What Do You Sound Like, and Where Are You Going?–Thoughts from the 2013 June in Buffalo Festival
From the outset, June in Buffalo 2013 demonstrated that a composition doesn’t communicate in a vacuum, but instead often reveals its vitality while in dialogue with other works.
For new music lovers in western New York, the first week of June promises not only the burgeoning warmth of the summer months, but the personal discovery of recent works by talented and sometimes unduly obscure composers. The 2013 edition of the annual June in Buffalo festival featured the compositions of 29 participant composers, as well as esteemed guest faculty including Brian Ferneyhough, Augusta Read Thomas, and Charles Wuorinen.
Composer-conductor Lukas Foss first cultivated the new music soil that would yield the annual festival in 1964 when he conceived of the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts. Through its fellowships for composers and performers of contemporary music, the Center set the cultural precedent at the University at Buffalo for Morton Feldman’s June festival, which he inaugurated in 1975 as a complement to the Center’s “Evenings for New Music” series. After 1980, the festival lay dormant until it was revived by current artistic director David Felder in 1986.
From the outset, June in Buffalo 2013 demonstrated that a composition doesn’t communicate in a vacuum, but instead often reveals its vitality while in dialogue with other works. The first half of the evening concert on June 3, featuring the Talujon Percussion Ensemble and the JACK Quartet, included the intriguing combination of John Cage’s Third Construction for percussion quartet and David Felder’s Stuck-stücke for string quartet. While each work is naturally expressive in and of itself, together they spoke to the larger notion of how four musicians engage in intuitive dialogue with one another: What does the architecture of the orchestration look like? How does the interplay between instruments evolve over the life of the piece? Though these questions can certainly be pondered during a single concert, over the span of the weeklong festival these ideas were given time and space to germinate, manifesting themselves in multiple performances of diverse works, interpreted by musicians with varying sensibilities.
The participant composers’ program for Friday, June 7, which touted the most wonderfully eclectic grouping of works of the festival, exemplified how intricate and distinct these intramusical relationships can be. As performed by the Alsace, France-based Ensemble Linea, the set was characterized by a particularly unmitigated energy, in which the mixture of exuberance and skill made the composers’ respective intentions clear. Written for an amplified quartet of bass clarinet, violin, viola, and cello, Asymptotic Flux: First Study in Entropy by Jason Thorpe Buchanan is an unearthly collage of sounds. Like many of the June in Buffalo compositions, Flux centered on the expressive textures one can create by combining multiple timbres from different instruments. Though conceptually direct, the resulting sounds of Buchanan’s piece were delightfully ambiguous: frantic joy could be as easily heard as extreme distemperment.
Amidst a frothy sea of June in Buffalo works characterized by chaotic rhythms and liberal doses of dissonance, Colin Tucker’s engulfed, constrained in a widening gap felt like a direct challenge to that approach. The composer set out to see how much could be expressed with the fewest number of notes possible, as desolate plateaus of extended silence were interrupted occasionally by the thin and airy rasp of strings.
What followed Tucker’s refreshing work was arguably the most beautiful piece of the entire festival—Fifty Pairs of Eyes for string trio by Philadelphia composer Jenny Beck. The composition began with a simple but emphatic viola glissando up a half step. The central melody continued to ruminate on that theme, as the violin drifted in and out of abstraction high above the viola. The cello then takes over the initial motive before a trio section that contrasts pizzicato with tender, elongated notes. Beck seemed to be playing with the fine balance between maintaining a tonal center and indulging in atmospheric gestures. The effect was somewhat like differentiating between a representational painting of someone breathing, and an attempt to paint the texture of the air itself.
June in Buffalo also offered intriguing examples of how extramusical elements can be commingled to foster epiphany and create new realities of higher resolution. Tuesday evening’s concert, presented in Lippes Concert Hall (the festival’s primary venue) featured the only program of the festival exclusively devoted to the work of one composer, Charles Wuorinen. It was a particularly momentous occasion for Wuorinen, who was honored with an honorary doctorate in music from the University at Buffalo. The proceedings also served as a celebration of the composer’s 75th birthday, which arrived officially a week later.
With regards to the music itself, what followed was an auspicious showcase of the week’s lone full-scale vocal work, It Happens Like This, with text culled from the poetry of Pulitzer Prize winner James Tate. The curiously insightful 2010 cantata made for gorgeous and engrossing theater, as performed by the Slee Sinfonietta—UB’s “new music” chamber orchestra—and a consummate vocal quartet of Sharon Harms, Lauren Mercado Wright, Steven Brennfleck, and Ethan Herschenfeld.
The question of how to set seven of Tate’s intensely prosaic vignettes, brimming with empathy and veiled wit, would appear to be supremely daunting. But under Wuorinen’s conception, surreal interpersonal nightmares in which fate ultimately ignores the characters’ futile pretentions of upright living, like “The Formal Invitation” and “Intruders,” only gained in clarity. With a combination of spoken word and arioso, the vocal lines were pungent but inherently mellifluous. Meanwhile, the Sinfonietta’s instrumental accompaniment seemed to swirl around the voices intermittently in veristic bursts of modernist tone colors. And while Wuorinen’s use of poetic texts is by no means revolutionary, his ability to coax even more nuance out of the masterful source material was compelling to experience.
Ironically, the most memorable performance of the entire week was not given by a musician at all, but by dancer Melanie Aceto, who collaborated with the Buffalo-based composer Megan Grace Buegger to present the premiere of Liaison, a performance art piece that I hope has opened the door for similarly experimental works to be performed during future JiB festivals.
At first, though the choreography and the resulting music complemented each other well, they did not seem directly correlated. But gradually, the gritty strumming of the piano strings and their undulating overtones became increasingly linked to Aceto’s movements; her fluid yet ultimately constricted motions were causing the music. Finally, the separate entities of dancer and piano were somehow conjoined, and it became clear that the dancer was the source of all of the sounds. Here’s how it was done. The grand piano’s lid was removed and in its place there was a network of five suspended pulleys holding wires which bow the piano strings. Each pulley was activated through the movements of the soloist, Aceto, whose limbs were connected to the pulleys via bungee cords and velcro. As a result, it was possible to hear as well as see Aceto dance.
After the performance, Megan Grace Buegger explained the genesis of this unusual collaboration.
Perhaps the most intriguing development for June in Buffalo as an institution was the implementation of its inaugural Performance Institute, which aims to mentor emergent interpreters of new music as they work alongside the resident ensembles of the festival, mirroring the proven dynamic of faculty composers and participant composers. The week neared its end with two consecutive concerts performances by the Institute participants. Approaching nearly three hours in total length, the second of the two enjoyable programs was the longest and weightiest of the June in Buffalo concerts, featuring the works of heavy hitters Babbitt, Carter, Cage, Stockhausen, and Bernd Alois Zimmerman. As indicated by the committed interpretations of such talented musicians as percussionist Ross Aftel, pianists Jade Conlee and Michiko Saiki, and cellist T.J. Borden, the Performance Institute promises to provide invaluable support to June in Buffalo’s already regenerative nature for years to come.
Six days earlier, I had arrived in the basement of University at Buffalo’s Slee Hall for the first concert of the week. I was confronted with a vast array of percussion instruments, which took over more than half of the space, from the bandshell in the rear of the room to the feet belonging to the listeners with legs politely crossed in the front row of the audience. The meager area designated for seating had become flush with the presence of approximately 60 to 70 people. As the recital began and I listened to California composer Ben Phelps’s Year of Solitary Thinking—In Metal, a beautifully erratic composition filled with the dark timbres and tactile atmosphere evoked by the percussion and prepared piano, I was reminded of a crucial notion: ultimately, new music is subject only to the insatiable rigors of the creative spirit, and nothing else. It isn’t really about what the sound is, but where that sound is compelled to go.