Sunday, June 3, 2018

Celebrating 12 Years at the Center

After 12 years of existence, the Robert and Carol Morris Center for 21st Century Music has progressed from strength to strength. The Center is the support system for contemporary music at the University at Buffalo, providing financial, technical, and administrative support for the June in Buffalo Festival, Slee Sinfonietta, visiting composers, visiting contemporary music ensembles, and more.

Edge of the Center recently sat down with the Center’s artistic director, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Birge-Cary Chair in Music Composition David Felder, to reflect on the institution’s history. Founded in 2006, the Center for 21st Century Music was the culmination of two decades of behind the scenes administrative efforts on Felder’s part. Professor Felder took the first step towards the creation of the Center by reviving the then defunct June in Buffalo Festival, upon joining the music department’s faculty in 1985. In doing so, he also significantly transformed the festival’s format through the addition of opportunities for young composers to have their music played by professional performers. Moreover, this model of how to run a music festival would ultimately have a crucial influence on the wider contemporary music world; developed a few years earlier through Felder’s creation of the Summer Composer Institute at California State University-Long Beach, the model would later be replicated by dozens of music festivals worldwide.

Guest ensemble Signal performs David Felder's Tweener
The second step came in 1995, when Felder, as chair of the music department, created the Slee Sinfonietta, a chamber ensemble consisting of music performance faculty, advanced students, and professionals devoted to the performance of neglected and underrepresented repertoire of the present and past. The ensemble’s regular programming, collaborations with guest artists, recordings, and tours have contributed significantly to the department’s local, national, and international visibility. Given the difficulties of funding a chamber ensemble, the Sinfonietta was fortunate Robert and Carol Morris stepped up as donors in 1996 with substantial funds to support the ensemble’s performances.

The Morrises would later go on to become central donors to the Center for 21st Century Music following its creation in 2006. The Center’s creation with support from the College of Arts and Sciences established a robust support system for contemporary music at the university enabling the significant expansion of a guest artist series, inviting leading composers, soloists, and ensembles to share their talent and expertise not only with students and faculty in the music department but also with the general public of Western New York, enriching local culture.

Guest ensemble Signal performs David Felder's concert-length
Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux
Other components of the Center’s programming were also augmented correspondingly. The Slee Sinfonietta was able to present ambitious projects the likes of which are rarely realized outside of large coastal cities, such as the Slee Sinfonietta’s performance of large-scale modern chamber orchestra masterpieces like Pierre Boulez’s Pli selon Pli and Gyorgy Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, as well as regular appearances by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra at June in Buffalo, in concerts devoted solely to music by living composers. These programming successes led to notice from national press outlets, such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

The Center’s financial support system also led to less overt but equally consequential improvements in the university’s infrastructure for contemporary art music. Equipment upgrades, for instance to the projection system in Baird Hall, including the addition of high quality surround sound, ultimately benefitted all students and faculty of the music department by improving the presentation of media featured in lectures, concerts, and classes. Purchase of new equipment, such as an eight-channel rig of Meyers speakers, mixing consoles, microphones, and so forth, supported first-rate realizations of cutting edge works involving technology. The Center’s funds also led to the creation of stable professional development funding for advanced students in composition and performance, such as the Enhancement Awards for PhD students, which supported travel to and attendance at prestigious national and international festivals, culminating in the creation of exchange partnerships with the Abbaye de Royaumont’s “Voix Nouvelles” (New Voices) Course for Young Composers in France as well as a partnership in development with the Norwegian Academy of Music. In these activities, the Center functions as catalyst for creativity and connection, providing a support system for innovative creative endeavors while facilitating the dissemination of content locally, nationally, and internationally.

The Center's artistic director, David Felder
As the Center’s outputs involves a broad spectrum of people, its continued support has likewise depended upon the generosity and hard work of numerous individuals. Felder says, “I would like to express my sincere gratitude to past Deans of the College of Arts and Sciences, Uday Sukhatme, Bruce McCombe, Bruce Pitman, to present Dean Robin Schulze, for their support of the Center’s activities. I’d also like to thank President (and previously Provost) Satish K. Tripathi, and Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Charles F. Zukoski, whose support has been crucial to the Center’s thriving. Professor Felder notes that, in addition to university administrators, donors have played a crucial role in establishing and sustaining the Center. “I immensely value the friendship and generosity of Robert and Carol Morris,  and Brian Baird of the Cameron Baird Foundation, for their continuing support, and extend gratitude to long time funders of June in Buffalo such as the Copland Fund, the Ditson Fund, and the Amphion Foundation."

Behind the scenes, numerous music department staff have played important roles in the Center’s logistics, often behind the scenes: Dusti Dean (Assistant to the Chair) has mastered and managed the complex financial requirements inherent in administering the Center’s funds, while Christopher Jacobs (music technology director) has assisted in the realization of numerous works with complex audio technology requirements. Phil Rehard (Slee Hall concert manager) has provided essential assistance with concert production, while Devin Zimmer (piano technician) has brought great expertise and dedication to keyboard instrument maintenance.

J.T. Rinker, the Center’s first managing director, stepped down from this role in summer 2017. A composition PhD graduate of UB, J.T. oversaw the implementation of the Center’s projects, including everything from realizing complex live electronic set-ups, to all of the smallest tasks required to produce literally thousands of events dating back nearly two decades. “It is with great sadness that we say goodbye to J.T., and we wish him the very best,” says Felder.

Robert Phillips succeeds Rinker as managing director. Phillips also holds a composition PhD from UB; since completing his degree in 2012 he has been selected for competitive fellowships and residencies at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stiftung Künstlerdorf Schöppingen, and PACT Zollverein. The Center welcomes Robert on board as it continues to build on its record of substantive programming. When asked about his current activities at the Center, Robert remarked, “Of course there’s lots to do with all of the June in Buffalo applications rolling in, and plans are underway for the 35th anniversary of June in Buffalo in 2020!”