Making Conservatories Less Conservative

Making Conservatories Less Conservative

What American Conservatories Do To Spark Interest in New American Music.

Written By

Stefan Weisman

An education at the Eastman School of Music is comprehensive, and rigorous. Best of all, however, steps are being taken to create not just virtuoso performers and technically adept composers, but enthusiastic advocates for music. It should be noted that Eastman is rated as the best music school in US News and World Report‘s list of top graduate programs, although such lists must be taken with a grain of salt. Luckily, America’s living composers have a voice at the “best” music school in country, and modern American music is woven into the texture of the school. The chair of the composition program, Robert Morris, told me that he didn’t think there was any other school with a longer history of support for contemporary American Music, which dates back to its first director, composer Howard Hanson. And of course, the composition department is thrilled that Eastman’s new director, James Undercofler, also has a keen interest in the new music of America.

Important composers who have given master classes include: Babbitt, Argento, Bolcom, Boulez, Carter, Corigliano, Crumb, Del Tredici, Foss, Harbison, Husa, Lucier, Martino, Penderecki, Rands, Reich, Schuller, Torke (an alumnus), Tower, and Wuorinen, as well as Wynton Marsalis. Other interesting recent visitors include ASCAP‘s Frances Richard, and performers like Alan Feinberg, violist John Graham, West Coast pianist Gloria Cheng, and South Indian Drummer, Prichi Shankarin.

Eastman’s first director, Howard Hanson, founded the Institute for American Music at the Eastman School. It commissions, performs, publishes, and records the music of composers from the Western Hemisphere. Three major commissions are granted each year. Some commissions include works by: Samuel Adler, Diamond, Christopher Rouse, Joseph Schwantner, and Augusta Read Thomas.

In addition to Robert Morris, Eastman’s composition faculty includes: Rouse, Schwantner, Thomas, David Liptak, Allan Schindler, Warren Benson, and Sydney Hodkinson. Composition is taught through private lessons and master classes, and students are exposed to a wide range of styles and techniques by working with the composition faculty on a rotation basis. This leads to little segregation on the part of the faculty, and helps to form a tightly knit composition department.

Students’ compositions are performed at Composers Forum concerts held eight times during the school year. The concerts are followed by an open discussion of the works moderated by the Eastman composition faculty. In addition, some entrepreneurial composition students arrange small orchestras or ensembles for additional concerts of their music.

A new program, now in its second year, has been arranged by Allan Schindler to coordinate collaborations between Eastman student composers and The Rochester Institute of Technology‘s film, visual studies and dance programs. Quite a few concerts, which draw a great deal of interest and large audiences, have already taken place as a result of this initiative.

To ensure that students have a well-rounded education all students are expected to gain the skills needed to work with computers, software, and other technology that can aid in their studies and careers. Also, composition majors must take performance lessons and participate in student ensembles, and performance majors must play a piece of modern music (no older than about 1960) in their final senior recital. A large number of student performers are already interested in modern music. This year the wind ensemble and orchestra elected to play so many student composers’ works that special readings are not required.

Eastman School gives more than 700 performances each year in the Rochester area, and for performers, many opportunities exist to participate in ensembles that play new music, including the graduate orchestra, the New Eastman Symphony. Also, the Eastman-Rochester Chorus, a large ensemble that includes members from the local community, occasionally performs 20th Century music. Musica Nova is Eastman’s contemporary music ensemble, and it presents seven concerts each year including twenty to thirty Rochester premieres. The concerts include all styles of contemporary music, and the opportunity to work with important living composers. Perhaps the most remarkable of these ensembles is the student-run group, Ossia, which performs exclusively new music. With this group students learn to undertake all the responsibilities necessary to produce concerts – from programming, to publicity, to fund raising. A CD of Ossia performing Reich is soon to be released on Albany Records.

Robert Morris mentioned a promising example of community interest in the musicians at Eastman: a local school recently decided to seek out and commission a student composer to write music for a fourth grade flute ensemble. And perhaps the most exciting thing happening at Eastman now is a new community outreach program called the “Eastman Initiatives.” This program is designed to teach students methods to educate audiences, and create interest for music in places where it may not have previously existed – “in schools, malls, nursing homes, hospitals, community centers, and wherever there is an opportunity to educate nontraditional audiences.” Student ensembles must perform in the community, and about one-hundred outreach performances are given each year. Although this program doesn’t always involve 20th Century music, one of the “Initiatives” is to include more modern music in the curriculum of the school itself. An example of this is a set of elective courses called the “Art Leadership Program,” that often involves 20th Century music. During these courses students examine the state of music in the world today, and the state of new American music. With these endeavors, Eastman hopes to foster among its students, innovative architects of new audiences.

Eastman certainly seems to produce a good product, and composition alumni have gone on to win numerous honors, including: major awards from ASCAP and BMI, fellowships at Tanglewood, the Prix de Rome, the Charles Ives Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and five Pulitzer Prizes. Other alumni that have played a vital role in the creation of new American music include the founders of the New Millennium Ensemble and Cygnus.

From Making Conservatories Less Conservative
by Stefan Weisman
© 1999 NewMusicBox