Thursday, September 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Signal plays Reich at the Center: A Culmination of Partnerships

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

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

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

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

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

Reich has since been invited to June in Buffalo as composition faculty—in 1987, 2000, 2003, and in 2010, when he received an honorary doctorate from the university. A range of his works have been performed at June in Buffalo: everything from large-scale works like City Life and Three Tales (the latter piece for film and ensemble was part of the 2003 festival’s “Music and Image” focus), chamber works like the Pulitzer-prize winner Double Sextet, and rarely performed works like Six Pianos. Signal’s performance of Music for 18 Musicians later this month will be its Buffalo premiere.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Announcing the 2017-2018 Season

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

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

Slee Sinfonietta

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

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

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

(Ensemble Signal)

Visiting Artist Series

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

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

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

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

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

(Ensemble Court Circuit)

Co-Sponsored Events

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

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

JUNE 4-10, 2018
David Felder, Artistic Director

Senior Composers:

Resident Ensembles:

Special Guests:

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

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

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

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

Performing Feldman

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

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

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

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

Listening to Feldman

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra: a History of Innovation

June in Buffalo welcomes back the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, who will close the 2017 festival with a full concert of works by faculty composers. The program includes David Dzubay’s Siren Song, Jeffrey Mumford’s verdant and shimmering air: four views of a reflected forest, and two works by June in Buffalo director David Felder, Incendio and Canzona. Canzona is a new work for brass ensemble receiving its world premiere on the festival—profiled in a past post in this publication.

For much of its history, the orchestra has been renowned for its programming of new music.
The orchestra’s first recording (1946) was the world premiere recording of the then-contemporary Symphony no. 7 by Dmitri Shostakovich, opened the door to later engagement with more radical works. Follwoing the appointment of Lukas Foss as music director in 1963, new music played a central role in the orchestra’s programming. Foss began by introducing early 20th-century repertoire such as Ives’s The Unanswered Question and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and soon after programmed the most radical orchestral works of the post-WWII era, including the US premiere of Stockhausen’s Momente and works by Berio, Cage, Carter, Ligeti, Nono, Penderecki, Takahashi, Xenakis, and Foss himself, some of which were recorded on the high profile label Nonesuch Records.

Not only did concerts include cutting-edge music, but the orchestra also pioneered programming frameworks that moved beyond numerous conventions of orchestral concert programs. Concerts often departed from the overture-concerto-symphony format, sometimes including 5-6 works. Programs often included new music, as well as early music, non-Western music, and rock alongside canonical classical works, often in combinations revealing unexpected resonances—as in a 1966 concert juxtaposing two movements of a Mahler symphony with Webern songs and Webern’s orchestrations of Schubert songs. Other concerts consisted entirely of new music, such as a 1965 concert featured works by Varèse, Boulez, Penderecki, Kilar, and Kagel (then Slee Professor at the University at Buffalo (UB)), and a 1970 event featuring the Grateful Dead together with orchestral works by Foss (with laser show), Cage, and (a rock-ified version of) Bach. Concerts frequently featured leading new music performers as guest soloists and ensembles; the Creative Associates of UB’s Center for Creative and Performing Arts, where Foss taught, were regular guests.

Michael Tilson Thomas, now renowned for his ambitious new music projects as music director of the San Francisco Symphony, took over as music director in 1971. He continued many of Foss’s programming priorities, while strongly emphasizing the performance of works by American experimental composers (who would later be the center of his acclaimed “American Mavericks” series). The emphasis upon American experimentalists coincided conveniently with Morton Feldman’s arrival at UB in 1972, leading the BPO to premiere two of his works, The Viola in My Life IV (itself on a remarkable marathon program that also contained Berio’s Epifanie, Cage’s Variations IV, a Charpentier Mass, and Debussy’s Rhapsody) and Voices and Instruments II. Tilson-Thomas also welcomed works that explored the absurd, the theatrical, and blurred distinctions between performance and audience, as in a 1972 program that featured Berio’s Recital I (for Cathy) and David Bedford’s controversial With 100 Kazoos for Ensemble and Audience.

Continuing the close relationship between the BPO and UB cultivated by Lukas Foss, the BPO has been regularly featured at June in Buffalo. In recent years, June in Buffalo has provided an important outlet for the orchestra’s new music programming, as detailed in a past post from this publication. A further link between the orchestra and UB is David Felder, UB Distinguished Professor and June in Buffalo Director, who was the BPO’s Meet the Composer Composer-in-Residence from 1992-96. In addition to the new work to be premiered on this year’s festival, he is currently at work on a new work for the orchestra to be premiered in 2018.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Josh Levine and Slee Sinfonietta Soloists: Redefining Virtuosity

Due to unforeseen contingencies, Josh Levine will be replacing Brian Ferneyhough as faculty composer at this year’s festival. The Ferneyhough works scheduled for performance will still be presented, while two of Levine’s works will be added to the Wednesday evening concert. This publication previously wrote a profile on Levine, who was a faculty composer at last year’s festival.

Wednesday night’s concert will open as scheduled with the MIVOS Quartet playing works by Mumford, Buene, Hellstenius, and Ferneyhough; as a last minute addition, the Slee Sinfonietta Soloists will perform two solo works by Josh Levine. UB graduate student and Dean’s Fellow Jade Conlee will perform Praeludium (Inflorescence II) (2008-9) for piano while UB alumnus and UCSD doctoral student TJ Borden will perform Sixty Cycles (2015) for cello.

Praeludium (Inflorescence II) is based on the harmonic structures of an earlier piano miniature. Levine writes about the piece
is the first of two pieces in this series whose point of departure is a return to earlier work of mine, the other being Breathing ritual (Inflorescence V). Though decidedly figurative at first, the piece erupts into a dense superimposition of reiterating lines that forms a vast thicket of notes through which the interpreter must forge an individual path.
The composer has made the score available online here.

Sixty Cycles was commissioned by the Isabelle Zogheb Foundation for Kevin McFarland, formerly cellist of the JACK Quartet. TJ Borden gave the first complete performance of the piece this past January. Originally planned for a friend’s sixtieth birthday, the work “was born of my thinking about life’s phases and the frequent disjuncture between experienced time and the temporal grids we use to organize our lives (years, months, days…).” The piece consists of 60 phrases of equal (notated) length, each being “ten beats long (the fixed temporal grid), but they vary in perceived and often clock duration through tempo fluctuations and according to the activity and density of the materials that ‘inhabit’ them.” For more detail, have a look at the score, available here.
The piece takes a unique approach to the cello, radically extending traditional notions of virtuosity. Levine writes that
The cello part requires extremely subtle control and virtuosity. The performer explores and struggles with the instrument as if trying to make sense of its capacities, seeking ­– or perhaps trying to regain? – the ability to play with conventional beauty, and uncovering other beauties in the process. In the first half of the piece, for example, a substantial amount of the material is fingered not only in the instrument’s highest, less-exploited reaches, but also often on the “wrong” side of the bow. Similar extensions of traditional sound production arise through instability/variability in the way the bow contacts the string, widespread use of left-hand pizzicato, and the significant presence of high harmonics and multiphonics, sound objects akin to woodwind multiphonics that consist of simultaneously produced harmonics on a single string.


Soloists Conlee and Borden are well known to June in Buffalo audiences. Both have played regularly with the Slee Sinfonietta, but are best known for their astounding performances of superlatively difficult modernist solo works. Last year’s festival opened with Conlee’s performance of Boulez’s First Sonata, while the 2015 festival featured Borden’s performance of Brian Ferneyhough’s Time and Motion Study II.

David Dzubay: Color and Pluralism

For the next installment in our profiles of this year’s June in Buffalo composition faculty, we introduce the work of David Dzubay. Dzubay’s Nine Fragments will be performed by Dal Niente, Kukulkan III by Signal, and Siren Song by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. This is not Dzubay’s first contact with UB and its network: he attended June in Buffalo as a student in 1997 (during this festival, he also functioned as guest conductor), and one of his principal composition teachers was Lukas Foss, professor of composition at UB during the 1960s.

Dzubay’s music has received a formidable amount of institutional recognition across the world. His works have been performed by the symphony orchestras of Aspen, Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Detroit, Louisville, Memphis, Minnesota, St. Louis and Vancouver; the American Composers Orchestra, National Symphonies of Ireland and Mexico, New World Symphony, and conductors including James DePreist, Eiji Oue, JoAnn Falletta, Keith Lockhart and David Zinman. He has recently received numerous prestigious honors, including a Sackler Prize, two Fromm Commissions, and an Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; Guggenheim, Bogliasco, MacDowell, Yaddo, Copland House and Djerassi fellowships; awards from the NEA (twice), BMI (twice), ASCAP (thrice), Meet the Composer, the American Music Center, and the Tanglewood Music Center. Currently Professor of Music at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and composer in residence at the Brevard Music Center, he previously taught at the University of North Texas. Also active as a conductor, he is Director of the New Music Ensemble at Indiana University, and has conducted at the Tanglewood, Aspen, and June in Buffalo Festivals.

Dzubay’s music has been praised for its fresh, distinctive voice, which he has cultivated within listening parameters familiar to classical music audiences, those of 19th century Western art music. It is no easy task to find new musical possibilities within this extremely well-worn musical space; below, I explore three strategies the composer uses to “make it new” while not departing radically from certain conventions.

John von Rhein, music critic of the Chicago Tribute, writes that Dzubay’s work is “beautifully conceived for the instruments, the music bears a distinctive stamp,” while Michael Anthony of the Minneapolis Star Tribune writes that “he also knows how to translate his imaginings into bright, unusual orchestral sound.” The opening of Siren Song exemplifies some of Dzubay’s orchestrational strategies in action: emphasis on dull or bright instrumental tessituras, ambiguities between harmony and timbre, and between pitched and unpitched instruments, and a stratified polyphonic depth of field, all indicating awareness of innovative 20th century orchestral works.

If the music’s kaleidoscope of vivid colors opens up possibilities within a compositional practice centering familiar listening parameters like dramaturgy and harmony, its stylistic and historical diversity serves a similar purpose. Dzubay composed certain pieces as parodies (“in the respectful sense,” writes the composer) of works by Josquin des Prez and Perotin—a framework that thematizes unbridgeable historical difference, cultivating resistance to composing and listening habits. More broadly, as Matthew Guerrerri of the Boston Globe writes, Dzubay’s music frequently draws on a wide stylistic palette, “[gathering] miscellaneous styles under a buzzing, rustling, shimmering sonic umbrella.” The range of reference is wide: Nine Fragments, to be performed at June in Buffalo, was inspired by the music and playing of composer/oboist Heinz Holliger, one of the most radical musicians of the late 1960s and eary 1970s, while other works, as discussed above, take medieval music as their point of departure.

Parallel to invoking other music, Dzubay’s works are frequently programmatic, invoking extra-musical phenomena through titles, program notes, and use of referential topoi. These references function to particularize and comment upon received musical conventions. For instance, at 5:19 in Siren Song, the regular drum strokes refer to the genre of the march, perhaps a funeral march. However, certain details—such as the anguished, restless lyricism of the upper-voice melody, as well as the texture’s increasing metric disintegration—contradict the genre’s ramified conventions. The piece’s use of the march defamiliarizes the genre’s conventions; while the genre’s presence in the work lends it dimensionality, engaging in conversation with a familiar, multi-faceted cultural object.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Brian Ferneyhough: Fractured Energies

This year June in Buffalo is delighted to welcome Brian Ferneyhough back to its composition faculty. Ferneyhough is one of the most celebrated composers of his generation, with performances at most major European new music festivals by most major European new music ensembles, a publishing deal with Edition Peters (who sign few living composers), and numerous recordings (at least 29 currently in print) devoted to his music. His Collected Writings, published in 1995, is widely read, and his influence on multiple generations of younger composers (a not unreliable predictor of future reception) is enormous. His pedagogy is also highly regarded: he is currently Professor at Stanford University, having taught previously at the University of California San Diego, the University of Chicago, and the Freiburg Musikhochschule. He is also a frequently invited guest teacher at music festivals around the world, most notably at the Voix Nouvelles Course at the Abbaye de Rouyamont near Paris; he returns to June in Buffalo after previous engagements in 2013 and 2015. At this year’s festival, Ferneyhough will give a lecture and masterclasses, while guest ensembles and soloists will perform five of his pieces drawn from different periods of his output.
from the score of Unity Capsule

Before discussing specific pieces, it is worth taking time to unpack Ferneyhough’s project as a whole. While he is among the most lauded composers today, he is also one of the most widely misunderstood. The term “complexity”—whether meant as a criticism or not—is not exactly conducive to a wholistic understanding of his music. The significance of his music lies not in its quantitative complexity alone, but in how its increase in quantitative notational complexity induces a more consequential qualitative shift in the nature of the score, performance practice, and interpretation. Therefore, to understand his work primarily in terms of a quantitative deviation from a presumed notational norm overemphasizes its surface features while obscuring their unique, innovative raison d’ȇtre.

Unity Capsule performed by Ine Vanoeveren

The material of Ferneyhough’s music is kinetic energy: melodic mobility, and instrumental physicality, as well as intersections between the two. His approach to notation does not per se specify an ideal sound image, but codifies a field of colliding energies--an obstacle course of sorts--for the performer to navigate. The notation aims to create a white-hot but specific energy in live performance, bringing the liveness of music making to the fore. 

Unity Capsule performed by Carlton Vickers

Ferneyhough’s scores employ a range of strategies in their quest for a variegated, animated energy in live performance; here I will discuss three strategies: turbulence, torque, and pressurization. Turbulence means deliberate undercutting of stable reference points through the use of fine, rapidly changing differentiations of pitch, dynamics, articulation, physical parameters (i.e. bow position), and above all rhythmic density (whose shift at each barline undercuts the orientation afforded by a stable pulse). Torque refers to intentional collisions between notational parameters: phraseological emphasis operates against metric emphasis, meaning that the performer must swim upstream against the inherent tendency to emphasize downbeats; concurrently, dynamics, accentuation, and register often operate semi-autonomously, creating resistance to received linear phrasing conventions. Finally, pressurization involves extreme performative and notational registers--high, continuous rhythmic density, together with a saturated notational image--which raise the temperature in live performance. If turbulence and torque fracture kinetic energy in different ways, pressurization intensifies its impact. Therefore, for all its intricacy, the notation conveys and elicits a fundamental physicality.

Electric Chair Music, a documentary about performance practice in Ferneyhough’s Time and Motion Study II

For performers, the path towards unlocking this music’s restless kinetic energy lies in learning the music from two incompatible perspectives: on one hand, attending to the accuracy of individual details, and, on the other, focusing on kinetic energy, on wholistic volitions of gestures and phrases (as the composer describes in more detail in the preface to his solo piano work Lemma-Icon-Epigram). Learning a Ferneyhough piece means finding a personal way to mediate between these competing perspectives. As such, interpretation is not a process of applying conventions for phrasing on the basis of melodic/harmonic analysis (as in pre-1800 Western art music), but rather one of working out a personal solution to the notation’s overdetermined dilemmas from the ground up. Performer and score enter into a non-hierarchical, non-identical relationship: the score renders audible the performer’s individual proclivities, while, in a successful performance, the performer must render audible the broader energetic tensions at the heart of the work. In an era when the overproduction, overconsumption, and museumification of Western art music tightens the grip of habit on performers, encouraging ever more literal, conventionalized interpretations, Ferneyhough’s approach to notation and performance practice offers a unique and ingenious way to place the spontaneity, unpredictability, and vulnerability of live performance at the center of the concert music experience. The two contrasting interpretations of Unity Capsule posted above give some idea as to what this entails in practice.

Time and Motion Study II performed by UB alumnus TJ Borden (cello) with JiB alumni James Bean and Paul Hembree (live electronics)

These concerns are perhaps realized most “purely” in two solo works from the mid-1970s, Time and Motion Study II (1973-76) for cello and live electronics, and Unity Capsule for solo flute. The works programmed at this year’s June in Buffalo date from both before and after this period. Coloratura for oboe and piano (1966), to be performed by Dal Niente, marks an early attempt to translate the pointillistic style of the 1950s Darmstadt composers into a musical language concerned primarily with kinetic energy.

Coloratura performed by former JiB guest performer Peter Veale and former UB Professor James Avery

The Second String Quartet (1980), to be performed by the MIVOS Quartet, marks a break from the solo works of the 1970s. Unlike the solo works, the quartet enters into a more overt dialogue with historical Western art music. Here fractured linear momentum, density, and physicality become a way to defamiliarize clichés of Romantic and expressionistic string writing. The iconic significations of these clichés become liquidated in the music’s multidimensional fractured continuity; their pathos evaporates as heightened physicality gives them a new life.

Second String Quartet performed by frequent JiB guest performers Arditti Quartet

By the 1990s, Ferneyhough had expanded his approach to historical musical materials: “subjective” Romantic gestures are not only recontextualized, but are also placed in conversation with contrasting “objective” materials. Terrain (1992), to be performed by Irvine Arditti and Signal, epitomizes this approach, above all in its instrumentation, counterposing (historically) “subjective” violin soloist with “objective” wind/brass/double-bass octet (the same ensemble as Edgard Varèse’s Octandre).

Terrain performed by Mark Menzies and Wasteland Music

While Terrain activates a collision between Romantic materials and modernist materials, both ostensibly invented from scratch, later pieces have explored what happens when expressionist gestures enter into dialogue with materials from Renaissance music. That is, expressionist materials, predicated upon authenticity of subjective expression, comes into contact with Renaissance materials that predate notions of subjectivity in music (which might be traced to mid-16th century madrigals). Unsichtbare Farben (1999), to be performed by Irvine Arditti, is built from passages of Ockeghem masses that are ultimately inaudible to the listener; here the historical dialectic functions perhaps more as a compositional process towards a result that might not be achieved in other ways, rather than as concrete feature of the listening experience. In In Nomine (2001), however, materials from an eponymous piece by Christopher Tye are more apparent to the listener; Ferneyhough writes that the piece presents found materials “in various distorted forms," exploring a continuum of materials from intact Tye materials at the opening to materials that bear no audible relationship to Tye's style.

In Nomine performed by Mark Takeshi McGregor, Kristen Cooke, and Liam Hockley, clarinet

-Colin Tucker

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

David Felder: Composer, Pedagogue, Artistic Director

As the next installment in our series of profiles of this year’s June in Buffalo composition faculty, we feature David Felder, who is also the festival’s director. Currently a SUNY Distinguished Professor and the Birge-Cary Professor in Music Composition at the University at Buffalo (UB), Felder wears many hats: as professor, practicing composer, and arts administrator. In these roles, he has built UB’s music department into a formidable powerhouse for new music.

As a composer, Felder has recently completed two large-scale works: Netivot for string quartet, electronics, and video, and Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux, for vocal soloists, orchestra, electronics, and video, both of which have been featured at recent June in Buffalo Festivals. This year’s festival features two Felder premieres: Canzona, to be performed by the Buffalo Philharmonic’s brass section, and Violin Concerto, a portion of a longer work in progress to be performed by Irvine Arditti and Ensemble Signal. Three other Felder works will also be presented: Incendio, performed by the Buffalo Philharmonic brass; Another Face, performed by Irvine Arditti; and partial [dist]res[s]toration, performed by Ensemble Dal Niente.

Like Felder’s earlier work Incendio, Canzona is, as the composer describes it, a “trans-literation” of an existing vocal work of his own. Historically, the canzona emerged in precisely this fashion during the late 1500s, and Felder’s interest in the music of this period, particularly in Robert King’s brass arrangements of Giovanni Gabrieli’s canzonas, was a crucial point of departure for the work. Although Felder’s Canzona is a 21st century work written in his strikingly individual musical language, it engages with numerous aspects of the historical canzona: a consciously “choral” approach to ensemble writing, continuity of rhythmic momentum, and quasi-antiphonal textures.

Violin Concerto will be a preview of a few movements from what will eventually be an eight-movement, 25-30 minute work, to be premiered in full by Irvine Arditti and Ensemble Linéa on a concert at UB’s Center for 21st Century Music in November. While Felder’s works of the 1980s and 1990s explored extended single-movement forms (such as Another Face), starting in the early 2000s, he started exploring a unique approach to multi-movement form (such as in partial [dist]res[s]toration). While in 18th- and 19th- century approaches to multi-movement form, movements contrasted with each other, and internally unified through key, tempo, instrumentation, topoi, and more, Felder describes his individual movements as “kaleidoscopic,” as each drawing upon multiple, contrasting threads of material.

Also a tireless arts administrator, he oversees four arts initiatives at UB. Through diligent work over more than three decades, he has built up one of the leading centers for new music in North America, and sustained it in the wake of declining state funding and local foundation funding. Perhaps most notably, he has led June in Buffalo since 1985, taking the reins from former UB Professor Morton Feldman; former June in Buffalo faculty member Harvey Sollberger has chronicled Felder’s tenure as director in detail here. Felder also leads Center for 21st Century Music at the University, an institute that produces guest artist concerts and guest lectures by high-profile national and international new music luminaries. Through the Center, Felder is artistic director of the Slee Sinfonietta, UB’s resident faculty chamber ensemble, whose focus is the performance of 20th century classics and new works. Felder’s activities also extend beyond the music department: together with fellow SUNY Distinguished Professor Bruce Jackson, Felder is founding co-director of the multi-disciplinary Creative Arts Initiative, a platform for master artists to conduct residencies at UB.

This year’s festival is notable for its partnerships with two European institutions, the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, Norway, and the Voix Nouvelles Course for Young Composers at the Abbaye de Royaumont near Paris, France. Two composition professors from the Norwegian Academy will be featured faculty at the festival, while an ensemble of Academy graduate performance students will perform works by graduate composition students from both the Academy and UB; this publication detailed these activities in a past post. In partnership with Voix Nouvelles, June in Buffalo and its partner course will exchange participant-composers each year.

Beyond partnerships, this year’s festival presents an unusually stylistically diverse rostrum of faculty composers, together with some exceptional concert programming. In non-coastal America, it is uncommon to hear top-notch European new music chamber ensembles like Cikada; it is perhaps even more unexpected to hear live performances of music like Brian Ferneyhough’s challenging chamber music (particularly a lengthy, ultra-virtuosic work for larger forces like Terrain). Similarly, it is rare in the US to hear a full program of new orchestral works, as the festival offers on its final concert. A full concert schedule is available here—we look forward to seeing you there!