Tuesday, June 6, 2017

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.

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