June in Buffalo
June in Buffalo is one of the most important music festivals in the country dedicated entirely to contemporary music. Find out how the festival fosters young, free-thinking composers, not disciples.
Inside a university dormitory, a smattering of young composers gather, huddling together various chairs and couches in order to create a makeshift lounge-like environment. Someone throws a string quartet on the boombox, but nobody really listens, opting instead to socialize and drink beer. Besides, their ears have been saturated by contemporary music all day long, and well into the evening—in the form of masterclasses, one-on-one sessions, concerts, and rehearsals. This is the June in Buffalo that I experienced ten years ago, so I was delighted to see similar late-night hangouts, heart-to-hearts, and ping-pong matches taking place inside the dorms at last year’s festival.
No, I wasn’t participating in the festival this time around—I’m no longer a “young” composer by any stretch of the imagination. I was hanging out in the dorms because I asked June in Buffalo’s artistic director David Felder if I could entrench myself with the student composers in order to collect some editorial fodder. Believe me, the déjà vu factor was a bit overwhelming at first, but I quickly slipped right into the diverse mix of young composers who were already halfway through the rewardingly grueling week.
While the conditions of the dorms and the late-night activities haven’t changed much over the years, the cast of characters at the festival had. Each year, composers with a good amount of name recognition are invited to mentor the twenty-or-so younger participants. Back in 1998 during my first visit to June in Buffalo, I had the privilege of sipping whiskey with Vinko Globokar as we discussed which types of squeak toy parts work best lodged inside trombone mouthpieces; chatted about installation art with Kevin Volans; got my music dissed by Mario Davidovsky; and in turn, I ignored Donald Erb all together. And that’s what June in Buffalo is all about: a multiplicity of opinions and aesthetic approaches implausibly united by everyone’s unquestionable passion for the art of modern composition. It’s not about holding hands and singing “Kum Ba Yah.” But those open to such an experience will probably glean more wisdom from the festival than those more inclined to stick with what they know. And from judging from the crop of students in 2007, they seemed genuinely eager to hear what the faculty composers—David Felder, John Harbison, Steve Reich, Roger Reynolds, and Charles Wuorinen—had to say on all subjects musical.
There is no singular way to define the June in Buffalo experience, and with over 500 composers having gone through its rite of passage, there are exponentially more anecdotes, triumphs, dramas, failures, and gossip to build an entire mythology around. But one of the things that energizes the festival is its lack of anything quintessential; instead there’s always a palpable sense of discovery in the air.