Thursday, November 20, 2014

Deviant Septet: reinvigorating a unique chamber ensemble

Just over a hundred years ago, Arnold Schoenberg composed Pierrot Lunaire for the unconventional instrumentation of flute, clarinet, violin, 'cello, and piano.  This novel ensemble was subsequently adopted by many other composers, and its repertoire expanded from a single collection of 21 darkly expressionistic songs to hundreds of pieces by the century's end.  Several of the era's most important works were composed for this instrumentation—dubbed the "pierrot ensemble"—including Donald Martino's Notturno and Peter Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King; and to this day a good number of contemporary chamber groups are centered on this particular quintet (e.g., Da Capo Chamber Players, Eighth Blackbird, New York New Music Ensemble, Piccola Accademia degli Specchi, etc.).

Stravinsky, ca. 1918
There is another ensemble whose instrumentation is just as unique, just as dynamic and well-balanced as the pierrot ensemble, but for some reason did not catch on in the same way.  Just a few years after Pierrot's composition, Igor Stravinsky (Schoenberg's musical antipode in many ways), designed a septet for his 1918 music-theatre piece, L'Histoire du Soldat ("The Soldier's Tale").  The piece was logically and thriftily scored for a high and low voice from each instrumental family:  violin and bass (strings), clarinet and bassoon (woodwinds), trumpet and trombone (brass), with percussion rounding out the septet.  Stravinsky's intent was partly economical—the First World War and the Russian Revolution had severely impacted his finances, and L'Histoire was designed to be an easily-mobile piece that could be performed with little funding.  Strangely, this particular septet (which lacks even a handy nickname)—despite it's practicality, and its expansive dynamic, registral, and timbral palettes—never became remotely as popular as the pierrot ensemble.

The first week of December, the Center for 21st Century music will host an ensemble whose mission it is to change that fact.  The Deviant Septet is the only new music ensemble consisting solely of the "l'histoire ensemble."  Formed in 2010 by clarinetist Bill Kalinkos and trumpeter Mike Gurfield, the Deviant Septet is seeking to expand the repertoire for this instrumentation, and all the unique challenges it poses.  The ensemble's website points out that "while Stravinsky's contemporaries were seemingly not up to the task, 21st century composers jump at the chance to solve Stravinsky's riddles."

Among those riddle-solving composers are several UB graduate students, whose works will be read by Deviant at a workshop on December 6th.  Roberto Azaretto, Weijun Chen, and Meredith Gilna have all written new works for the ensemble, which will perform the pieces and provide feedback to the composers.  The workshop will thus be a collective "riddle-solving" session in which composers and ensemble will explore new ways to navigate this diverse collections of voices.

Deviant will begin their residency with a concert in Lippes Concert Hall on December 5th.  The centerpiece of their program will be, naturally, Stravinsky's L'Histoire.  Based on a Faustian folk tale, the stylistically promiscuous piece features a tango, a waltz, a chorale, ragtime, dances, marches, and that very idiosyncratic Stravinskian "jazz" (in 1918, Stravinsky had not yet heard jazz, but he was inspired by some piano reductions that the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet had brought back with him from an American tour).  The piece features an unusually prominent percussion part for a work of its time, and is as famous for its disjunct rhythms and rapidly-changing time signatures as it is for its unorthodox instrumentation.

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Deviant will complement L'Histoire with Esa-Pekka Salonen's Catch and Release (2006).  Salonen's three-movement work begins with a march-like texture that seems to be inspired by L'Histoire itself, before unfolding into a new terrain of dancing grace notes, florid scalar runs, and playful trombone glissandi.  Rounding out the program is Elliot Cole's Roman de la Rose.  The piece was commissioned by Deviant Septet for their 2012 "Deviant Tierkreis" program, in which the ensemble asked twelve composers to write their own short pieces based on the Zodiac cycle, à la Stockhausen's Tierkreis (Cole's piece is Cancer).  Sparse and ritualistic, Roman's funereal austerity is a nice counterbalance to the rhythmic density and dexterous complexity so prevalent in Stravinsky and Salonen's works.  It's sure to be an exciting program—for a preview, see the video below, which shows the ensemble performing Randos III by Ted Hearne, another Deviant commission that responds to and re-composes Stravinsky's piece, creating something brand new in the process.

The Deviant Septet is working hard to expand the repertoire of its unconventional instrumental makeup.  Through its efforts, it's likely that the "l'histoire ensemble" could be to the 21st century what the pierrot ensemble was to the 20th.  Regardless of whether or not that proves to be the case, we'll be fortunate to witness this "exceedingly fun" and "boisterously entertaining" ensemble perform works new and old with a fresh, enthusiastic vigor!

—Ethan Hayden

Deviant Septet
December 5, 7:30pm
Lippes Concert Hall
$15 general, $10 seniors, free for all UB students

Composer Workshop
December 6, 10:00am
Lippes Concert Hall
free admission

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Mivos Quartet Residency

Mivos Quartet
Next week, New York's Mivos Quartet will be in residency at the Center. The group that the Chicago Reader has called “one of America’s most daring and ferocious new-music ensembles” will bring their unique brand of musical ferocity to Buffalo for an evening of contemporary music, at which they'll perform works by Taylor Brook, David Felder, Martin Stauning, and Helmut Lachenmann.

Devoted to the performance of new works for string quartet, Mivos has worked with several international composers with a wide breadth of aesthetic perspectives.  The quartet has performed works by composers as diverse as Harrison Birtwistle, Philip Glass, Annie Gosfield, György Kurtág, Alex Mincek, Wolfgang Rihm, and UB's own David Felder and Tony Conrad.  Committed to the production of new works and the expanding of the string quartet repertoire, Mivos enjoys close collaboration with composers over extended periods.  Such collaborations have resulted in new works by composers such as Mark Barden, Dan Blake, Patrick Higgins, Scott Wollschleger, and Sam Pluta—whose Chain Reactions/Five Events for quartet and electronics can be heard below. As an ensemble dedicated to education, Mivos will begin their residency with a workshop for graduate composers in Baird Recital Hall (Nov. 19, 3:00pm).  The quartet will read pieces by UB composers Roberto Azaretto, Nathan Heidelberger, Su Lee, and Zane Merritt.

As a genre, the string quartet manages to combine the nimble agility of a chamber ensemble with the genteel historical respectability of the symphony orchestra.  Indeed, sometime during the twentieth century, the string quartet seemed to overtake the symphony as the key genre in which composers were most likely to articulate their musical manifestos, the pièces de résistance of their catalogs.  Think of Carter's third quartet and Crumb's Black Angels, or more recently, Thomas Adés Arcadiana and Haas's String Quartet No. 3 "In iij. Noct."—all of which, it's worth pointing out, are in Mivos's repertoire.  Since commissioning and premiering new music is a key part of the quartet's mission, Mivos is devoted to continuing this tradition, employing—in the words of the New York Classical Review's George Grella—"a physically, intellectually, and aesthetically energetic engagement with the high Modernist values of harmonic, gestural, and structural complexity."

Next week's concert will feature two works composed just last year:  Martin Stauning's delicate, gossamery Atmende Steine ("Breathing Stones") and Taylor Brook's just-intoned El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan.  The latter takes its title from the eponymous story by Borges, ("The Garden of Forking Paths"), which presents a conception of time in which all possible outcomes of any event simultaneously co-exist, evoking ideas of a hypertextual multiverse.  Brook's piece, winner of the quartet's 2014 Mivos/Kanter Prize, lives up to the ideas evoked by its title by drawing elements from a multiverse of traditions, including Japanese Gagaku, central African music, and free improvisation among others, endeavoring to create an "alternate history of music."

UB faculty composer David Felder will also be featured on the program.  Felder's first string quartet, Third Face, will finish out the first half.  Consisting mostly of aggressive, dramatic gestures separated by isolated islands of quiet, the piece was described by Andrew Porter in the New Yorker as "lucid, but with a controlled wildness in its making. Written for virtuosi, it challenges them by presenting its fierce, fertile ideas with almost reckless rhythmic and dynamic exuberance."  A brief excerpt can be heard below.

While the concert opens with Brook's imagined alternate musical history, Mivos will end the program with the third quartet by Helmut Lachenmann, a composer whose work has constantly commented on the historical traditions of European classical music, as well as the "aesthetic apparatus" of that music's social institutions and contingencies.  Certainly one of Lachenmann's most important works in the past 15 years, Grido ("cry") opens with gloriously strident sustained tones, before unfolding into a dense universe of complex harmonies, brilliantly vibrant tremolos, penetrating silence, and violent scratch tones.  The piece existentially scrutinizes the string quartet itself, as a genre, a medium, and a source of sonic material.

Mivos's program will thus cover all the extremes:  from the understated translucence of Stauning's piece to the  sinewy muscularity of Felder's.  And the concert will conclude with the strangely meta feat of a string quartet exploring the string quartet via a piece for string quartet, a musical Ouroboros of mind-bending composition and dazzling virtuosity not to be missed!

—Ethan Hayden

Mivos Quartet
Composer Workshop
November 19, 3:00pm
Baird Recital Hall
free admission

November 20, 7:30pm
Baird Recital Hall
$15 general, $10 seniors, free for all UB students

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Eric Huebner discusses Doug Fitch's "How Did We…?"

Doug Fitch

Internationally renowned producer, designer, artist, and choreographer Doug Fitch has been in residency at UB as the first ever WBFO Visiting Professor.  Fitch is working with with UB students, staff, and faculty in the Theatre and Music departments to produce an elaborate and surreal new theatre work called How Did We…?.  The project will be performed on November 13, 14, and 15th at 7:30pm in the CFA Drama Theater.

Fitch is well known in the contemporary music world for directing the New York premiere of György Ligeti's absurdist opera, Le Grand Macabre, with the New York Philharmonic in 2010.  Fitch, along with his production company, Giants are Small, has also directed productions of Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen (NY Philharmonic), Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf (LA Philharmonic), Puccini's Turandot (Santa Fe Opera), in addition to works by Carter, Stravinsky, Weill, Hindemith, and Thomson.  Beginning in his family's touring puppet theatre and going on to team up with the likes of Peter Sellars (Der Ring des Nibelungen), Robert Wilson (The Civil Wars), and Jim Henson (The Muppets), Fitch is no stranger to collaboration, and excels at bringing diverse artists together to create great works that are far more than sums of parts.

How Did We…?, Fitch's production at UB, has been described as an "opera of images."  A recent press release describes the (seemingly indescribable) work:
The show features odd characters, giant ships passing in the night, digital people-surfing, a “Ballet of the Sensory Organs,” water drumming (in which drum chambers are filled with varying amounts of water to create unique sounds), a jungle of social media, high tea, dancing Tibetan Buddhist icons and much more.
The performance will be supported with live music by composers Alfred Schnittke, David Felder, Paul Moravec, Doug Cuomo, Su Lee, Franz Schubert and Frederick Chopin performed by UB’s Slee Sinfonietta, a Balkan banda and an onstage string quintet.
Eric Huebner, world-renowned pianist and member of the Music Deptartment faculty, has worked with Fitch before, playing in the NY Phil's performance of Le Grande Macabre.  Huebner—who is also the coordinator of the June in Buffalo Performance Institute—is playing a big part in the production of How Did We…? acting as the project's music director.  I had a chance to interview him about the work, and his insights only made me more excited about seeing the production!

Eric Huebner
How did this project come together? How many departments and students are collaborating on it?

I, along with Music Department chair Jeff Stadelman and Theater and Dance chair Lynne Koscielniak, proposed Doug Fitch for the inaugural WBFO Visiting Art Professor position. The production of Doug’s show, How Did We…? is a collaboration between students and faculty from the Music Department and the Department of Theater and Dance. The ensemble cast includes 18 student actors and dancers and nearly two dozen student designers and technicians.

What role does the music play in the production? The piece has been called an "opera of images," how does that phrase relate to the music's role?

The phrase “opera of images” means the story is told primarily by the scenes on stage and the music. In this case, the music moves the action forward. It is the catalyst for nearly all of the scenic changes taking place on stage. Each image or scene morphs organically into the next. Characters (some quite strange!) appear and disappear as if in a dream.

The piece seems to pull together a lot of diverse elements, do they all serve a continuous narrative?

Yes, absolutely. The show is about one man’s journey to become more comfortable with himself. The main character is played by actor Connor Graham, a student in the department of Theater and Dance.

Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre
Fitch is no stranger to contemporary music, having worked on The Grand Macabre and The Civil Wars among so many others. How does that aesthetic sensibility manifest itself in this work, or in particular, in how he utilizes the music in this work?

Mostly, I think it’s his general openness to contemporary music and his own highly developed musical sensibility from having worked with so many orchestra and musicians over the years in addition to his work in opera. He revels in musical abstraction and senses immediately the possibility of connection between the world he is seeking to create on stage 
and the music that might go with it.

There is a very diverse grouping of composers represented in the piece, from 19th century composers to UB faculty and students. How do the different pieces work together?

As de facto Music Director for How Did We…? my biggest concern was finding music that fit Doug’s vision of a particular scene while making sure the overall collection of pieces and electronic excerpts worked musically together. There are moments when one piece overlaps with another in musically interesting ways and still others where very different pieces of music are juxtaposed, one right after the next. The excerpts from the Schnittke Piano Quintet that open and close the show helps to give the musical score a dramatic underpinning. Mostly the music was excerpted from pre-existing works. In choosing the music, I was looking to include excerpts of works by our own students and faculty as well as my two composers, Paul Moravec and Douglas Cuomo, that Doug Fitch had expressed an interest in working with. The composer Douglas Cuomo wrote original music to accompany the penultimate scene which features Yamantaka—the Tibetan killer of death—which features a part for Alex Glenfield, a Buffalo-based Tuvan throat singer. Additionally, the Pulitzer-prize winning composer and Buffalo native, Paul Moravec arranged a portion of his orchestral work “Capitol Unknowns” for the Slee Sinfonietta. Of course I wanted to include work by our own excellent faculty and student composers and found the perfect compliments for several scenes in works by Professor David Felder and current PhD composition student Su Lee.

The works by Schubert, Chopin and Dinicu provide a depth and dimensionality to the musical score and in the case of the Schubert and Dinicu, are part of the action on stage.

Who is conducting the Sinfonietta? How about the Balkan banda or the string quintet, are they also made up of musicians from the department?

Dan Bassin will be conducting the Sinfonietta. Moshe Shulman, a recent PhD in composition graduate from UB and a violinist will be heading up a trio of musicians, including Miguel Benitez on guitar and Jeremy Spindler on accordion. They will be playing Grigoras Dinicu’s “March Hora” from on top of a tall piece of scenery on-stage at one point in the show.

The opening of the Adagio to Schubert's string quintet in C Major will be played on-stage by a group of student musicians from the Music Department and includes: Aidan Scoccia, Blair Sailer violins; Jessica Oemcke, viola; Lisa Gagnon, cello; Stanzi Vaubel, cello.

Do you know anything about the piece with the "water-drumming”?

Yes! It was choreographed with assistance from Jason Ross—a graduate student in percussion who happens also to be a champion clog dancer! A portion of the stage will be covered in water. I think to say much more will spoil the surprise!

What is it like as a performer being a part of a multimedia production such as this?

These kinds of productions always bring with them an added sense of excitement as well as organizational challenges. We're fortunate in this regard to have the support of a number of individuals associated with the Music Department and the Center for 21st Century Music as well as of course, the technical staff at the Center for the Arts and from the Department of Theater and Dance.

In the video below, Fitch says the piece is about the "unanswered questions we have hovering in the back of our minds." This, of course, makes me think of Ives's The Unanswered Question. What do you, as a musician and teacher, think about music's role in helping us grapple with difficult questions?

I think that it tells us these questions are, in some way, universal. We all hear different things in the music we listen to, but still there is a sense of discovery while listening to any worthwhile piece of music that enriches us and let’s us know that difficult questions may not have “right” answers.

Is there anything else you'd like to say about this project?

Please come see it! Everyone who’s worked on it is very excited about it!

Douglas Fitch and the Slee Sinfonietta
How Did We…?
November 13-15, 2014
Center for the Arts, Drama Theater
ticket info

—Ethan Hayden