Friday, July 1, 2011

Music11 Last Day!

Our last day here at Music11 was a wonderful culmination of this festival's musical activities. In the afternoon over half of our participant performers played in masterclasses for eighth blackbird. Since we had so many performances, we divided forces, having piano, percussion, and voice in Bartok Hall, and strings and woodwinds in the Salon. We heard some fantastic performances and wonderful ideas for improvement. Because the members of eighth blackbird have experience with so many different kinds of music, they have insights into many aspects of the performing process. These masterclasses were so successful that many of us wished that we had held more of them, and earlier in the festival so that everyone could have seen one another perform towards the beginning of our time here. I think we'll be holding more events like this in next year's installment of MusicX, because it was so enriching for everyone involved.

The final concert was a rewarding summation of the various aspects of this festival. It showcased the participant composers and performers by their contributions to the concert: Toru Takemitsu's Rain Tree, Amy Kirsten's joujou, and Ruben Naeff's Fill the Present Day with Joy. What a beautiful culmination of all of the work and inspiration that went into the making of this festival - from the first acceptance letters our participants received, to the last notes of each piece they composed and performed for Music11. It showcased composer-in-residence David Lang with his pieces wed and these broken wings. He has been a wonderful presence at our festival for the last week. We greatly appreciate his first-rate musicianship, his creativity, his knack for challenging and guiding young musicians in their work, and his lovely personality. It showcased ensemble-in-residence eighth blackbird through their performances of the two Lang pieces, plus Philip Glass' Music in Similar Motion, and Stephen Hartke's new violin and piano piece Netsuke. In particular, it showcased eighth blackbird violinist Matt Albert who gave his last performance with the ensemble during this concert. As Joel Hoffman observed while speaking at the concert, Matt Albert's musicianship and personality is characterized by generosity and courage. Matt is generous in his expressive playing, his mentoring of younger musicians, and his friendships. He is courageous in his constant drive to discover new music, take risks, and embrace the unknown. This courage has lead him to explore new opportunities in his career, which is why he is now departing from eighth blackbird. We will certainly miss him; we wish him many blessings for this new step in his career; we know that his courage and generosity will ensure him spectacular success. As this festival draws to a close, we are also saying goodbye to our general manager Michael Ippolito, who has been an indispensable part of MusicX for years. He is a composer, administrator, and friend of the absolute first rate. As with Matt, we fully support Michael in his next step and look forward to hearing about what he accomplishes in his post-MusicX career.

One of my very favorite things about this festival is that it doesn't really end at the end of our two weeks here. It was amazing to see how many wonderful friendships and collaborations were forged during our time in Switzerland. I for one am already looking forward to embarking on upcoming projects that resulted from the friendships I just made in the last two weeks - and I know that I am not alone in this. It seems like everywhere I turned, I heard people plotting and scheming about exciting artistic endeavors for the near future. To have not only a fantastic group of people, but also an inspiring place, seems to be a key part of the recipe for inspiration. I believe that there is something about this gorgeous place that helped us all take a real break from our normal lives and open ourselves up to new dreams and aspirations. Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone for an outstanding time together - and let's keep in touch!

Music11 Composers III and Final Vote

Thursday we had our third concert of new works composed for Music11, as well as our final composer masterclass. In the afternoon Ruben Naeff, Kerrith Livengood, David Trum, Elizabeth Ogonek, and Ben Wallace got to present their music for David Lang. Once again, many of our recurring topics came up in discussion. I think this may be because we have a very artistically diverse group of composers - since we are all so different, we tend to focus on the more universal issues of being a composer. The conversation quickly turned to the way we introduce our music to listeners. We also addressed the ever-present topic of self-consciousness as a composer. Lang is quite a natural teacher; he has a knack for figuring out what a composer is trying to achieve, and encouraging him or her to achieve that more fully. He spoke of the difference between what you want to do in your music, versus what you do because you think it will please the listener. He encouraged us to write music that suits our own taste, with the confidence that a curious listener will be interested in experiencing our music on its own terms. As he put it, "if I'm not interested, I'll go watch a baseball game. If I am interested, I want to hear what you have to say, not what you think I want you to say." Lang also addressed the topic of text setting in relation to David Trum's vocal piece. Often we fall into the habit of setting words in a speech-like fashion, writing notes that are more or less the same length, never going against the grain. Lang advocated for a more elastic treatment of text. He believes that the text must become subservient to the music - not the other way around - and that passages of text can be set in ways that condense or expand its delivery in relation to its emotional content.

Our evening concert opened with Lang's aria "I Had No Reason" from his opera The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. This hauntingly exposed passage featured soprano Lindsay Kesselman in the role of Mrs. Williamson, whose husband has mysteriously vanished while walking across a field. Midway through, she was joined unexpectedly by violinist Matt Albert, who emerged from the audience and began playing.

Amy Kirsten's joujou explored the relationship between two classic Commedia dell'arte characters Pierrot and Columbine. Deidre Huckabay (flute), Megan Ihnen (mezzo-soprano), Katrina Leshan (guitar), Matthew Duvall (percussion), and Katy LaFavre (percussion) gave a brilliant performance. Each musician was called upon to vocalize and play percussion at various points in the piece, and they did so very effectively. The lightning-quick flashes of sound were absolutely mesmerizing. Amy's music is like a magic pastry shop of surprising sonic flavors.

Hojin Lee's Piece for Flute, Viola, and Piano embarked on an introverted journey full of brooding turmoil. Tim Munro, Andrea Hemmenway, and Daniel Walden played with deep angst.

In his Piano Trio: Prelude, Michael Ippolito made three instruments sound like a full orchestra. Sarah Saviet (violin), Branson Yeast (cello), and Lisa Kaplan (piano) played with dynamic force and confident unity. From intricately weaving lines to massive, juicy harmonies, the work was satisfying at every turn.

In contrast, Hye Jung Yoon's Piano Trio exemplified a different type of emotional fervor. Matt Albert (violin), Branson Yeast (cello), and Bryan Kelly (piano) were expressive and precise as they interpreted the lonely, desolate fury of the work.

Ben Wallace's quirky title, Lil' Iannis is Too Shy to Get Up and Dance, requires a bit of explanation. Ben took the rhythms of Iannis Xenakis' unpitched percussion piece Rebonds B and set them to pitches, creating a much different effect than Xenakis' original. The Xenakis piece has become a sort of inside joke among conservatory percussion students, since it is played so constantly that you can sometimes hear multiple people practicing it at once when walking by percussion practice rooms. Hearing it set to Ben's cheerful notes and played by Laura Lentz (flute), Nicholas Photinos (cello), and Yen Lin Goh (piano) was a quirky and welcome surprise.

all streams reach the sea at last, by Elizabeth Ogonek, was full of rich contrasts; the piece was by turns electrifying, tender, fiendish, and aquatic. A lovely performance was given by Tim Munro (flute), Emily McPherson (flute), Daniel Walden (piano), Joey Van Hassel (percussion), and Clara Warnaar (percussion).

When introducing his piece Fill the Present Day with Joy, Ruben Naeff told us "I wanted to write an opera about you." This propulsively energetic work was a setting of comments, status updates, and various other pieces of information from Facebook. Many of our participants' names came up in the piece, making it a fun, personal, and entertaining conclusion for the concert. The work's title comes from a William Wordsworth quote that mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen had posted on her wall. Ruben's piece makes use of this text, as well as the numerous comments posted by Megan's friends. The piece was given a spirited and unabashedly wacky performance by Jessica Aszodi (soprano), Matthew Albert (viola), Thomas Kotsheff (piano, claves, bell) and Charlie Magnone (piano).

After the concert we held our Music11 composer competition, in which we all voted for our favorite pieces from the festival. The prize is another performance of the winning pieces on Friday's final concert. This was a fun way to express our admiration for one another and hear some of our favorite pieces again. Congratulations to our winners Amy Kirsten and Ruben Naeff!!! We look forward to hearing your pieces again! Congrats also to our three honorable mentions: Michael Ippolito, Dylan Sheridan, and Gabriella Smith. This was definitely the best MusicX festival ever - we look forward to savoring our last day here together!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Music11 Composers II

Wednesday night we had our next installment of new pieces composed for Music11, along with three works by David Lang.

Flutist Emily McPherson opened the concert with David Lang's Thorn. She gave an energetic account of Lang's spiky piece, bringing out the contrast between sharp accents and fluttering activity.

Gabriele Vanoni's Prologo (Asparizione I) was an elegant understatement. The piece was so lovely and alluring I found myself wishing to hear it again instantly. This result was beautifully achieved by Laura Lentz (alto flute), Lindsay Kesselman (soprano), Keith Hendricks (percussion), and Lisa Kaplan (piano).

Island in a Sea of Light by David McDonnell took the listener through a labyrinth. Just when I felt completely lost, a tiny fragment of something familiar would come back - but the mystery was never completely dispelled. Thankfully, Emily McPherson (flute), Michael Maccaferri (clarinet), and Yen Lin Goh (piano) carried the mystery without actually getting lost themselves.

Dan Van Hassel's Chasm brought together contrasting smooth and angular sounds to create a thinly veiled, luminous environment. The piece was brought to life by the sensitive playing of Deidre Huckabay (flute), Kerrith Livengood (flute), Derek Tywoniuk (percussion), Katy LaFavre (percussion), and Lisa Kaplan (piano).

After a short break to reset the stage, we heard two of David Lang's pieces for piano four hands. Daniel Walden and Bryan Kelly played Gravity; Bryan Kelly and Yen Lin Goh played After Gravity. These pieces went absolutely nowhere, and did so beautifully. As Lang remarked, it was difficult to compose a sequel to a piece that went nowhere. Ultimately he solved the problem by going to a different nowhere the second time around.

Lindsey Jacob's Frica-what? was a much more serious piece than the title lead us to believe. This haunting piece explored the connections between vocal sounds and percussion sounds, with the flute as an intermediary. Although the work did involve some conventional singing, much of the music focused on unvoiced vocal timbres, allowing the singers - Lindsay Kesselman and Jessica Aszodi - to blend with the percussion and flute (Matthew Duvall, Derek Tywoniuk, and Emily McPherson).

Hidden Light by Ashley Fu-Tsun Wang gave the impression of radiance and iridescence. The performers Kerrith Livengood (flute), Matt Albert (violin), Andrea Hemmenway (viola), and Katrina Leshan (guitar) maintained an exquisite balance between their colorful lines.

We took a break for drinks and snacks, after which the final piece on the concert was performed. Dylan Sheridan chose to have his From the Garden of Sad Dreams performed later in order to use darkness as a part of the theatrical atmosphere of the work. Soprano Jessica Aszodi sang texts from Robert Louis Stevenson's Child's Garden of Verses. Dylan put excerpts of the text through Google Translator repeatedly in order to scramble the phrases and submerge the meaning. He also built a special lamp which produced sound and light. This lamp, suspended in the middle of the stage, became a subject of fascination and confrontation for the character. Tim Munro (flute), Joey Van Hassel (percussion), and Clara Warnaar (percussion) performed the instrumental parts with delicate precision, perfectly maintaining the enigmatic quality of the piece.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Say What You Have to Say - guest post by composer Amy Kirsten

Say What You Have to Say
- an essay celebrating last night's composers Kyle, Francisco, Gabriella, David, David, Ben, and Kerrith. Although what I have to say here has little to do with the concert, I'd like to express my gratitude for their clear musical ideas which included much personality, unexpected turns, sadness, and charisma. I warmly applaud them for saying what they have to say so much better than this essay will. Thank-you to the performers who gave last night their all. Bravissimo Every body!!

I've heard it said that it's really hard to be a composer - especially at the start. The 'beginner's mind' is prone to crippling self-doubt and torturous self-criticism, which, if not tamed (or fed a proper diet of small rodents) can turn into a little, but powerful, warty monster who rants negatively at parties and is just generally envious of successful colleagues. So in order to not become that thing, we try mightily to appreciate the efforts of other composers and, even if we don't respond particularly well to a new piece (even after a fair amount of repeated listening and score study), always have the option of remembering that composing, like being human, is sometimes difficult - and we are all trying our best.

But that isn't really what I want to say.

One of the responsibilities of a composer is to figure out how to communicate musical ideas on paper. If you think about it, the whole notion of this is quite asinine as there are so many subtleties that are impossible to write down - you can't capture musical grace, intensity, humor, or sensitivity and stick them behind the bars, sticks, and dots that we write with. It doesn't work. So we have to try our best to write it, and hope that when we talk about it we'll be able to find just the right words to augment and convey the meaning - but not too many words (because that can be just as ineffective as not talking at all). Composers have to learn how to simultaneously tame monsters and communicate with symbols that mean very little actually.

But that isn't really what I want to say.

One of the most satisfying things about being a composer is letting go. This is really not something that is taught in school (maybe it should be). After taming the monster, and communicating with strange and meaningless symbols, we have to let go of the manuscript and trust. Admittedly, this is not the default response when hearing the first rehearsal of a piece. Quite the contrary. More often, a first rehearsal will confirm that you are indeed a total failure, without imagination, unable to notate rhythms properly, and with only schlocky, hum-drum ideas. When you hear your music slowed down, in the wood shed, and under a microscope - well, its tough to come back from that. Even with the most experienced players in your corner, a first rehearsal might throw your entire belief system into a downward spiral, where, at the bottom of the deep ravine is the warty monster wearing a radical smile and sporting a t-shirt that reads "I knew you'd be back." But with any luck, you've got the Trust Gene. This is important. The Trust Gene sends a signal to your brain which tells you that the musicians who are currently playing your piece are fluent in Weird Meaningless Symbol and will actually make music out of it. With any luck they will even have fun solving the puzzles you've put in front of them. If your new piece is a princess, they will rescue it from the burning tower while simultaneously balancing the precious vase of enthusiasm on their heads - and they will accomplish all of this before noon.

But that isn't really what I want to say.

In the last few years, I've noticed that one of the most pervasive talking points in new music is pessimism. In the past I've heard composers and teachers say incredibly caustic things like: there is no point in doing what we do…or that no one cares what we do…or that there is no money for us to do what we do…or that all of this effort, all of this passion and beauty and free will is meaningless because it doesn't reach people. I'm not quite sure what accounts for these feelings, or the need to express them aloud to the impressionable and optimistic, but I can guess that perhaps somewhere along the way joy went out the window. I know you agree that there is nothing in this world that touches joy - and that if it's gone, there is only one way to get it back.

But let's look at our world for a moment. Here we are. We have endless possibilities before us. There are composition opportunities everywhere. The land is practically teeming with musicians who truly delight in making new music. We can communicate using whatever language we choose. Perhaps most striking of all is how supportive we are of each other and this place and time is a great example of that. I think I have a pretty good sense of general atmosphere here at Music11 - and it's not one of pessimism. We are interested in each other's lives, in each other's music, and are open to comments and suggestions; the festival embodies a truly generous spirit. (So much so that I don't think we really need a competition in order to activate it.) This kind of spirit is not indicative of the end of anything as has been suggested by misguided teachers of the past. It suggests an abundance that is accessible - now.

But that isn't really what I want to say.

All I really want to say is that last night's concert made me realize how accomplished we are. We are learning how to tame monsters, we're speaking weird languages effectively, and trusting that the princess (and the vase) will make it to safety before noon (and they did!). But perhaps most importantly, we are staring defiantly into the eyes of anyone who claims they know that our future is dim. If last night's concert is any indication - we have a lot to say…and we're good at it.

And that is a beautiful thing.

- Amy Kirsten, composer

Music11 Composers I

Tuesday night was our first performance featuring the new works written for this festival, along with one preexisting work by David Lang. The concert was an enormous success; both the performances and the pieces themselves were some of the best I can remember in the four years of my involvement with this festival. We were especially impressed by the strong, unique voice of each composer's work.

The concert opened with my own Percussion Quartet. I do not feel comfortable reviewing my own piece, so if you were there and have something to say, please leave a comment! I can say that I was extremely happy with the performance. The musicians - Keith Hendricks, Clara Warnaar, Matthew Duvall, and Katy LaFavre - gave a solid, vivid rendition of what I wrote, and made substantial contributions of their own.

Francisco Cortés-Álvarez's Horas Hechizadas was haunting, refracted, and ethereal. Ashley Addington (flute), Michael Maccaferri (clarinet), and Bryan Kelly (piano) inhabited the mysteries of this work while lavishing careful attention on each detail.

Tumblebird Digdown by Gabriella Smith took a completely different emotional turn. Inspired by Jack Kerouac, the piece definitely captured an ecstatic, yet laid back, West-Coast quality. Or, as percussionist Derek Tywoniuk described it, a klezmer band on crystal meth(!) Michael Maccaferri (clarinet), Andrea Hemmenway (viola), Thomas Kotcheff (piano), and Joey Van Hassel (percussion) played with wonderful energy.

Evan Meier's piece To Think That All This Work Began in Columns was an excerpt of his upcoming chamber opera, Swine. Soprano Lindsay Kesselman was lividly passionate in the role of Ulrike Meinhof - a German left-wing militant. Nicholas Photinos (cello), Charles Magnone (piano), and Derek Tywoniuk (percussion) backed her up with sensitivity, and also came to the forefront when appropriate. The piece has a truly dramatic quality which seems destined for the opera stage.

After a brief intermission, the concert continued with a reprise of David Lang's lend/lease. Deidre Huckabay and Katy LaFavre had continued working on the piece after Lang's presentation the other night. It was fascinating to hear the piece again after the discussion of how it should be played. They seemed to have found a balance between the competing edgy and smooth aesthetics we discussed, but leaned in the direction of being smooth and flexible.

David Trum's Costumes, Disguises was another theatrical vocal work. Set to a fantastically awkward poem by Trum's friend Megan Scharff, the piece acts out the meeting of former lovers at a costume party. Megan Ihnen (mezzo-soprano) inhabited the drama very effectively, sensitively balancing sung and spoken passages. Ashley Addington (flute), Kerrith Livengood (flute), and Nicholas Photinos (cello) provided fluid surroundings and tango-like episodes.

Pegasus by Kerrith Livengood, concluded the concert. This was an exquisitely imaginative fusion of sounds. Subtle, emerging lines were contrasted by strings of tiny bells. Ashley Addington (flute), Laura Lentz (flute), Michael Maccaferri (clarinet), Sarah Saviet (violin) and Ben Wallace (percussion) played with the utmost delicateness.

Thank you everyone for a marvelous concert!!!

Accent11 concert

On Tuesday afternoon we were visited by the Accent11 touring ensemble, who performed a short concert in Bartok Hall just after lunch. Accent11 is another University of Cincinnati music festival which takes place there at the College-Conservatory of Music. Designed for middle school through undergraduate students, this one-week intensive program is opened by a faculty concert, and showcases its participants with concerts during the week. Daily master classes provide further performance opportunities. A small group of qualified students were selected to perform after the festival on a concert tour in Italy and Switzerland, with Blonay as one of their stops. Tuesday's concert featured music by Bartok, Berio, Shostakovich, David Lang, and Miguel Roig-Francoli. The Accent11 musicians gave us a performance that was short and sweet. Several of them performed from memory, and all of them were well-prepared and enthusiastic. It was wonderful to hear from the next generation of young musicians performing 20th and 21st century music.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Music11: Day 8

On Monday we got to experience a composer masterclass with Joel Hoffman, as well as a concert of his music. The masterclass in the afternoon included Francisco Alvarez, me, Lindsey Jacob, and Hojin Lee. One topic of discussion was the issue of what to tell your audience before they hear your piece. Francisco had given a very specific program note and title - Laundry Revolution. This raised the issue of whether or not the information he provided was helpful to the listener. Hoffman felt that the piece was very satisfying as purely abstract music. Several others agreed that they preferred to listened to the piece on an abstract level, rather than relating it to the title and story behind it. On the other hand, some of us pointed out that many performers and audience members are eager to know something about the music they are about to hear. Having a story or image in mind can help direct the imagination of some listeners. However, other listeners might feel boxed in by the same story or image, wishing for a chance to hear the music without being conditioned in any way. We didn't really come up with an answer to this whole question, but that's because there isn't just one. In the end, each composer needs to think about both types of listeners as they present their music, and understand that this issue will always be subjective and messy. And this is what makes the arts so fascinating!

Rehearsals have been continuing around the clock, as usual. The performers are really showing their dedication to the new works we composers have written for them. I have been quite amazed by my performers. They have put in an immense amount of energy and time on my Percussion Quartet. Although the piece is full of intricate layers and difficult coordination, they are able to keep track of every detail and bring the piece to life.

Meanwhile, as I'm sitting in my room writing this, David Lang is next door composing a new work for Trio Mediaeval and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra. I have been hearing bits and pieces, and it sounds beautiful. It's not everyday I get to live next door to a Pulitzer-winning composer and hear him composing. Talk about inspiring...

The concert on Monday evening featured three pieces by Joel Hoffman. The first, Metasmo, is scored for three percussionists who are given almost full license over what instruments they choose to play. Hoffman's score gives general guidance at some points, but otherwise the percussionists get to play whatever instruments they what. Music11 percussionists Keith Hendricks, Derek Tywoniuk, and Ben Wallace chose a wide array of cowbells, gongs, woodblocks, crotaltes, glockenspiel, tin cans, bottles, finger cymbals, marimba bars, and bells. Metasmo captures the youthful energy of a child banging on pots and pans. The title of the piece is also the name of an imaginary friend invented by Hoffman's son at the age of two. Keith, Derek, and Ben certainly played the piece with youthful energy, but with decidedly more precision and competence than a two-year-old. Their intense performance and all-embracing choice of instruments made the piece shine.

Hoffman gave a striking performance of his recent 9 Pieces for Piano. These pieces exemplify his current musical language, which involves lucidly colorful material interspersed with carefully measured silences. He also turned on a metronome to measure the time between each movement, providing a theatrical, slightly unsettling sense of time elapsing.

The concert concluded with another recent piece, Three Paths. Branson Yeast (cello) and Thomas Kotcheff (piano) provided an immensely satisfying interpretation of the work. The three musical 'paths' were vivid in their contrast: one warm, spacious, and calm; another spiky and ferocious; the third plaintive and intensely lyrical. These three types of music were presented and recombined fluidly.

Overall this concert gave a strong sense for Hoffman's distinctive, but extremely eclectic compositional voice. The performers seemed to relish this eclectic quality, using it as a chance to be dramatic.