Music Today Festival Preview: New sounds by Oregon’s next generation

University of Oregon festival celebrates contemporary classical music January 19-31.


Since 1993, the University of Oregon’s biennial Music Today Festival has nurtured and presented new music by emerging Oregon composers. Dr. Robert Kyr, Phillip H. Knight Professor of Music (composition), estimates that more than 100 students will participate in this year’s festival, coordinated by the Oregon Composers Forum (OCF), a group of upper division and graduate student composers committed to the creation and performance of new music. ArtsWatch interviewed by email seven of the 21 composers involved with the six student-organized ensembles in this year’s festival. All performances, including the world premieres of 40 new pieces, take place at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance except where otherwise indicated.


Visiting artist Esteli Gomez, soprano, will perform new compositions in Eugene and Portland. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Esteli Gomez, Eugene: January 19, at 8 pm, Beall Concert Hall. Portland: January 24, at 8pm, Zoomtopia Studio 2, 819 S.E, Belmont. $10 general admission, $8 students and seniors

One of the nation’s rapidly rising sopranos, Esteli Gomez, opens the Festival with the performance of new works composed for her visit by OCF participants. A member of New York’s 2014 Grammy Award winning vocal octet Roomful Of Teeth, Gomez is this year’s year’s Vanguard Series artist-in-residence. Her fourth residency in Eugene includes a week of pre-festival one-on-one and small group discussion sessions with composers about each piece she will perform — highly valued by young composers given the unique opportunity to be personally mentored by a professional artist of Gomez’s stature.

The evocative springtime images in Robert Bridges’ poem “Asian Birds” inspired Rebecca Larkin’s The Voice of Spring for soprano and chamber ensemble of piccolo, clarinet, cello, and double bass. “Using a form that loosely follows an ABA pattern, the piece begins in a folk-like style and establishes joviality before giving way to an introspective middle and transitioning back to the original theme.”

Ramsey Sadaka began his Four Songs on Poems by Emily Brontë by asking Kyr about Gomez’s vocal capability so that he could compose in a way that highlighted both her voice and Brontë‘s poetic words. “He told me that she could do anything, which is, of course, a composer’s greatest wish.” Sadaka recalls. He found a video of her singing English Renaissance composer John Dowland’s “In Darkness Let me Dwell.” The purity and sweetness of her voice became essential to his song cycle for soprano, flute (doubling alto flute), violin, viola, and cello.

Sadaka admired the poems of Emily Brontë, whose six-line “Cold, clear, and blue” paints a scene by a lake at sunrise. “Though her poetry conveys private, inner worlds, they simultaneously express broad, vivid landscapes,” he says. “These were the qualities I tried to bring out in my setting of her poetry.”

Brontë‘s landscape theme helped Sadaka determine what other poems he’d use. “’Was it with the fields of green’” uses plant imagery as the narrator reminiscences about an absent lover,” he explains. ”’How golden bright from earth to heaven’ exalts the final rays of light as the sun sets; and ‘Tell me, tell me, smiling child’ is a dialogue between two people in which one asks what the past, present, and future are while the other compares them to various images. These poems thus show the progression of one day with a meditation at the end.”

Songs composed for Gomez by John Goforth, Justin Ralls, Alexander Bean, Dan S. Daly, David Sackman and Matthew B. Zavortink will also be premiered during her Eugene and Portland concerts.

Flute Studio, 8 pm January 25, Beall Concert Hall, Frohnmayer Music Building $7 general admission, $5 students and senior.

The UO Flute Studio of Prof. Molly Barth premieres new compositions for various flute ensembles by Mark Cooney, Brittany Studer, Rebecca Larkin, Justin RallsDavid Sackmann, and Rex Darnell.

“I think it is exciting to expand my students’ collaborative experiences,” Molly Barth wrote in an email. “Communication between composers and performers can be tricky: composers have sounds in their heads that they want the performers to send into the sonic world, and performers have interpretive instincts which occasionally conflict with the composers’ expectations. Working to achieve a balance is essential.”

 The ney, an ancient Persian instrument, has been played continuously for nearly 5,000 years (Wikipedia).

The ney, an ancient Persian instrument, has been played continuously for nearly 5,000 years (Wikipedia).

TaiHei Ensemble, 8 pm January 28, Aasen-Hull Hall, Frohnmayer Music Building, Free admission.

The TaiHei Ensemble, which explores cross-cultural communication between Western and non-Western musical traditions, premieres new works by Carolyn A. Quick, Nathan Engelman, Bryce Miller, Nikolai Valov, Pedram Diba, and David Sackman.

Nikolai Valov’s Two Dialogues for ney  (a Middle-Eastern end-blown flute)  and piano has taken him into uncharted waters given the highly unusual combination of instruments. His piece is influenced by the serialism of Nicholas Slonimsky; a neo-impressionist/neo-romantic approach in which Nikolai imagines what a prelude by Scriabin, Debussy or Schoenberg would sound like if they used Persian modes; and percussive piano writing like that of Ginastera, Bartok, Prokofiev and Zyman. Valov uses the ney, a highly improvisatory instrument, like a flute or violin. Instead of dictating exact pitches, he had to create a new system of notation for the ney in which he allows the performer to improvise along a contour.

Pedram Diba has an interest in bridging the music he knows best from having lived in Iran with his new 3.Dafexperiences in the west. “When I started writing for Tai Hei I not only wanted to introduce new harmonies,” he explains, “but I also wanted to introduce new colors and new instruments to the audience.” Since there are few eastern instruments or musicians in Eugene, he was pleased to find a musician who plays the daf, a Persian percussion instrument. Diba has composed a solo work for the instrument that combines rhythms common to the east and west and explores the instrument’s dynamic range and sonic colors. He notes that the daf is an improvisatory instrument and he has “integrated this aspect in his composition requiring the performer to improvise around specific instructions throughout the piece.”

Sonos Domum, 8 pm January 29, Beall Concert Hall, Frohnmayer Music Building. Free admission.

A new cross-disciplinary group, Sonos Domum (sounds of the home), explores new approaches to musical and sonic structures. The ensemble’s concert combines works by OCF composers with improvisations by performers and audience members.

“One of my goals for this ensemble is to share the music-making process with the audience,” notes director Dan Daly. “All of our pieces will involve improvisation; the degree of structure will vary. In my view, the best improvisers are aware not only of their fellow musicians but also the ‘qualities’ of the room. Is it hot or noisy? Are the listeners warm or distant? And how can I respond musically? Performers working with fixed scores can also ask these questions and modulate their expressions accordingly, but as improvisers we can sculpt every musical element around these feelings and interactions.”

Improvisation is a skill that composer Izabel O. Austin believes that musicians should have but often overlook. “Not being bound by a traditional score opens up a whole new world of options for both self-expression and communication between players,” she observes, “and it’s also exciting from an audience perspective, since the music is being made in the moment exclusively for them.”

Her Sonos Domum piece consists of a prose poem she wrote and then fragmented into seven parts, one for each member of the performing group. While each player will have different words and thus interpret the poem differently, the fragments all came from the same whole, which will create a tenuous thread of coherence through the disjunction. How long the piece lasts is open ended as some players might interpret a word as one note while others may feel it as a melody or repeating motive. The instrumentation is unspecified since I feel that each person should pick a part with the words that are most evocative to them.”

Composing for the Sonos Domum concert interested Nathan Engleman, a composer who conventionally notates his relatively tonal music, because it provided him the opportunity to explore new approaches to composition with its acceptance of graphic and otherwise unconventional scores.

The piece he composed gives the members of Sonos Domum a creative role. “I am imagining a three dimensional object and realizing it on paper from four different angles, creating four graphic parts,” he says. “The general idea for each of the four performers is to sonically realize their parts, and respond to the sounds of the other three performers depending on whether the sounds seem to agree or disagree with the performer’s interpretation of their part.” The piece will end when each musician either feels that they have reached an “agreement” with the other musicians, or that they have exhausted all sonic arguments that they can derive from their part. Engleman hopes to demonstrate an open, organic discussion without words, wherein the only obstacles keeping the performers from reaching a consensus are each of their perspectives, both literally and figuratively.

Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble (ECCE): 8 pm January 30, Mill Race 4 Franklin and Riverfront Parkway.

This year the Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble (ECCE) has opted, in its mission of creating original concert experiences, to explore the interconnectedness of the visual arts and music. Composers and artists have paired up to create pieces that speak to each other through a musical and visual dialogue.

Mandy Hampton piano sculpture. Photo: M. Hampton.

Mandy Hampton piano sculpture. Photo: M. Hampton.

Senior Bryce Miller paired with graduate art student Mandy Hampton, whose interests include photography and sculpture. Hampton described her piece to Miller as a sculpture composed of two sets of piano dampers suspended by red thread. For her, it felt “as if it imitates music with the thread representing notes and the space between the absence of sound.”

Inspired, Miller decided to include the piano’s pedal dampening capability and silence into his fixed-media piece. “It begins and ends with the sounds of the damper pedal, and the music alternating between textures of bowed and plucked piano with a simple repeating melody that emphasizes the space between notes,” he explains. “The conclusion of the piece reflects the portions of knotted thread in the sculpture with dense counterpoint of distant piano lines leading to a final release of the damper pedal.”

A few non-collaborative pieces will also be performed, including those by Rhys Gates and Benjamin Penwell who have composed what they call “intro/outro” semi-improvisatory compositions involving players positioned around the room instead of everyone typically seated as an ensemble.

Other composers whose works will be premiered include John Goforth, Nathan A. Engelman, Alexander Bean, Ramsy Sadaka and Peter Avelar.

Oregon Composers Forum Chamber Orchestra, 8 pm, January 31, Aasen-Hull Hall,  Frohnmayer Music Building. Free admission.

Benjamin Penwell’s In a garden is one of many compositions that will be premiered as the festival concludes in a celebration of new music by members of the Oregon Composers Forum. Penwell’s piece for alto flute, violin, cello, bass, percussion (glockenspiel, triangle and medium/large gongs) and four-hands piano explores the line between tranquility and apprehension. “One of the things that I’ve strongly focused on for the last six months or so in my music is atmosphere, texture, and timbre, often giving them more importance than traditional elements such as melody, harmony, and form,” he wrote. “It’s not music to analyze or intellectualize; it’s music to sink into and experience.”

Noah Jenkins (violin) and Ramsey Sadaka (cello) perform in fall OCF concert. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Noah Jenkins (violin) and Ramsey Sadaka (cello) perform in fall OCF concert. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

The pianist spends more time playing inside the piano than on the keyboard, exploring harmonics (lightly touching specific places on the string while striking a key to produce bell-like tones), plucking the strings, using mallets and jazz brushes, and using rosined ribbon and microfilament fishing line to “bow” the strings of the piano.

Other composers in this OCF concert include Peter Avelar, Mark A. Cooney, Rhys Gates, Izabel O. Austin, Pedram Diba, Nikolai Valov, Carolyn A. Quick, Brittany Studer, Tim Bloch, Dan S. Daley, and Bryce Miller.

Hear KLCC-FM radio’s interview with Gomez and Kyr.

Live stream: Two of the Festival’s concerts will be webcast live at 8pm (PST) from Beall Hall in Eugene: January 19 – Esteli Gomez, January 25 – Flute Studio.

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

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