No Place Like This—The 2013 Mizzou International Composers’ Festival
Like most composers, I’ve done the summer festival dance for a while now. Every music festival is different, but there’s one thing I’ve learned: It’s a bit weird to be a composer at any of them. It’s a brand-new experience to come to a festival where composers are the center of attention.
Last Sunday, I stumbled off a tiny commuter jet and into the airport at Columbia, Missouri, arriving in town to attend the Mizzou International Composers’ Festival. Along with seven other composers from around the world, I had been chosen to write a piece for the festival’s resident ensemble: the incomparable chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound. We gathered in Columbia for a week of making music, talking shop, and what AWS affectionately calls “the hang.” There were concerts by Alarm Will Sound and the University of Missouri New Music Ensemble; lessons with Daniel Kellogg and Augusta Read Thomas; bouts of laughter, tough love, elation, anxiety, terrible food, amazing wine, new friends, old teachers; and, of course, world-class music. The week ended with a concert featuring the premieres of the works we had written for Alarm Will Sound, a truly hair-raising program showcasing a wild array of backgrounds and styles. I’m still processing the whirlwind of emotions I experienced during the festival and the amazing premieres, but I left certain of this: the MICF is a truly special event, an opportunity young composers will be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.
Presented by the University of Missouri and the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation, the festival brings together eight resident composers, two guest composer mentors, and the ridiculously talented members of Alarm Will Sound for a week at the end of July. The ensemble workshops, records, and premieres pieces written specifically for them by the eight residents. The guest composers work with the residents, in individual and small-group sessions; the residents work with Alarm Will Sound, sitting in on rehearsals and lending their ear to the preparations for the premiere performances. Just about everything is open to the public, including rehearsals and lectures by the guest and resident composers.
Like most composers, I’ve done the summer festival dance for a while now. Before coming to the Mizzou International Composers’ Festival, I was lucky enough to spend two summers among the bats at the wonderful Brevard Music Center. Before that I was the worst operations intern in the history of the Aspen Music Festival, and tagged along with their composers for the six-week session. At Mizzou, the eight-resident roster also included alumni of Aspen, Bowdoin, California Summer Music, ACO and EAMA workshops, and more. Every music festival is different, but there’s one thing I’ve learned: It’s a bit weird to be a composer at any of them. While your instrumentalist friends are getting yelled at in rehearsal, you’re taking hikes or having lighthearted talks with knowledgeable mentors and colleagues. You might compose, but not nearly as much as your buddies practice. The performances of your work, if there are any, might be well-attended but will pale in comparison to the crowds at the operas and symphony concerts. The festival is, in most cases, very good to you and your colleagues; but ultimately, you’re on the fringe, a vital part of the mission statement but one that spends precious little time center stage.
It’s a brand-new experience, then, to come to a festival where composers are the main attraction. The eight of us were the focus of the festival’s final night, but the MICF love affair with new music runs much deeper than just the last night’s festivities. The three programs presented during the week featured more than 20 works, just about 100 percent by living composers. No fewer than twelve of us were in the building, introducing our work and talking to our audience before and after the performances. The emphasis of MICF is unequivocally on creating an environment where new music can flourish and grow. As was pointed out to me by Ryan Chase, another 2013 resident composer, MICF makes a statement through its very use of the word “resident”. The eight of us aren’t “student” composers or “young” composers; we’re residents, brought in to be creative partners in the festival and its offerings.
There are many great festivals around the country and the world with similar goals and aims for new music, it’s true. But what makes MICF so special isn’t just its artistic bent, but the community it serves. The eight residents came from all over the world to Columbia, including visitors from New York, California, and the Netherlands. Not a one of us had ever been to Columbia before our arrival here in town, save for local boy David Witter. None of us knew what to expect from the community or its listeners, but I don’t know that we were expecting an appetite for new music on par with New York or L.A. Columbia, after all, is a college town separated from the nearest major city by a two-hour drive. At 100,000 denizens, it’s less than half the size of Buffalo and could fit into Los Angeles 38 times.
But its smaller size makes the presence of community members at rehearsals, talks, and concerts even more inspiring. At most events, the residents sit elbow-to-elbow with members of the Columbia community, who come out in droves for the chance to see this elite group of performers in action. There’s real conversation and familiar faces—it’s not unusual to see attendants to lectures or concerts grabbing their morning coffee the next day. (By the way, be sure to get a chocolate shake at Lakota Coffee. You’ll thank me later.) Most of those who come out aren’t affiliated with Mizzou’s School of Music, although there are plenty of students hanging around, too. Each of the three concerts of the week drew a sizeable crowd, with Columbians from all walks of life.
And of course, no account of MICF would be complete without mentioning the local heroes of the festival, Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield. Financial support of the festival through the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation is just the beginning for Jeanne and Rex. The Sinquefields opened their incredible estate to the MICF performers and composers to start the week with a kickoff banquet. (Side note: Rex drives a golf cart much better than I ever will.) You could find them at just about any of the week’s events. Jeanne has done some incredible work in service of her mission to grow Missouri’s contemporary music offerings, and MICF is a beautiful example of that. By including Mizzou faculty and students at every stage of the festival (Stefan Freund, cellist for AWS, is a faculty member at Mizzou), from composer to performer to administrator, she ensures that it will always be a blend of the best talent in Missouri and musicians from afar.
Alarm Will Sound
Whether they’re working on your piece or someone else’s, it’s a pretty valuable composition lesson just to watch Alarm Will Sound in action. It’s no surprise: the group brings together twenty phenomenal players to form a chamber music superpower. Not only that, but the time and attention they grant every composer’s music is almost unheard of elsewhere in the orchestra world. AWS rehearses repertoire for the festival (including the eight world premieres) six or more hours each day during the week, including performance days. That’s on top of a three-day pre-festival “band camp” at the Sinquefield Reserve for more rehearsal.
The rehearsal schedule is intense and all-consuming; each participating composer gets a generous block of time to try things out, make changes to their pieces, and field questions. After the day’s activities, all is set aside in favor of beer, wine, and really awful music jokes. For the eight residents, the festival is an opportunity to take risks with incredible players and test their limits. It’s also an opportunity to skip most of the growing pains of passing out new music—the fumbled runs, the missed key changes—and skip right to drawing the music out of a brand new piece. And yes, it’s a chance to have a drink or two with some extraordinary musicians.
Most importantly, though, it’s a chance to put music in front of true professionals and get their full, brutal honesty. There were frank discussions about what notation worked or didn’t work, how to craft scores and parts for maximum efficiency, and how extended techniques like multiphonics can be used without being exhausting for the performer. Even in moments of tough love, AWS is kind. Even in the hardest trial-by-fire moments, AWS is adventurous. Regardless of style, writing for them is a pleasure, and having them as a lab to try out compositional ideas is an invaluable learning experience for a composer.
The composers invited to the festival came from all over the world, as far away as the Netherlands and as close by as across town. We were a diverse group with eight totally different stories and styles—from Ryan Chase’s luminous tonality to Wei-Chieh Lin’s intricate, Grisey-influenced sonic landscapes. Andrew Davis, Elizabeth Kelly, and myself all profess to be influenced by jazz and pop, to three radically different ends. Eric Guinivan comes out of his experience as a world-class percussionist, and David Witter writes music that reflects his love of free improvisation. On Saturday night, the concert of eight premieres revealed a radical cross-section of the contemporary music world.
An excerpt from Jason Thorpe Buchanan’s Asymptotic Flux: First Study in Entropy (2012).
Video courtesy of Jason Thorpe Buchanan.
I’ve found this one of the greatest perks of attending music festivals: to encounter the music of other young artists that you might otherwise gloss over for lack of time or chances. Our field is one where the blinders go on all too easily, if only because there’s far too much great music out there to spend much time seeking out the brand new. Composers at music festivals have the opportunity to throw those blinders in the trash, and Mizzou goes the extra mile by surrounding you with nothing but living music.
In fact, Mizzou offers an even steeper inundation into the new music landscape than many. The focus of the eight composers at MICF is on building the premiere of a big new piece. As a resident, not only are you seeing new music from seven other voices in composition, but seeing the growing pains that come along with it. Composers sit in on the others’ rehearsals, following along with the score and observing the agony and ecstasy of the rehearsal process. The strengths and weaknesses of each piece are in the forefront when pieces are raw, and the residents see each other’s. In our off hours, we talked through issues both musical and extramusical. We talked about developing craft, shaping the voice, and silencing the demons. Every aspect of the process was laid bare. The usual festival experience of encountering colleagues’ music is enhanced by watching their process, understanding their anxieties, and—at the premiere performance of their work—sharing their elation.
So here I am, a few days after the incredible last concert at MICF 2013, trying to make sense of the experience. There’s no doubt in my mind: In a country filled with inspiring opportunities for young composers, the Mizzou International Composers’ Festival is unique. The wealth of offerings to the resident composers, the “bring it on” attitude that Alarm Will Sound applies to every new piece, and the emphasis on composers and performers growing together are all remarkable, made doubly so by the (somewhat unlikely) surroundings.
Throw in the emphasis on local participation and talent, and the festival’s aims become clearer: MICF is hoping to create a new kind of space for new music in the community. The festival brings world-class performers and young composers together with an uninitiated audience, inviting them to experience the process of building new music in all its painful, rapturous glory. Audience members can interact with and understand composers and performers in their element, in a way that might only be possible in such a context. Featuring local talent gives Columbia a voice in the festival, and a presence that lingers long after the applause dies down from the premieres concert. MICF is creating a new music festival that its college-town community owns, and is going a long way in building Mizzou and Columbia into major destinations for contemporary music in town and beyond. If it can work in Columbia, maybe one day it could work in Corvallis, Tallahassee, Boseman… who knows? If one thing’s for sure, it’s that this is a festival to watch, in a town to watch. Composers, take note: There’s no place quite like this.
Composer and jazz trumpeter Greg Simon is currently pursuing a doctorate at the University of Michigan and is the young composer-in-residence for the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings. His music has been performed by ensembles and performers around the country, including Alarm Will Sound, the Fifth House Ensemble, the Playground Ensemble of Denver, and the California All-State Symphonic Band, and is featured on recordings by the California State University, Fullerton Wind Ensemble, the Fifth House Ensemble, and violist Karen Bentley Pollick. When he’s not composing, Greg enjoys hockey, microbrews, and short stories.