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.

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