early music with the Monteverdi Choir, The King's Consort, The Tallis Scholars, and BBC Singers, and was a soloist of the Collegium Vocale Gent, directed by Philippe Herreweghe, for six years. In new music, she is principal soprano and co-founder of the Exaudi Vocal Ensemble, and has also appeared as soloist with Klangforum Wien, ICTUS, Plus-Minus, We Spoke: New Music Company, London Sinfonietta and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and is active in duos with pianist Mark Knoop and percussionist Maxime Echardour. She has appeared at festivals such as as hcmf//, Tectonics Glasgow, Transit 20/21, Donaueschinger Musiktage, MaerzMusik, Wien Modern, Aldeburgh, Spitalfields, hcmf//, ManiFeste, Festival d'Automne, Ars Musica, Wittener Tage and Darmstadt Ferienkurse.

Fraser has developed close collaborative relationships with numerous renowned living composers. The list of composers who have written solo works for her is impressive: Michael Finnissy, Bernhard Lang, Rebecca Saunders, Stefano Gervasoni, Frank Denyer, Christopher Fox, Matthew Shlomowitz, Cassandra Miller and Andrew Hamilton. As a member of Exaudi, she has worked with many of today's great compositional talents, including two graduates from UB’s Center for 21st Century Music.  Aaron Cassidy’s A Painter of Figures in Rooms was commissioned for Exaudi by the high profile PRS for Music New Music 20×12 as part of the 2012 London Cultural Olympiad, and was later recorded by the ensemble on Huddersfield Contemporary Records. Meanwhile, Fraser has premiered multiple vocal ensemble works by Evan Johnson, a collaboration that will continue in 2019 with a new work for voice and piano.

At UB, Fraser will perform Three Voices, a work by another UB-affiliated composer, Morton Feldman, who was Edgar Varèse Professor during the height of the Center for Creative and Performing Arts. Feldman wrote the work for innovative vocalist/composer Joan La Barbara, who premiered it singing simultaneously with two recordings of herself, a practice Fraser will adopt in her performance (although the score is written conventionally for three voices). Written in 1982 in Buffalo, much of the piece is wordless, with the choice of vowels at the performer’s discretion. A ways into the piece, words emerge, in the form of fragments of a poem dedicated to Feldman by his friend Frank O’Hara.

Fraser recently recorded Three Voices on Hat Hut Records. Her first solo disc, the album has already received international acclaim, including a nomination for a German Schallplattenkritik Prize, and a four-star review from The Guardian music critic Andrew Clements. Fraser wrote the liner notes for her CD, discussing how she formulated an interpretation of this work, which is surely among the most difficult contemporary vocal works:

The challenge of recording this piece is to avoid rendering the delicate tapestry either too cold, too clinical, or too gorgeous; to rest in the ambiguous space between beauty and evil, between the living and the dead. On every level, from the text of O’Hara’s poem to the demands of Feldman’s music, this is a work that is about the very human effort of wondering, reaching, grasping.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Signal: New Music Dream Team

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

MIVOS Quartet: Expanding the String Quartet

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Slee Sinfonietta: New Perspectives on Familiar Classics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Jeffrey Mumford: Flourishing Paths

This post, next in our series of posts profiling June in Buffalo faculty composers, introduces the work of Jeffrey Mumford. Currently Distinguished Professor in the Division of Arts and Humanities at Lorain Community College, Mumford has accumulated an exceptional list of accolades, such as grants and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, American Music Center (now part of New Music USA), Ohio Arts Council, ASCAP Foundation, Meet the Composer, American Academy of Arts & Letters, Fromm Music Foundation, Amphion Foundation, and McKim Fund (Library of Congress), and performances by orchestras such as the National Symphony Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and American Composers Orchestra. This year’s June in Buffalo festival will feature performances of three works by Mumford: a garden of flourishing paths (2008) for mixed quintet, the promise of the far horizon (2002) for string quartet, and verdant and shimmering air: four views of a reflected forest (2007) for orchestra. The composer will also give lecture on his music and give masterclasses to participant composers.

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

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

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

Monday, March 27, 2017

Hilda Paredes: Revelations in Time

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 20, 2017

Arditti Quartet Returns to Buffalo

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

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

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

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

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