Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Josh Levine: Imagination and Memory

June in Buffalo has been an international festival since its inception, attracting composers, performers, and other artists from around the world.  Its aesthetic has always been a broad one, where one is likely to hear American experimentalists programmed alongside the European avant garde.  It is for this reason, that Josh Levine makes a perfect addition to the JiB faculty, as he is an American composer with significant international ties, and a broadly cosmopolitan aesthetic.

Josh Levine
While he was born in Oregon, Levine originally trained as a classical guitarist in Basel, Switzerland.  He continued his musical studies in the same country as he switched to composition, studying with Balz Trümpy.  He later studied at the Paris Conservatory with Guy Reibel, and worked at IRCAM, later returning to the US to earn his PhD from UC San Diego, where he studied principally with Brian Ferneyhough.  Since then, his music has been internationally recognized and has received several awards, including First Prize and a Euphonie d'Or at the Bourges International Electroacoustic Music Competition.  His works have been commissioned by widely-recognized soloists including Aiyun Huang, Marcus Weiss, and Jürg Wyttenbach, as well as ensembles such as the soundSCAPE Trio, Calliope Duo, Ensemble Contrechamps, and Les Solistes de l’Ensemble Intercontemporain.  He currently serves as Assistant Professor of Composition at Oberlin.

For Levine, music is a locus where the unity of imagination and memory can be found.
The musical work is, for me, a site where the irrational and the rational, the sensual and the conceptual, and, most basically, sound and silence, spar and dance and transcend their seeming dichotomies.  Through ever-evolving interpretations of recurring musical materials, I explore the unity of memory and imagination—remembering as an act of imagining, and imagining as an act of remembering.  My composing is inspired by movement and the contemplation of change, whether in the physical world or in the psyche.
Despite the abstractness of such conceptual imagery, Levine's music is dynamic and rooted in the concreteness of the physical gesture.  "The physicality of musical performance and our emotional identification as listeners with its energy, gestures, and implicit drama are among its further driving forces."  His early work in the field of electroacoustic music led to an interest in temporal fluidity and harmonic nuance, as well as an attention to detail that seeks to bring "a richer resonance to every moment."  Such temporal and timbral examination can be heard in Levine's recent acousmatic piece, Oneirograph, which uses violin samples as its source material, but pulls open these sounds, finding vast resonant soundscapes within.  The piece's title refers to an instrument for measuring dreams—dreams, of course, being another site in which the divisions between memory and imagination become suspect.

This year's festival will see the performances of three of Levine's pieces.  The Slee Sinfonietta will present two of these.  The first, Four places, many more times (2011), is a percussion quartet which revolves around twelve specially tuned metal pipes.  Continuing Levine's interest in flexible perceptions of time, the composer describes the work as a series of "'sound objects' [which] shift and spin through space and different time zones in a kind of timbral kaleidoscope."  The second, Former Selves, for solo guitar, ensemble, and electronics features JiB special guest Magnus Andersson.  Approaching the idea of memory from a different angle, this work incorporates elements from several of the composer's earlier works, both as musical gestures articulated by the performers, as well as samples which are transformed by the electronics—even to the extent of incorporating recorded material from the piece's own 2007 premiere.  Levine describes the relationship between the soloist and ensemble:  
[The ensemble's music moves in largely homophonic blocks, like forms emerging from a void and receding again for no apparent reason.  The guitar does not participate in their creation, but passes between them.  As the homophony gradually unravels, the guitar in its turn begins to find openings into the ensemble, eventually (re)discovering there the full sound of its voice.
Levine, Former Selves (2007)
Finally, the Uusinta Ensemble will open their program with Levine's Glimpses (1986), an earlier work which reverses the play of memory found in Former Selves:  rather than pulling from previous works, Glimpses consists of material that would preoccupy the composer for years to come—that is, musical ideas that would be continuously remembered.  "The listener 'glimpses' moments of parallel musical narratives, aural images whose incompleteness leaves their possible pasts and futures to the imagination.  Much of the material is heard again in new contexts, but it rarely seems the same."  This work also features Andersson on guitar, who whispers a description of this material during the work's own performance, referring to them as "points of embarkation on a bankless river."

As a guitarist himself, it is no surprise that Levine's work often emphasizes that instrument, and as a performer, Levine has performed with the likes of Ensemble Contrechamps, the Basel ISCM Ensemble, the Nouvel Ensemble Contemporain, SONOR, and members of the sfSoundgroup.  He has recorded works by Mark Applebaum and Kristian Ireland on the Innova label.

As a dedicated teacher, Levine takes great joy in hearing the different approaches the students embrace in their own music.  As he explains:
I love it when a student comes in to the lesson, puts the music on the music stand, and it may be—in fact, it's almost surely going to be—in a style, or with a particular aesthetic orientation that doesn't correspond to what I personally would write.  But it's so fascinatingly done—it explores in such a beautiful way certain ideas, instrumental colors, or sounds that I've never quite explored in that way, and yet that I can empathize with and communicate with both through the score and through my personal relationship to them.
There is perhaps no better place for Levine to encounter the varied aesthetic orientations of young artists than at June in Buffalo, and we are excited for the composers who will learn from their dialogues with him, as they reckon with their own imaginations and memories.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Dal Niente: Young Punks and Established Masters

Ensemble Dal Niente
This year, among the resident ensembles at the June in Buffalo festival will be a Chicago-based ensemble the New York Times has called a "superb contemporary-music collective", Dal Niente.  The ensemble's evocative name ("from nothing") comes from Helmut Lachenmann's Dal niente (Interieur III), a work whose "revolutionary style" has served as an inspiration to its members.  The name also refers to the group's humble beginnings:  initially formed as a collective of graduate composers at Northwestern University, the ensemble's introduction to the international music community was quickly boosted during their Darmstadt residency in 2012, at which they became the first ensemble to be awarded the prestigious Kranichstein Music Prize.  Since then, Dal Niente has made it their mission to present new works in ways that "redefine the listening experience and advance the art form", through "immersive experiences which connect audiences with the music of today."  They have been quite successful with the latter, as the Chicago Tribune has described them as "a model of what contemporary music needs, but seldom gets, to reach and engage a wider public."

Dal Niente are nothing if not active, and have built a reputation for exciting and prolific programming.  Some recent projects include "Canciones", a three-week tour of Latin America, including stops in Colombia, Mexico, and Panama which featured four world premieres, as well as the Chicago premiere of Georg Friedrich Haas's in vainwidely recognized as one of the early masterpieces of the 21st century.  The ensemble's varied concert series have included Proximity Portraits, which seek to introduce local audiences to international composers whose music is rarely performed in the group's native Chicago (a series which has thus far featured music by Andriessen, Ligeti, Stockhausen, and Claude Vivier), and Punks, a project which "celebrates composers whose independent spirit has led to musical experiences that are uniquely original and ambitious in reinventing the art form."  The latter series has featured music by Raphaël Cendo and Natacha Diels, and a collaboration with Greg Saunier of the band Deerhoof, who arranged the Deerhoof Chamber Variations for the ensemble.  This latter collaboration eventually led to the ensemble's most recent project, a collaboration with Deerhoof for a recording of Saunier's Variations, as well as a new work composed by Marcos Balter.

Dal Niente is known locally for their Hard Music, Hard Liquor series, which features music that requires extreme virtuosity from its performers.  Other recent projects include the audio/video concert Coming Togetherwhich featured works by American composers enhanced with live video art by the new media artist Alejandro Acierto.  One of the centerpieces of this program is Assemblage by trombonist/improviser/composer George Lewis, which can be seen below:

At June in Buffalo, Dal Niente will perform a program that will feature works by faculty composers, including Chinary Ung's Singing Inside Aura and Winternacht by Hans Abrahamsen.  No stranger to the former's music, the ensemble performed the Chicago premiere of Schnee in 2014, which Ensemble Signal will present at this year's JiB (for more on that performance, see our profile on Signal).  The program will also feature David Felder's Rare Air, for bass clarinet, piano, and electronics.  The four-movement work, originally composed for Jean Kopperud's Rated X project, is a collection of miniatures that feature an exotic menagerie of virtuosic extended techniques that create a strange-but-enticing sonic environment.  Finally, the ensemble will present Joshua Fineberg's Paradigms, for ensemble and electronics.  This latter piece is based on compositional models, as the composer explains:
I recorded several passages of instrumental music [which] were then analyzed; not, however, in the ordinary manner […].  Instead, I sought to extract the essence of the color, sound and motion not of these passages in their abstract existence, but of their realization.  To find a model in which each individual instrument playing in a precise way is fused together in one global timbre.  This global timbre then, once understood, could serve as my new model, to be re-interpreted, re-evaluated and again transformed into a new musical structure.
Dal Niente has made educational outreach an integral part of its mission, and have participated in composition workshops and masterclasses at a number of colleges and universities.  Since their formation in 2004, the ensemble has developed a particular skill for helping composers realize their visions, whether they be young punks or established masters.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Chinary Ung: Voices, Oracles, and Spirals

This week, we continue our profile series on June in Buffalo faculty artists with Chinary Ung, a composer the Center is excited to welcome to the festival for the first time.

Chinary Ung playing the roneat-ek
Chinary Ung was born in Takéo, Cambodia, where he studied traditional Khmer music and was a member of the first graduating class of Cambodia’s National Music Conservatory.  There he became a skilled performer on the roneat-ek, a boat-shaped xylophone of the Pinpeat tradition (used in the ceremonial music of Cambodian royal courts and temples).  Ung moved to the US in 1964, to study clarinet with Charles Russo at the Manhattan School of Music.  Ten years later, he graduated with a DMA in composition from Columbia University, where he studied with Mario Davidovsky and Chou Wen-chung.  Since 1995, he has taught at UC San Diego, where he is currently a Distinguished Professor of composition.

Ung has received a number of prestigious honors and awards, including those from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Kennedy Center and the Guggenheim, and the Koussevitzky, Ford, and Rockefeller foundations.  In 1989, he became the first American to win the celebrated Grawemeyer Award for music composition.

Ung has developed a reputation for his organic blend Western harmonic techniques with Eastern melodic accents.  The New York Times has said his music bears "an exotic, winding and at times gracefully ornamental character, and its dense textures dance between tonality and atonality.  Those who feel terror at the mention of multi-culturalism might listen to some of Mr. Ung's pieces.  They show that disparate musical traditions can be combined compellingly."  Attendees at June in Buffalo will hear such qualities in a number of performances, such as when Uusinta Ensemble performs 2004's Oracle for pierrot and percussion, a work which takes inspiration from the titular Nechung Oracle consulted by the Dalai Lama before his exile from Tibet (listen here).  

Chinary Ung, Spiral XI: Mother and Child, manuscript
One dramatic feature of Oracle that is common to Ung's music is that of performers vocalizing while playing their instruments.  His wife, violist Susan Ung, has become an expert in this skill.  The composer explains his frequent employment of this technique:
As a child growing up in a small village surrounded by rice fields, I was exposed to this practice as a part of folk music, and would later hear the music of other cultures share this approach.  In contemporary Western music, however, vocalization was most often used as a special effect.  I would eventually seek to incorporate vocalization in a more comprehensive manner that was integral to the work while reflecting a similar timelessness and cultural resonance as in the folk music I remembered.
Susan Ung will join Dal Niente for a JiB performance of Ung's Singing Inside Aura (2013), a piece which require the viola soloist to vocalize throughout.  The composer Adam Greene describes the piece:
[Singing Inside Aura's] notated tempo, forty-three beats per minute, suggests ritual or ceremony, when indeed a strict pulse is audible.  The ensemble texture is gossamer, threads combining into fabric.  […]  The viola and voice parts are inextricable and largely heterophonic, that is, much of the time they’re varied versions of the same melodic line.  That line or double line—matched, on occasion, in some of the ensemble instruments as well—is complex in its detail but as a result flexible and organic, like speech or improvisation.
Speaking/singing performers also appear throughout Ung's Spiral series, a collection of solo, chamber, and orchestral pieces that currently consists of fourteen works.  2007's Spiral XI: Mother and Child, for solo viola can be heard below, in a performance by Susan Ung.  For the composer, according to Greene, "the Spiral series he viewed the concept of the spiral primarily as a means of describing technical processes he had developed for dealing with pitch and large-scale form."

At June in Buffalo's final concert on June 12, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra will perform Water Rings "Overture" (1993), a work marked by its expert use of instrumental color and skilled orchestration.  Ung has perhaps been most widely recognized for his orchestral writing—the Grawemeyer being awarded to him for his 1986 work Inner Voices, commissioned by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts for Dennis Russell Davies and the Philadelphia Orchestra.  This earlier piece was described by the NY Times as "[overlaying] a richly colored backdrop of 1960's-style orchestral sound color, flecked with exotic percussion, with Cambodian-flavored melodies, most strikingly from the violas.  […It's an] evocative and engaging and a genuine contribution toward the serious fusion of Eastern and Western musical traditions."

These qualities are still present in more recent works, such as Water Rings, as the BPO's JiB audience will no doubt be able to recognize.  We look forward to hearing not only his music, but his insights into composition, orchestration, as well as voices, oracles, and spirals.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Ensemble SIGNAL: Popups and Canons

UB's spring semester opened with Ensemble SIGNAL's residency at the University's new Creative Arts Initiative—a residency that included a masterclass, an open rehearsal, a discussion on artistic entrepreneurship, and Performance in the Dark, a concert of works by Steve Reich and Georg Friedrich Haas (read more about it here).  That was just the first of two non-consecutive weeks of SIGNAL's residency, and the second week took place earlier this month, bookending the semester with exciting events featuring the NY-based ensemble.

SIGNAL's Bill Solomon performs a
solo kalimba micro-concert
The second week began on May 2, with "popup concerts" at various locations around UB's North Campus.  Consisting of 15 'micro-concerts' in a span of 30 minutes, each popup concert featured one or two of the ensemble's musicians playing brief (3-15 minutes) unannounced lunchtime concerts around the campus.  The following day featured a workshop performance of the minimalist classic In C by Terry Riley.    For this event, the ensemble invited anyone able to read music and play an instrument to sit in with them through a reading of Riley's work, introducing UB students and community members not only to the famous piece's challenging form, but also to the excitement of playing alongside some of the most skilled new music performers.  The residency concluded with a celebratory concert of works by Steve Reich.  SIGNAL have long been renowned for their interpretations of Reich's music, especially their Harmonia Mundi recording of Music for 18 Musicians (which received a Diapason d’or in June 2015 and appeared on the Billboard Classical Crossover charts in May 2015).  This concert featured several of the composer's "hits" (1972's Clapping Music, and 1985's New York Counterpoint), as well as two recent works:  Radio Rewrite (2012), based on themes from two Radiohead songs, and Quartet (2013) for two vibraphones and two pianos.

But SIGNAL is not finished yet!  The ensemble will be back next month as one of the six resident ensembles at June in Buffalo.  At this year's festival, they will perform a concert of works by JiB participants (June 7, 4:00pm, Baird Recital Hall), taking their experience collaborating with renowned composers to JiB's young artists, helping them articulate their musical visions and offering authentic interpretations of their works.  SIGNAL will also perform an evening concert (June 10, 7:30pm, Lippes Concert Hall), which will consist of a single large-scale work:  Schnee by Hans Abrahamsen.  The Danish composer—who will be on the composition faculty at this year's festival—composed Schnee ("Snow") in 2008, and the work has since been called a "hidden gem" by the New York Times.  The piece has its roots in 8 Canons, a collection of Bach arrangements which used repetition and slow durations to open up a new way of looking at time in these often taken-for-granted works:
I became totally absorbed into this music and arranged them with the intention of the music being repeated many, many times, as a kind of minimal music.  Obviously, I didn't know which durations Bach had in mind, but by listening to his canons in this way, a profound new moving world of circular time was opened to me.  Depending on the perspective on these canons, the music and its time can stand still or move either backwards or forwards.
One of these arranged canons, Kanon zu acht Stimmen, BWV 1072, can be heard below in Abrahamsen's arrangement.

Schnee emerged through a similar idea, and, using the Bach arrangements as a model, Abrahamsen composed a pair of two large-scale canons for nine instruments divided into two halves (piano and 3 strings, piano and 3 winds, with percussion in the middle).
In my own work, an ongoing idea has persisted, of at some point writing a work consisting of a number of canonical movements that would explore this universe of time.  […]  In Schnee, a few simple and fundamental musical questions are explored.  […]  Can a phrase be answering?  Or questioning?  [Schnee's] two canons are identical like a painting in two versions, but with different colors.  And where the first one does not include the space, the second one does, as well as containing more canonical traces.

The piece soon expanded into ten canons which gracefully unfold over the course of an hour.  The airy, ghostly music begins with whispering, feather-soft gestures, and reduces itself from there as the piece develops.  The performers are told to detune their instruments between movements, moving lower and lower as the piece progresses, creating stranger and more otherworldly sounds.  The work's frigid title makes reference to Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen", and many of the sparse melodies have a frosty lightness to them, sounding almost like snow falling gracefully downward.

Brad Lubman
SIGNAL is directed by Brad Lubman, who is a special guest at this year's festival.  Lubman has played an important role in contemporary music for the past twenty years, acting not only as the founding co-Artistic and Music Director of SIGNAL, but also as a frequent guest conductor of many of the world's leading ensembles (including Ensemble Modern, London Sinfonietta, Klangforum Wien, ASKO Ensemble, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, WDR Symphony Cologne, Finnish Radio Symphony, and the Center's own Slee Sinfonietta). Currently on faculty at the Eastman School of Music, Lubman is known for his versatile conducting technique and skilled realizations of contemporary and classical works alike.

We're excited that Brad Lubman and SIGNAL will be returning to this year's festival (for more on the long, productive relationship between the ensemble and June in Buffalo, see last year's profile).  Whether realizing classical minimalist works with UB students, premiering new works by emerging composers, or articulating the delicate subtleties of wintery canons, SIGNAL is always a reliable source for strong, proficient performances.

Monday, May 2, 2016

JACK Quartet Returns for Composer Workshop

JACK Quartet at One M&T Plaza, 2013
This week, the Center is excited to welcome back the JACK Quartet for a composer workshop in Baird Recital Hall.  Longtime friends of the Center, the JACK Quartet have taken part in many Center events, beginning with their first residency in October 2009, during which they worked with student composers and presented a concert that featured works by Xenakis, Sciarrino, Robert Morris, and Elliott Sharp.  Two years later, the quartet returned with Aaron Cassidy for a joint residency that included a concert featuring the composer's first quartet (and which also included John Cage's String Quartet in Four Parts and concluded with Ligeti's famous second quartet).  One of their most memorable performances was a concert at Buffalo's One M&T Plaza which kicked off the 2013 June in Buffalo Festival and Performance Institute.  The performance, part of Eric Huebner's "Music in Buffalo's Historic Places" series, consisted only of Morton Feldman's immense 100-minute String Quartet No. 1.

JACK Quartet at June in Buffalo 2013
This week, the ensemble—tireless advocates of new music that they are—will present a composer workshop, realizing new works by four UB graduate composers:  Roberto Azaretto, Alex Huddleston, Nathan Kelly, and Su Lee.  Known for their work helping young composers realize their ideas—the Toronto Star described them as the "musical vehicle of choice to the next great composers who walk among us"—the event is sure to be enlightening for composers and audience alike.

The members of the JACK Quartet met while studying at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY.  Having studied with the Arditti Quartet, Kronos Quartet, and members of the Ensemble Intercontemporain (under the direction of Pierre Boulez), the quartet—consisting of John Pickford Richards, Ari Streisfeld, Christopher Otto, and Kevin McFarland—developed their sophisticated new music chops, quickly becoming one of the most active quartets on the scene.  They have collaborated with a number of renowned composers, including John Luther Adams, Caroline Shaw, Helmut Lachenmann, Steve Reich, Matthias Pintscher, and John Zorn, with upcoming performances including premieres by Derek Bermel, Roger Reynolds, Toby Twining, and Georg Friedrich Haas.  It's no wonder the Washington Post referred to them as "the go-to quartet for contemporary music, tying impeccable musicianship to intellectual ferocity and a take-no-prisoners sense of commitment."