Tag: new music festival

A Musical Oasis in an Icefield

Orchestra on stage

In January of 2016, I boarded a plane from my home base in New York City and touched down a few hours later in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Though I was born in Montreal and lived through its blistering winters for almost three decades, five years of temperate NYC weather had dulled my hibernal instincts: I showed up with a slick coat best suited for a reasonable East Coast urban setting, wearing cowboy boots…

…It was negative 40 degrees. Fahrenheit or Celsius, you ask? Doesn’t matter, they’re the same at that hellish level. (But yeah, Celsius.)

I was there to be announced as the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s new composer-in-residence and co-curator of its Winnipeg New Music Festival (WNMF). It’s fair to say I was pretty stoked. But I didn’t really know what I was getting into.

I’d heard of the orchestra and of the festival. WNMF would come up in conversation among the contemporary music intelligentsia and would show up sporadically in the webosphere. News would filter out about major composers and artists being involved, and the WSO had recently made its Carnegie Hall debut performing exclusively contemporary Canadian music.

The position with the WSO had opened up following the departure of my immediate predecessor, Vincent Ho, and though I’d been garnering some valuable experience writing for orchestra over the previous few years, I didn’t have high expectations when I applied for the post. I was shocked when I got the fateful call, and thrilled that I’d get to go there to experience WNMF 2016 in person before assuming the mantle.

I was expecting something cool but fairly low-key. This isn’t New York or LA, after all; Winnipeg is only the 7th most populous city in Canada (which has one tenth the population of the US). It’s a 22-hour drive from Toronto in the next province over; 13 hours from Chicago or Calgary; and at least 7 hours from “neighboring” cities Minneapolis and Saskatoon.

What I found was fairly mind-blowing. A week-long festival dedicated entirely to contemporary music from Canada and abroad; four full orchestral programs with the WSO and three evenings of chamber, choral, and other programming formats; Joan Tower, David Lang, and Sō Percussion hanging out; collaborations with the visual arts, film, fashion, and gastronomy; enthusiastic audiences coming out to fill the 2300-seat Centennial Concert Hall, seven days in a row. People came not only for the music, but packed the hall’s various spaces to listen to discussion panels and participate in Q&A sessions with the guest artists. With searing −40° weather outside.

The place was buzzing. Wait, am I in New York or LA? [Looks out at the crystalline, frozen landscape surrounding the hall.] Huh. I guess not.

WNMF 2018 post-concert audience Q & A with artistic director Alexander Mickelthwate, composers Philip Glass and Michael Snow, and co-curators Harry Stafylakis and Matthew Patton. Image: Steve Salnikowski | Chronic Creative

WNMF 2018 post-concert audience Q & A with artistic director Alexander Mickelthwate, composers Philip Glass and Michael Snow, and co-curators Harry Stafylakis and Matthew Patton. Image: Steve Salnikowski | Chronic Creative

Returning from that first trip, the import of my position hit me. WNMF was founded in 1992 by then-Music Director Bramwell Tovey and the WSO’s first composer-in-residence, Glenn Buhr. The job I was taking on was, incredibly, supported by an initiative by the Canada Council of the Arts to place a Canadian composer at the heart of our important orchestral institutions as ambassadors for music as a living art. Though the details of these positions vary across the nation, the essence is the same: to develop my own skills in composing for orchestra, while advocating for living composers by assisting in contemporary programming, organizing commissions, facilitating rehearsals and productions, writing grants, seeking sponsors, engaging in educational outreach, and serving as liaison between the artists and organization on the one hand, and between the organization and its audience on the other.

If that sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. Between all the curatorial, administrative, operational, outreach, and public-facing responsibilities, and composing an inordinate amount of music, it’s more than a full-time job. And it’s an absolute pleasure.

I get to listen to hundreds of pieces every year, including the constant stream of incoming programming and commission proposals from composers, soloists, and ensembles. It can be frustrating, knowing that there’s only so much that can be programmed in even as substantial a festival as WNMF and in the handful of slots dedicated to contemporary music in the WSO’s regular season.

At the same time, we’re also incredibly ambitious, wanting to present and commission a diverse swath of music, from major international figures to local and emerging artists – all within the confines of a rather modest operating budget. The WSO’s commitment to contemporary music continuously boggles my mind, allocating substantial resources to developing the orchestra’s position as a leading supporter of living artists, but financial realities are always sobering. Funding to make it all possible is lovingly assembled from the WSO’s operating budget, from national, provincial, and municipal grants, and from private and corporate sponsorships. This is a Sisyphean endeavor, requiring constant work to maintain and, hopefully, increase our capacity as stewards for contemporary music.

WNMF 2018 post-concert with co-curators and the performers for Philip Glass's Complete Piano Études (pictured left to right): Harry Stafylakis, Madeline Hildebrand, Jenny Lin, Philip Glass, Vicky Chow, Jónas Sen, Matthew Patton. Image: Steve Salnikowski | Chronic Creative

WNMF 2018 post-concert with co-curators and the performers for Philip Glass’s Complete Piano Études (pictured left to right): Harry Stafylakis, Madeline Hildebrand, Jenny Lin, Philip Glass, Vicky Chow, Jónas Sen, Matthew Patton. Image: Steve Salnikowski | Chronic Creative

Given all that, it’s amazing what the WSO is able to accomplish. In my first two years with the organization, we’ve featured major international artists of an impressively eclectic range, from Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble and JACK Quartet, to Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))) and William Basinski, to Fazıl Say and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. At WNMF 2018, Philip Glass was our distinguished guest composer, presenting the Canadian premiere of his Symphony No. 11 and performing in person alongside a murderers’ row of brilliant pianists in an evening dedicated to his complete Piano Études. Partnering with Carnegie Hall for the first time since the WSO’s 2014 New York debut, we co-commissioned Glass’s String Quartet No. 8, which was premiered by guest artists, the JACK Quartet, preceded by Ferneyhough and followed by georg Friedrich Haas’s String Quartet No. 9, performed in complete darkness in the massive concert hall; JACK brought the house down. On opening night, the Glass symphony was programmed alongside the orchestral version of Björk’s Family, an orchestral commission by legendary visual artist Michael Snow, and my second major commission for the WSO, A Parable for End Times, a setting for choir and orchestra of an apocalyptic text of biting social commentary by noted fantasy author Steven Erikson.

WNMF 2018 post-concert Q & A with JACK Quartet (L–R): Harry Stafylakis, Christopher Otto, Jay Campbell, John Pickford Richards, Austin Wulliman, Alexander Mickelthwate. Image: Steve Salnikowski | Chronic Creative

WNMF 2018 post-concert Q & A with JACK Quartet (L–R): Harry Stafylakis, Christopher Otto, Jay Campbell, John Pickford Richards, Austin Wulliman, Alexander Mickelthwate. Image: Steve Salnikowski | Chronic Creative

Of course, as a Canadian institution, a significant part of our mission is to help nurture Canadian music, which the WSO has a distinguished history of doing. In my time with the orchestra, we’ve featured and commissioned works by noted Canadian composers Vivian Fung, Christos Hatzis, Jocelyn Morlock, Samy Moussa, Cassandra Miller, Dinuk Wijeratne, Nicole Lizée, Emilie LeBel, T. Patrick Carrabré, Alexina Louie, Eliot Britton, Farangis Nurulla-Khoja, Karen Sunabacka, Andrew Balfour, Fjóla Evans, Sabrina Schroeder… The list goes on.

WNMF Composers Institute 2018 participants and mentor composers (L–R): Octavio Vazquez, Samy Moussa, Harry Stafylakis, Steven Webb, Kristen Wachniak, Philip Glass, Karen Sunabacka, Austin Leung, Chia-Lin Cathy Kuo, Brent Johnson, Roydon Tse, Leslie Opatril. Image: Brent Johnson | WSO

WNMF Composers Institute 2018 participants and mentor composers (L–R): Octavio Vazquez, Samy Moussa, Harry Stafylakis, Steven Webb, Kristen Wachniak, Philip Glass, Karen Sunabacka, Austin Leung, Chia-Lin Cathy Kuo, Brent Johnson, Roydon Tse, Leslie Opatril. Image: Brent Johnson | WSO

Capitalizing on the potential offered by the festival, in my first year on the job I founded the WNMF Composers Institute, a week-long, intensive professional development program for emerging Canadian composers. Inspired in part by my own formative experience with the American Composers Orchestra’s 2014 Underwood New Music Readings – which was held as part of the first New York Philharmonic Biennial – the Composers Institute runs concurrently with the Winnipeg New Music Festival, offering seven young composers full behind-the-scenes access to the complex machinery of a professional symphony orchestra and major festival, while providing them with invaluable hands-on experience composing for and working with a high-level orchestra. The first edition was so successful that in 2018 the WSO committed to giving not just a reading of the young composers’ works, but to present them in public performance as one of the main WNMF evening concerts. Throughout the week, the dedicated WNMFCI mentor composers and the guest composers who were in attendance for the festival guided the participants through the process, sharing their experience and insight into the practical aspects of both the craft and business of composition. The hope, ultimately, is that this opportunity can serve as a launching point for young composers who are keen to pursue orchestral composition – a tough nut to crack for most of us. The Composers Institute is open to Canadian citizens and residents, with the call for applications going out every year through the usual channels (you may have seen the notice up on the American Composers Forum and Composer’s Site) and on the Composer Institute page. [Do help spread the word if you know any young Canadian composers!]

The amount of work that goes into planning and running a festival of this scope is tremendous. The Winnipeg Symphony’s entire administrative, production, operations, marketing, and artistic planning teams, hall staff, technical personnel, and several dozen musicians are involved in making it all possible. The Composers Institute alone represents a year of preparation and twelve-plus-hour days during the entirety of the festival. From a purely artistic front, witnessing the WSO musicians and conductors prepare a week’s worth of brand new music in a heavily compressed timeframe and execute it at such a consistently high level is frankly awe-inspiring. Most of this work goes on behind the scenes, the names of all the contributors at best acknowledged in fine print in the festival program book or on a back page of the WSO or WNMF websites.

But boy is it ever worth it, if only for the honor of being part of something this special.

Harry Stafylakis standing on the side of the stage during a performance. Image: Sarah Panas | WSO

Image: Sarah Panas | WSO

In 2019, WNMF founder and WSO Conductor Laureate Bramwell Tovey returns to conduct the opening concert, featuring WNMF alumni composers Kelly-Marie Murphy, Jocelyn Morlock, and yours truly, capped off with John Adams’s seminal Harmonielehre (which was featured at the very first edition of the festival). Daniel Raiskin then takes over the podium in his first season as WNMF artistic director, conducting works by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Michael Daugherty, Caroline Shaw, Vivian Fung, and distinguished guest composer Pēteris Vasks. Exciting young Canadian ensembles collectif9 and Architek Percussion come out to present works by Canadian composers, while the incredible Roomful of Teeth makes its WNMF debut both on their own feature concert, and later joining the orchestra for a special collaboration.

And – I still can’t quite believe it – progressive metal pioneers Animals As Leaders come to the festival to give a unique performance of their music, highlighting the progressive metal genre’s shared values as advanced, virtuosic chamber music, and also joining the WSO for the band’s first ever performance with live symphony orchestra. For a life-long metalhead [that’s definitely a word] and classicalhead [can we make that a word?], collaborating with a group of Animals As Leaders’ caliber in creating these new orchestral adaptations of their music has been an incredibly fulfilling experience for me personally – and a testament to the artistic diversity that WNMF has developed in its 28-year history.

Though it may go without saying, I continue to be absolutely stoked and humbled to be part of this institution, and relish the opportunity to return to WNMF every year. In fact, you should consider coming for a visit sometime around January 25–February 1, 2019; when was the last time you were in the Canadian Prairies in the heart of winter? Besides, it’ll only be around −40°.

Progressive Chamber Music

[Ed. Note: Later this week (October 14-15, 2017), Sirius Quartet will present their second annual Progressive Chamber Music Festival for two nights at the Greenwich House Music School in New York City. We asked the quartet’s four members to tell the story of the evolution of the group into a post-genre ensemble and why they decided to create their own music festival. Founding violist Ron Lawrence describes how the quartet came into being and the underlying aesthetics that inform what/how the group plays as well as the music festival they curate. Second violinist Gregor Huebner explains how the quartet evolved into a group of composer-performers. Cellist Jeremy Harman, the quartet’s most recent addition, describes why he joined the group seven years ago. And first violinist Fung Chern Hwei explains how the idea for a festival emerged over a conversation between the four of them while they were on tour in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Along the way, each describes their own personal musical journeys and the directions those journeys have taken as a result of playing music with each other. As with the four separate parts that seamlessly weave together in a string quartet performance, whether it’s pre-composed or improvised, their four independent narratives inform and enhance each other.-FJO.]


The members of the Sirius Quartet standing in front of a wall.

The Sirius Quartet (from left to right): Fung Chern Hwei, Jeremy Harman, Ron Lawrence, and Gregor Huebner.

Ron Lawrence

The conflict/merging of the sacred and the profane has been a major theme in western culture since the rise of Christianity.  In the modern world, one expression of this conversation has been the gradual breakdown of the barriers between contemporary academic music and popular and folk music traditions.  The aesthetic of the Sirius Quartet and our Progressive Chamber Music Festival is an expression of this ongoing blending.  We created the festival to be an annual opportunity to showcase the diversity and depth of the community of like-minded composer/performers.  On a more prosaic level it is an attempt to create a new “bin in the record store” for this mulatto style (perhaps labeled “omnivores’ delight”).

The Sirius Quartet revels in the musical smorgasbord that the digital tidal wave has brought to the internet.

The Sirius Quartet revels in the musical smorgasbord that the digital tidal wave has brought to the internet.  With a few taps on a keyboard, anyone can access the entire canon of humanity’s musical experience.  The opportunities for cross-fertilization of musical styles, performance techniques, and creating new social contexts for musical performance are abundant.  The Sirius Quartet has been dedicated to exploring this new world, and the artists we’ve presented during the Progressive Chamber Music Festival for the past two years all embrace and explore these possibilities.

However, there are dangers in the digital tidal wave that has washed over the new millennium.  Beyond the obvious steering of a complacent audience into the “if you like that, you’ll love this” cul-de-sac, the configuration of the software programs and their default settings creates a huge temptation to allow the machines and plug-ins to make crucial aesthetic decisions.

Without making a conscious decision, the medium can become the message.  For example, the editing process can dictate what should be musical/emotional decisions.  The click map is a wonderful tool when writing music to picture, but expressing rubato is time consuming.  It’s easier to just loop some cool beats and lay it on the click map.  The technology has dictated the musical style. Plug-in technology is also insidious.  Rather than make a conscious decision about the color palette, the composer/producer will just plug in the funky ’70s Fender Twin bass sound from his or her library.  It would take hours of painstaking listening to get under the hood and tweak the software to find an original sound. Once again the technology has preemptively dictated choices, homogenizing the style. The composers/performers of Sirius and our colleagues use improvisation and the spontaneity of extended techniques to combat this homogenization.  We want our music feel homemade and give the audience the sensation of “fresh from the pot.”

I think my personal journey to becoming a creative musician began while driving around Michigan as a teenager with my car radio blaring rock and roll. I reveled in the breathtaking tonal and emotional palette of the electric guitar. When I arrived in New York in the early 1980s, the classical conservatory training of instrumentalists was increasingly specialized and recording techniques were creating a style and sound that worshiped velocity and close-miked sizzle over warmth and soulfulness.  There was a “correct violin sound” and one’s education and technical training focused exclusively on producing that timbre and emotional quality.  I yearned for that wider palette of the electric guitar. As a listener, I was as drawn to Sonny Boy Williamson or Bata drumming as I was to Babbitt or Boulez.  New York, always a nexus for the melting pot of cultures, gave me the opportunity for an almost anthropological exploration of the roots of popular and folk music styles.

Playing with a few charanga and tango bands taught me that each particular style has its own unique technical challenges distinct from the classical tradition.  Not only does each folkloric tradition have a unique rhythmic feel, but one’s physical approach to the instrument must be flexible enough to step outside of the classical concept of “good violin” playing.  As a performer and composer, choices of bow distribution, quality of attack and decay, and tonal variety inform the rhythmic feel and emotional content of any style.

Eventually, I was asked to join the Dave Soldier Electric String Quartet.  As a mainstay of the downtown, Knitting Factory music scene, Dave introduced me to that diverse, eclectic collection of urban, postmodern creative “folk” musicians.  Here was my wider palette.  When the Soldier Quartet disbanded, I founded the Sirius Quartet as a vehicle to continue these explorations for composers/performers.


Gregor Huebner’s reharmonization of Lennon & McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” performed by Sirius Quartet

Gregor Huebner 

I joined the Sirius Quartet around 2004, shortly after I started working with jazz pianist Richie Beirach.  Richie and I recorded the albums Round about Bartók and Round about Federico Mompou, which were very much about exploring the intersection of composition and improvisation in more of a jazz context.  At the time, Sirius Quartet was really focused on contemporary classical and avant-garde jazz composers.  As a player and a composer, this was a perfect group for me to explore my own musical identity and ideas.  I started composing pieces for Sirius which included both the extended techniques of the contemporary classical “language” as well as the spirit of improvisation from my jazz experiences with Beirach, Randy Brecker, Billy Hart, and George Mraz, with whom I play in a quintet.

These days we are a string quartet which writes its own music and incorporates improvisation in many different forms.

When Jeremy and Chern Hwei—two fantastic composers and improvisers—joined the quartet, it felt like focusing on our own music was the way forward. So these days we are a string quartet which writes its own music and incorporates improvisation in many different forms.  That is my own personal definition of what we are calling “progressive chamber music” as it applies to Sirius and we can stretch that term very broadly to include all kinds of creative small ensemble music, which is the focus of our annual festival.


Jeremy Harman’s composition More Than We Are performed by Sirius Quartet

Jeremy Harman

I grew up spending equal amounts of time immersed in classical music via cello lessons, playing in my school orchestras, and playing in a quartet with high school friends, as well as the rock/metal world, which was a very different circle of people, most of whom were self-taught and were more focused on writing original music.  I always felt equally at home in both worlds, and at the same time, maybe like in each world that I wasn’t able to fully be myself as a musician due to both collective and personal misperceptions that these two were incompatible.  Throughout my life, I’ve sought to bridge this gap on a personal level, and when I auditioned for Sirius Quartet in 2010, I found some like-minded string players who each came from a pretty unique background of musical influences, but who shared my desire to build bridges between genres, and more specifically to blur the lines between supposed high-brow and low-brow art and music.  We all have a classical background, but each of us have spent our lives reaching beyond that in our own ways, which have included exploring various types of improvisation, from soloing over chord changes to playing completely free with no premeditated musical goals or expectations, exploring alternative and extended techniques of playing to widen our sonic palette, and composing our own music which we hope reflects our unique identities as both individuals and as a quartet.

Each of us have spent our lives reaching beyond our classical backgrounds.

With seven years in the group, I am still the newest member of the Sirius Quartet, and most of its history predates me.  Initially the quartet came out of the Soldier String Quartet run by violinist Dave Soldier in the late ’80s as Ron has already mentioned, but as the resident “rookie” here, I think they did some very interesting work as part of the early Knitting Factory/“downtown” scene, working with artists such as Elliott Sharp and Nick Didkovsky and playing a lot of music that was more on the experimental side.

As has been said, in recent years, the quartet has focused more on original works by members of the quartet itself and has leaned more toward the jazz side of things, collaborating with a lot of phenomenal musicians including Linda Oh, Steve Wilson, Richard Sussman and Rufus Reid who all have written really incredible music incorporating the string quartet into more traditional jazz ensembles and instrumentations.

As a quartet, I think we occupy a somewhat unique position in the New York City music scene. So we wanted to put together a festival that brings together musicians from the various corners of the musical worlds we occupy.  There are already some fantastic music festivals in the city, but we thought there was plenty of room for another one.  If there were a Venn diagram that existed and each of these festivals occupied their own circle, I think that the circle that the Progressive Chamber Music Festival would occupy would have significant overlap with all of them.


Violinist Fung Chern Hwei playing with other members of the Sirus Quartet.

Fung Chern Hwei

The genesis of the Progressive Chamber Music Festival happened one fine October morning in 2015.  The place was Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where we were on tour and had a day off.  Before the sun displayed its full equatorial glory, we were enjoying breakfast at a South Indian-Malaysian roadside food stall—more commonly known as a “mamak” stall.  Words were exchanged over a topic as old as the quartet’s two-decade long career: How does one define the musical direction the quartet is taking? How does that fit into the current musical landscape of the music scene in New York and elsewhere?  Many of our fans and listeners would agree, it can be difficult to place the group in a certain category.  Sirius has a fascinating lineage of former members who have developed their own projects writing and/or performing contemporary classical music and/or various non-traditional genres—Todd Reynolds, Meg Okura, Jennifer Choi, Dave Eggar, just to name a few.

The current incarnation of the quartet is primarily focused on music that is internally written, as three of the four of us are composers.  We all compose in different styles and methods, since each of us came from a slightly different musical background.  The end result is, I think, an eclectic body of music that pulls listeners in many directions and hopefully both challenges and intrigues them.

We don’t rule anything out.

We don’t rule anything out in the music we write: tonality, atonality, groove, form, etc., and we like to incorporate improvisation in various ways to achieve various goals in our music.  This could range from creating vamps in the midst of otherwise through-composed music (to bring about a change of pace or vibe) to finding ways of embellishing or improvising on a previously written part in one of our pieces, to linking various movements and/or pieces together with free improvisation, which we’ve found can create a nice heightened sense of focus in the audience since what is composed and what is improvised becomes less and less distinct.

We have had the absolute pleasure to work with accomplished creative jazz musicians like Uri Caine and John Escreet, both of whom in their own way share our affinity for line-blurring. They have each written some amazing music that we have performed together over the years which consists of very interesting mixtures of composed and improvised material.  I certainly don’t think this is unique to our quartet; I think there is a growing movement of creative musicians of all stripes blending these elements in a myriad of really interesting ways.

Getting back to our breakfast in Kuala Lumpur, we didn’t necessarily come to any explicit conclusions when talking about our place in the larger world of creative music, but we found the discussion to be really enjoyable and it gave us a chance to reflect upon and really appreciate the musical community that we are a part of.  New York City has long been an incubator for cross-genre pollination and experimentation in all corners of the music community. It is not difficult to find artists and groups, many of them personal friends of ours, who fall outside of the mainstream categories of “concert” or “art” music.  So someone probably half-jokingly mentioned putting together a festival with a bunch of friends and colleagues whose music resonates with us and who we respect very much as artists, and we thought it actually sounded like a good idea!

Currently the festival is a total DIY operation, but the goal is basically to give each artist the chance to do solely what best represents them and their creative identity without having to compromise anything.  The name “Progressive Chamber Music Festival” retains the ambiguity of the types of music presented, therefore giving musicians absolute freedom of expression, while at the same time it clearly defines the philosophy that I think we and our musical comrades stand for—progressiveness within but also regardless of convention.  We hope to challenge the common notion of what chamber music should be, while inviting old and new voices to partake.

Ron Lawrence, Gregor Huebner, Jeremy Harman, and Fung Chern Hwei standing in back of empty chairs.

Stream the 2016 Bang on a Can Marathon

Tune in to this page to watch the Bang on a Can Marathon live stream from 4-10 PM on Saturday, July 30. This year, the Marathon is taking place at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) as part of the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival.

Below is the approximate schedule for the Marathon:

4pm-6pm
Julia Wolfe: Tell Me Everything
George Crumb: Ancient Voices of Children
John Luther Adams: In a Treeless Place, Only Snow
David T. Little: sweet light crude
Akiko Ushijima: Distorting Melody

6pm-8pm
Brian Petuch: Protosaurus
Frederick Rzewski: Coming Together
Orchestra of Original Instruments (O of OI) led by Mark Stewart
Andrew Hamilton: Music for People Who Like Art
David Lang: ark luggage

8pm-10pm
Ken Thomson: Boil (world premiere)
Missy Mazzoli: Still Life with Avalanche
John Luther Adams: The Light Within
Louis Andriessen: Hoketus
Steve Reich: Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ

You can also download the Bang On A Can Summer 2016 Mixtape for free on Bandcamp.

Music is Music: The 2013 PARMA Music Festival

The Music Hall Historic Theater Lobby

The lobby of The Music Hall, a landmark 1878 Victorian theater. (All photos by Osnat Netzer.)

“Music is music,” says Bob Lord, composer, bassist and CEO of PARMA Recordings. This is the only way in which Lord apologizes for otherwise unapologetically programing acts such as a rock singer/guitarist, a jazz band, a string quartet, and a symphony orchestra in one concert. As for the crowd for this show, it went wild no matter what the genre. There were standing ovations and cat calls after almost every number. The concert was the main event at the inaugural PARMA Music Festival in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on August 17.

The festival ran for three very full days of concerts, presentations, panel discussions, and a potpourri of socializing and networking events. While I normally expect music festivals to materialize around a common musical denominator such as jazz, chamber music, early music, fiddle music, etc., what was most striking about the PARMA Festival was its diversity; diversity within musical styles and event types, its combination of local, national, and international artists, and also its audience. The combining of genres normally thought of as “high-brow” and “low-brow” in the same concert, the accessibility of the venues, and the potent marketing brought in an encouraging mix of people. The performance venues were spread over less than a mile radius and included spaces such as churches, bars, concert halls, and wharfs.

Busy streets in Portsmouth, NH

The busy streets of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

One of the sources for this diversity is PARMA itself. PARMA Recordings is a production company based in New Hampshire that serves as a middleman between music makers and their consumers. No matter what the genre, composers and performers invest their money, time, and talent to have their music recorded and distributed by PARMA. These musicians ultimately hope to attract greater exposure and income than they could on their own by having their works produced and marketed by the company. Most of this revenue comes from selling the music to television and film companies. Composers who sign up with PARMA know that their music may be licensed for use in TV and film. “We’ve definitely gotten concerns such as, ‘Is it going to be in a deodorant commercial?’ but ultimately, it’s a fantastic exposure opportunity and we don’t strive to do anything vulgar with the music, so usually they’re pretty happy to get their music out there,” says Jacob Weinreb, managing director of the licensing department.
Lord encourages musicians to “think more like a band.” In a rock band, everyone contributes different talents, such as composing, arranging, marketing, driving, licensing, etc., but, “it all washes out in the end.” Lord’s point is that a tiny organism such as a rock band thrives on the fine balance between the successful collaboration of its members against a real market of music consumers, and that’s precisely what he feels is missing from the world of new concert music and symphony orchestras. From talking to some of my string player friends, many chamber ensembles function in a similar way.

In addition to the festival promoting the agenda and products of PARMA Recordings, the inclusion of several other institutions demonstrates that the concerts were not entirely self-serving. The festival also hosted an offshoot conference of the Society of Composers, Inc., featuring performances of pieces by its composer members as well as paper sessions. Surprisingly or not, a large number of the SCI paper sessions also approached the problem of genre and accessibility to audiences. Scott Robins spoke about making 21st-century rhythmic topics accessible to college students through the use of prog rock examples.

Scott Robins with projection of old rock bands

According to Scott Robins, “If you recognize these bands, you came here without a date today.”

Kevin Zhang talked about Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera Anna Nicole. These talks were presented alongside what would seem to be more conventional fodder for papers given at an academic music conference, e.g. explications of the music of Grisey and Zwilich presented by Brian Penkrot and Jessica Rudman, respectively. Some of the presentations found their way to the concert hall: Iowa undergraduate composition student Adam O’Dell performed his solo percussion piece right after presenting a paper. Some of the SCI members expressed great appreciation for the conference being held at this lively festival, rather than in a stuffy lecture hall housing only fellow composers.

The other striking collaboration in this festival had to do with the locale of New England, and Portsmouth in particular. Many of the performers were local—including bands such as Tan Vampires and fiveighthirteen, students and faculty from the jazz ensemble of the Portsmouth Music and Arts Center, players from the Boston New Music Initiative, and the Portsmouth Symphony Orchestra, led by the exuberant maestro John Page. Also included in the mix was Classical Music By the SeaTM, a local educational organization that strives to promote the understanding and appreciation of classical music.

Xenia Dunford

Singer/songwriter Xenia Dunford performing at the Music Hall loft.

The audience for the larger events included both many musicians (and the usual obligatory friends and families of musicians), and a wide variety of locals, as well as passersby who happened to see a poster on the street; one tourist confessed that he saw someone carrying a cello and simply followed him to the next event. The panel discussion on licensing and the music industry attracted students from UMass Lowell majoring in music business. I’m also sure that the wide variety of venues in use helped attract a good mix of people, whether a concert was held in a church, a bar, a wharf, or a music hall.

Licensing Panel Discussion

Licensing Panel Discussion

The main event concert was well worth the drive from Boston. Rarely have I borne witness to the world premiere of a piece by a prominent deceased composer; at this concert, I encountered Lukas Foss’s Elegy for Clarinet and Orchestra, a piece recently uncovered by Christopher Foss, the composer’s son. It was brought to life at the concert by the assured hands of Richard Stoltzman. Incidentally, this performance, along with the process of uncovering the piece, is being turned into a documentary.

PARMA Orchestra

The PARMA Orchestra

I had many favorites at the concert. High school senior Anna DeLoi was dazzling in her rendition of Alberto Ginastera’s Harp Concerto. I was most excited for composer Tina Tallon, who won PARMA’s 2013 student composer competition and had her string quartet selective defrosting performed competently by members of the Portsmouth Symphony Orchestra.

Tina Tallon

Tina Tallon

Switzerland native Martin Schlumpf was one of the featured international composers. His piece Streams received its world premiere at the event and featured a savage duo: Matthias Müller on clarinet and David Taylor on bass trombone. The piece is rich and eclectic and provides room for the soloists to improvise their own cadenzas, in this case a successful Third Stream-like extension of the old concerto tradition. The concert was perhaps too long, but was quite well conceptualized by the way in which Will Dailey and Ovidiu Marinescu provided both stylistic variety and interludes during the set changes; a clear differentiation of genre was obtained by an effective change of lighting on stage. The lighting was neutral for the classical music and colorful for the jazz and rock music. It’s a shame, actually. Why couldn’t Arthur Gottshalk’s Ceremonial Fanfare get a little touch of green from the lighting team? Finally, one of the crowd pleasers on the program was Arturo Márquez’s Danzón No. 2. I enjoyed it as well, even though I thought that Márquez could have taken greater liberty and added more personal touches to the traditional Mexican danzón.
I got a lot from this festival. It’s good to see that there are so many composers out there who, like me, grapple with the need to write music that will please themselves and help them grow as composers and humans. At times those two pursuits can seem diametrically opposed to one another, but at other times it is possible for the two goals to work hand in hand, resulting in music that will bring us some income as well as recognition and respect from our peers. I am very glad that in all of my encounters at the festivals no one expressed an urge to “dumb down” or “sell out” in order to find an audience. However, when I encounter the wonderfully pluralistic “anything goes” American attitude, I also become concerned that we may be setting ourselves up for mediocrity or for music that is inoffensive—and thus, by our inoffensiveness, offend the music connoisseur who is seeking true expression and challenge.

Bob Lord and David Taylor

Bob Lord and David Taylor

One of the topics I discussed with Bob Lord concerned context. Many of us remember Joshua Bell’s experiment of playing in the subway and finding out just how different his audience’s reaction was when he was just an anonymous street performer. Maybe you take the most artfully created piece of music and put it in a commercial, but you run the risk of completely changing the intention of the piece. There is a responsibility for the composer to understand the context in which she is writing a piece; what is her audience, and what is her place within society; how does her piece contribute to the betterment of music, art, or society.
But this is perhaps a topic for another time and another essay. In the meantime, I’m so glad to see so many performers and living composers received so well and I’m looking forward to next year’s PARMA Music Festival.

free refreshments courtesy of PARMA

There were even free refreshments!

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Osnat Netzer

Osnat Netzer

Osnat Netzer is a composer and pianist based in Boston. Her opera The Wondrous Woman Within will receive its world premiere in her home country of Israel in 2014. She teaches theory and composition at Harvard University.

What Do You Sound Like, and Where Are You Going?–Thoughts from the 2013 June in Buffalo Festival

For new music lovers in western New York, the first week of June promises not only the burgeoning warmth of the summer months, but the personal discovery of recent works by talented and sometimes unduly obscure composers. The 2013 edition of the annual June in Buffalo festival featured the compositions of 29 participant composers, as well as esteemed guest faculty including Brian Ferneyhough, Augusta Read Thomas, and Charles Wuorinen.

Composer-conductor Lukas Foss first cultivated the new music soil that would yield the annual festival in 1964 when he conceived of the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts. Through its fellowships for composers and performers of contemporary music, the Center set the cultural precedent at the University at Buffalo for Morton Feldman’s June festival, which he inaugurated in 1975 as a complement to the Center’s “Evenings for New Music” series. After 1980, the festival lay dormant until it was revived by current artistic director David Felder in 1986.

From the outset, June in Buffalo 2013 demonstrated that a composition doesn’t communicate in a vacuum, but instead often reveals its vitality while in dialogue with other works. The first half of the evening concert on June 3, featuring the Talujon Percussion Ensemble and the JACK Quartet, included the intriguing combination of John Cage’s Third Construction for percussion quartet and David Felder’s Stuck-stücke for string quartet. While each work is naturally expressive in and of itself, together they spoke to the larger notion of how four musicians engage in intuitive dialogue with one another: What does the architecture of the orchestration look like? How does the interplay between instruments evolve over the life of the piece? Though these questions can certainly be pondered during a single concert, over the span of the weeklong festival these ideas were given time and space to germinate, manifesting themselves in multiple performances of diverse works, interpreted by musicians with varying sensibilities.

The participant composers’ program for Friday, June 7, which touted the most wonderfully eclectic grouping of works of the festival, exemplified how intricate and distinct these intramusical relationships can be. As performed by the Alsace, France-based Ensemble Linea, the set was characterized by a particularly unmitigated energy, in which the mixture of exuberance and skill made the composers’ respective intentions clear. Written for an amplified quartet of bass clarinet, violin, viola, and cello, Asymptotic Flux: First Study in Entropy by Jason Thorpe Buchanan is an unearthly collage of sounds. Like many of the June in Buffalo compositions, Flux centered on the expressive textures one can create by combining multiple timbres from different instruments. Though conceptually direct, the resulting sounds of Buchanan’s piece were delightfully ambiguous: frantic joy could be as easily heard as extreme distemperment.

Amidst a frothy sea of June in Buffalo works characterized by chaotic rhythms and liberal doses of dissonance, Colin Tucker’s engulfed, constrained in a widening gap felt like a direct challenge to that approach. The composer set out to see how much could be expressed with the fewest number of notes possible, as desolate plateaus of extended silence were interrupted occasionally by the thin and airy rasp of strings.

What followed Tucker’s refreshing work was arguably the most beautiful piece of the entire festival—Fifty Pairs of Eyes for string trio by Philadelphia composer Jenny Beck. The composition began with a simple but emphatic viola glissando up a half step. The central melody continued to ruminate on that theme, as the violin drifted in and out of abstraction high above the viola. The cello then takes over the initial motive before a trio section that contrasts pizzicato with tender, elongated notes. Beck seemed to be playing with the fine balance between maintaining a tonal center and indulging in atmospheric gestures. The effect was somewhat like differentiating between a representational painting of someone breathing, and an attempt to paint the texture of the air itself.

 

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June in Buffalo also offered intriguing examples of how extramusical elements can be commingled to foster epiphany and create new realities of higher resolution. Tuesday evening’s concert, presented in Lippes Concert Hall (the festival’s primary venue) featured the only program of the festival exclusively devoted to the work of one composer, Charles Wuorinen. It was a particularly momentous occasion for Wuorinen, who was honored with an honorary doctorate in music from the University at Buffalo. The proceedings also served as a celebration of the composer’s 75th birthday, which arrived officially a week later.

With regards to the music itself, what followed was an auspicious showcase of the week’s lone full-scale vocal work, It Happens Like This, with text culled from the poetry of Pulitzer Prize winner James Tate. The curiously insightful 2010 cantata made for gorgeous and engrossing theater, as performed by the Slee Sinfonietta—UB’s “new music” chamber orchestra—and a consummate vocal quartet of Sharon Harms, Lauren Mercado Wright, Steven Brennfleck, and Ethan Herschenfeld.

The question of how to set seven of Tate’s intensely prosaic vignettes, brimming with empathy and veiled wit, would appear to be supremely daunting. But under Wuorinen’s conception, surreal interpersonal nightmares in which fate ultimately ignores the characters’ futile pretentions of upright living, like “The Formal Invitation” and “Intruders,” only gained in clarity. With a combination of spoken word and arioso, the vocal lines were pungent but inherently mellifluous. Meanwhile, the Sinfonietta’s instrumental accompaniment seemed to swirl around the voices intermittently in veristic bursts of modernist tone colors. And while Wuorinen’s use of poetic texts is by no means revolutionary, his ability to coax even more nuance out of the masterful source material was compelling to experience.

Ironically, the most memorable performance of the entire week was not given by a musician at all, but by dancer Melanie Aceto, who collaborated with the Buffalo-based composer Megan Grace Buegger to present the premiere of Liaison, a performance art piece that I hope has opened the door for similarly experimental works to be performed during future JiB festivals.

At first, though the choreography and the resulting music complemented each other well, they did not seem directly correlated. But gradually, the gritty strumming of the piano strings and their undulating overtones became increasingly linked to Aceto’s movements; her fluid yet ultimately constricted motions were causing the music. Finally, the separate entities of dancer and piano were somehow conjoined, and it became clear that the dancer was the source of all of the sounds. Here’s how it was done. The grand piano’s lid was removed and in its place there was a network of five suspended pulleys holding wires which bow the piano strings. Each pulley was activated through the movements of the soloist, Aceto, whose limbs were connected to the pulleys via bungee cords and velcro. As a result, it was possible to hear as well as see Aceto dance.


After the performance, Megan Grace Buegger explained the genesis of this unusual collaboration.


Perhaps the most intriguing development for June in Buffalo as an institution was the implementation of its inaugural Performance Institute, which aims to mentor emergent interpreters of new music as they work alongside the resident ensembles of the festival, mirroring the proven dynamic of faculty composers and participant composers. The week neared its end with two consecutive concerts performances by the Institute participants. Approaching nearly three hours in total length, the second of the two enjoyable programs was the longest and weightiest of the June in Buffalo concerts, featuring the works of heavy hitters Babbitt, Carter, Cage, Stockhausen, and Bernd Alois Zimmerman. As indicated by the committed interpretations of such talented musicians as percussionist Ross Aftel, pianists Jade Conlee and Michiko Saiki, and cellist T.J. Borden, the Performance Institute promises to provide invaluable support to June in Buffalo’s already regenerative nature for years to come.

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Six days earlier, I had arrived in the basement of University at Buffalo’s Slee Hall for the first concert of the week. I was confronted with a vast array of percussion instruments, which took over more than half of the space, from the bandshell in the rear of the room to the feet belonging to the listeners with legs politely crossed in the front row of the audience. The meager area designated for seating had become flush with the presence of approximately 60 to 70 people. As the recital began and I listened to California composer Ben Phelps’s Year of Solitary Thinking—In Metal, a beautifully erratic composition filled with the dark timbres and tactile atmosphere evoked by the percussion and prepared piano, I was reminded of a crucial notion: ultimately, new music is subject only to the insatiable rigors of the creative spirit, and nothing else. It isn’t really about what the sound is, but where that sound is compelled to go.

Interdisciplinary Musicians: Reflecting on the 2013 nief-norf Summer Festival

As I returned to the nief-norf Summer Festival (nnSF) in Greenville, South Carolina, for a third year this summer, I was asked by many friends why I chose to continue to participate in this festival, rather than others. There are certainly plenty of options in the United States for a festival of the same duration and within the same price range if your interests are centered on new music. My answer revolves around the intersection between performance, composition, and research, and the amazing people who perform those interrelated tasks.

This festival is not focused on simply workshopping classic solo and ensemble pieces for performance, nor is it focused on teaching composers how to write eloquently in chamber settings, nor is it a meeting of scholars in isolation from the rest of the music community. Rather, what nnSF Artistic Director Andrew Bliss seeks to accomplish is a merger of these three disciplines. In effect, nnSF pushes performers, composers, and researchers into the same room and locks the door. What may sound like a chaotic situation, however, is far from it; the effects are outstanding, invigorating, and inspiring.

Omar Carmenates, Andrew Bliss, Mike Truesdell, Kerry O'Brien (left to right) performing Strange and Sacred Noise by John Luther Adams.

Omar Carmenates, Andrew Bliss, Mike Truesdell, Kerry O’Brien (left to right) performing Strange and Sacred Noise by John Luther Adams.

The ten-day festival—hosted by Omar Carmenates at Furman University—revolves around a core series of concerts involving both the participants and the faculty. Originally only focusing on percussion music, the proceedings have expanded in the past two years to include a composition track, as well as cello and piano performance fellows. The first concert took place on the evening of May 28 and featured four of the faculty performing John Luther Adams’s evening-length percussion quartet Strange and Sacred Noise. Ominously hovering above the stage, projected onto the back wall, was a quotation by Jacques Attali that serves as an epigraph to Adams’s score:

Nothing essential happens in the absence of noise…in most cultures, the theme of noise lies at the origin of the religious idea…Music, then, constitutes communication with this primordial, threatening noise—prayer.

–Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music

While serving as a thoughtful prologue to the music, this quotation also effectively set the tone for the festival. Music functions as a means of communication but also, as Attali suggests, as a means to reach beyond our own sphere of understanding. Music occurs not in isolation, but through a communal effort in which potentially great things are achieved.

Andy Bliss, Kerry O’Brien, Omar Carmenates, and Mike Truesdell took to the stage and calmly delivered a precise performance of the mammoth piece. Strange and Sacred Noise is 75 minutes of carefully crafted process and was complimented by projections of each movement’s title, along with visual images and texts corresponding to each movement.

The following day, the performance fellows were tossed straight into rehearsals to prepare for the first of three chamber music concerts. Fellows are assigned and sent music before the festival begins, which allows for rehearsals to pick up at the late stages of preparation. In the three years that I’ve attended nnSF, the performance fellows are always class acts, arriving with their music prepared–their parts pasted into puzzle-box-like contraptions of poster board and tape in order to facilitate page turns–and often bringing fresh and exciting ideas for the pieces that allow for rich interpretations despite the compressed rehearsal period. The rehearsals function as an exciting dialogue between the young professionals and the faculty, and the results are always fantastic.
That evening, everyone gathered at Horizon Records in downtown Greenville for the participants’ cabaret concert. If you ever have the pleasure of visiting the beautiful city of Greenville, South Carolina, I highly recommend stopping at Horizon Records. Gene Berger’s shop houses thousands of amazing records and CDs—both new and old—and he and his staff create a welcoming atmosphere.

The cabaret concert is an opportunity for performers to bring solo pieces to share, and this year a huge range of works were performed, including pieces combining theater and percussion, the inevitable classics, and the increasingly popular Postludes for Bowed Vibraphone by Elliot Cole. Cello faculty member Ashley Walters performed Andrew McIntosh’s Another Secular Calvinist Creed, a piece that required the cello to be tuned according to just intonation and that fully exploited Walters’s steady virtuosity. We all sat mesmerized as her hands calmly leapt up and down the fingerboard and summoned eerie, captivating tones.

Cellist Ashley Walters Performing Andrew McIntosh’s Another Secular Calvinist Creed at Horizon Records

Cellist Ashley Walters performing Andrew McIntosh’s Another Secular Calvinist Creed at Horizon Records

The following two days consisted mostly of rehearsing for the first of the participants’ chamber concerts. Two of the four Call for Scores winners’ works were to be featured on this concert, and those composers (Bryan Christian and Travis Alford) gave presentations on their pieces that morning. In the evening these new works were performed alongside compositions by John Luther Adams, Steve Reich, Kate Neal, John Cage, and Mark Applebaum. The combination of the quality of the music and the momentum of such a fast preparation period led to an exciting night of music making. The audience, consisting mostly of locals from Greenville, also contained many of the scholars who would be presenting at the nief-norf Research Summit the following morning.

Alexv Rolfe performing Kate Neal's What Hath II?.

Alexv Rolfe performing Kate Neal’s What Hath II?.

I haven’t attended any research summits or conferences outside of my experience with nnSF and have often found academic musical analysis to be bewildering and unapproachable. This has been a hurdle I have been able to scale, thanks in part to attending the research summits hosted by nnSF in 2012 and 2013. Performers rarely get to engage with this sort of academic work, and it can be difficult to convince us that it’s important or interesting in the first place. Kerry O’Brien, who organized the Research Summit this year, did a good job persuading everyone, however. Early on, she made the point that it is exceedingly rare for scholars to attend a concert as audience members one night, only to take the “stage” the following day to present their most recent research to a room full of performers, composers, and fellow scholars. The performers and composers participated actively, often raising interesting questions and continuing discussions outside of the lecture hall, well into that evening’s “group hang” at a local bar in downtown Greenville. The research summit really takes the cake, in my mind, and makes nnSF such a unique and rewarding experience. Being confronted with scholarship (and the scholars themselves) really urges you to examine your own approach to the music you play or compose. It’s a healthy reminder that our music is traveling out into the world, and that people are receiving, considering, and responding to it.

Research Summit - Kevin O'Connor, David Luidens, Robby Bowen, Kerry O'Brien (left to right).

Research Summit–Kevin O’Connor, David Luidens, Robby Bowen, Kerry O’Brien (left to right).

This year, the focus of the summit was on music and technology (post-1945) and the presentations stretched out beyond chamber music to cover much broader topics. In addition to presentations by musicologists and theorists, performers and composers also gave a wide variety of papers. After dinner, the entire festival gathered to attend an evening concert featuring the keynote speaker, Scott Deal. Deal is professor of music and the director of the Donald Louis Tavel Arts and Technology Research Center at Indiana University Purdue University of Indianapolis (IUPUI), and his recital featured a full evening of fascinating works involving interactive and fixed media components that expanded the already full stage into a completely unique sound world. Often joining Deal onstage were harpist Erzsébet Gaal Rinne and laptop musician Michael Drews.

Scott Deal and Michael Drews.

Scott Deal and Michael Drews.

The following morning we began rehearsals for the Composer Fellows’ Concert, which would feature six different world premieres of pieces written by the six composition fellows attending nnSF. Percussion is often fairly daunting for composers who do not play percussion themselves or personally know a percussionist. The chance then to be surrounded by percussion music, instruments, and live percussionists for an extended period of time is an opportunity for composers to get a foothold on an otherwise steep slope. Similarly, time spent hashing out the more esoteric extended techniques of the cello proved valuable, and many of the effects made their way into the compositions.

Christopher Adler working with composition fellow Young-jin Jeon.

Christopher Adler working with composition fellow Young-jin Jeon.

Under the expert eye of Christopher Adler, the nnSF composition director, the six composition fellows experimented with various sound combinations, while seeing the performers physically engage with the instruments and having the opportunity to talk extensively about notation, sound production, and any other facets of percussion playing that piqued their curiosity. Throughout the week the composers worked with the performers assigned to their compositions, tweaking and refining notational plans and often making considerable adjustments to instrumentation on the fly. For the performers, working so closely with composers helped us to learn how to clearly communicate our own limitations and expectations and, more often, to find creative ways to accomplish what was being asked of us.

Following the Composer Fellows’ Concert, the push for the third and final evening’s concert began, but before the race commenced, piano faculty R. Andrew Lee presented Dennis Johnson’s 1959 composition November, a five-hour minimalist work for solo piano.

R. Andrew Lee performing Dennis Johnson's November.

R. Andrew Lee Performing Dennis Johnson’s November.

With couches pushed onto the stage and the audience invited to come and go as they pleased, to lay down if they wished (but to please not snore), Lee began the piece. He bathed us in a fragile sound world of expansive proportions that urged listeners to examine their relationship to harmony, pitch, and eventually to sound itself. About two hours into the performance, it began to rain, initiating an achingly beautiful soundscape: soft echoes of the raindrops filled the hall, serving as a perfect compliment to the music’s own delicate patter.

The last concert featured composer-in-residence Evan Ziporyn’s Where Was I? (for cello, percussion, and piano), works by two Call for Scores winners (Nicholas Deyoe and Lewis Nielson), and a realization of Earle Brown’s graphic work December 1952. Being confronted with considerably more difficult music, the intensity of the rehearsals heightened, although the atmosphere never became tense or discouraging. As the performance fellows took the stage for the final time, the feeling was somehow different. In ten short days, the ceaseless rehearsal schedule combined with the long discussions into the night, shared meals, and walks around Furman’s beautiful campus had created a strong sense of camaraderie between us. Instead of performing these works with strangers, I was on stage with my colleagues and new life-long friends.

Final Concert - Lewis Nielson's Tocsin

Final Concert – Lewis Nielson’s Tocsin

As we began the final piece, Lewis Nielsen’s vast Tocsin for six percussionists, I recalled another passage I had found in Attali’s Noise:

“We must learn to judge a society more by its sounds, by its art, and by its festivals…”
If we take Attali’s criteria to heart, festivals like this one—festivals that celebrate and encourage amazing art, amazing research, spurred and promulgated by amazing people—are gems to our society.

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Alexv Rolfe is a percussionist currently residing in Dekalb, IL, where he is a candidate in the M.M. program at Northern Illinois University. In addition to writing and reading about music, Alexv enjoys performing in different western and non-western traditions and is also a budding amateur cook.
(All photography by Live Well Photography)

SF’s Annual Switchboard Music Festival Celebrates the Eclectic

 


You never know exactly what you’ll encounter when you walk into the annual Switchboard Music Festival, but bass clarinets are a safe bet. This marathon-format festival, which has been running for six years, was founded by composer Ryan Brown and two bass clarinet-playing colleagues, Jeff Anderle and Jonathan Russell (who is also a composer). Together they craft a gleefully eclectic eight-hour extravaganza at the Brava Theater consisting of music that avoids easy characterization. There are equal parts notated and un-notated music; improvisation and mad counting are both represented. Since the printed program offers just bare bones information without bios or notes, each set is a surprise entry into an unexpected sound realm, always a contrast from the acts that have come before.

Switchboard directors Jeff Anderle (left), Ryan Brown, Jonathan Russell, trying to locate raffle winners

Switchboard directors Jeff Anderle (left), Ryan Brown, Jonathan Russell, trying to locate raffle winners

The inaugural festival’s lineup in 2008 concentrated entirely on Bay Area-based artists. As Switchboard has grown, the San Francisco focus remains primary but artists from outside the area have started to be added to the programming. I heard eight of the 13 sets this year, the full list of which can be found here. The day began at 2 p.m. with Tin Hat accordionist Rob Reich’s quintet (accordion/piano, clarinets, vibraphone, acoustic bass, and drums) performing Reich’s music as a jazz/chamber music ensemble. They were followed in quick order by a flute trio, a free improvisation quartet that included double reeds and koto, and a power rock/free jazz set.

Rob Reich Quintet (with Beth Custer on bass clarinet)

Rob Reich Quintet (with Beth Custer on bass clarinet)

The notated-music bill included piano and percussion duo futureCities, the Areon Flutes trio, a collaboration between the two duos Sqwonk and ZOFO, the band/chamber ensemble Build, and Ignition Duo, a just-established guitar duo that I wasn’t able to hear, playing a new work by Brown. futureCities (Bay Area-based pianist Anne Rainwater and New York-based percussionist Jude Traxler) opened their short set with Traxler playing a Stylophone in Can You Hear Me?, a two-movement piece built on Morse code composed by Wally Gunn, who is a doctoral candidate at Princeton, where Brown and Russell are also studying.


Areon Flutes, based in San Jose and the first flute ensemble to have medaled in the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition, performed the world premiere of Chthonic Suite by Cornelius Boots. Boots is a longtime Switchboard colleague, having founded Edmund Welles, the bass clarinet quartet that Anderle and Russell performed with prior to forming Sqwonk, a bass clarinet duo. Boots, a master of woodwind instruments of all kinds, wrote a three-movement piece that begins with an alto flute solo and adds one instrument in each movement. Particularly memorable was the second movement, “Enantiodromia,” a duet where Jill Heinke and Kassey Plaha wove melodies into Glass-like arpeggiations before trading breaths in a hocket, audibly breathing into their instruments.

Kassey Plaha (left) & Jill Heinke of Areon Flutes, performing “Enantiodromia" from Chthonic Suite

Kassey Plaha (left) & Jill Heinke of Areon Flutes, performing “Enantiodromia” from Chthonic Suite

Build, the Brooklyn quintet (violin, cello, bass, piano, drums) led by composer Matt McBane, was one of the two headlining acts to close the festival. They played a six-song set mostly of material from their albums Build and Place. This group, which McBane formed in 2006, exemplifies the “between the cracks” music that Switchboard aims to champion, being both an instrumental indie band and a chamber music ensemble interested in notated process music with mathematical underpinnings.


Among those artists working further afield from the classical/notated music realm was Billygoat, a project of David Klein and Nick Woolley, who create mind-bogglingly complex stop-motion animation films in their garage in Portland, Oregon, score them, and then perform the works live with the film projections. The films are filled with Tarot symbols and mythical figures in states of transformation, providing a dream-state, non-logical narrative. On stage, Klein and Woolley are a two-man band playing an array of instruments ranging from synthesizers and electric guitar to recorder, glockenspiel, and other percussion, with some vocals and whistling in the mix as well. The scores are not harmonically complex but are complementary to the films, which are visually rich and compelling.


Along with Sqwonk, who performed As It Goes Along by Oakland composer Moe! Staiano (which I didn’t get to hear) and Sqwonkzoforus Rex, an entertaining heavy-footed romp by Russell for Sqwonk and the piano duo ZOFO, the day’s bass clarinet tally increased with Brooklynite Michael Lowenstern. Through the live sampling and looping of his instrument, as well as some body and vocal percussion and a harmonica, Lowenstern presented a thoroughly charming and humorous set. For one piece, titled Lost in Translation, two unwitting audience members were invited onto the stage to flirt virtually by triggering samples of phrasebook sentences heavy with double entendres.

Michael Lowenstern

Michael Lowenstern

The peak energy level during the day came from the trio Unnatural Ways, led by avant garde electric guitarist Ava Mendoza, with Dominique Leone on synthesizers and Nick Tamburro on drums. Oakland-based Mendoza, a Mills College alumna who has studied with Nels Cline and Fred Frith, started Unnatural Ways as a duo with Tamburro and added Leone early last year. Fresh off a 14-date European tour, the three had clear lines of communication that allowed them to power through a loud set of experimental rock/free jazz that took great delight in drawing from many musical sources, abruptly shifting tempos, and timing the waves of energy crashing in the room. It wasn’t really mid-afternoon music, but I appreciated the chance to hear this performance by artists who wouldn’t necessarily have crossed my path, which is what Switchboard is all about.

Unnnatural Ways: Ava Mendoza (left), Nick Tamburro, Dominique Leone

Unnnatural Ways: Ava Mendoza (left), Nick Tamburro, Dominique Leone