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. 

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