Music Today Festival review: listening, collaborating, exploring

Biennial University of Oregon new music event provides glimpses of the future of Oregon music


The University of Oregon’s 2017 Music Today Festival (MTF) offered such a diversity of concerts that in trying to sum it up, I found myself searching for unifying themes. It wasn’t easy.

Produced by members of the Oregon Composers Forum (OCF), under the direction and mentorship of Dr. Robert Kyr, the bi-annual UO School of Music and Dance (SOMD) festival offered a varied three-week (April 19-May 13) program showcasing the richness of vocal and instrumental music being written today. Over the course of nine concerts I had the opportunity to hear not only the premieres of 40 new works by UO composition majors, but also music by many well known contemporary composers including Pauline OliverosLibby LarsenToshio HosokawaClaude VivierMagnus Lindberg and more. This was the twenty-fifth anniversary year of the festival, which Kyr founded in 1993, and which he continues to organize and direct as one of the most extensive and innovative new music offerings in the Pacific Northwest.


James Shields Trio with Laura Metcalf (cello) and pianist Conor Hanick perform new works by UO composers. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

For example, the Ova Novi ensemble’s concert focused on music by contemporary women composers. TaiHei (view concert) offered new works influenced by Pacific Rim and other world cultures. The Sonus Domum Ensemble (view concert) staged a cross-disciplinary and improv-based event celebrating the life and music of Pauline Oliveros, and the Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble performed three extended instrumental works by student composers; an unusual opportunity for young composers to showcase their ability to write long and more complex pieces of music.

The festival also included music inspired by the soundscape of an old growth forest and two special concerts by guest artists soprano Esteli Gomez (view concert) and clarinetist James Shields and Friends (view concert) performing works specifically composed for each by OCF composers. MTF concluded with the world premiere of “The Banshee,” a new chamber opera by Daniel Daly.

I finally decided to focus on three themes: attentive listening, collaboration, and breaking boundaries. You can view unedited webcast videos of concert events by clicking on links marked (view concert). Skip over stage set-ups and other non-performance activities.

Deep Listening

The theme of attentive listening emerged from two concerts that featured music based upon interactions with world soundscapes.

Pauline Oliveros, the pioneering American composer who died last year at age 84, would probably have described Canadian composer Hildegard Westerkamp as a “deep listener” who, with an attentive ear and field recorder in hand, captures acoustic environments and uses those recordings in the studio to create her unique soundscape compositions. The Ova Novi Ensemble concert, featuring women composers, included Westerkamp’s Gently Penetrating Beneath the Sounding Surfaces of Another Place (listen), a fixed media piece that she composed using urban field recordings made while visiting India. Westerkamp carefully blends one sound motif upon another, creating a dynamic multi-channel listening experience. Although not composed with the traditional notes on paper, Westerkamp’s piece nevertheless reflects her understanding of traditional musical forms and structures.

A second concert, Music From the Forest, featured the work of five composers inspired by their repeated visits to an old growth forest near Blue River, Oregon. There, among the giant trees, they listened attentively to the natural soundscape and its complex acoustic ecology, each responding to their experience in a new work composed for this program.


Michael Fleming’s Aurorean Path for violin and steel drum (view excerpt above) expresses the way light creates rhythmic patterns upon the wet forest floor and fauna. Here, blue LED lights represented the glistening forest pathway as sound of dripping rain is heard in the gentle tapping of the steel drum.

Partnering with Professionals 

Collaboration has always been an Oregon Composers Forum priority. But options for collaboration between OCF’s composers and professional artists are limited. This year’s Music Today Festival filled that gap by providing the opportunity to work with guest artists Esteli Gomez and James Shields and friends, who mentored and performed a total of 16 new pieces composed specifically for the artists by OCF members.

Esteli Gomez performed UO student composer music. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Acclaimed Grammy Award winning singer Esteli Gomez, in her eighth residency with the Oregon Composers Forum, devoted a week in Eugene to mentoring eight composers who had written a diversity of vocal works for her to perform on the last day of her visit (view concert). These pieces were often performed with an unusual array of instrumentation including fixed media, celesta, vibraphone and even a toy piano.

After an evening of music that ranged from a tribute to the late Estonian choral composer Veljo Tormis, an exploration of Gertrude Stein’s obsession with naming things, and songs from a new opera that premiered later in the festival, the concert ended quietly and simply with Brent Lawrence’s Water and Stone for guitar and voice. His original text was inspired by the hand built stone foundation of an abandoned 18th century boat dock Lawrence passed while hiking along the Yadkin River of North Carolina. He tells its story from the perspective of the stones that once laid in deep waters that gave them comfort until they were violently pulled from the river, fitted tightly together, and are now left to weather and decay with little attention given to them by passing hikers. Here are the last two stanzas of Lawrence’s Water and Stone with Gomez and the composer on guitar.


Guest artists James Shields (clarinet) and New York musicians Laura Metcalf (cellist) and Conor Hanick (pianist) spent their short residency mentoring eight UO composers in an OCF reading session and then publicly performing that work as well as music from the trio’s own repertoire in concert (view concert). Although most compositions were written for performance by the trio, one solo piece, Shatter, by Cara Haxo was composed specifically for James Shields and explores both the dynamic range of the instrument and his mastery in this fast paced and rhythmically challenging piece.


Breaking Boundaries

Students seldom get the opportunity to write an extended work and have it performed. Most such works are between 5-8 minutes in length and several are grouped together to program a concert. Two festival concerts provided the audience the opportunity to hear four new extended works ranging from 20 minutes to a bit over one hour in length, each conducted by its composer.

‘Tarot: Suite of the Major Arcana’ with Noelle Goodenberger (soprano) and Luis Rivera (tenor). Photo: Gary Ferrington.

The co-directors of the Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble concert decided to create a program in which only three compositions of about 20 minutes each in length would be performed. Such a lengthy piece is quite an accomplishment for a young composer to pull off.

Joseph Vranas’s Tarot: Suite of the Major Arcana is a work for soprano, tenor and an eight member string, wind, and percussion ensemble based on the text of Daniel Erburu Reardon. Each card of the Major Arcana represents a mythological being or symbol that, in a Tarot reading session, is used for interpretation by a diviner. In Reardon’s text the interpretation of each card’s meaning is spoken by the card itself. Vranas conveys this musically with Noelle Goodenberger (soprano) and Luis Rivera (tenor) as the voices. The suite is an in-progress song cycle of which seven of an eventual 22 songs based on Reardon’s text were premiered.


Scenes from the Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, by Ramsey Sadaka, takes its inspiration from the poetry of the famed Bohemian-Austrian poet. The work for violin and a small ensemble conveys elements of suffering, rhythmic fury, and loss in a vigorous dialogue between violin, played by guest artist Mary Evans, and strings, clarinet, flute, piano and percussion.


Stephen Medlar’s five movement instrumental Extinction musically tells a story of how humanity’s time on earth comes to an end. The music suggests a terrible version of earth where the world is overpopulated, violent, and ignorance has overpowered a society that no longer values education and learning. The work concludes with the final breath of human existence in an explosive soundscape of rhythmic percussion as heard in this short video excerpt, Extinction Part V. The End of Life.


It was standing room only for those who came to hear the fourth extended work: the world premiere of Daniel Daly’s Master’s thesis composition The Banshee: A Chamber Opera in One Act, featuring singers Alison Kaufman, Sara Brauer and Dylan Bunten and dancer Olivia Oxholm, with chamber orchestra conducted by Andres Rodriguez. Daly composed both the music and libretto, which speculates on the origin of the banshee of Irish legend. As one audience member remarked during the standing ovation, this is the future of opera: small works in chamber settings. This one act, hour long work concluded the festival. Here is Scene 2: VII. “Do You Remember” from Daly’s The Banshee, with soprano Alison Kaufman.


Hearing the Future of Music

Attending the 2017 Music Today Festival confirmed my enthusiasm for the performance of new music by today’s composers. Yes, I have nostalgia for the classics and fond memories of learning to appreciate the three “B’s” and other European composers in my early piano studies and later in college music courses. But having some sentimental need to experience those musical war horses over and over again isn’t for me.

Somewhere along life’s journey I discovered that work by contemporary composers, even young composers, can be just as exciting, if not more so, than that of the past. Every classic had a premiere in its time, and I found attending the Music Today Festival especially interesting even if the premiered works are by yet-to-be established composers. One never knows what will last once performed as even the “classics” often premiered with uncertainty about their future.

Beyond the ultimate success of individual compositions, attending a new music festival might provide a glimpse of the early work of a composer who will be later listened to well into this century and beyond. Just think about hearing a young Beethoven or Mozart piece and actually chatting with the composer afterwards! That you can do in an event like the Music Today Festival.

I believe it is important is to give new music attention and consider what it has to offer, As Dr. Kyr told ArtsWatch, “More than ever, we need contemporary music that is truly compelling, which directly connects us to current topics that are urgent and relate to our deepest concerns.”

Nikolai Valov’s “Nihillist Fccboi Music” (2017), Izabel Auston (electric violin) Nikolai Valov, (trash). Photo: Gary Ferrington

I think it unfortunate that this festival showcasing the breadth of today’s emerging new Oregon music wasn’t better promoted not only in Eugene, but beyond as well. Although concerts were well attended, most audiences were composed of participating performers, students, family and friends with a sprinkling of community members. The quality of the music and the artistry of the musicians was exceptional and should have been enjoyed by many more had there been additional outreach to the Eugene community and around the state. I hope that in the future, the festival will not only grow attendance locally but also throughout Oregon and beyond with the addition of professional live streaming.

Kudos to the young Oregon Composers Forum members who not only shared their music with listeners on campus and over the Internet, but were also responsible for producing this year’s festival under the direction of Dr. Robert Kyr: Wang Chi, Daniel Daly, Pedram Diba, Michael Fleming, Justin Graff, Cara Haxo, Samuel Lord Katcheim, Emily Korzeniewski, Brent Lawrence, Tao Li, Stephen Medlar, Susanna Payne-Passmore, Nicholas Pietromonaco, Martin Quiroga, Jr., Paul John Rudoi, Ramsey Sadaka, Luke Smith, Trevor Thompson. Nikolai Valov, and Joseph Vranas.

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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