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.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Music11: Day 7

Sunday we turned over a new page here at Music11, as we had our first full day with guest composer David Lang. He arrived yesterday, while most of us were off exploring, so today was our first day really getting to spend time with him. In the evening he gave a presentation on his music. As with Pintscher and Hoffman, Lang's presentation was absolutely fascinating. First he spoke about his musical background, including his first forays into composition by composing trombone parts to Beethoven Violin Sonatas, and playing them along with recordings by Oistrakh and Richter! His love of Bach and his experience performing in a Gregorian chant choir were also important influences. Lang shared about his struggle as a Jew dealing with his love for an enormously Christian music tradition. This challenge was an integral part of the first piece he shared with us: the Pulitzer-winning little match girl passion. In this work, Lang delved into his love for Bach's Passions while grappling with his position as a Jew relating to Christianity. He had initially intended to compose a completely different piece, setting a text by filmmaker/writer Peter Greenaway. However, Greenaway's text proved to be highly inappropriate in its final form, leading Lang to abandon the text and start over within a month of his commission deadline. Having previously considered writing a sort of passion, he searched for a way to make a passion about the suffering of someone besides Jesus Christ. Lang was primarily interested in the passion play's ability to ponder human suffering, rather than its status as a central element of Christian doctrine. At his wife's suggestion, he chose Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Little Match Girl" as his subject. This immensely powerful work exhibits enormous sensitivity and architectural craft. In my experience, Pintscher's music often uses painful materials to say something beautiful, Lang's piece uses beautiful materials to say something painful. (I realize this statement is somewhat unqualified, and is heavily dependent on one's definition of pain and beauty. I don't claim it as anything more than a subjective reaction. This blog does allow for the posting of comments, so please discuss!) Lang spoke about his belief that each work should have the same level of polish on both the large and small levels. Creating this balance was extremely difficult in the short time he had to finish this piece; therefore, he began sending the music in installments so that the musicians could rehearse while Lang continued working after the original deadline. He also told us about the near-disaster of having the finished scores trapped in his lost luggage on the way to the first rehearsals, forcing him to frantically recompose the last few movements in order to have them ready in time. On the whole, this mishap was a blessing in disguise. Lang said that the original version had been much more fancy and complicated. Rewriting these movements so quickly forced him to dig down to their roots and come up with something very simple and direct. The result is quite stunning - these movements exhibit strong connections to the great passions of Bach and Schütz, as well as ancient Greek tragedy. Lang managed to leverage the uncomfortable circumstances to compose music with a truly universal quality. (Again, my reaction - feel free to debate!)

We then heard a live performance of Lang's piece lend/lease. Deidre Huckabay (piccolo) and Katy LaFavre (woodblocks) gave a riveting account of this incredibly difficult piece. Lang's score provides only a piccolo part, requiring the woodblock player to find her own way of playing in unison with the piccolo. Katy chose to use five woodblocks and follow the contour of the pitches in Deidre's part. Lang's score includes detailed phrase markings, but is suspiciously devoid of dynamics. Deidre and Katy spend much of their rehearsal time developing and refining their own choices of tempo and dynamics. When they rehearsed with Lang earlier in the day, he implored them to play with much more aggression. He found their original interpretation to be too smooth - eighth blackbird flutist Tim Munro affectionately described it as "minimalist Schumann." Their rendition in performance was a synthesis of this original smoothness and the new edginess demanded by Lang. This brought up *once again* the controversial Matthias Pintscher question of how a composer should express musical intention on paper. Since Lang leaves so much up to the performer, the question is how demanding can he actually be when working with performers who have taken his invitation to play the piece their own way. Lindsay Kesselman, a singer, pointed out that there are different types of performers: some enjoy realizing a set of highly detailed instructions, while others enjoy the co-creative process of dealing with problems intentionally posed to them by the composer. This discussion helped us find some sense of synthesis to the various approaches to the whole issue of notation and expression. Obviously, this is an issue that has no final and concrete answers; therefore, continual fascinating discussions are vital to maintaining freshness in the way we approach our art.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Music11: Day 6

Saturday was a free day for everyone at the festival, giving us a chance to take a break from our intense musical activities. Many of us explored the surrounding region, hiked up mountains, walked by the lake, rode bikes, tasted wines, took train trips to more remote destinations, and just relaxed in general. Here is a sampling of photos taken by some of our participants.

Thomas Kotcheff:

Ruben Naeff:

Dan VanHassel:

Jessica Aszodi:

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Music11: Day 5

Friday we had our final round of music sharing sessions, hearing from Hojin Lee, Gabriella Smith, David Trum, Francisco Alvarez, and Kerrith Livengood. Much of the discussion centered around the use or influence of electronics, and the way that can change one's voice as a composer. For instance, David's electronic music proved to be markedly different from his acoustic music, while Gabriella's orchestra piece used instrumental effects to create Radiohead-esque electronic-sounding textures. Kerrith has been recording various sounds she stumbles upon, which then turn into short pieces posted on her blog, where she has been posting a new piece everyday for almost a year!

Unfortunately, this morning Matthias Pintscher had to leave for his next festival commitment back in the US. We really enjoyed having him here at Music11, and will certainly miss him.

In the evening we heard artistic director/resident composer Joel Hoffman speak about his music. At the beginning he asked if there was anything in particular we would like to hear about him, his music, or life as a professional composer. Numerous topics were suggested; here are a few:

The difference between the new music scenes in the US and Italy (since Hoffman lived in Italy for several years)

The process of forging a working career as a composer

The artistic transition from being a student to being a professional

The way notation represents and influences the character of a piece (our favorite topic from the other night!)

Being a composer in academia

The use of graphic notation and colors

Hoffman somehow managed to at least touch on all of these topics, weaving them into his words about the pieces he played for us. With regard to notation, he pointed out that the main issue is: what do we insist upon in our scores, and what do we leave up to the performer(s)? He noted that, because of his traditional classical music upbringing, he feels happy to express all of his music in the language of traditional classical notation. However, even that notation is never an exact science. The composer must also forge a performance practice for his or her music, personally collaborating with performers to achieve the best result for each piece and each performance setting.

Hoffman played us several of his works: Millenium Dances for large orchestra; Blue and Yellow for flute and piano; The First Time and the Last originally for four cellos, but also scored in a version for ten cellos; and the second movement of his Cello Concerto. He used each of these pieces to continue touching on the topics we suggested. In particular, he mentioned that his position in academia allows him the freedom to write pieces that are not always practical, such as the enormous Millenium Dances. Although he composed this work and many others on paid commission, he is grateful than his livelihood is provided primarily by his teaching; therefore each piece need not be targeted to make the maximum amount of money, but can focus instead on expressing his current state as an artist and a human being. The four pieces Hoffman played did indeed represent some very different points in his creative journey. He mentioned that he is ultimately an eclectic composer. Although he sometimes envies more narrowly focused composers, he feels compelled to follow his wide-ranging musical tastes - he feels more comfortable looking up at distant stars than examining tiny objects through a microscope. However, he also believes that in each piece - regardless of style - a composer should choose carefully limited materials and make the most of them. These paradoxes are what keep us interested in the creative process; the dialogue of possibilities and limitations makes music both difficult and rewarding.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Music11: Day 4

(clockwise from left: Michael Maccaferri, Dave McDonnell, Emily McPherson, Charlie Magnone, and Yen Lin Goh in rehearsal.)

Thursday was another full day here at Music11. The composers had our third music sharing session, this time hearing from Dave McDonnell, Lindsey Jacob, Ben Wallace, and me. One common theme in several pieces was a connection with travel and nature. Many of us draw on visual and environmental aspects as a starting point for our music. It is always interesting to hear feedback from other composers to see how the visual inspiration comes across in the piece. Composers have also taken different approaches to the presentations themselves. Some have played excerpts of several pieces in order to give an overview of their artistic evolution. Others (myself included) played less music and used more of the time for discussion. Both approaches have yielded intriguing conversations. Since we come from a variety of backgrounds and schools, we hear a variety of opinions from one another, which can be very helpful.

In the evening we had our first performance of this year's festival, featuring the music of Matthias Pintscher. The concert included two pieces: Study No. II for Treatise on the Veil for violin, viola, and cello, and Figura V/Assonanza for solo cello. The performers were Sarah Saviet, violin; Matt Albert, viola; and Branson Yeast, cello. Matthias gave some opening remarks about the trio, having them play some musical examples to give a sense of the work's material. The performers also played the trio twice, since we just had two pieces on the program and had plenty of time. Both pieces are exquisitely crafted, full of whispering, sparse textures. Since the instruments are prepared with paper clips, they create totally unique timbres that sound almost electronic. It was great to hear the trio twice, since it presents the ears with so much to take in. Since Pintscher passed around scores of the piece, some of us just listened the first time, then followed the score the second time. Since Bartok Hall (our performance space) is quite a small room, I think we were able to revel in the beautiful details of this piece much more so than if we had been in a larger hall - we experienced it in a true chamber music setting.

(left to right: Matthias Pintscher, Branson Yeast, Sarah Saviet, and Matt Albert)

Apparently this white cat also likes Pintscher's music, and our festival in general. She was meowing outside the window during the second run of the trio, and has been hanging out with us all the time - sometimes well into our late-night parties!

Music11: Day 3

Wednesday morning we continued with our series of music sharing sessions. Presenters included Michael Ippolito, Ashley Fu-Tsun Wang, Gabriele Vanoni, Dan VanHassel, and Dylan Sheridan. We enjoyed getting to know more of our colleagues' music. This session brought up some interesting topics of discussion, such as the process of transcribing our own music for a different instrumentation, as well as the challenges of fusing together our diverse, treasured influences in a way that is unique to us as individual artists.

Meanwhile, the performers continued rehearsing the new works. Now that the first few rehearsals are out of the way, the musicians are getting deeper into the music. many rehearsals have consisted of highly disciplined technical work, i.e., turning on the metronome and gradually working towards a faster tempo, while getting all the notes to fall in the right place; I can hear percussionists practicing my piece like this right now from across the yard as I'm writing this. The slow practice helps everyone internalize the music, while the gradual speeding up ensures that they will reach the proper performance tempo with confidence. In the many rehearsals I have visited, I have been thrilled to see the way everyone is so devoted to bringing each new work to life. Both performers and composers are showing a willingness to be flexible, experimenting until they find just the right rendering of a given passage of music. And the great thing is, we all live right here in these two buildings, so it's easy to run up to the room and take a nap between sessions, or go for a walk, or check emails on the back porch. This location gives us the ideal blend of convenience and flat-out gorgeous scenery!

Wednesday night five of our participant composers had a chance to present their music to Matthias Pintscher in order to gain his insight on their work. These composers included Ashley Fu-Tsun Wang, Evan Meier, Dan VanHassel, Gabriella Smith, and Gabriele Vanoni. This session ended up lasting several hours, full of fascinating discussion. Pintscher showed a wonderful sensitivity to the musical language of each composer. He was very encouraging, affirming the most successful aspects of each piece while offering constructive criticism. He also insisted that each composer give a brief verbal introduction to their piece, as though they were addressing a large audience at a concert, or an orchestra at a rehearsal. When some displayed a lack of confidence in their presentation skills or artistic development, Pintscher would not let them off the hook. He implored them not to recoil, but to express themselves with passion, because each of them has a unique voice as a composer and as a human being. In relation to the music, he discussed both general issues and specific details. One of the more controversial - and lengthy - topics of discussion was the issue of how notation expresses the character of the music. Pintscher insisted that the notation should communicate every detail of the music, but do so in a way that does not provide obstructions and distractions. Throughout the discussion, he also invited comments from the rest of us, creating a symposium-like setting that made for an inspiring and memorable evening.

(left to right: Dan VanHassel, Gabriella Smith, Matthias Pintscher, Gabriele Vanoni, and Evan Meier following a score during the masterclass)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Music11: Days 1 & 2

Another installment of the MusicX festival is underway! We had a spectacular time last year at Music10 (see posts below) and are happy to be off to a great start for Music11.

If you've just tuned in, Music11 is a festival of contemporary music from June 20 to July 1, located at the Hindemith Music Centre in Blonay, Switzerland. The festival is lead by artistic director Joel Hoffman, general manager Michael Ippolito, operations manager Kyle Werner (yours truly), and ensemble in residence eighth blackbird. This year's composers in residence are Joel Hoffman, David Lang, and Matthias Pintscher. We have a total of 42 participants: 19 composers and 23 performers (two of which are also composers). Upon acceptance, the composers were each assigned to write a piece for a specific ensemble, which consists of one member of eighth blackbird and 2-4 participant performers. During the two weeks here, we are rehearsing for these 19 world premieres, which will be presented next week in a series of concerts. We will also present performances of works by the resident composers - Hoffman, Lang, and Pintscher - as well as a series of masterclasses for composers and performers. In addition, we have four sessions dedicated to the participant composers, providing each a chance to give a presentation on his or her music. (And believe it or not, we still have a fair amount of time to relax and enjoy this beautiful place!)

Roughly half of us arrived early on Sunday the 19th, allowing us to get a head start on dealing with jet lag, and to get settled here at the Hindemith Centre. The remaining participants arrived on Monday, at which time the festival officially began. What a wonderful group of people! This year we set a new record in the number of applicants, so the festival was more competitive than ever before. Over the last couple of days, we have been delighted to find that our participants are as friendly as they are talented. They come from all over Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America. It is a pleasure to get to know one another during meals and free time, in addition to our official festival activities.

Here are some pictures of where we spend our time here:

Chalet de Lacroix - the main building which contains our dining room, salon, several rehearsal/practice rooms, and housing on the upper floors.

The Pavilion - the adjacent building, which includes rehearsal space, the Bartok Hall (where performances and other large events are held), and housing on the upper floor.

Day 1 (Monday) opened with lunch and an orientation meeting, after which we launched right into rehearsals. We got a good start, despite jet lag and numerous travel glitches! Our party that night left us a little drowsy the next morning. It was worth it, though!

Tuesday we had our first composer presentation session in the morning. Presenters included Hye Jung Yoon, Elizabeth Ogonek, Ruben Naeff, Evan Meier, and Amy Kirsten. The variety of musical styles was striking. We always try to put together a festival with diverse musical personalities, and this year is no exception. I find it fascinating to see how each composer's personality is reflected in their music. Hearing this music also whets our appetites for next weeks concerts - hearing someone's previous works makes us curious to hear how their new piece will sound.

After dinner we all gathered in Bartok Hall, where composer in residence Matthias Pintscher spoke about his music. He has a knack for drawing connections between different artistic media in order to move beyond musical details and tap into deeper aesthetic questions. He opened and closed the session by reading quotations of visual artist Agnus Martin. In between, Pintscher played recordings of his Flute Concerto, written for Emmanual Pahud, his orchestral work Toward Osiris, composed for Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, and his Study #1 for violin and cello. He used these works as a starting point for talking about his ideas about music. In particular, he addressed the idea of each detail containing the spirit of the entire work; creating perspective by leaving space between the layers of a work; continually shaping your inner ear by listening to live performances; and letting the materials themselves generate the form of a work. Although all of these topics had obvious manifestations within Pintscher's works, he also noted the ways they are present in many other disciplines such as visual art, architecture, and cooking. He observed that, in both music and cooking, it usually works best to have just 3 or 4 main ingredients - everything else must play a supporting role in order to maintain the clarity of the whole. (By the way, we have amazing food here at the Hindemith Centre, so Pintscher's point definitely hit home!) Since he is both a composer and conductor, he has excellent insights to the total process of creating new music - from the first germinating idea to the last chord of the live performance. This was a truly inspiring presentation.