Composing the Future


Seola Kim performs her work for table harp and gamelan orchestra. Photo by OBF Composers Symposium.

Seola Kim performs her work for table harp and gamelan orchestra.
Photo by OBF Composers Symposium.

Story and photos by GARY FERRINGTON

I write music, but I don’t think of myself as a composer – at least not yet. So, why did I attend the 10-day Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium, June 28 – July 7, in Eugene? I wanted to hear tomorrow’s music today. That need to experience the future of contemporary classical music was throughly fulfilled with the public premiere of more than 30 new works by a cadre of international young composers attending the symposium, now in its 11th season, at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance.

According to UO composition professor Robert Kyr, who directs the symposium, the 91 participants made this year’s gathering the largest of its kind in the world. If the exuberant post-symposium Facebook comments by attendees are evidence, the 2014 symposium could be even larger.

As a registered auditor I sampled as many of the activities as I could from a tight schedule that began early in the morning and often lasted until after midnight.

Composers Focus Groups: Dr. Stephen Hartke with Ian Guthrie, Tom Morrison, and Noah Jenkins.

Composers focus groups: Dr. Stephen Hartke with Ian Guthrie, Tom Morrison, and Noah Jenkins.

Composers in Focus

I attended most of the 18 Composer Focus Groups that met with award-winning composer Stephen Hartke from the University of Southern California. It was in these two-hour sessions, with 3-4 composers per group, that I heard new music not necessarily scheduled for premier in the symposium’s Living Music Now concert series. Each composer had 30 minutes to share a score and recording of a composition that they wanted to discuss with Dr. Hartke, who then provided invaluable feedback to each individual as the rest of us listened and took notes.

I’ve been able to find five pieces online that were critiqued in the Focus Groups sessions. These compositions, in particular, caught my attention and appeal to my personal aesthetic. They include Andrew Stiefel’s (University of Oregon) “The Day Is On Fire,” Saunder Choi’s (Boston’s Berklee College of Music) “Sayaw ng Bulol” (“Dance of the Rice Gods”), Philip Rice’s (Michigan State University) “Tokyo Ablution,” Keith Allegretti’s (University of Michigan) “Two Movements from New Mexico,” and Liam Elliot (Acadia University) “Tundar.” Most of these pieces have their origins in either a cultural context such as Choi’s based on the indigenous Ifugao rice culture in the Philippines, or an experience of the natural soundscape as reflected in Eillot’s composition about glacial moraine and uplifted peaks.

Virgin Ear Workshops: Dr. Robert Kyr with composer Adam Zukaitis

Virgin Ear workshops: Dr. Robert Kyr with composer Adam Zukaitis.

Dr. Robert Kyr, a prolific composer and gifted teacher, conducted what were called Virgin Ears Workshops. As with the Composer Focus Groups, each of the 19 participating composers in these sessions had the opportunity to have a work they specifically composed for the symposium performed with a live reading by members of the Ameriocan Creators Ensemble. These first-time performances were then workshopped as Kyr, the composer, and the ensemble experimented and tweaked a composition to make it a much better piece of music. Changes might include altering the dynamics, tempo or even the instrumental arrangement of a composition. Sometimes it was a matter of how the strings might be bowed or plucked. After the composer was satisfied with the work it would then again be performed with the modifications included.

Kyr stressed the need for composers to work closely with ensembles to evolve their work. In fact, “collaboration” was the word most often heard throughout the symposium. These sessions emphasized how beneficial it was to engage with an ensemble to enhance and improve one’s score.

Given that the music presented in the Virgin Ears workshops is new, it is not yet available online. Some of it may eventually find its way to SoundCloud or another Internet source. However other work by some of the participating composers is available for the venturous reader to explore including compositions by Alyssa Rodriguez (Ithaca College); Brittany Studer (UO); Daniel Webbon (Baylor); Ethan Berg (Illinois Wesleyan) Ian Guthrie (Marylhurst University); Leo Hurley (University of North Carolina School of the Arts); Martin Quiroga Jr. (University of Houson) and Zach Gulaboff Davis (Linfield College)

Living Music Now concert series: Performance of Joseph Stillwell's "Scherzo" with Sarah Pyle (flute) and Brian McWhorter (trumpet)

Living Music Now concert series: Performance of Joseph Stillwell’s “Scherzo” with Sarah Pyle (flute) and Brian McWhorter (trumpet).

Creations in Concert

The four Living Music Now concerts offered during the week featured music by symposium composers and performed in Beall Concert Hall for the public and simultaneously live streamed over the Internet. The first concert showcased the American Creators Chorus of 37 voices, brought together on June 28 to perform new choral works by 11 symposium composers under the direction of Craig Hella Johnson, founder and artistic director of the Austin-based Conspirare vocal ensemble. It was a busy four days for those involved, who spent over 21 hours in rehearsal.

The second concert on July 5 featured the Eugene-based ensemble Beta Collide with directors Molly Barth (flute) and Brian McWhorter (trumpet), both UO faculty members. In addition to performing work by great 20th century composers Morton Feldman, Toru Takemitsu, John Cage, the ensemble opened with five new compositions by symposium participants: “Scherzo” by Joseph Stillwell (San Francisco Conservatory); “Country Song” by Nicole Portley (UO); “Three Social Dances” by Marc Evans (Stanford); ” Night Psalm” for flute by former Portlander Justin Ralls (SF Conservatory); and “Miniature March” by Clare Glackin (USC). Beta Collide concluded with a special presentation of recent UO graduate James Bean’s “this is causing itself,” a graphic score composition. This was the third time I’ve experienced the James Bean piece and have found this alternative to traditional notation and performance intriguing. Beta Collide, in my opinion, gave it the most effective reading to date.

The July 6 Living Music Now program was entirely devoted to music by symposium composers with the American Creators Ensemble. The ensemble, like the chorus, included composers-performers-conductors attending the symposium. Much of this music had first been read in the Virgin Ears Workshops and was now ready for the public to hear. The evening included “Dances” for solo violin by Kei Hong Addison Wong and “Einige Kleine Variationene” a trio for trumpet, flugelhorn and piano by Alexander Bean (both UO students); “Pastiche-ios!” for violin, cello, and piano by Martin Quiroga; one “Tilt-Shift” composed for viola, piano, and drumset by Daniel Webbon (both University of Houston); “Riffs and Echoes” for trumpet and double bass by Travis Alford (Brandeis University); “Mountain” for viola, double bass and piano by Peter Kay (University of South Carolina); “Death Came So Soon” for quintet by Emily Hall (Portland State University); “Hope 1, Movement 1” for soprano, viola, and piano by Lacy Rose (University of Texas); and “Soon Shall Rise” for quintet by Leo Hurley (University of North Carolina). Symposium participant Rachel Beetz (UC San Diego) performed “Nidi” for flute by American composer Franco Donatoni.

Dr. Kyr asked each composer to introduce his/her work and to place the music in context. For example, Peter Kay spoke about the influence of regional music in his composition “Mountain,” while Lacy Rose discussed the influence of the passage of time and remembrance of past associations in her “Hope 1, Movement 1” which she sung in a dramatic cabaret style performance.

The final program of the week featured guest artists Brian Coughlin and Adam Marks of the New York based Fireworks Ensemble, who worked closely with symposium composers in the premiere of four new ensemble works: “The Fierce Urgency of Now” by Andrew Stiefel (UO); “Song of Seikilos” for double bass by Keith Allergretti (University of Michigan); “Sparrows Jump Nine Sandpipers” by Andrew Sigler (UT Austin); and “This music with all of you,” a piano duet by Jacob Walls (UO). The post-intermission program featured the work of Fireworks Ensemble founder Brian Coughlin, a 1998 University of Oregon graduate in music composition.

Wild Nights Cafe: Performance of Avery Pratt's "Beach Volleyball" with Avery Pratt (viola I) and Brett Banducci (viola II)

Wild Nights Cafe: Performance of Avery Pratt’s “Beach Volleyball” with Avery Pratt (viola I) and Brett Banducci (viola II).

Music making didn’t stop at the conclusion of each Living Music Now concert. Symposium participants moved from Beall Hall over to the UO music school’s Aasen-Hull rehearsal venue, where new works continued to be performed. Three “Wild Nights Cafe” sessions, as these events were called, premiered the work of Oliva Davis (UO), Steve Ettinger (UO), Stacey Phillips (Portland State), Kit Mills (Wheaton College), Lacy Rose (UT-Austin), Thomas Morrison (University of Montana), Avery Pratt (UO), Liam Eilliot (Acadia University), Seola Kim (University of Hawaii), Noah Jenkins (UO), and Bret Bohman (Michigan). Even though the hour grew, late I appreciated the opportunity to hear the wonderful work of these emerging composers.

I never made it beyond 11:30 pm when the Wild Nights Cafe moved across campus to the Collier House where improvisation and other music performances took place until the morning hours.

The third and final Wild Nights Cafe session on July 7 featured the premieres of 19 new short works for Balinese gamelan that had been composed within four days as composers learned to play and compose for these unique instruments under the mentorship of Robert Kyr. At about 11 pm that evening, the symposium closed with an amazing performance of a composition by Seola Kim written for the ajaeng (a Korean table harp), two flutes and gamelan orchestra. The combining of Korean and Balinese instruments proved to be a beautiful experience that brought the audience of fellow composers and performers on their feet for a standing ovation.

21st Century Careers

Given all of the new music being reviewed, critiqued, rehearsed, and performed there was still time set-aside for five professional seminars. Composer-In-Residence Hartke and Kyr  discussed how their work came to be commissioned and the process involved in writing, rehearsing, and performing. They then played recordings of their music by the groups for whom the work had been composed. Artist-in-Residence Craig Hella Johnson and Guest Artists Brian Coughlin, Adam Marks, Molly Barth and Brian McWhorter shared their personal journeys into careers as composers and musicians. And UO faculty member Idit Shner and graduate student Sean Fredenburg provided an excellent workshop session on composing for the saxophone.

Professional Seminar: Dr. Stephen Hartke speaking on music and the English language.

Professional seminar: Dr. Stephen Hartke speaking on music and the English language.

Throughout the symposium, certain themes about being a composer in the 21st century emerged that were amplified in the professional seminars:

• Collaboration and networking are vital. They will increase awareness of one’s own work as well as open new opportunities for funding sources. Creating performing groups, like the Fireworks Ensemble, is one example of collaboration with those who share like interests.

• Don’t be afraid to share work. Composers aren’t going to make a fortune on selling copies of their work, so share and make it available for performance. As more people learn about your ability as a composer, commissions and new opportunities to be engaged in paying projects may follow.

• The symphony orchestra is in transition, with many having disappeared and others on the brink of bankruptcy. Writing for smaller ensembles and chamber groups holds more promise for the performance of one’s music.

• Composing stacks of un-performed music may satisfy the ego, but music is written to be heard. Writing shorter compositions increases the possibility of your having work performed as they can be “worked-in” to a program.

• Engaging with the community in which a composer lives raises awareness of the contributions a composer-citizen makes in enriching culture. Working with student music programs, helping to develop local concert events, and sharing with others are important steps for building recognition of new music and creating audiences.

• Music publication is becoming more a composer’s task than that of a publishing house. It’s important to learn how to use notation and publication software and to understand new ways to distribute one’s music. Composers must use social networking, online video, and other technologies to generate awareness of their music.

• Academic career options have greatly been reduced over the years. Anyone who plans to compose and teach in higher education needs knowledge about musicology, music theory, composition and performance. Today’s academic professional needs to be able to teach any number of course topics, and to perform, compose, and conduct.

• Be true to yourself and compose the music that is expressive of your own ideas. No need to follow trends.

Gamelan orchestra in rehearsal.

Gamelan orchestra in rehearsal.

The OBF Composers Symposium more than satisfied my interest in hearing music by today’s young emerging composers. It is too early to know whether audiences in 3013 (if there are audiences then) will look back at one or two of these composers and think of them as we do Bach, Beethoven and Brahms today. But I hope so.

Though I am no closer to calling myself a composer at the end of this summer’s symposium than I was at the beginning, I feel that I’ve had a master class in composition by some of the best American composers and musicians of our time. But, as Dr. Hartke suggested, embrace your apprenticeship and that I am doing. The OBF Composers Symposium was an valuable opportunity to share, learn, and grow in one’s art. I look forward to doing it all over again next year.

If you want to hear more music by these emerging composers, here’s a SoundCloud directory of links to their works.

Gary Ferrington is Senior Instructor Emeritus, Education, at the University of Oregon.

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