Tag: festivals

New Horizons, Old Barriers

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American music, as presented by a panel of musicologists at the third annual New Music Gathering this past May. The full series is indexed here.

In 1983, the New York Philharmonic presented two weeks of new music programming focused on a single question: “Since 1968, A New Romanticism?” The first of three major Horizons festivals, “The New Romanticism”—curated by the Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence Jacob Druckman—was a major box office hit, fueled by a wave of publicity, extensive coverage in the press, and performances of new and recent works by Druckman, David Del Tredici, John Adams, and Luciano Berio. But the significance of Horizons was not only in its examination of the emerging aesthetic trend of neo-Romanticism. Funded by the organization Meet The Composer, the festivals represented a major shift in how new music was supported in the 1980s, as composers newly embraced the orchestra, turned away from academia, and entered the classical music marketplace.

The Horizons festivals represented a major shift in how new music was supported in the 1980s, as composers newly embraced the orchestra, turned away from academia, and entered the classical music marketplace.

I’m currently in the midst of researching a book project that situates the Horizons festivals within the larger institutional landscape for American new music in the 1980s and early 1990s. When I presented some of my work in Bowling Green at the 2017 New Music Gathering, it centered on the relationship between Horizons and Bang on a Can, an institution that is central to my book. But for this essay, I’d like to shift focus to talk about what Horizons offered, and did not offer, as support for composers entering a new musical marketplace. My brain is a bit too full of information on this topic right now—I’ve spent most of my summer digging into archival collections related to Horizons and interviewing folks who participated in it—but I will try to make this less of an info dump and more of a critical analysis.


Meet The Composer

The three Horizons festivals—presented by the Philharmonic in 1983, ’84, and ’86—were a key component of one of many orchestral residencies sponsored by Meet The Composer, an advocacy and granting organization established in 1974 by composer John Duffy. Beginning in 1982, MTC established a nationwide composer-in-residence program. Modeled in part after the successful collaboration between the San Francisco Symphony and John Adams, the MTC residencies aimed to, as Duffy told EAR Magazine in 1986, create “visible ways to re-introduce and re-invigorate the whole world of the composer and orchestra.” The organization’s substantial funding was representative of the Reagan-era shifts in support for the arts: it combined public support from the NEA and state councils with foundation money from the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as corporate financing from Exxon. In comparison to the present day, MTC’s imprint was huge; in 1990, The New York Times reported that it gave on average $2.5 million to composers per year; in contemporary buying power, that is more than four times the amount of grant support that New Music USA, MTC’s successor, provides annually today.

The growing presence of MTC significantly shaped the marketplace for new music in the United States and deeply informed the idea of a non-academic “market” to begin with. One of the most startling discoveries in the course of my recent research—and this may not be casual knowledge among younger readers of NewMusicBox—is that, as recently as the 1970s, American composers frequently were not paid at all for commissions. Complaints about writing music “for exposure” were likely as common in the ’70s as they are today; orchestras often got composers to write new works simply by telling them their music would be played, not that they would be financially compensated for their efforts. As an organization, MTC argued vigorously that composers deserved to be paid. The institution’s significant fundraising and financing of the orchestral program—which included a full-time salary for resident composers—provided a more widespread understanding that a commission came with money, not just a guarantee for performance.

Complaints about writing music “for exposure” were likely as common in the ’70s as they are today.

This notion extended into their advocacy work writ large: in 1984, MTC published “Commissioning Music,” a pamphlet for composers and patrons that included guidelines for potential commissioning fees; in 1989, the organization published a handbook titled “Composers in the Marketplace,” with basic information on copyright, performance, publishing, recordings, royalties, and promotion. Soon enough, major funding organizations were taking their cues from MTC; the New York State Council on the Arts’s 1990 program booklet based its commission fee guidelines off of research conducted by the organization. As composers entered the marketplace, MTC helped determine how much they would be paid.

Horizons and the New Romanticism

As part of his MTC residency with the Philharmonic, Jacob Druckman was selected to compose music for the orchestra, advise music director Zubin Mehta on programming, and supervise the large-scale Horizons festivals. For the first festival, he proposed “The New Romanticism,” a curatorial theme steeped in his belief that, since 1968, new music had embraced “sensuality, mystery, nostalgia, ecstasy, and transcendence.” It was a tagline from which the Philharmonic could easily benefit, as subscribers perhaps otherwise fearful of dissonant and disarming contemporary work might relax at the notion that it maintained some continuity with the 19th-century music that typically brought them to the concert hall. Indeed, one Philharmonic advertisement promised “[t]hree weeks that could just change your mind about the meaning of new music.” And a big and provocative theme like “The New Romanticism” was catnip for music critics: dozens of articles were published examining just what this new romanticism might be, and whether it represented a sea change from the academic serialism that was perceived (often stereotypically) as dominant in the world of American composition.

Over two weeks in June 1983, the Horizons festival boldly seized this moment, with six concerts of orchestral music, numerous premieres, several symposia, and a glossy program book. It was a box office phenomenon, with hundreds of people lining up outside Avery Fisher Hall to buy tickets on opening night. An internal memo in the Philharmonic archives noted that the festival “attracted a younger audience—a way of replenishing the audience” and that the success of the festival “OBLITERATES NOTION that no one cares about new music and there is no audience.”

It was a box office phenomenon, with hundreds of people lining up outside Avery Fisher Hall to buy tickets on opening night.

Importantly, Horizons also offered a model for young composers to enter a new orchestral marketplace. The then 23-year-old Aaron Jay Kernis was selected by the Philharmonic to have his work dream of the morning sky read by the orchestra. In front of an audience of hundreds, Mehta took Kernis to task for his tempo markings and scoring. At one point, fed up with the criticism, Kernis apparently replied, “Just read what’s there.” The audience cheered on behalf of the composer; as the tiff was more widely reported in the press, it served as a kind of parable for the newfound power and opportunity that composers might have in the American symphonic world. An internal Philharmonic memo in the wake of the ’83 festival reports that Druckman said in a meeting that “composers now see that they can write for full orchestra and expect to be performed.”

The young composers Scott Lindroth and David Lang were also hired as assistants to Druckman for preparing the ’84 and ’86 Horizons festivals, which shaped their outlooks as recent graduates from the academy. (It is not a coincidence that these composers all attended Yale, and that Druckman taught there; I’ll be addressing this connection in more detail in my book.) In a 2014 interview with me, Lindroth said of the Horizons festivals that “when composers began to realize that this too might be available to them—and that it wasn’t all about the Pierrot ensemble plus percussion—we were all very, very excited about that: there might be another way to move forward as a composer.” Horizons represented the emergence of a new kind of “middle ground”—and audience—for young composers primarily familiar with either an “uptown” world of chamber ensembles and electronic music within academia, or a “downtown” world of improvisation and DIY ensembles within alternative venues.

And although Lang was himself writing orchestral music in the mid-’80s, his takeaway from working with the Philharmonic was that this particular corner of the marketplace was not for him. He saw the orchestral world as insular and claustrophobic; as he said in a 1997 interview with Libby van Cleve as part of Yale University’s Oral History of American Music project:

It also was very demoralizing and a very good indication of how narrow the world was, and how for any composer who was saying to himself or herself, “Oh, the secret of my future will be to write one orchestra piece. Every orchestra will play it. I’ll be world famous,” it just showed how impossible, or how narrow, or how unsatisfying that experience would be.

The first Bang on a Can marathon, in 1987, was brainstormed as a direct response to Lang’s dissatisfaction with Horizons. The composer and his compatriots Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe had spent their days in the mid-’80s hanging out at dairy restaurants on the Lower East Side, drinking coffee and complaining about institutional negligence towards contemporary work, before deciding to do something about it. But even if it seemed to offer a model for everything that the scrappy Bang on a Can would attempt to avoid, Horizons did provide new institutional connections that facilitated the upstart organization’s funding: Lang cultivated a relationship with John Duffy during his work for the Philharmonic, and MTC subsequently became the earliest major financial supporter of Bang on a Can.

Lang & Druckman

The Limits of Horizons

In the 1980s, MTC’s advisory board included a significant number of female and black composers, and more diversity than many institutions today.

From my vantage point today, one of the strengths of MTC under Duffy was its broad purview in terms of who was considered a composer and the resources that they thus commanded. In the 1980s, the organization’s advisory board included a significant number of female and black composers, and more diversity than many institutions today. Duffy’s strong advocacy for underrepresented voices was confirmed in my recent interview with Tania León, who served on the MTC board and worked with the Philharmonic as a new music advisor in the early ‘90s. (I haven’t gotten a chance to transcribe this interview yet, so again, stay tuned for the book.) In a 1993 questionnaire assessing MTC’s jazz commissioning program that I found during recent archival research at New Music USA, the composer and violinist Leroy Jenkins wrote of his MTC grant that “the very audacity of the idea of writing for a classical organization…has given inspiration to me and my contemporaries.” I was also struck, at a memorial service honoring Duffy in 2016 at Roulette, that Muhal Richard Abrams, a co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, performed in his honor.

But because MTC partnered with existing institutions and established composers with their own blind spots, this push for diversity did not extend into the 1983 Horizons festival. I raise this issue because, in a recent blog post about the 2017 New Music Gathering at which I presented on my research on Horizons, the composer Inti Figgis-Vizueta pointed out the absence of diversity among conference attendees and, importantly, that very few panels addressed the systemic biases that plague the world of new music today. They suggested that “there needs to be an overhaul of our ethics to require more diverse voices in new music and that starts with each participant in our gathering truly self-criticizing and understanding their own intersections of privilege and power.” As a musicologist, I believe that such an overhaul can also benefit from telling and retelling historical moments in which underrepresented voices were silenced, and in which powerful institutions were subsequently reprimanded for the same reasons they are critiqued today.

The seven orchestras that participated in the first round of MTC residencies were free to choose their own composers: all of the composers they selected were men except for Libby Larsen, who partnered with Stephen Paulus to work with the Minnesota Orchestra, and all were white except for Robert Xavier Rodriguez, who collaborated with the Dallas Symphony. Druckman was known as a non-doctrinaire figure, and the programming of the ’83 Horizons festival was impressively catholic, bringing together distinct musical styles and a wide array of composers from Del Tredici and Adams to Wuorinen and Schuller. But even as it may have included a praiseworthy “diverse” assembly of musical idioms, diversity in terms of race and gender was almost nonexistent. Only one work by a female composer, Barbara Kolb, was presented in 1983; no works by black composers were performed. This issue was raised by the singer and author Raoul Abdul, who accused the orchestra of discrimination both at the festival and in the press; in a column in the New York Amsterdam News, he wrote that “when I asked the question ‘Where are the Black Composers?’ at the opening symposium at the Library of Performing Arts last Wednesday evening, it was greeted with hisses and boos from some of the 300 people present. Philharmonic Composer-in-Residence Jacob Druckman, who put together the festival, refused to address the question directly by saying he couldn’t include everyone. He lumped Blacks in with women and other minorities.”

Understanding the fact that Horizons did not present any works by black composers in 1983 can help us understand the mechanisms that shape how and why underrepresented voices continue to be excluded in the world of new music in the present. Given the dozens of scores that were mailed to the Philharmonic by hopeful composers—the New York Public Library’s Jacob Druckman papers include many, many letters from composers submitting their work for his examination—the composer-in-residence and the orchestra certainly had access to music by African Americans, but they did not program it. And it was an issue that the organizers were aware of beforehand: when actually planning the ’83 Horizons festival, as a document in the Philharmonic archives reveals, Druckman said in a meeting that “two areas have been of concern to Meet The Composer: getting more high-power soloists; and programming a work by one of the minimalists (Reich or Glass) and by a woman or black composer.” There is much to praise in Druckman’s visionary promise of a new Romanticism and the Philharmonic’s wholehearted embrace of contemporary music with Horizons, one that might even eclipse Alan Gilbert’s worthwhile recent efforts. But declining to properly represent the diversity of the American musical landscape was one of its failures.

press conference for Horizons

León mentioned in her interview with me that in the wake of the Abdul protest, Duffy marched over to the Philharmonic’s offices with a stack of scores by black composers to deliver to the orchestra. The second festival, titled “The New Romanticism—A Broader View,” addressed this injustice by including performances of music by George Lewis, George Walker, and Anthony Davis, as well as Diamanda Galás, Thea Musgrave, Laurie Spiegel, Joan La Barbara, and Betsy Jolas. But observers still pointed out the underrepresentation of women and black composers in the public forums that Horizons mounted. As reported by Johnny Reinhard in EAR Magazine, at an opening symposium for the festival in June 1984, an audience member asked of a panel of composers—which included Hans Werner Henze, Milton Babbitt, Roger Reynolds, Greg Sandow, and Druckman—“Why aren’t there any women represented here?”

“The response was an incredibly pregnant silence,” Reinhard wrote. The discussion continued to unfold awkwardly, as someone else asked, “What about Ornette Coleman?” As Reinhard described:

Mr. Sandow fielded the question by pointing out how interesting it is that Jazz musicians prefer to be kept separate from what was being represented on the Horizons series when New York Times music critic John Rockwell cried out, “That’s not true, Gregory!” It appears that Mr. Coleman had told him otherwise. “Maybe it’s because he’s black,” suggested Brooke Wentz timidly.

In 1983, a festival that embraced a new diversity of compositional idioms under the umbrella “The New Romanticism” neglected to include women and black composers. And in a subsequent festival that attempted to rectify this imbalance, a panel consisting of white male stakeholders could not fully account for the biases that those in the audience easily perceived. Meet The Composer and Horizons helped introduce composers to the marketplace, but this marketplace belonged to the institutional world of classical music, entrenched with long histories of racism and sexism that we must continue to fight against in the present day.

William Robin

William Robin

William Robin (@seatedovation) is an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Maryland. He completed his PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a dissertation focused on indie classical and new music in the twenty-first century United States. His research interests include American new music since the 1980s and early American hymnody. As a public musicologist, Robin contributes to the New York Times and The New Yorker, and received an ASCAP Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award in 2014 for the NewMusicBox article “Shape Notes, Billings, and American Modernisms.”

Cabrillo and the Post-Alsopian Future

Alsop and Fleck 2014

Alsop congratulates Béla Fleck on his Banjo Concerto The Imposter, 2014

Three shows with die-hard fans have lost their mainstays. First Stephen Colbert, then Jon Stewart—and now Marin Alsop announces a leave-taking from her Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. Can California new music lovers survive the deprivation? Stewart and Colbert might seem odd comparisons, but among her many attributes, Alsop’s sense of humor will be missed as much as her musicianship. Who else would end a concert of premieres in 2007 with a fanfare for kazoos and brass specially written for her by John Corigliano? Alsop’s final festival next year will be her 25th, leaving behind a deep legacy.

I’ve attended and written about every festival since Alsop’s arrival in 1992, and this announcement has pulled her signal accomplishments into focus:

  1. With only four or five symphonic concerts per summer, she has exposed concertgoers to hundreds of recent works. Most are less than a decade old. A large percentage are not the ten-minute-or-less soupcons of new music presented every so often at ordinary fall and winter seasons elsewhere, but substantial works.
  2. Like her mentor Leonard Bernstein, Alsop has marshaled impressive communication skills to enhance the audience experience. She often plays snippets of the music in advance to the crowd with explanations of what to listen for. She directs concerts for children, holds separate Q&A sessions for patrons and composers, and commonly has post-concert talkback events. Leavening all of her activities is her unique and spontaneous sense of humor—the reason I link her with Stewart and Colbert.
  3. Slowly but surely, she buffed up the festival orchestra so its members could perform reams of difficult new music at enviable levels of quality. I fervently hope they will be able to stay and do the same for her successor. In a small but important way, she has worked to improve the ability of composers as well, by holding public workshops and read-throughs of works by invited emerging composers.
  4. Rather than explore a vast range of new music, she concentrated on the more audience-friendly styles, such as those with high drama, catchy rhythms, and neoromantic elements. Although a myriad of conceivable experimental paths were not explored, what Alsop chose was presented in great detail, with plenty of internal variety. Furthermore, through the championship of a dozen or so composers, patrons could experience multiple examples from a single musical personality. The most prominent beneficiaries of Alsop’s advocacy, and the number of works performed, were Lou Harrison (24), Christopher Rouse (21), John Adams (18), Michael Daugherty (15), John Corigliano (13), James MacMillan (12), and Philip Glass (11).
Daugherty/Rouse, 2011

Michael Daugherty (right) absorbs something profound from Christopher Rouse (2011 festival)

Let me continue with listening highlights per decade:

The 1990s. If any one piece stands out in the entire history of Alsop at the helm of the festival, it’s Rouse’s Gorgon from 1995. This monstrosity is so loud that at least one orchestra rebelled rather than play it. As far as I know, this work—one of the most viscerally driven in the entire repertoire—has been played only three times since its Cabrillo appearance. (It premiered in Rochester in 1984.) Yet it is to his oeuvre as The Rite of Spring is to Stravinsky’s, and should be heard far more frequently. Although it’s available in recording, nothing compares to experiencing this incredible music live.

The 2000s. Three works are most prominent in memory. The first was Daugherty’s first violin concerto, Fire and Blood, in 2003. I had begun to categorize him as a glib, cheeky, pop satirist with so many pieces like Elvis Everywhere and Le Tombeau de Liberace. But the concerto was something of substance and rare melodic content. The event proved Alsop’s investment in him was worth the wait. Another impressive 2006 work was Michael Gatonska’s The Whispering Wind. In contrast to the Daugherty story, I’ve heard nothing from the man since on this side of the continent. Finally there was Thomas Adès’s concerto for violin Concentric Paths in 2007. I had not been much enamored of Powder Her Face earlier, but the Cabrillo performance of America, A Prophecy the year before had convinced me that Adès was a composer of the highest rank. The concerto may prove to be a long-legged masterpiece as the new century progresses.

The 2010s have one more year to play out in Alsop’s tenure, but two amazing pieces deserve mention. The first is Thomas Newman’s It Got Dark. Written for the Kronos Quartet and orchestra and performed at the 2013 festival, it has been perfectly described by the quartet’s founder David Harrington as “… beautifully and subtly overwhelming,” with “melodies that you can’t get out of your mind for weeks.” If there is anything I lament about the present state of contemporary music, it’s its neglect of memorable melody—one of the cornerstones of classical structure. Newman was so striving about the need to communicate with his audience that he handed out four-page colored programs printed at his own expense about the music. I wish more composers would follow his example. The second highlight of the 2010s was this season’s The Color Yellow by Huang Ruo, an amazing concerto for sheng. Wu Wei was such a master of this unusual (to Western ears) instrument, that the audience went into a frenzy that nearly matched its reaction to Gorgon 20 years before. But it was not just the player; it was the composition’s arc, a gradual transition from agony to ethereal beauty, that made the evening so unforgettable.


Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium

Informal talks outside the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, where most of Cabrillo’s concerts are held, also typically attract a large audience.

Finally, some observations about the state of mainstream music today, as demonstrated by the Cabrillo programs, and speculations about the post-Alsopian future.

Almost invariably, Alsop has chosen music that would appeal to audiences rather than greatly challenge them. Over the period of her tenure, postmodernism has given way to the new eclecticism. Rock, world music, and electronica have infused the mainstream, as demonstrated by Alsop. European byways such as spectralism and residual modernism have made few appearances at Cabrillo. The only “ism” other than eclecticism that deserves a prominent place in this review is the one that to this day—when it occasionally shows up—is the most predictable way to elicit enthusiastic audience response in Santa Cruz: minimalism. I had thought this style had moved along with Adams into postminimal eclecticism, but I have found it to have staying power, more than any other style, in the hearts of the Cabrillo audience here.

I expect as time goes on, the joys of purely acoustic music will be known to a smaller and smaller coterie of concertgoers. Just as few today seem to remember the high quality of landline transmissions vs. cell phones, I expect loudspeakers and electronic manipulations will become the new mainstream, particularly as younger audiences, with increasing percentages of hearing loss, will demand their music to be juiced. Synthesizations and sampling will become a larger and larger portion of composers’ toolboxes, perhaps with some amazing results.

Alsop’s successor will have giant shoes to fill, and multiple challenges. Alsop has a strong personality; no one can hope to duplicate it. If someone tries to do so, it may ease the transition, but will probably result in a shorter tenure. The next director should bring her or his own contrasting personality to the job. The director should be different, a new shot in the arm, but committed to the signature aspects of the festival:

  1. Audience focus. No audience for new music—or old, for that matter—is more enthusiastic than the folks at Cabrillo. They should be kept that way.
  2. Wide-ranging and systematic review of new works of established and up-and-coming composers—and only these works, works no older than a decade or two at most.
  3. Quality performance.

If the festival backers need to do anything in concert with the next music director, it is to consider expanding the geographic scope of its operations. I’m amazed that locals I speak with who work only a block away from the festival don’t even know it exists. Few of my music associates in the San Francisco Bay Area, where there is a huge potential audience, are aware of what Alsop has accomplished down in the small seaside city too far for a comfortable drive from metropolitan artistic centers. The festival should consider, like the Ojai Festival has done, holding some of the performances in venues farther north—say, the Bing Concert Hall on the Stanford University Campus. There is nothing special about being half a mile from the water in Santa Cruz once you are in the festival auditorium. The music, and Alsop’s legacy, are so special in their own right that the beach-city ambiance—attractive as it may be—fades into insignificance.

Festival Street Fair

Street Fair at the festival every year

Pavillons en l’air—Bell’s Up on the NYPhil Biennial

For the inaugural NY Phil Biennial, a large initiative devoted to the newest of the new, the Philharmonic borrowed a concept that is generally associated with the visual arts: the exhibition.  When I first learned of it, at last year’s season announcement press conference along with everyone else, what resonated was the idea of the biennial, the every-two-years event that could efficiently attract a specific gravity of attention to itself and the work presented.  But as I’ve seen and heard since Thursday evening, the curators of the NY Phil Biennial have taken the concept of the exhibition into the concert hall on a more structural level.  Taking from Venice (the original contemporary art exhibition as we know it, which goes back to 1895) the organizing principal of the pavilion—a separate space with its own curator, purpose, and point of view—and applying that to this collection of events, the Philharmonic seems to have made something both looser and freer than I was probably expecting.  I tend to think of a festival as being an opportunity to focus on one or two things in particular (the 2008 Tanglewood Contemporary Music Festival, devoted entirely to Carter at 100, comes quickly to mind), but in practice, and in New York City on a spring weekend, who’s to say that variety isn’t the spice of life?  The pavilions were helpful to keep in mind as I dashed across town over the last several days; from Pig Tales to Ravens to Pennsylvania miners, and from central Europe, France, the UK, and Japan, to America and back again.

Pablo Heras Casado conducts the Orchestra of St. Luke's in Circle of Influence: Pierre Boulez at Rose Theater. Photo by Chris Lee

Pablo Heras Casado conducts the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in “Circle of Influence: Pierre Boulez” at Rose Theater. Photo by Chris Lee

The pavilions concept can be terribly convincing when each curator and each artist is working within their wheelhouse.  Whether or not the chicken-and-egg question of “which came first: the repertoire or the artist?” is interesting, the result looks deliberate: New Yorkers doing what they do best.  Who better than Doug Fitch and Edouard Getaz to stage HK Gruber’s joyful, zany, and satiric cabaret opera Gloria – A Pig Tale?  (with nods to Animal Farm, Kurt Weill, and others who mastered the fine art of allegory). Who better than Pablo Heras-Casado, the music director of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and perhaps the world’s most charismatic young disciple of Pierre Boulez, to perform the music of the elder’s close circle with the former’s local band?  Bang on a Can performing Julia Wolfe; Matthias Pintscher (now living in NYC for years) conducting very recent works from Europe’s master set: these feel like obvious choices.  To me, for good reason: if this is an exhibition, why not give every piece and every note the golden, experienced care and treatment they each deserve?  Performances have been truly stellar and, in some cases, illuminating and transcendent.  This is proving to be no marathon, where participants and spectators alike must drag themselves across a finish line to the earthly comforts of burgers and booze, only to say, “I was there for it all.”  Each pavilion is an event worth seeing, and after seeing seven in the last four days, I still would recommend each one (with more detail in my next posts).

Gotham Chamber Opera in collaboration with the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College presented The Raven as part of the NY Phil Biennial. Directed by Luca Veggetti. Conducted by Neal Goren. Featuring Fredrika Brillembourg and Alessandra Ferri. Photo by Richard Termine

Gotham Chamber Opera in collaboration with the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College presented The Raven as part of the NY Phil Biennial. Directed by Luca Veggetti.
Conducted by Neal Goren. Featuring Fredrika Brillembourg and Alessandra Ferri.
Photo by Richard Termine

My friends know me as being a pretty ambivalent New Yorker (I long for the mountains and sun and the possibility of running with a dog off-leash), but a real surprise of the biennial so far was to be reminded of the cultural capital and the sheer vastness of musical resource in this city.  What a clichéd revelation to arrive at!  But concertgoers come to start asking ourselves, especially in busy months: “Am I going to this or that performance tonight?”  A designed festival schedule that allows for the possibility of going to see this and then that performance has a way of putting the variety within reach.  Saturday was my first trip to the Gerald W. Lynch Theater (all of a ten-minute walk from Avery Fisher Hall) and my first time attending the Gotham Chamber Opera, to see Toshio Hosokawa’s dreamy static/dynamic vision of Poe’s The Raven.  The intimate staging for a cast of two (one singer, one dancer) was far removed from a night at the Phil, but fit very sharply into the biennial.  It seems the trust the Philharmonic extended to its artistic partners could have reciprocal benefits: perhaps future biennial festivals will have wider cooperation, and perhaps audiences (myself included, with Gotham Chamber Opera) will find their way back across the new bridges that are built this week.

The idea of taking a dip in what goes on all over the city of New York is hugely audacious for any one organization.  Even the Met’s objective—one opera a night for most nights of the year—seems to pale in light of such a challenge.  But perhaps that will be the future of this biennial: the loose netting of an exhibition as the guiding factor in a collection of new music from groups, artists, thinkers and fans from all over the city.  Tonight, I will hear Alan Gilbert speak about his ideas with leaders from Venice, the Whitney, and the Public Theater.  For today and this year, the question remains:  “What’s the NY Phil Biennial?”  It may be premature, but perhaps we can predict its future cousin: “What’s on the NY Phil Biennial?”

Performing Quality

String quartet
Last week, I talked about how new music shares its business structure with the academy. This economy runs by accumulating social capital; it builds complicated networks of people and distributes privileges among them. To keep growing, its economic body must churn out unsustainable heaps of new works and performances. This system compels constant productivity; its rhythm of overproduction overpowers any expression of quality. These overproduced goods, though, don’t arrive at concerts for sale – instead, they filter through concerts and emerge as recordings. In this form, musical products re-enter new music’s stock exchange of grants, residencies and other academic resources. Instead of an artistic end in themselves, concerts represent just one stage of a complicated, circular production line. Unlike in popular music, for example, new music sets aside an entire class of artists for the exclusive task of public presentation. Since concerts cost listeners time, money, and space, performing musicians alone are left to account for an audience’s investment. To me, the weird division of labor between composing works and playing concerts puts musicians in a difficult position. Performers have become new music’s coerced mouthpiece of accountability.
The student summer festival provides the clearest case study for this skewed power dynamic. I admit to gratefully experiencing many of the most profound musical moments of my life at such events. However, broadly speaking, student festivals exist to mill social capital. Applying and attending costs a significant sum, matching or exceeding what most undergraduate and graduate students might earn in a month. Students such as myself exchange money for futures – once I accumulate enough social capital, I have the opportunity to invest in better and better festivals.

Emerging composers buy into their own exploitation. Most festivals involve an anti-commission: composers pay to write a piece. From my experience, I’ve been assigned an average of two to three months between acceptance and arrival to write a work that I myself have financed. At the festival, these pieces receive their premieres under stressed and compressed conditions. One works with little rehearsal time and overtaxed performers to populate sprawling end-of-the-week concerts. Composers don’t care too much about these concerts, though. Instead, they invest their money and labor for something more economically substantial.
The student summer festival produces recordings, the commodities exchanged between festival trading posts. The live-ness of performance may wink out as soon as a concert ends, but its recorded objectification is hard and exchangeable. Student composers distribute these recordings with the hope of ensuring further performances, which get recorded and recirculate. Musicians traffic in recordings too, but because players themselves are the makers of sounds, they assemble recordings with greater autonomy. These commodities form the basis for public conversations with older, established faculty members. A masterclass is a formalized introduction, a site of exchange. Here, and at many other places within this system (with other students, with administrators, and with the name of the festival itself), participants trade in their recordings for social capital.
Festivals differentiate modes of labor: performers labor to play, composers have already labored to write. Both schedules are separated. This division of labor alienates performers from their work. Performers suffer through unsatisfying concerts, knowing that composers only appreciate their effort inasmuch as it can circulate as a standalone, exchangeable entity. Further, musicians undertake such staggering workloads, performing new and unfamiliar works, that they cannot possibly find the time or energy to express themselves as artists. The crammed rehearsal schedules designed by festival administrators prevent real composer-performer interactions. I think of this as an artifact of classical museum culture, treating living composers like long-dead historical figures. In exactly that way, composer and performer workdays tend to only overlap at such a late stage that a composer can’t possibly make any edits. Now, this pattern of behavior doesn’t only apply to the festival scene. The social gulf between composers and performers pervades the entire new music superstructure, from three-day university residencies to the highest order of orchestra commissions. The composer-performer discursive divide is perpetuated, if not caused, by the distributions of labor incurred by compulsory overproduction.

The student festival format affects young creative lives. It inures composers and performers to the rhythm of overproduction; it prepares them for the academic economics I discussed in last week’s article. It trains young composers to build commodities – to create works of similar length and duplicability, written during crammed timelines and with minimal conceptual and notational risk. It teaches young performers that music pre-exists performance and has nothing to do with concerts. One cannot separate festivals from the economy of new music, and I find myself in a similar position to last week, asking – “would new music, as I know it, exist at all without this infrastructure; is it desirable or possible to abandon it?”
If new music stays in the student festival, it ought to rethink its programming. These summer weeks should focus on composer-performer time – for example, they could consist only of lessons and discussions, with no compulsory concerts apart from whatever one might feel moved to do. Perhaps concerts might not be recorded, so that recording might not be performance’s end objective.  Recordings can happen elsewhere, in spaces designed for recording, such that the process doesn’t alienate performers from their labor. The idea of the recording-focused, lengthy, and premiere-oriented festival concert needs to change.


The overproduction of pieces and concerts injures performance practice. Because composers need more and more commodities to enter circulation, performers encounter an excess of new music. Many musicians have the discipline and training to keep their heads above water, but how can one think about artistry when performing piles of premieres? Quoting a young new music pianist friend of mine, “If I want to play new music for a living, I have to play all new music, including the music I don’t believe in.” He describes this process as one of desensitization, a feeling echoed by many young performers I interviewed. Performance quality suffers.  Last week, I described quality as the immanent necessity of a thing, its ability to supply its own reasons for coming into being. Overproduction hurts quality—it makes one act because one must, not because one needs to.  Overproduction makes one ignore quality—another young pianist described her festival experience as one of “train[ing] myself not to think about quality anymore.” I also know many performers who don’t think like this, who don’t have to, or who think around it, but the problem my friends pose is hard to ignore.

Of course, fatigue and desensitization don’t just result from a surplus of new pieces. Contemporary performance has to enter into real markets in ways that composition just can’t. Though it often seems like new music events consist exclusively of one’s peers, concerts provide the few and far between openings of the new music world to the outside. Performers speak to publics much more diverse and often much harder to convince than those found in academia. The performance infrastructure suffers from a more normative type of neoliberal behavior than the academic modality. One must advertise, sometimes with the music itself, in order to survive. Advertising is legitimation, it makes something appear necessary whether or not it is. Performance has the difficult task of dressing commodities made for private markets in the guise of public goods. New music happily accepts – its internal tautology persists.


I’ve outlined a social system as bleak and deterministic as it is ripe with exceptions and faultlines. I do sense that my dystopia of new music is neither exclusively mine nor completely inconceivable, particularly within the United States. However, no such system is absolute or objectively the case. Likewise, no musical score is essentially an instrument of capital, nor is any performance essentially a hopeless act of advocacy for a cold, dead thing. The absoluteness of this disciplinary divide is every bit as abstract and ideal as it is an institutional reality.

Glimmers of necessity inhabit even the most compulsory scores. Some composers exercise their agency in the margins. Many performers tell me that just knowing “where the piece came from” (why it was—not why it had to be—written) helps them sensitize themselves to it, helps them make their performance feel itself necessary. From, during, or after such conversations, a composer’s internal insistences might exceed their subconscious and enter the material of the work itself. Performers, too, should involve themselves – performers are artists! If a musician feels empowered, they should ask composers about quality, “What about this piece is important to you?” Most of all, players should exercise curatorial agency, they should look for and through composers for the reasons one performs. Concerts can be spaces for performers to truly make things of necessity. Concerts can be well-curated and intentional sites for public discussion. Concerts can be compositional ends in themselves. Through a stream of interleaved activity, necessity communicates itself forward, inward, and outward.

Next week I will finally devote an entire article to quality itself. As I write, this concept grows clearer and clearer in my mind. In the past few weeks, I’ve heard hundreds of conversations about musical quality, and I look forward to reporting the plurality of my findings.

Wellesley Composers Conference and Chamber Music Center

Nestled in the picturesque Wellesley College campus each summer is the Wellesley Composers Conference and Chamber Music Center, a two-week meeting of composers, professional performers, and dedicated amateur players who come together to live and breathe chamber music old and new. I was fortunate to have been invited to be a fellow at Wellesley in the summer of 2012 and to have been asked to return as a commissioned composer this summer, so let’s start with that full disclosure. The conference is among the old guard of summer composer institutes and will celebrate its 70th anniversary next summer. Headed by Mario Davidovsky for nearly 40 years, the primary goal of the conference is to provide emerging composers with an opportunity to work with some of the best players from New York and Boston and to have their works performed and professionally recorded.
To say that my time at the conference was positive is an understatement, but let’s talk for a moment about what goes on there. During the program, the fellows participate in daily forums in which they present and discuss their music with each other and the guest composers. Formal presentations concerning technique, performance practice, pet peeves, etc. are made by the staff instrumentalists, but the atmosphere is such that informal conversations during meals are common as well. Afternoons are populated with rehearsals for the various concerts that are held over the two-week period. The Wednesday and Saturday night concerts are the main shows and feature two or three works by the fellows, as well as a variety of works from the canon.

Fellows check out a few scores

Fellows check out a few scores.
Photos by Andrew Sigler, except as noted.

Composers may write for any combination of the available instrumentation. This varies slightly from year to year but includes virtually all traditional instruments (though no harp presently, for instance) and tops out at chamber orchestra. The players are extraordinary and approach each piece with enthusiasm. Though the conference is all about new music, the concerts feature new works alongside well-known (and occasionally obscure) pieces from a variety of periods. When I attended the first Wednesday concert last summer I was preoccupied with the fact that my piece was going to be played that evening; I was sweating bullets, no doubt. When I sat down and looked at the program, I saw the other works to be played and initially thought, “Okay, a little Schumann, some Bach, some guy I’ve never heard of from the early 18th century. I’m sure it will be lovely, but aren’t we all here for the new stuff?” Then it occurred to me that I wasn’t going to hear just another run-through of one of the Brandenburg’s; I was going to hear a really good version of it. It added a whole new element of excitement and anticipation to the proceedings, and the players (while certainly top-notch new music performers) were also impeccable interpreters of the canon.

Rehearsal for Dan VanHassel's work Even Exchange

Rehearsal for Dan VanHassel’s work Even Exchange

Thursday nights are reserved for presentations by the guest composers. Though these composers typically change from year to year, it just so happened that both years I’ve attended the guest composers have been Melinda Wagner and Eric Chasalow. The presentations typically involve a discussion of the composer’s life and work as well as a live performance of at least one work, as well as recordings of previous works. They are, like all of the concerts, free and open to the public. Wagner’s live piece, Wick for Pierrot plus percussion, was fast and furious with only a brief respite while Miranda Cuckson’s performance of Chasalow’s Scuffle and Snap exhibited her deft technique alongside his rhythmically complex fixed media. Past guest composers at the conference have included Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, George Crumb, Jacob Druckman, John Harbison, Lee Hyla, Earl Kim, Donald Martino, David Rakowski, Shulamit Ran, Gunther Schuller, Joan Tower, George Walker, Ollie Wilson, Charles Wuorinen, and Chen Yi.

Mario Davidovsky, Emily Cooley, and Jenny Beck chat after the Meet The Composer evening

Mario Davidovsky, Emily Cooley, and Jenny Beck chat after the “Meet the Composer” evening

One of the particularly fun moments early on in the conference was when the group of fellows learned that public speaking was part of the fellowship. Tuesday nights are the “Meet the Composer” nights, and there’s nothing like a putting the spotlight on a bunch of nervous composers who spend much of their time working alone. Though the law of averages would seem to dictate a few awkward moments, all of the composers gave compelling snapshots of their backgrounds, the pieces to be performed at the conference, and their plans for the future. It’s good that these presentations happen relatively early in the conference as it presents an opportunity for the amateur players (“ammys” as they’re affectionately known around the campus) to get to know the composers and perhaps get a snippet of information that might spark a conversation at lunch. It’s been a long-standing goal to introduce the ammys to new music, since very few of them perform it with any regularity. The Chamber Music Center portion of the Wellesley experience is largely a separate entity in which these talented amateurs typically spend one of the two weeks (they rarely attend for both weeks) being coached by the professional players in several ensembles.

Chris Gross leads an "ammy" rehearsal

Chris Gross leads an “ammy” rehearsal
Photo by by Kathryn Welter

In 1987, the Chamber Music Center instituted a commission to be fulfilled by one of the ten fellows from the previous year. A panel of the ammys selects the composer to be commissioned. The first winner was Lee Hyla, and though his piece Anhinga was written for amateur players, it was well-received by the professional players as well and picked for performance more than once! Among the players I worked with on the commissioned piece this summer was violinist Joseph Singer. Joe has participated in the Chamber Music Center for 26 years and provided me with the following anecdote concerning his and other ammys growth as a result of the conference:

About fifteen years ago, one of the coaches was tired of hearing the amateurs complain about the new music and how dissonant it was. We came to the coaching session (the Scherzo of a Beethoven string quartet) and the coach gave us a line of music he asked us to play. We played it and were perplexed. It sounded familiar; it was the last line of the Scherzo but different; it was the same piece but it wasn’t the same piece. It was awful; it was sickly sweet and boring. “What did you do?” we asked. “You murdered Beethoven!” He smiled. “I changed eight notes,” he said. One by one he changed them back and we played the line each time, and each time it got better and better.
He was trying to make a point. Some of us thought we did not like dissonance, but he was showing us that what made the music beautiful, poignant, moving, what made it move forward and made us want to hear what was next, was—dissonance. It was the notes that did not “belong” that impelled the music forward and created tension that could then be resolved. So it was the structure that created expectations mixed with the dissonance that disrupted them, and all of this shaping moments in time.


Composer Jenny Beck, a 2013 Wellesley fellow, said of the experience, “The best part…for me was the emphasis placed on getting a good performance and a stellar recording of the pieces we had written. I think I can comfortably say that this was the best experience I’ve had working with an ensemble. Not only were they remarkably capable, but to have them display such commitment to the success of each piece was inspiring. James Baker’s rehearsal process is brilliant, and he seemed to know exactly what I wanted and what I was trying to do in the music without my having to say much. Finally, the recording engineer [Anthony Di Bartolo] handed my recording to me immediately after the concert: a flash drive containing the dress rehearsal and concert, broken down for mixing and also mixed together for immediate listening. You know how frustrating it can be to wait for a recording; it was really nice to skip that part.”

The flash drive was a new addition this year, but I can attest to the high quality of the performance and recording, as well to having been amazed that I got my recording (a fully printed disc with numbered tracks and the Composers Conference logo to boot) during intermission! The methodology of running and recording the dress rehearsal is the result of years of experience on the part of both Baker and Di Bartolo. Baker doesn’t simply run the works once or twice, he makes sure that each section is recorded such that alternative takes are available (and more easily spliceable) in the event that there are any issues with the live performance.

Eric Chasalow, Mario Davidovsky, and the Fellows discuss Aaron Brooks's music

Eric Chasalow, Mario Davidovsky, and the Fellows discuss Aaron Brooks’s music

Again, the stated purpose of the conference is to provide the fellows with quality performances and recordings of their works, and if that was the extent of the offerings it would be time well spent. But the connections and friendships that are made are a large part of what I took from my time at Wellesley. I truly anticipated a more adversarial environment in which various camps and dogmas played a larger role, and while all the composers had distinctive sounds and strong personal opinions, the overall tone was supportive and genuinely inquisitive. Most people seemed as interested in hearing and learning about other people’s work as they were in discussing their own. The daily schedule was also thoughtfully constructed. A three-hour morning seminar (with coffee break!) followed by lunch, three hours of rehearsals for the fellows’ works (attendance encouraged but not required), dinner, then a concert or presentation provided just enough structure to keep us focused. But it was flexible enough that we could take care of upcoming projects, get in some practice, or just take in the picture postcard that is the Wellesley campus.

To cap it all off, there are the infamous nightly parties which are held in one of the larger rooms in the same dormitory where fellows, players, and amiss alike retire in the evening. Like any conference, having a few hours to unwind with your colleagues after a long day provides the perfect opportunity to really let one’s hair down. Discussions veer away from music in particular to life in general and back again. It was particularly nice to have frank, workaday conversations about gardening, exercise, and cooking with people who had negotiated one gnarly nested tuplet after another just an hour before.  War stories from the road gave way to the challenges of raising a family while maintaining a career. I heard more than one story about the role that Skype played in traveling musicians’ lives; about the quick and often harried trip to or from a concert to make sure that time with a partner or child would not be missed. These shifts from the sublime to the daily grind are not part of every career, and in the world of art the focus is typically on the former and rarely on the latter.  The Wellesley Composers Conference puts a frame around all aspects of this path, providing perspective on our present condition and giving insight into our future.

Austin Summer Festivals: Business as Unusual

The allure of Austin (like many places I suppose) is partly genuine and partly manufactured. Though known for the slogans “Keep Austin Weird” and “Live Music Capital of the World,” (the former coined in 2000 by an Austinite during a radio pledge drive—then in a sad, ironic twist co-opted, trademarked, monetized, and plastered on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and other paraphernalia—and the latter created by the city council over 20 years ago), it’s harder and harder to find the weirdness that used to be on every street corner and, while much of the music is still live, the ratio of one-off cover bands playing for tips to original groups creating new music is not encouraging. However, on occasion the city can still live up to both titles. Spending a few days at the New Media Art and Sound Summit and the REVEL Summer Solstice Festival might be all it takes to renew one’s faith in this live, weird town.

Pianist Carla McElhaney joins the Bel Coure Sax Quartet to form the Zenith Quintet.

Pianist Carla McElhaney joins the Bel Coure Sax Quartet to form the Zenith Quintet.

New Media Art and Sound Summit

Lisa Cameron’s Canopy of Sound opened the New Media Art and Sound Summit with about a dozen performers playing cymbals in three spots along the running trails around Lady Bird Lake. Cesar Chavez Street runs between the lake and downtown, and the installation started at a tunnel just below, moved along to Opossum Voodoo Pew, up the trail to the Lamar Pedestrian Bridge, and wrapped up at the Liz Carpenter Fountain. Reading sort of like a high Hz drum circle, the work drew the audience in and invited them to actively participate by picking up sticks and joining the fray. With a specialized boutique festival such as NMASS, which is self-described as “a positive alternative to predictable music festival ‘business as usual,’” events such as these serve to announce the presence of the festival to those who otherwise might not have it on their radar.

Non-profit arts organization Church of the Friendly Ghost has taken up the left-of-center curatorial torch and is lighting the way for interesting art, music, and dance presentations. Celebrating its 10th year, CotFG served as the hub for the rest of the festival by partnering with Experimental Response Cinema to present an evening of short films. Highlights included Speechless by founding ERC member Scott Stark, which used images from a mid-20th-century medical textbook superimposed on various textures and backgrounds. Michael Alexander Morris presented a number of works including his most recent, Fires. His work focuses on the technology we use to record our lives and art and the degree to which that technology impacts our experiences. In particular, Fires spoke to declining technologies in a direct manner in that the film stock the artist used was discontinued as the film was being made.

Friday night was a modular synth feast. Thomas Fang led a workshop on modular synth construction and was later joined for a performance by Rick Reed on a variety of vintage instruments and Frankenstein creations. Mickey Delp of Delptronics, Chris and Ian McDowell of Super Synthesis, and Richard Devine (Warp/Schematic) talked shop with participants for around three hours before the night’s performances kicked off. Though the evening’s sets ranged widely—from the mesmerizing drones emanating from Reed’s setup to the looped constructions of Nicolas Melmann to the patching madness of Doug Ferguson—the common thread was developed directly from (often in real time) the instruments that were created by the players.

Sadly, Saturday was the all-day blowout that I couldn’t attend, but such is the nature of festivals. Among the acts were local improvisers Red Ox vs. Cinders and Symphonic Taint, as well as the Chicago-based group Coppice which combined bellows (accordion, pump organ, shruti box) and electronics. A number of Austin heavies including Karla Manzur and Michael St. Clair joined Lauren Gurgiolo to form The Dialtones and performed songs from their latest EP, Calculated Carelessness, against a backdrop of video designed specifically for the music by Angela Chen. Clay Odom, Sean ONeill, and Adam Owens presented TESSERACT  3.0, the third installment of a series for NMASS. Recalling elements of CLOTS, “the Tesseract series are sound and space installations designed to create a heightened sense of the mutability [of] place and time by creating interactive, variable, overlapping fields of sound, space, and reflection.” Next year I’m putting TESSERACT 4.0 on my list.


REVEL Classical Band: Summer Solstice Festival

REVEL came on the scene in Austin a few years back and in that time has produced dozens of concerts in Texas as well as in New Mexico where member violinist Cármelo de los Santos and cellist Joel Becktell are based. Austin-based pianist Carla McElhaney co-founded the group with Becktell in 2008 in hopes of providing an alternative to traditional concert presentation by purposefully relaxing concert protocols and presenting shows in unconventional venues.

Their Summer Solstice Festival was held over three nights (I saw the second evening which occurred on the solstice) in the industrially inspired, improbably named mini artist colony Cobra Studios a few miles from downtown. Newly built a few years back, the colony features spartan live-work spaces for artists of all stripes. So hey, it’s actually chamber music, in a chamber, in somebody’s house. Certainly not unprecedented but not all that common either, and worth noting for the impact it has on the listener. Though I spend a fair amount of time turning over rocks to find new and different music and venues, the vast majority of chamber music that I’ve heard has been presented in concert halls, and the difference at this show was both striking and welcome. This was most pronounced for me with the opening piece, Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, performed by Becktell and McElhaney. This is a work I’ve heard dozens of times and though only a few of those performances were live, none of them were really at all like this one. There was an immediacy that is lacking when the audience is drastically separated physically from the players and placed in an acoustic environment designed to take off any hard edges. The performance was thrilling, not only because of the virtuosity of the players but also because you could hear every bow scrape, chair creak, and breath taken. This immediacy carried over into a wonderful performance of the Arensky Trio in D minor with de los Santos, followed by another personnel change. McElhaney moved to an electric piano as she was joined by the Bel Coure Sax Quartet to form the Zenith Quintet. This new ensemble gave a short but sweet rendition of Piazzolla’s Fugata, which was a perfect example of “leave them wanting more.” This new version of the piano quintet makes for a very attractive ensemble, one I’ve not seen before though I can’t imagine why. Ensemble member Sunil Gadgil indicated that commissions and transcriptions for the group are forthcoming, so hopefully I’ll have more about this group in particular and the configuration in general in the future.

Steve Snowden and Sunil Gadgil install drivers

Steve Snowden and Sunil Gadgil install drivers.

The centerpiece of the evening was Steve Snowden’s Steam Man of the Prairies, a new work for piano, saxophone, and electronics performed by McElhaney and Gadgil. Recently premiered in Portugal, the piece incorporated speaker drivers placed inside the piano which turned the instrument into a giant speaker. Snowden indicated that the fixed media electronics were conceived such that the work could be played through a conventional speaker system, but the sympathetic resonance created when using the internal speaker drivers makes for a richer, more complex sound. Starting with a huge “welcome to my sound-world” strum inside the piano, the piece blossomed as pre-recorded piano samples resonated along with McElhaney’s real-time playing. Breathy, wandering, gossamer lines from Gadgil hinted at an open, somewhat jazzy harmonic sensibility, coalescing into a section of rising and falling echoes with McElhaney vamping underneath a duet between Gadgil and the electronics. An additive section constructed from simple, growing riffs built towards a series of declamatory downbeats, each diminishing in power as the texture broke down leaving the piano skittering across a drone as the sax keened, howled, and ultimately rose into the ether. The final presentation of the evening was a clever remix of Bolero with all hands on deck, the missing snare replaced by key clicks, finger drums on sound boards, and knocking on piano frames.

The two festivals were quite different, but both embodied Austin sensibilities in their own ways. NMASS was “Keep Austin Weird” writ large, a bold presentation of particular viewpoints that, while certainly open to all comers, speaks more clearly to a specific audience. The REVEL Summer Solstice Festival spoke truth to the “Live Music Capital of the World” moniker by presenting three nights of live chamber music in a truly intimate setting. Concert music has always taken a back seat to rock, blues, and jazz in Austin, but when the summer festivals start to out-Austin the spring and fall behemoths, it’s time for the city to take stock and figure out what it means to hear music in this town.

Composing in the Wilderness

Composers in the wild
Ah, summer; the time when composers emerge from studios around the country—pasty and back-bent, one hand up to block the sun—and get their annual vitamin D supplement at a variety of summer festivals, conferences, residencies, and retreats. Intensive discussions of the nature of their art are followed by the occasional Frisbee toss or trail stroll, but beyond the potential for a thrown-out back while spreading a sheet out on the ground pre-concert, the potential for physical exertion is modest at best. And frankly, donning a T-shirt, sandals, and a fanny pack does not an outdoorsman make. Just ask Stephen Lias.

Lias has a touch of wanderlust. A professor of composition and director of graduate studies at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, he spends the bulk of his year shepherding students through the wilds of academia. But when summer rolls around, he makes his way out of the halls and into the world. Over the last few years, he’s spent his summers in residence at a number of national parks—including Rocky Mountain, Denali, Glacier Bay, and Gates of the Arctic—composing works that have been premiered at major international conferences and festivals in Colorado, Texas, Sydney, and Taiwan. He was featured in National Parks magazine in the fall of 2011 for his efforts and is presently working with the East Texas Symphony and the Boulder Symphony to premiere upcoming pieces about national parks. Taking a page from the “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” book, Lias has figured out a way to combine his love of composition and pedagogy with his love of trail-blazing and bear-dodging with his Composing in the Wilderness project.

Davyd Betchkal talks about sound with the composers

Davyd Betchkal talks about sound with the composers

In the summer of 2012, Lias found a way to involve other composers in his nature explorations, organizing a field seminar in Alaska’s Denali National Park and at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, which culminated in performances at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. Nine composers who came from as far as Australia were transported from a dorm at the university to the Teklanika Field Camp deep within the park. This camp served as a hub for a number of excursions during which the composers not only passively soaked up the surroundings but learned a great deal about the geography, wildlife, and sounds of the area. They were joined by park guide Margi Dashevsky (described by composer Stephen Wood as “our adventurer/environmentalist/protector/mother”) and Denali soundscape scientist and researcher Davyd Betchkal. Betchkal’s activities in Denali were of particular interest to the participants. His position involves the study of the acoustics of the environment via direct observation as well as through the use of recording stations placed around the park in mountains, glaciers, valleys, bogs…everywhere. He takes the data and uses it to draw conclusions about the experience that people will have in the park, as well as how the sounds made by those visitors impact the park itself.

As Wood later explained, “He took us into the field and talked to us about how to analyze the sound…how to draw from the collage of sound and isolate individual regions in terms of specific characteristics and how to develop an understanding of how they work in terms of ADSR [1]. It had a huge impact and made me more aware of what was going instead of simply being overwhelmed by the volume of sound. I’m now actively going into nature and drawing inspiration from it.”

Stephen Wood checks out the soundscape

Stephen Wood checks out the soundscape

While not required to write “about” their surroundings, the composers took inspiration from these treks and many wrote music which spoke to their experiences. Each day in the field included approximately one hour of composing time followed by a return to the campsite. Simple but functional tent-cabins with wood floors, knee walls, and canvas tops welcomed the composers after a long day of hiking. A large yurt housed the dining facility, and an outhouse latrine was “more than adequate.”

As with other summer festivals, rehearsals and performances of the works are part of the deal, but in this case the pieces which were performed were those written during the relatively brief time out in the wild. The compositions were then premiered by members of the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival Orchestra at the Davis Concert Hall in Fairbanks. Each composer was pre-assigned a chamber ensemble, ensuring that the festival’s resources were evenly distributed among the composers. Once the group returned to Fairbanks, they had less than 24 hours to prepare their scores and parts for their respective ensembles, and each ensemble only had a handful of rehearsals totaling a few hours to prepare the works for performance. Said Wood, “I had two 30-minute rehearsals for my piece, but you’d never know it. The musicians were amazing. Many of them played on more than one piece (not to mention their other festival responsibilities) but the level was very high.” Among the participating artists was the ensemble-in-residence Red Shift, which includes Fairbanks native Andie Springer.

Red Shift rehearses a festival work

Red Shift rehearses a festival work

The field seminar will be offered again this summer through Alaska Geographic. Following four days in Denali, the composers will then spend another four days in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve ruminating on their Denali experiences and composing works to be rehearsed and performed on the final day of the festival. Though only in its second year, Lias is optimistic about the future. “This convergence of creative artists who are outdoors-minded has the potential to bring together two very different types of people, but also to generate new streams of musical thought.  As a result of last year’s Composing in the Wilderness, we saw a new contemporary jazz group called Chlorophyll created in the Atlanta area, and more national parks are opening their residency programs to composers and finding ways of featuring these new compositions through their interpretive programs.” Along those lines, Wood has taken his experiences in Alaska to heart. Since last summer, he has spent time focused on the flora surrounding the Atlanta area, and will be presenting a concert with his recent oboe quartet diammorpha smallii, based on the plant of the same name, as the central piece. He is also returning to Alaska this year for another round.

1. ADSR is short for “Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release,” which are the four elements of a waveform.

Performers Who Compose

During my graduate studies and my first few years of teaching, more than once I experienced seeing student composers not taking seriously performers who tried their hand at composition. The reasons on the surface tended to be that the performers either didn’t have as much training as the composition majors or didn’t consider it their primary focus, although I understood that it usually had much more to do with the self-confidence of the composition majors in question. Since my own career had taken several twists and turns before finally settling on my current path, I’ve done as much as I can to encourage students outside of the composition major to compose their own works and have them performed, which is why the past couple of weeks have been so satisfying.

Earlier this year I wrote about the student new music organization I oversee at SUNY Fredonia and the NewSound Festival they hold every February. This year we decided that because of the number of groups and guests that we were bringing to campus, we would split this festival in two–a FallSound festival in September/October and a NewSound festival in February/March. This semester we had four sets of residencies in quick succession: the Mivos Quartet (just back from their stint at Darmstadt), the unique quartet loadbang, pianist and NOW Ensemble founding member Michael Mizrahi, and three composers–Daron Hagen, John McDonald, and Caroline Mallonée–in town to hear their works performed by our faculty-based ANA Trio (soprano Angela Haas, cellist Natasha Farny, and pianist Anne Kissel). Over the course of the festival, the students had the opportunity to experience concerts, lectures, masterclasses, private lessons, and–best of all–down time with some of the most talented performers and composers out there today.

One thing that took me by surprise was the programs of our guest ensembles. Both the Mivos Quartet and loadbang presented repertoire that ranged from established masters (Rihm by Mivos; Cage and Lang by loadbang) as well as composers from their own generation (Mincek, Bettendorf, and Lara by Mivos; Lunsqui, Worthington, Akiho, and Futing by loadbang), but what caught me off-guard was that both ensembles featured works by members of their ensembles. loadbang brought forth a movement (“Gloria”) from an extended work entitled Mass by trumpeter Andy Kozar and an arrangement of Guillaume de Machaut’s 14th-century “Gloria” by baritone Jeffrey Gavett, both of which were extremely effective and quite touching. A week earlier, Mivos performed Mura by quartet member Olivia De Prato and after the concert I had several students comment to me that her work was one of their favorites of the evening.

We learned later that both ensembles encourage this “writing from within” to a great degree. Kozar has an upcoming CD of his original works (including the aforementioned Mass) on the horizon and loadbang’s newest member, clarinetist Carlos Cordeiro, has composed many electroacoustic works. Mivos seemed quite proud of the fact that all four members were composing for the quartet and an entire concert of music composed by themselves is in the works.

In the past, we’ve seen many examples of composers performing their own works alone or with others–Cage, Reich, Glass, and Tower come quickly to mind. With the influx of chamber ensembles gaining traction since the late 1990s (taking their cues from Kronos Quartet and Bang on a Can All-Stars before them), there has been a growing surge of groups that foster an openness to performing their own members’ works (ETHEL, Alarm Will Sound, and SO Percussion are but three examples). Lately there has been a growth in academic programs that allow for this openness during school, with the graduate programs in contemporary music at the Manhattan School of Music and Bowling Green State University being formed within the past ten years.

This is a good thing–and not just in the contemporary concert music world. The more performers compose, the greater their understanding, appreciation, and insight will be of works by other composers, and the more creative voices we include in our musical community, the further our musical boundaries will ultimately reach.

New England’s Prospect: Tracking Devices

When I meet the engine with its train of cars moving off with planetary motion—or, rather, like a comet, for the beholder knows not if with that velocity and with that direction it will ever revisit this system, since its orbit does not look like a returning curve—with its steam cloud like a banner streaming behind in golden and silver wreaths, like many a downy cloud which I have seen, high in the heavens, unfolding its masses to the light—as if this traveling demigod, this cloud-compeller, would ere long take the sunset sky for the livery of his train; when I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don’t know), it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Harry Partch performing on the Cloud Chamber Bowls.

Harry Partch performing on the Cloud Chamber Bowls.
Photo from the original Gate 5 recordings of Harry Partch’s music. Special thanks to Sedgwick Clark.

The sound of trains runs through Harry Partch’s music, the wheeze and whine of whistles drifting over and beyond the settled grid of equal temperament, the percussive cycles phasing in and out like the rods and wheels of a locomotive. At last week’s “Harry Partch Legacy” symposium, jointly presented by Northeastern University and the New England Conservatory, both Kyle Gann, in his keynote address, and Philip Blackburn, in a multimedia tour of Partch’s biography, highlighted the same passage from Partch’s Delusion of the Fury, a stream of sixteenth notes progressively subdivided into groups of seven, then six, then five, the music picking up speed while still chugging along. Blackburn’s audio tour of Partch’s influences started off with the keening and clack of the Southern Pacific line. Or is that just the celebrity of Partch’s biography forcing its way in? He was, after all, the great hobo composer, someone whose itinerant existence, first riding the rails, then jumping from place to place, job to job, situation to situation—Blackburn’s punctuating timeline of years and cities began to resemble a railroad timetable—makes a tempting mirror to the open-road unfettered ambition of his musical innovation.

The three-day conference (September 19-21—I attended most of the first day’s proceedings), organized by composer Brian Robison, aimed to be a catalyst within the academy, a spur to a greater dissemination of Partch’s music and ideas. The presentations and lectures were forward-looking, either towards new horizons in microtonal music, or new efforts to realize Partch’s works and schemes. The concerts mixed Partch’s music with newer works inspired by him, both in microtonal language and, on Thursday night’s concert (which I missed), in utilizing Partch’s specially designed musical instruments.

The instruments were there, of course, Partch’s custom-built orchestra of fanciful machines—the Cloud Chamber Bowls, the dulcimer-like Harmonic Canons, the enormous Bass Marimba looming at the back of the Jordan Hall stage like some sort of mysterious ancient monument—transported from their current home at Montclair State University along with their keeper, Partch votary Dean Drummond. And the audience was one largely familiar with Partch’s credo: the jargon of just intonationflowed fluent and free, thick and intimate with various partials and ratios.

But Partch’s legacy also seemed very much a work in progress. The portrait that emerged was of a composer still better known by self-made reputation and theories than by his music—Genesis of a Music is still better known and far more widely available than any of Partch’s scores. Much of the discussion surrounding Partch specifically dwelled on difficulties—of performance, of interpretation, of scholarship. The sense was that Partch and his music remain problematic, in ways both good and bad. This is not necessarily a bad thing—comfort and ease bring their own sins—and might even be a compliment: the other eternally problematic composer who often came to mind was Richard Wagner, good company (on balance) for a visionary. “Harry Partch Legacy” made its case for adding Partch to the list of exalted musical troublemakers.


The place where Partch’s influence is still felt the strongest is in American microtonal music—both in technique and attitude. The latter traces its origins to Partch’s inimitable writing; Gann mused how Partch’s furious rhetorical style—combining “an overflow of recondite detail with an action-packed vernacular”—encouraged generations of American microtonalists to adopt the same anti-establishment, us-versus-the-world stance.

Issues of microtonal theory abounded, from the grand to the practical. Gann reminisced about programming Partch’s 11-limit diamond—overtones up to the 11th harmonic, arranged into Partch’s 43-note scale—into a synthesizer and then letting the intervals loop until they were in his ear. Partch’s system becomes a baseline, a catechism from which adherents can derive the confidence to venture into higher partials: 13th, 15th, 17th. Jon Wild, from McGill University, gave a highly technical presentation on ways to derive scales from a 13-limit version of Partch’s diamond, and then approximate those scales with multiples of a single ratio, analogous to mean-tone tuning. One wonders what Partch would have thought of the result—a tempered, transposable cousin of a Partch-like collection.

But there was also an undercurrent of tension, the technological distance between microtonal ideas and their realization. Even simple technology: Gann, at the outset, raised one of the great barriers to Partch scholarship, the sheer difficulty of deciphering and transcribing his tabulature-based scores. And how to move forward? Translate the scores into Ben Johnston’s microtonal notation, as Richard Kassel did in his critical edition of Partch’s Barstow? Some other system? Keep Partch’s notation, and supplement it with guides to the instruments? During a question and answer session, Gann tangentially—but tellingly—noted that his favorite tool for managing MIDI tuning (a program called Little Miss Scale Oven) was in danger of obsolescence, its creator wearying of having to update the software for ever-proliferating operating systems, an obsolescence that, Gann admitted, would leave him at a loss. At what point should the technology settle into a user-friendly if imperfect standard? It felt like a distant echo of the dilemmas that drove Partch into instrument construction, but also a brush with the danger of the development of the system and its tools becoming an end in itself.


Maybe inaccessibility and distance is part of the attraction of Partch, the appeal of unexplored territory. He is a self-made cult composer, one who practically ensured that an extra mile of pilgrimage and fealty would be required for in-depth engagement. Performing Partch’s music requires something akin to a rite of initiation. You need to develop the discipline to approach matters of temperament and tuning with something approaching Talmudic dissection. You need to decipher esoteric texts—the scores. You need access to the relics—the instruments, or (as composer Bradford Blackburn recounted in his presentation) you need to muster the devotion to build your own. Along with Partch documentarian Jon Roy, Philip Blackburn (no relation) presented a video exploring the backgrounds of the 1969 and 2007 productions of Delusion of the Fury, including interviews that made plain how unhappy Partch had been with the earlier production, and how unhappy Drummond had been with the latter. Blackburn compared those productions with the preparations for Kenneth Gaburo’s 1980 Berlin production of The Bewitched, the performers spending the first rehearsal on the floor, naked, psychologically readying themselves to embrace Partch’s concept of corporeality. “There’s a lot of inculcation and indoctrination that needs to happen,” Blackburn said.

As with Partch’s own pronouncements, corporeality was a concept much discussed if only (or, perhaps, because) loosely defined. Everyone agreed that it was a concept that increasingly guided Partch, shaping his musical development, his move toward larger extravaganzas and more driving rhythms. What exactly it was, though, seemed to hover just out of grasp. A level of engaged athleticism on the part of the musicians was part of it—more precisely, a level of noticeable athleticism, the instruments designed more and more so that the physicality of playing them became theatrically manifest—and, certainly, a responsibility of each performer to center the performance in the body, to energize the musical texture with an individual energy.

But, on the other hand, such corporeality, such individuality, could come into friction with the composer’s authority, and Partch was as tyrannical a composer as any, demanding loyalty to his instructions, even in extra-musical regards. Blackburn’s presentation had another prominent ritornello, Partch’s dismay at failures to strictly adhere to his vision on the part of collaborators in his later, large-scale music-dramas: The Bewitched, Revelation in the Courthouse Square, Delusion of the Fury. After hearing Blackburn recount Partch’s dressing-down of choreographer Alwin Nikolais over his work on the original staging of The Bewitched, I looked up Partch’s initial instructions to Nikolais, which turned out to be a scene-by-scene mulligan stew to test the range of any dancer: Imitation of Cantonese music hall; Eighteenth-century formality, with satiric twentieth-century expressionism in some parts; East Indian, with some tumbling; A formal solo, with modern dance farce at the end; and so on. Much of the list, like many of Partch’s libretti, could be read as a recapitulation of Partch’s early stylistic and cultural influences—Blackburn noted that Partch’s recruiting of members of the University of Illinois gymnastics team as extras for Revelation could be tied to the acrobats Partch would have seen in visits to Chinese opera performances in 1930s San Francisco—but also shows how Partch’s gesamtkunstwerk could strain at its margins, in a way destined to alienate specialists in other art forms.

Those large-scale works, with their purposefully mashed-up mythologies and symbols, also seem to be at odds with Partch’s call for narrative clarity, his criticism of “abstract” music. In his video interview, Drummond expressed doubt that much of Delusion—with its ying-yang, Noh-drama-plus-African-comedy plot at times expressed solely through dance and music—would be perceived by most listeners as anything but abstract. Partch’s decision to present the surreal events of The Bewitched (such as scene 5, “Visions Fill the Eyes of a Defeated Basketball Team in the Shower Room”: “Through their failure a basketball team becomes feminized, and as women, realize the triviality of the defeat, and begin to dance in praise of Hermes”) via a libretto made up entirely of nonsense syllables presents a similar barrier. The works almost try to communicate through sheer conviction alone, as if Partch’s belief in the power of such mythological vocabularies will somehow shine through and carry the audience past an abstract experience. They sometimes have the feel of a kind of reverse-chronology cargo cult: reenacting the rites, even in the absence of context or collective knowledge, will somehow recreate the original power. Video excerpts from the original production of Revelation did, at times, feel like a grand free-for-all, circuses from multiple eras thrown together for the thrill of it, but at the work’s big dramatic moments, Partch’s dramaturgy, both musical and theatrical, could turn defiantly conventional, standard, archetypal.

Still, that might just be a sign of how far we have to go to catch up with Partch. For all their frustrating, naïve grandeur, Partch’s seeming contradictions—individuality vs. authority, narrative vs. abstraction—nevertheless have a whiff of the Hegelian about them, a sensation that the friction results from a too-narrow field of view. It might be why, as his music evolved, he cast his net wider and wider.


In that regard, it was interesting that the best glimpse of the core of Partch’s aesthetic came at Wednesday night’s concert, a concert including only small-scale works by Partch, a concert that was, at least on paper, the least stereotypically Partch-like of the conference. The pieces by Partch himself were early works, in the intimate confines of Williams Hall—the menagerie of instruments stayed across the way—but, especially in contrast with the other works on the program, one could hear that Partch’s crucial concern had been there all along.

The two newer works both drew on and bypassed the Partch legacy. Manfred Stahnke’s Ansichten eines Käfers (“Views of a Beetle”) comprised six miniatures for guitar, selective de-tuning of the open strings and the equal-tempered fretboard negotiated into an approximation of sixth-tone microtonality. Despite the exotic intervals and a programmatic conceit that seemed to echo Partch’s multicultural fascinations—the beetle being given a Taiwanese wife, an Indonesian family, and an African drum teacher, bringing corresponding world-music touches into the musical discourse—both the piece and Robert Ward’s performance seemed more of an exercise, a study in generating such sounds rather than a compelling assemblage of them. Gann’s The Unnameable was more diverting, with Won-Hee An’s keyboard triggering just-intonation microtones in tandem with a pre-recorded, drum-machine nostalgic percussion track, barely moving harmonies nevertheless consistently looping around into distant relatives of prog-pop ♭VII-I cadences. The whole thing was both gently meditative and charged with the sinus-rattling buzz of its tuning scheme, something like a 13-limit retooling of the plagal serenity of Brian Eno’s early ambient albums.

But both were, in their own way, what you might call well-formed pieces, built around specifically musical structures: motives, progressions, forms. The transition to Partch’s own compositions was a little startling. A set of eight of the Seventeen Lyrics of Li-Po, Partch’s earliest surviving essay in speech-music, made the music seem almost defiantly subordinate, the soft-spoken microtonal inflections of John Schneider’s adapted viola so closely tailing his vocal intonations as to fade into shadow. In the Li-Po settings, or the December 1942 trio of songs (Schneider switching over to adapted guitar), or Partch’s Psalm 137 setting By the rivers of Babylon, the effect was so consistent that it was the places closest to traditional musical setting that seemed the most out of place: the falsetto evocation of the title instrument in the Li-Po “On Hearing the Flute in the Yellow Crane House,” the just-intonation analogue to major-minor contrasts in “The Rose” (the third of the December 1942 songs), the lamenting vocalise in the center of Babylon.

Schneider’s aim was to recreate the sound of Partch’s own early performances, when he would bring his microtonally modified viola and guitar to women’s clubs and artistically inclined salons. Schneider’s mastery of and comfort with the scores was evident, though his voice didn’t always have enough power to sell the dramatic intent. He was at his best in his reconstruction of the earliest, voice-and-adapted-guitar version of Barstow—settings of highway graffiti, probably the most famous of Partch’s hobo-inspired works—a milieu more congruent with Schneider’s understated, wry-troubadour mien.

But Barstow, too, stayed in the memory more as a collective experience than as any sequence of musical events. And that, I think, is what Partch was after for the rest of his life. The corporeality, the extravagant instruments, the ever-more-epic folkloric mash-ups: what they all have in common with those early pieces is the extent to which they go in constantly, inescapably keeping the audience aware that they are witnessing a performance, a rite, a ritual. The effort in bringing the music to life is not only made an inseparable part of the experience of it, it’s made paramount—which is why Partch guaranteed that the realization of the music would require more effort than most. It was, maybe, an echo of his days on the rails, the hobo’s pride in taking jobs that no one else would, the faith that the nature of the work was never as important as the simple fact of working.

New England’s Prospect: Cottage Industries

But what in the world does experience taste like?

—Maurice Sendak, Higglety Pigglety Pop!

Oliver Knussen conducts fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center in Castiglioni's Inverno In-Ver.

Oliver Knussen conducts fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center in Castiglioni’s Inverno In-Ver.
Photo by Hilary Scott.

Just prior to the start of the Sunday night concert of this year’s Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, a couple slipped into the seats just in front of me. They were older, but in that good-looking, nonchalantly well-put-together way that suggests affluence; I’m guessing they were tourists on a getaway to the Berkshires. I imagined they had been at Tanglewood for the weekend. They had heard Pinchas Zuckerman, they had heard Yo-Yo Ma, they had heard Beethoven’s Fourth. And now they were in Ozawa Hall to hear Inverno In-Ver, Niccolò Castiglioni’s 1970s magnum opus.

Across the festival’s six concerts, festival director Oliver Knussen had programmed three works by the late Italian composer, as a kind of fill-in-the-historical-gap exercise. Castiglioni’s sound-world is more singular than most, and Inverno In-Ver is one of the most singular examples. The timbre is almost painfully bright—a classically proportioned orchestra, but one in which the bass instruments are almost always pushed precariously into their high ranges, one in which the strings are playing harmonics more often than not, one in which the glockenspiel and celesta and triangle are the main ingredients, not the garnish: a monstrous Sugar Plum Fairy run amok. The melodic language is almost quaintly tonal, neo-classical, but the melodies either run all over each in bright profusion, or else are buried under a dense foil of high clusters and trills—like trying to glimpse Pergolesi through the scintillating scotoma of a migraine. It’s extreme music, the ping and waver of a music box blown up to Godzilla size.

The couple in front of me was not buying it. Give them credit: they stuck it out. But they were perplexed, annoyed, contemptuously amused. The husband made disbelieving jokes in an unwittingly loud voice (probably because he was wearing a hearing aid—I can only imagine how much more bonkers Castiglioni’s music must sound through a hearing aid). The wife was fully engrossed by the program book before too long. They left at intermission.


I’m sometimes amazed that there’s any overlap at all between the audiences for the Shed concerts and audiences for the festival. (After a couple of tentative efforts under James Levine’s tenure, programming overlap has atrophied as well, the Boston Symphony Orchestra returning to its pattern of marking the festival with but a token novelty—this year, it was André Previn’s Music for Boston, one of three BSO commissions to mark Tanglewood’s 75th anniversary, conducted by Stéphane Denève on Saturday night, and channeling neo-classical Americana in a manner that alternated between divertingly odd and bafflingly odd.) Think of what, these days, the annual Tanglewood programming stalwarts are: James Taylor; Tanglewood on Parade, a day-long happening somewhere between a gala-of-unusual-randomness (a Tanglewood specialty) and a funfair; Film Night at the Pops; the traditional season-ending iteration of Beethoven’s Ninth; and the Festival of Contemporary Music. One of these things is very much not like the others, a sense amplified by being at Tanglewood itself, both a shrine to music and a place that, at every turn, gives permission for the music to recede into a pleasant background.

This is not always a bad thing: there are a lot worse ways to hear a Beethoven symphony for the umpteenth time than barefoot on the lawn, with a bottle of wine. But, on the other hand, Tanglewood does have that sacred reputation, and, increasingly, it seems like the FCM is one of the main events tasked with protecting it. It would certainly explain why people have tended to get so exercised about it over the years, about its breadth—or lack thereof.

Recent festivals directed by Augusta Read Thomas and Charles Wuorinen were such conscious anthologies—diversity for its own sake, attempted snapshots of the full landscape—that it was a bit of a cold-water splash that this year’s lineup was so restricted, almost all British and American composers, almost all with similar musical DNA: not necessarily atonal, but with the complex, texture-driven density of atonal modernism as a starting point. Part of this I understand; Thomas and Wuorinen are composers, but Knussen is a composer and a conductor, on the podium for much of the festival, and it’s a big difference between believing in a piece enough to add it to a program and enough to learn it, rehearse it, and present it to its best advantage in performance. For better or for worse, the majority of the works were ones that Knussen felt a strong personal and/or professional connection with. And, it should be noted, even with such a hemmed-in playing field, the festival still had at least a bit more stylistic variety than the Bang on a Can marathon I heard last month. But nothing on the FCM ventured close to the BoaC aesthetic, and even hints of a larger minimalist umbrella were sensed only in passing moments. It was a return to the Recent-Developments-In-Transatlantic-Modernism days of festivals of old.

Oliver Knussen and Peter Serkin with the TMCO at the final FCM performance. Photo by Hilary Scott.

Oliver Knussen and Peter Serkin with the TMCO at the final FCM performance.
Photo by Hilary Scott.

Even within that limited focus, the programming was further focused to mini-surveys of a handful of composers. Harrison Birtwistle was one—four works, including the curtain-raising Sonance Severance 2000, which opened Monday night’s Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra concert under Knussen’s baton: a wine-dark sea of sound, an inexorably churning mass. George Benjamin was represented by three works, and a hint of stylistic restlessness, as in Duet, a compact 2008 piano concerto (also on Monday’s concert, conducted by Knussen, with pianist Peter Serkin) that hones the lushness of Benjamin’s earlier works into sharp steel. The piano opens in clanging, jittery two-part counterpoint, which gives way to a chain-of-custody negotiation of textures and ideas: brusque brass, rustling strings, a harp-driven, quasi-Reichian accompaniment pattern. Gunther Schuller, longtime director (and lightning rod) of past festivals, was back, both conducting a Saturday concert devoted to the perennially provocative Charles Ives and offering a new orchestra piece, premiered earlier this summer and reprised on Monday: Dreamscape (conducted by Knussen), which seemed to revisit the old Schoenberg-Stan Kenton Third Stream style in unlikely guises, be it a Tex Avery-style Scherzo, a noir-Bartók Nocturne, or a finale, “Birth—Evolution—Culmination,” that portrayed the life cycle as a pilgrim’s progress through a burly, dissonant, jazz-romantic big city landscape.

The TMCO presented Gunther Schuller's Dreamscape Photo by Hilary Scott.

The TMCO presented Gunther Schuller’s Dreamscape
Photo by Hilary Scott.

I had reviewed the first four concerts of the festival for the Boston Globe, hanging that all-too-brief recap on a division between older composers, experienced enough to indulge their own obsessions, and younger composers, still cloaking their more idiosyncratic compulsions in an effort to impress the listener. It was a bit of a journalistic convenience, but still, on Monday’s concert, one sensed some sort of doorway through which the younger composers had yet to pass. It is both a compliment and a mild criticism to note how much Helen Grime’s Everybody Sang sounded like a fifth Sea Interlude from Peter Grimes; the craft and confidence were on that level, but, as with Sunday’s performance of her Seven Pierrot Miniatures, I also felt like I had heard this sort of piece many, many times before. But the reality is that, as a thirty-something composer, these sorts of requests (Everybody Sang was commissioned by BBC Radio 3) come with the unspoken pressure to demonstrate that one can Handle The Orchestra, that one has the competence and flair to justify the money and rehearsal time. That sort of advertised professionalism was a prominent feature of other festival composers at a similar career point. The American composer Sean Shepherd’s These Particular Circumstances, a chamber symphony performed on Thursday’s concert, was superbly engineered, but the engineering was so elaborate and prominent—every instrument, every range always in play—that it felt hemmed in, like the music didn’t have enough space to go exploring.

But all composers have to go through this in order to make a career, I suppose. Craft is important, and the demonstration of that craft is, in a lot of cases, what gives composers the wherewithal to, eventually, have the chance to fully explore the sounds that really compel them to create. (Maybe Grime and Shepherd are already doing that, and it’s my failing that I don’t find those sounds as compelling as they do. I don’t know.) Part of the postgraduate work of any composer—the process often annoyingly referred to as “finding your voice”—is reconnecting with more extreme musical impulses; one perhaps shouldn’t fault Grime or Shepherd or Luke Bedford (another young-ish composer given a spotlight on this year’s festival) that the current institutional landscape either allows or demands that such a reckoning come later in life than it did in, say, Beethoven’s day. Bedford’s Monday night piece, Outblaze the Sky (conducted by TMC fellow Alexandre Bloch), was really interesting on this point. It was unusually monothematic, a long orchestral crescendo built solely from gradually shifting harmonies and lobbed-arc glissandi (imagine, if you will, the introduction to “Keepin’ the Dream Alive” extended out to six minutes and given a modernist sheen). In the end, though, it’s a piece that almost-but-doesn’t-quite work, never quite going into the over-the-top, propriety-challenging orchestrational overdrive that the build-up seems to promise. Brilliant failure or cautiously partial success? The boundary between the demands of the muse and the demands of a career was anything but clear.

Alexandre Bloch leads the TMCO in Bedford's Outblaze the Sky Photo by Hilary Scott.

Alexandre Bloch leads the TMCO in Bedford’s Outblaze the Sky
Photo by Hilary Scott.

Like a programmatic vault over that boundary, Outblaze the Sky was followed by Happy Voices, one of the orchestral interludes from David Del Tredici’s evening-long Child Alice (conducted, with enthusiastic stamina, by Asbury). I will admit that I’m not really a fan of Child Alice; unlike its predecessor, Final Alice (which I adore), here the neo-Wagnerian tonality feels more like the end, not the means, with a certain amount of resulting bloat: short ideas sequenced or repeated four and five times when three would be plenty, a lot of over-the-top modulatory delaying tactics without any long-line melodic or contrapuntal strategy to sustain them. But as an example of a composer reconnecting with extreme impulses, it is choice. Earlier in the festival, Alexander Bernstein had played Del Tredici’s 1958 piano solo Soliloquy, a craggy and expressionistic entry in the modernist ledger. It was a reminder of what Del Tredici cast aside in favor of the cheeky joys of diminished chords and deceptive cadences—but also a reminder of how much time and talent he had lavished on the other style before he was ready to make the break.


Stephan Asbury leads Knussen's Higglity Pigglity Pop at-Tanglewood. Photo by Hilary Scott

Stephan Asbury leads Knussen’s Higglity Pigglity Pop at Tanglewood.
Photo by Hilary Scott

On Sunday night, Inverno In-Ver was followed by a semi-staged version of Knussen’s Higglety Pigglety Pop!, his other Maurice Sendak opera, considered something of a companion piece to his better-known Where the Wild Things Are (which was on the 2009 FCM). Sendak’s original book—an anticipatory requiem for his dog—has usually been interpreted as a wry commentary on the artist’s life: Jennie the terrier (Kate Jackman in this performance, ably negotiating the part’s musical demands, though sometimes not quite translating that into a full vocal characterization) leaves the comfort and security of her home, feeling that (as the opera’s subtitle emphasizes) “there must be more to life”; she encounters a series of somewhat suspicious characters and increasingly surreal adventures, culminating in a showdown with a hungry lion, the result of a failure to make the human baby she has been employed to take care of eat anything. Jennie’s seeming tragedy—hungry, abandoned, alone—is transformed into triumph, as she is made the leading lady of the World Mother Goose Theater.

The performance could best be described as a high-level mixed bag: orchestrally thrilling (Asbury conducted), vocally solid if intermittently cautious, theatrically efficient (Netia Jones contributed a modified version of the video she produced for the Aldeburgh Festival, animating Sendak’s drawings). But the work itself was perfect for the festival. It might not be a perfect barometer, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, if you like Higglety Pigglety Pop! better than Where the Wild Things Are, you might just be a composer—or a pursuer or survivor of some other similar creative vocation. I can’t think of another piece that so acutely channels the fundamental absurdity and loneliness of creative activity, the frustration of working toward an ever-receding goal, the difficulty of communicating the nature of that work to anyone outside the bubble. And most of that is the music: Sendak’s perspective is gentle, but Knussen’s score—concentrated in its span, but immense in its volatility of color, every passing mood expanded into a deep-focus panoply of fanatical instrumental detail, even subliminal images rendered in IMAX HD—amplifies everything into almost overwhelming immediacy, the moment-to-moment highs and lows of the creative process translated into fluid music. The great thing is that it’s done without a hint of false pathos or rose-tinted romanticizing: Jennie is the heroine, but she’s also foolhardy and stubborn and even clueless. The opera manages to be simultaneously madcap silly and deeply poignant throughout.

Higglety Pigglety Pop! rather ingeniously recapitulates the life of the composing mind—but, then again, thanks to its strange relationship to its setting, so does the Festival of Contemporary Music itself. It produces an annual, temporary, vibrant community—at times, it feels like a new music networking event with added concerts—but one set apart from the customary Tanglewood crowds.  It’s genial to outsiders, but also prone to bewilder them. It sails at an angle to the prevailing Tanglewood winds, but it still sails nonetheless. It’s the creative predicament made manifest: it’s there but it’s not there. Even an ex-composer feels at home.