A Few Things I Failed to Mention

Just as these kids are not afraid of clicking this or that button on today’s technology (which both my husband and I very much are), they are not afraid of poking into any musical corner. There doesn’t seem to be any outside to the box marked Music. Everything is inside.

Written By

Susan Kander

The first two systems of the engraved score of Susan Kander's composition A Few Things I Failed to Mention

From the score of A Few Things I Failed to Mention Copyright © 2015 by Susan Kander (BMI). All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

It is December 15, concert night for Purchase New Music: student instrumentalists, after serious coaching from faculty, will perform the pieces written by student composers. I am finally getting a master’s degree after many years in the composing business, and it is my first time participating in such an evening. I’m not too bummed that my teacher, composer Huang Ruo, won’t be there. In the first place, he knows the music well and has taught me a great deal during the composing process, so I don’t feel he needs to hear it realized. In the second place, he’s in Amsterdam where he is composer-in-residence at the Royal Concertgebouw and his new piano concerto is premiering. I can hardly begrudge him that!

This is one of the neat things about the Purchase composition faculty: professors Laura Kaminsky, Du Yun, and Huang Ruo are all extraordinarily “happening” these days, with premiers and productions of their operas, concerti, and chamber music going on all over the map. No one of them is anything like the others in their music and I am very eager to find out if that is reflected in the students’ work. Tonight I will get to listen to nine other pieces besides my own, ranging from solo studies to sextets. I’m excited to hear my young colleagues’ music. Looking at the program is illuminating: every composer’s birthdate is listed in the usual practice, and they cluster around the mid-to-late 1990s. Two birthdates are a bit earlier: one woman already has a degree in visual arts and is an adventurous singer-songwriter and guitarist. The second is my fellow grad student, a jazz pianist and composer with a flourishing career already. Both women have come to the program to deepen their skills in orchestration and non-improvised music in order to grow and push their own boundaries in their primary fields. Both are exciting artists, a bit older than the others. Then there’s me: “b. 1957.” It just looks so funny there on the page.

The newcomers are featured early in the program, those who are working with one to three instruments. They are clearly learning their way around gathering and developing the contents of their mind’s ear and putting it on the page for a player’s eye to interpret. There is some surprise lyricism in one, all are decidedly interesting, and no two are alike. The former visual artist has written a moving program note articulating the frustration involved in reconciling her deficit in musical notation proficiency with her musical imagination and intuition. She notes that “the drive of an artist relies heavily on dissatisfaction” and I think she has said a True Thing. I can’t wait to hear what she does next as her skills increase.

There are three works for the same sextet—flute, clarinet, violin, cello, percussion, and piano—conducted by the head of the program. Again, they are quite different one from the other. The senior has written a quiet, beautifully textured work of subtle complexity that makes me grin as I listen with my eyes closed. It flows, delights, surprises, all without huzzah and with extraordinary control, and the players both understand and reveal its magic. A piece by a junior has a more programmatic approach, some very appealing atmospheric writing and a beautifully controlled, lovely ending. My graduate student colleague, the jazz artist, is pursuing shapes and layers of sound in a gentle, beautiful stream that intensifies to a Zen sort of climax and then falls back to earth. She has told me she had so much fun writing it—her first non-improvisation-based work in which she controls every beat—that she plans to continue and extend it next semester. She has found a new path.

At a certain moment, sitting in the recital hall that is very gratifyingly full of audience members—a hallmark of Purchase Conservatory: students go to each other’s recitals—I ask myself, “What am I doing here? What can I get out of this collection of youthful assays, aside from the energy that is ever-present and contagious?” I listen more, and after a while it comes to me: just as these kids are not afraid of clicking this or that button on today’s technology (which both my husband and I very much are), they are not afraid of poking into any musical corner. There doesn’t seem to be any outside to the box marked Music. Everything is inside. The senior had the percussionist toss individual coins of different weight onto the floor during his piece, adding a varying, gentle accent to the texture. All of sound, I think, is at their disposal—unburdened either by aesthetic or historic expectation or by their own previous successes. Not that they don’t know history and music, but for them what counts as music is a sound world vastly larger than mine. This is what I’m here for. When I realize this, I can almost feel the walls of my own mind push back and away. I listen more.

Another freshman has written a violent work for viola, cello, bass, and guitar, which he conducts himself. I am surprised by the music: it bespeaks an extraordinarily intense musical life residing in the mind and spirit of this polite, genial gentleman. His conducting is unorthodox but apparently communicative to the players who give him the intensity he is looking for. It is miles from anything else on the program and I can’t wait to hear his next several pieces.

Woodstock, the girl who was the lone female last year and is now a junior, has written for the same whackadoodle quintet as I have: bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, and double bass. By keeping the music light and jazzy, I think she solves the essential balance problems of the group better than I have. I’ve heard pieces of hers before. Her music is often theatrical; she cannot hide either her inborn ebullient showmanship or her gourmand’s compulsion to pack too many things into one piece. In this case, not only has she written a long, sardonic text, spoken by the players over the music, but she and a friend dance in a free-form, silly way throughout the piece, hopping and rolling over under around and through the players. The result, intended or otherwise, is to obfuscate the music, which is inventive, cogent, fun, and well-played. I’m sorry about the dancing: it makes it hard to really listen to what is very enjoyable stuff. In addition, it makes me wonder, is she simply reminding us that not all music is serious, which is great; or worse, is she undermining herself, urging us not to take her music seriously? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that musical history tells us, if anyone is likely to make an actual living writing music from this group, chances are it will be Woodstock!

I’m happy to report that my musicians go beyond themselves when they perform A Few Things I Failed to Mention. Lots more dynamics help shape things, more notes fall in the right places. (I can finally make an informed decision that I should have followed my instincts and thrown out the opening movement back when I threw out two others.) There are two successive measures in the fifth movement that have demanded the most time in rehearsal: the players get really close on the first one, the second one not so much, but the movement itself achieves more continuity than ever before. In the sixth and final movement, the players start well, keeping a tight rein on the slow, suspenseful beginning, managing nicely the gradual build-up of tension and anxiety. The increasing rhythmic density of the middle section rolls out more smoothly than ever before and I remind myself to breathe. The last page, a sudden, short, fast freak-out—rhythmic, high, and loud—is absolutely primo. The piece doesn’t really end: it just stops like someone pulled a plug. In the sudden silence after the last blast, the players’ surprise and relief is wonderful to see. In that moment, I love them all.

I can’t wait for my second semester to get under way.