Thursday, October 30, 2014

Daniel Asia visits the Center next week

Daniel Asia
The Center is excited to welcome another skilled composer and conductor next week, as guest artist Daniel Asia presents the third installment of the Visiting Lecture Series.  This Wednesday (November 5), Asia will discuss his work during a 3:00pm presentation, after working with UB graduate composers in a masterclass setting.

Daniel Asia's music has been performed around the globe, by some of the most prominent and highly-regarded performers.  Widely-known for his orchestral works—including five symphonies, piano and cello concerti, and two song cycles—Asia's compositions have been performed by the orchestras of Cincinnati, Seattle, Milwaukee, New Jersey, Phoenix, Pilsen (Czech Republic), and Jerusalem, among many others.  His chamber works have been programmed by the American Brass Quintet, Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, San Francisco Contemporary Chamber Players, The Bridge Ensemble, and Lontano.

Asia's large-scale works blend elements from classical and vernacular musics, continuing the tradition of American orchestral composers like Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein.  This is clearly apparent in his Piano Concerto (1994), whose Copland-esque first movement dynamically moves from boisterous orchestral tuttis through delicate pianistic latticework and back to dancelike unisons—all of which are regularly interrupted by jagged harmonic cascades.

Asia has received commissions from the Koussevitsky Music Foundation, Fromm Music Foundation, D'Addario Foundation for the Performing Arts/Domus, the Oberlin Wind Quintet, and the Dorian Wind Quintet, among others.  In addition, he has been awarded several prestigious grants and fellowships, including a Meet the Composer/Reader's Digest Consortium Commission, UK Fulbright Arts Award Fellowhip, a Guggenheim Fellowship, MacDowell Colony and Tanglewood fellowships, as well as four EA Composers Grants, and ASCAP and BMI prizes.

Active also as a conductor, Asia is the founder and co-director (with Robert Beaser) of the New York-based ensemble Musical Elements, whose programs the Soho Weekly News has described as "intelligently balanced between seriousness and good humor," and which the New Yorker's Andrew Porter has called "warm, eager, and communicative."  He currently teaches composition at the University of Arizona, Tucson, where he heads the composition department.  Asia is also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, where his articles on contemporary music regularly spark spirited conversation and debate.

One of Asia's most recent works, Nonet (2010), is excerpted below.  Like much of the composer's music, it features dramatic harmonic escalations, sudden twists and turns, shrewdly constructed—and often quite dense—counterpoint, all contrasted with diaphanous, elegiac melodies.  Many of these qualities have been present throughout Asia's output, even in his earliest works, which were written in a much different style.  [Indeed, those familiar with Asia's written critiques of the avant-garde may be surprised by the Carter-esque angularity and disjunct melodiousness of the First String Quartet (1973), or the darkly comic turns of phrase that populate his fixed media homage to a certain trumpeter, Miles Mix (1976).]  It seems that throughout his career, Asia's music has been marked by a certain rhythmic playfulness, a keen ear for melody, and an astute attention to instrumental detail.  All the more reason to come hear him share his insights when his discusses his work at next week's lecture!

Daniel Asia
Wednesday, November 5, 2014
352 Baird Hall

—Ethan Hayden

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Rand Steiger visits the Center next week

The Center is excited to count composer, conductor, and pedagogue Rand Steiger among its visiting artists this year.  This Wednesday (October 29), Steiger will present the next lecture in the Visiting Lecture Series, bringing his unique artistic perspective to UB.

Steiger is the chair of the Music Department at UC San Diego, where has taught composition since 1987.  Before that, he served on the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts.  In 2009, he switched coasts temporarily to serve as a Visiting Professor at Harvard University.

Well known for his computer-music research, much of Steiger's compositional work features the interfacing of orchestral instruments with real-time digital signal processing.  In addition, his works often use electronics to create a quasi-spectral blend of just and equal temperaments, an an effort to explore "the delicate perceptual cusp between a harmony and a timbre that occurs when tones are precisely tuned."  Steiger has held several residencies at IRCAM, and frequently collaborates with Miller Puckette, the author of the Max/MSP and Pure Date programming environments and one of the leading computer music researchers of his generation.

Recently, Steiger's work has taken on an increasingly ecological perspective.  In an interview promoting his residency with Calit2, the composer describes the ways in which these ideas effect his process:
A lot of my pieces are really more abstract, just about the notes, the sounds, and the performers playing them.  But in a lot of my larger works, I’ve looked for inspiration outside of music, in particular from the natural world.  The first time I did that in a significant way was in The Burgess Shale (1994), an orchestral work for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in which I drew on research about the Burgess Shale fossils—these amazing fossils that revealed previously unknown lifeforms.  […]  The piece was a kind of tone poem that had different sections that referred to these different creatures and the ways they might have interacted.
Indeed, several of Steiger's works share this quality of evoking different "lifeforms".  In a recent concert review, The New York Times referred to his piece Concatenation (2012) and the ways it evokes the sounds of "something growing and decaying; someone seeking or fleeing proximity with another; the dogged or tender effort to sustain something beyond its natural life span."  The same article describes 2013's Template for Improvising Trumpeter and Ensemble as a "virtual zoo of electronically distorted and animated sounds."

In other works, this influence of natural science comes from a more decidedly environmental outlook.  For instance, 2011's Menacing Plumes for chamber ensemble and electronics a quasi-programmatic piece which takes inspiration from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the "strange, unworldly creatures that thrive in the ocean's depths."  Steiger elaborates on the relationship between his environmental concerns and his compositional work:
It’s more of a poetic and free-associative connection.  I’m not trying to directly advocate for some kind of point of view about the environment or trying to take a musico-political approach to the subject.  More generally, I’m just embracing the images and the concerns that I have and then free-associating with musical thinking and allowing it to affect the music, and then the outcome of that is somewhat unpredictable.  But there have been times in some of my pieces where I’ve drawn on the environment for structural models.
For the latter, the composer is referring to 2002's Ecosphere for large chamber ensemble and electronics, which draws on geographer Robert Bailey's classification of terrestrial ecosystems for a formal model.  The piece—recently recorded by Ensemble Intercontemporain—consists of sixteen sections based on these ecosystems, taking their temporal proportions from the percentage of the Earth that each system inhabits—with additional data about each region's climate (e.g., temperature and precipitation) taken into consideration in the creation of new musical terrains.  "It’s a way of challenging myself to do things musically that I wouldn’t do otherwise, and to take my work in a new direction."

While he has recently been focusing all his attention on composing, Steiger is well-known in the contemporary music world as a skilled conductor.  As the founding artistic director of the California EAR Unit, Steiger premiered and commissioned works by many notable composers—including Elliott Carter and Louis Andriessen, as well as former UB composers Morton Feldman and Lejaren Hiller—gaining a reputation for creating dynamic programs which often juxtaposed strikingly different works (e.g., playing Donald Martino's Noturno and Morton Subotnick's Key to Songs alongside Stockhausen's Stimmung).  In the early 2000's, Steiger lead a series of critically acclaimed concerts with Ensemble Sospeso in New York City.  In addition, he has conducted groups such as the Arditti Quartet, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and New York New Music Ensemble, presenting numerous world, New York, and California premiere performances by composers such as Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Brian Ferneyhough, Luigi Nono, Terry Riley, and Giacinto Scelsi.

We're looking forward to hearing Steiger's presentation, and getting to learn more about him and his music!

—Ethan Hayden

Rand Steiger
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
352 Baird Hall

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Wooden Cities and Aaron Staebell premiere new music at Pausa

Wooden Cities, photo by Megan Metté
Next weekend, Pausa Art House will host an evening of new music—very new music. On October 25, Rochester-based drumset virtuoso Aaron Staebell will join forces with the Buffalo new music collective, Wooden Cities, to present a concert of newly composed works. With more than half of the pieces being world premieres, the program is sure to delight those interested in hearing what local composers are up to in 2014.

A Buffalo native, Aaron Staebell is a percussionist in high-demand. A graduate of the Eastman School, Staebell has played with such visionaries as Bob Brookmeyer, Maria Schneider, Rick Braun, and Wycliffe Gordon. His jazz ensemble, Bending and Breaking, released an album of Staebell-penned compositions in 2011, and his playing can also be heard on Dave Chilholm's Calligraphy and Ben Thomas's Endless Mountain Regions (below is an excerpt from the latter, with saxophonist Tony Malaby).

For this program, however, Staebell will present works commissioned for his soloDRUMsolo project, part of an endeavor to generate "art music for drumset". His set will feature Baljinder Sekhon's The Sounds of My Drums, along with premieres of pieces by Whitney George, Daniel Adams, and Wooden Cities' Zane Merritt. With the drumset often being typecast as a groove-based instrument, Staebell sought out composers who could expand on the instrument's lexicon, treating it more like a multi-percussion setup. "I'm trying to generate some more pieces for drummers that are not just 'drum solos' in the traditional sense." He points out that while classical percussionists often play works for marimba, snare drum, timpani, et al., and sometimes use the drumset, there are very few works that give the instrument equal focus.  
Aaron Staebell

"My hope is that I can spark a movement to develop more music of this kind, so that 'classical' percussionists are encouraged to play more drumset, and so that the drumset is more accepted as a viable instrument in the percussion world." The pieces in the soloDRUMsolo project bypass genre-stylizations (latin, rock, jazz, etc.) in favor of new ways of directly interfacing with the instrument. For some of these composers, this means creating a brand new language for drumset—indeed, Merritt's piece goes by the evocative title "Counter-Esperanto", name-checking that most famous invented language.

Jeffrey Stadelman
photo by Irene Haupt

For their set, Wooden Cities will present a collection of works by Buffalo composers, continuing the ensemble's localvore-ist predilection for featuring music created in their midst. The collective will be joined by two guest performers:  electric bassist and composer Meredith Gilna will assist in the premiere of her piece Jack Green, while the Buffalo Philharmonic's principal bassoonist Glenn Einschlag will join a performance of Robert Phillip's Larghetto Rubato—a piece premiered at the Center in 2010 during the residency of Magnus Andersson, Pascal Gallois, and Rohan de Saram. The program will also feature Sea Change by UB faculty composer, Jeffrey Stadelman, an intensely detailed work with references to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, featuring cellist (and recent addition to the group) Katie Weissman and oboist Megan Kyle. Wooden Cities premiered two other works by Stadelman earlier this year at the Inaugural Muriel Wolf and Albert Steiger Endowment Concert, a program which also saw performances of works by Lukas Foss and Lejaren Hiller (a video of Merritt's Burning City, premiered at this event, can be seen below).

The program will conclude with a performance of John Zorn's famous game piece, Cobra, featuring both Wooden Cities and Staebell. The performance will be a reunion of sorts, as Wooden Cities' director, Brendan Fitzgerald, originally formed the group in 2011 specifically to perform Zorn's piece, and their first performance featured Staebell on drums. The ensemble has since become one of the foremost interpreters of this piece, which uses a strict set of rules to guide free improvisational activity. This tense push-and-pull between control and freedom often erupts in complex social dynamics which take shape on stage as the performers fight for control of the music. With Staebell behind the drums and Fitzgerald directing his band of skilled improvisors, there's no telling what will happen.  Only that it will be…new.

soloDRUMsolo / Wooden Cities+
Pausa Art House
Saturday, October 25, 2014, 8:00pm
$7, $5 students

Edge of the Center covered Wooden Cities' December 2012 concert, read about it here.

—Ethan Hayden

Thursday, October 9, 2014

BMOP brings David Felder's Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux to Boston

Gil Rose conducting the Boston Modern Orchestra Project
This Sunday, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project will perform David Felder's massive song cycle, Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux, as part of its season-opening "Surround Sound" event.  Also featuring Ronald Bruce Smith's Constellation and the premiere of Anthony Paul De Ritis's Riflessioni, the evening centers itself on works that "merge orchestral and electronic sounds in profound and imaginative ways."  

BMOP Artistic Director and conductor, Gil Rose, describes the project:  "As you can probably imagine, a carefully choreographed balance of ensemble, soloist, and electronics is rarely found in works for orchestra these days.  We are pleased to share new works by leaders of the electro-acoustic vanguard that we believe best exemplify this highly sophisticated colloquy. Be prepared for some subsonic clangors and supersonic electronics!"

Indeed, those who were fortunate enough to attend the premiere of Felder's Les Quatre last year—an excerpt of which can be seen below—know the delicate choreography Rose is referring to.  The fifty-minute opus is composed for a chamber orchestra of forty musicians, two solo voices, and twelve channels of (surround-sound) electronics.  In addition, Felder has included specific cues for lighting, adding a visual dimension to the piece's narrative.  Coordinating all these elements is a substantial task for the performers, but one which yields transcendent results.

Les Quatre was composed specifically for the voices of Laura Aiken and Ethan Herschenfeld, who premiered the work and who will perform it with BMOP this weekend.  Vocal sound plays a huge role in the piece, which is centered on the eponymous poem by René Daumal, that, in Felder's words, "alludes to times of the day, the four elements, the four seasons and the four corresponding ages of life, emphasizing the trans-personal."  Felder was drawn to Daumal in part due to the poet's astute orchestration of vocal sound itself.  "His early career emphasized the conversion of poetry into a form of theater in which speech, gestures, breath, voice stops, and other elements of performance form a totality."  

Felder supplements Daumal with settings of Dana Gioia's "Insomnia" and Robert Creeley's "Buffalo Evening," both of which feature electronic samples of the poets reading their works.  "Bob Creeley was a very musical reader,” Felder explained to the Buffalo News last year, "There's a lot of things he does when he reads that are innately musical. Dana was trained as a musician also. When you hear them read, and listen to the sounds of the vowels, they're very musical rhythms."  

The seeds of Felder's setting of "Buffalo Evening" can be found in So Quiet Here, a short electroacoustic piece the composer prepared for the poet's 80th birthday celebration.  In So Quiet Here, the electronics emphasize the sonorous quality of the poet's voice, underlining and accentuating reoccurring phonemes.  In Les Quatres, however, the electronics are augmented with an elaborate percussion accompaniment, which mimics and resonates with the specific sounds of the poet's voice, before the other instruments join in and Herschenfeld begins intoning the evocative words.  In a way, the poem itself seems to have moved through four stages (written text, electronic recitation, percussive translation, orchestral setting), mirroring the "quatre temps" narrated by the large-scale work itself.

It's exciting that a work with such subtlety and richness will be performed by such a strong orchestra dedicated to contemporary music.  BMOP is widely recognized as one of the leading orchestras in the US specializing in new music.  Founded by Rose in 1996, the orchestra seeks to "illuminate the connections that exist naturally between contemporary music and contemporary society by reuniting composers and audiences in a shared concert experience."  In its first 18 seasons, BMOP has performed over a hundred world premieres in nearly as many concerts, including forty commissioned works.  Indeed, BMOP were co-commissioners of Les Quatres with SIGNAL ensemble and the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation, and in addition to performing the work, the orchestra will be recording it as well.

If you're in the Boston area, be sure to order a ticket to this exciting event!

Surround Sound
Boston Modern Orchestra Project
Gil Rose, conductor
Sunday, October 12, 2014, 3:00pm
Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory
Pre-concert talk one-hour prior to concert

BMOP Artistic Director Gil Rose has also conducted the Slee Sinfonietta, read about that performance here.

—Ethan Hayden

Updated October 21, 2014:

The BMOP performance has received several rave reviews.  Jeremy Eichler wrote in the Boston Globe:

David Felder’s Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux of 2013 was the symphonic-length conclusion to Sunday’s program. It’s a fiercely ambitious work, employing soprano and bass soloists (here, Laura Aikin and Ethan Herschenfeld), and weaving together poetic texts by René Daumal, Robert Creeley, and others, by turns sung, heard in recorded recitation, and abstracted into pure sound. At one point, for instance, we hear all the vowels of a poem strung together without any consonants. Felder deploys his vastly expanded palette of sounds artfully. In Sunday’s account, the human voice of the poetry introduced a kind of melancholy undercurrent beneath the whir of the orchestral machine.

He added that the performances "opened up as many questions as they answered about the possibilities for 21st-century technologies interacting with what we might describe as the cutting-edge sound technology of the 19th century."

David Wright of the Boston Classical Review wrote that "the composer’s use of the orchestra was resourceful and evocative throughout the work, and skillful execution by the players and conductor Rose made his musical imagery leap off the page." Wright was particularly taken with the piece's use of electronics:
All the pieces in Sunday’s concert […] might have inspired the title "Surround Sound," but it was the Felder work that made it literally true, bouncing electronic sounds and samples around an array of speakers located throughout the auditorium. To call Felder’s Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux "electronics-enhanced" would be like calling Brahms’s First Symphony "horn-enhanced."  The electronics were so integral to this ambitious, 50-minute-long meditation on time that they became a third soloist, taking over entirely from the orchestra at several points in extended solo cadenzas.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Next week at the Center: Signal Ensemble, Brad Lubman, and Larry Groupé

Last year, the Slee Sinfonietta began their season with a program centered around Pierre Boulez's monumental Dérive 2 for 11 instruments.  Conducted by Case Scaglione, the Sinfonietta expertly wound their way through Boulez's labyrinthine gestures and abrupt texture changes, a feat which you can hear on the recording below:

On October 7, the Slee Sinfonietta will present Ensemble Signal, under the direction of Brad Lubman, kicking off the Center's fall season with Dérive 2's older sibling.  While composed for a smaller ensemble (pierrot ensemble plus vibraphone), and unravelling over a brief six minutes, Dérive 1 (1984) is no less significant than its successor.  Its title evokes the idea of "drift", and can also be translated as "derivative," the latter a reference to the fact that much of the piece's material is derived from Répons, a large-scale work for six soloists and electronics composed three years earlier.  Répons itself was derived from material from Boulez's Messagesquisse, notably a six-note chord based on the patron Paul Sacher's last name (S-A-C-H-E-R or Eb-A-C-B-E-D).  This same chord is the pillar that supports Dérive 1, reappearing in various combinations over the course of the work.  The piece unifies many of the characteristics so common to Boulez's music:  his "smooth time" marked by chaotic, irregular gestures; the "striated time" represented by rapidly articulated repeating notes; and the "metrical time" which made its first appearance in Répons, a grounding in an (admittedly highly-ornamented) regularity.  The piece is led by the piano which, in addition to introducing the piece's primary sonority, provides a subtle harmonic backdrop by using the sostenuto pedal to allow its lowest octave to resonate throughout the piece.

A fitting companion to Boulez's piece is Elliott Carter's Triple Duo.  Composed a year before Dérive 1, and for a similar instrumentation, Carter's piece is a trialogue between three instrumental pairs:  flute/clarinet, violin/'cello, piano/percussion.  This witty, mercurial piece features a number of quick cuts between differing sections, with each duo occupying its own registral and gestural spheres.  The composer David Schiff, in his monograph on Carter describes the ensemble as a 'raucous band':  "the woodwinds gurgle, shriek, and coo like a pair of amorous birds, the strings scrape and pluck comically, and the percussion and piano evoke the more angular variety of free jazz."  That final comparison is perhaps most apparent during the piece's finale, a dynamic escapade marked by syncopated tuttis, arabesque lyricism, and jerkily disjunct gestures, or as Schiff refers to it, "ultra-bop."

Charles Wuorinen's New York Notes, composed just a year before Carter's piece (1982), also divides the ensemble into three duets of related instrumental pairs, while also allowing each performer moments of virtuosic flair.  The piece is divided into a traditional fast-slow-fast three-movement structure, however, as Wuorinen explains, "The tempo is always the same, so that the differing speeds contained in the work are all expressed through note-value alterations rather than pulse changes."  This is no doubt a challenging element for Lubman and the musicians, but they are certainly up to the task!

Lubman and Signal are not the only guests visiting the Center next week, film composer Larry Groupé will be the first speaker in the Visiting Lecture Series.  Groupé has composed scores for several well-known films, including Straw Dogs (2011), Nothing but the Truth (2008), Resurrecting the Champ (2007), and, perhaps most notably, The Contender (2000).  He also acted as the co-composer and conductor for the progressive rock band Yes's 2001 album Magnification, while also writing overtures, arrangements and conducting for their Symphonic Tour of the World.  Groupé's score to the 2004 ABC series Line of Fire was nominated for a primetime Emmy, and he has received two Emmy awards for his work on the documentaries Jonas Salk: Personally Speaking (1999), and Residue (2008).  In a particularly interesting project, Groupé scored the film I Woke Up Early the Day I Died (1998), which was based on camp director Ed Wood's final, unfilmed script and starred Billy Zane and Christina Ricci.  No stranger to the avant garde, Groupé studied composition at UC San Diego with Roger Reynolds, Toru Takemitsu, Pauline Oliveros, and Bernard Rands, and computer music at Stanford with John Chowning and Leland Smith.  We look forward to hearing his presentation on October 6, at 3:00pm in Baird Recital Hall!

—Ethan Hayden