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Ryan Manchester » 2009 » February

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Archive for February, 2009

Competitions and Prizes

February 24th, 2009

I came across an interesting quote by Charles Ives the other day. In speaking on composition contests and prizes he says, “They’re the badges of mediocrity.” Which I could not agree with more. How many times have there been prestigious awards given out to pieces that display technique such as orchestration, but lack any artistic vision or statement. This is not to comment on any composers’ styles (or lack there of), but every style has an artistic vision and to be successful, the piece should communicate that with the audience. Whether the audience picks up on it or not is their perception, but to not challenge yourself as a composer or challenge your audience to grasp something bigger than the both of you is a complete waste of time. Why write a piece just to write one?
There’s also the question of the judging panel. Panels are comprised of several different judges usually theorists, musicologists, and a few composers. This fact in itself can ensure mediocrity within contest situations. Pleasing theorists, musicologists, and composers is not an easy task. Many theorists and musicologists still do not like Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, so how can we expect them to enjoy pieces by today’s composers? The answer is that they enjoy the styles and techniques of composers that remind them of Beethoven, Mozart, etc. We all as composers have learned a great deal from these composers of the past, but we have transformed these concepts throughout history so that they are no longer recognized as related. Now, this is getting into styles of composers because prizes should be awarded to the innovators of today. Europe does a fairly decent job in this, but the United States has some catching up to do. Some of today’s most performed American orchestral composers embody the term “mediocre.”
This watered down composing that is prevalent today is quickly rewarded because it is not a challenge for anyone. The pulse is steady, there is a clear melody and motivic development, and a transparent form. Being acquainted with forms of the past is valuable, but we no longer need to adhere so strictly to them.
In summary, it is appalling that about 80 years ago in Charles Ives’s day, that his statement against prize awarding still holds true. To avoid any confusion, I am not saying that only “atonal” or dissonant works should be awarded and are the only innovations. For example, George Rochberg was a well respected serial composer, but after his son died, he felt he couldn’t express his loss using this technique. Therefore, he started writing tonal music, but maintained his own personal aesthetic within the language. All too often it seems that the system or means of deriving material become the piece itself, rather than a vehicle to arrive at an end.  And it appears that the means are rewarded far more than the ends, which allows for these one-dimensional pieces to be recognized over and over again.

There is hope, however, and this hope lies within the contemporary music groups that are comprised of young performers and composers seeking to promote innovative voices of today.  These groups are the defenders against mediocrity and actively commission and reward the  original voices of the present world.

Toy Pianist Phyllis Chen

February 16th, 2009


Since I am in the process of writing a chamber piece featuring toy piano, I am always on the lookout for people with the same interest in the instrument. I’ve known about the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) for some time now, and they recently advertised an upcoming performance featuring pianist/toy pianist Phyllis Chen. Ms. Chen is doing some incredible work both on her own and with ICE. She has commissioned some fantastic new repertoire for the toy piano including a piece by Nathan Davis featuring homemade chimes after his own design.

In honor of the Suite for Toy Piano by John Cage, Ms. Chen also hosts the annual UnCaged composer competition for solo toy piano. This year’s theme is virtuosity, which she insists can be thought of in many different ways other than fast, dexterous passages. She has also gathered support from Margaret Leng-Tan, a pianist/toy pianist that worked closely with Dennis Russell Davies and the American Composers’ Orchestra to record Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano and Concerto for Orchestra and Prepared Piano. Ten will be on the judging panel for this year’s contest which has the deadline of June 1, 2009.

I find it truly encouraging to find someone as dedicated to anything in the ways that Ms. Chen is dedicated to promoting the toy piano. Watching performances on her website shows she is passionate about many styles of music and can render flawless interpretations of such styles. Ms. Chen has accomplished great feats for the toy piano as well as contemporary music in general, but she remains ever humble and will engage the audience in a discussion of her work before a performance without pandering or condescending. Now more than ever, the new music community needs people like Phyllis Chen for our music to survive. We need someone up to the task of challenging past attitudes about new music through exploration of new sounds and a passion to bring the music to new audiences worldwide.  She also brings about a fresh sound with her playing and a fresh voice in her composing and rather than adapting existing music to the toy piano (she has done a little of this), she insists on playing new works created specifically for the instrument, which is essential to the evolution of the toy piano.

Phyllis Chen is a first class performer/composer  as well as champion of new music that continues to engage audiences everywhere she performs.

Arts Stimulus

February 11th, 2009

With the passing of a stimulus bill in the Senate, the conclusion can be drawn that the arts were left out. The House of Representatives’ version did include the arts, so the two will have to compromise.  In my previous post, Taking Note, I commented on the grant programs and how they only help out a few individuals when there are probably more deserving people out there not receiving any government funds. As I’ve come to read about the different versions of the stimulus, the House proposes $50 million towards the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), while the Senate includes the following statement:

None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, art center, and highway beautification project.

Leaving out casinos, golf courses, stadiums, and highway beautification projects seems reasonable, but not including zoos and aquariums is thoughtless in the ways that people can’t seem to link environmental problems with economic ones. As many points have been made about there being a choice between the arts vs. healthcare, etc., basic human needs will (and should) take priority. In the same vein, how are zoos and aquariums not of equal importance? Zoos and aquariums are valuable educational resources for children and adults, and how can we conserve endangered species and ecosystems that will ultimately effect the human race if no one cares about these issues? People do not care because these issues are not affecting them in the present and they are not educated about it.
Furthermore, zoos and aquariums provide jobs for many skilled individuals who have worked extremely hard to turn the image of such places around. If these institutions are not included in the stimulus, then who will take care of the animals that live there? Some of these species are endangered and any hope for a future population lies in the DNA of the ones in captivity. It may seem hypocritical of me to be a composer who can benefit from such funding to place these organizations ahead of my own endeavors, but shouldn’t that speak more clearly the importance of the issue? Artists of all kinds can easily go out and get a day job to support our basic needs. This may result in fewer works being created, but we would still be creating and living. Animals living in aquariums and zoos do not have this option and since humans are the reason for the destruction of their habitat, their dwindling numbers, and for their lives in captivity, shouldn’t it be our responsibility to make sure they are living comfortably as well? In short, it is essential that zoos and aquariums be included in the stimulus.
As for arts institutions, a direct stimulus should be provided to those creating art that is relevant today. To be more objective, living artists (visual art, dance, music, theater) producing new works should be given direct assistance. These funds would be meant for composers (including emerging composers), visual artists of all sorts, small dance/ballet companies, small opera companies, and small performance groups to cover the programming underrepresented works of the mid 20th century and of today. A direct stimulus such as this would be beneficial because these types of organizations are known for bringing art to the people at fair to no charge. That is how art enriches peoples’ lives. It takes their minds of current cares/problems without creating more through obscene ticket pricing.
Large performing organizations such as major symphony orchestras and opera companies, should not be allowed to take advantage of this system. Especially when ticket prices are ridiculously expensive and they insist on paying administrators over $1 million. If they want to earn that type of money, they can exist on ticket prices and large donations from patrons solely. The small amount of money allocated for the arts needs to be reserved for education and promoting art created by today’s artists. True, the composers of the past created some amazingly beautiful works, but it is not the 19th century anymore. We can preserve these works through education and if symphonies want to play it, that’s fine, but it should be done at the expense of donors and season subscribers. A large part (besides the expense) of why concert attendance is low is the reputation of the organization. Symphony orchestras and operas have acquired the reputation of music for the wealthy or the old or both, which is not far from the mark. In my most recent post, I referenced two performance groups that have done a fantastic job of avoiding these stereotypes by playing in different environments other than the concert hall and these performances have been large successes.
Meet the Composer has done much for new music in the past by providing grants for projects and fostering collaborations. Bringing in a composer for a panel discussion with the audience is another way of bringing the arts to the communities and making a positive impact by putting a face with the music. When the San Francisco Opera commissioned Philip Glass to write a new piece for them, not only were the ticket prices fair for what the event was (I paid $75 for a ground level seat at the premiere), but they had a panel discussion the day before with the librettist, stage director, Glass, and a Civil War historian. The event was held in a library and many people paid a small entry fee to listen to the discussion. Questions were asked about the whys and hows of the music, stage design, story, and historical accuracy. After the panel responded and the allotted time came to a close, Glass stayed late to answer more questions. The amount of interest people took in this event was truly encouraging.
In summary, the arts do enrich peoples’ lives and deserve to be included in a form of stimulus plan. By bringing the arts to the community in the form of education, inexpensive performances, and artist/audience interaction, the arts can establish a more positive stance in today’s society.

Greg Sandow also has interesting views that have caused discussion in the artist community.

U.S. Performances of a French Aesthentic

February 10th, 2009


Despite the fact that many French composers teach at many universities across the United States, there is a common statement that French music is severely underrepresented in the United States.  While this statement may or may not be completely true, spectralism, developed by Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail (currently a professor at Columbia University), is getting quite the recognition already this year.

New York’s Red Light New Music ensemble performed Grisey’s Accords Perdus for two horns.  This piece explores overtone interactions by having the players bend pitch and hold it on certain pitches that produce wave beating resulting in new tones in addition to the two currently played.  Another Grisey piece, his masterpiece Acoustic Spaces, will be performed this week in Los Angeles by the Argento Chamber ensemble. Presently, they are performing works by Georg Friedrich Haas, an Austrian composer heavily influenced by spectralism, which have received rave reviews by the New York Times.  Argento is deeply dedicated to new music as demonstrated by their 2007 recording of the music of Tristan Murail.  An upcoming New York  concert, tonight actually, will feature a Haas-Grisey split program, so everyone in attendance tonight will definitely get their fill on spectralism.  This split program will show how much spectralism has evolved in its relatively short time in the new music scene.

Apart from the spectralist aesthetic, UC San Diego composition professor, Philippe Manoury will be a featured guest at the June in Buffalo festival. Although he studied at IRCAM during the development of spetralism, he remained committed to Pierrre Boulez’s view of serialism to derive material. Manoury still encompasses a large sound that has become attributed to spectralism, but his aesthetic is quite different has influenced many composers including some of the spectral disciples. His work will be programmed at the festival, so there will be yet another instance of the U.S. representing a French composer this year.

Hopefully, the initiative taken by ensembles such as Red Light New Music and the Argento Chamber ensemble will prompt more performances of this kind. What is nice about French music is that is is continually redefining itself through major innovations, and yet remains emotionally connected. It is important to hear current trends in music as they are happening and through ensembles such as these, this is becoming easier for anyone interested.

The Noise Between Thoughts-Keeril Makan (2002)

February 4th, 2009

With the influence of computers expanding the sonic possiblilities of music, many composers are now finding themselves approaching acoustic music with a sound artist’s sensibility.  Although noise-based composition is not a new concept, the trend today is that composers are finding personal voices that are uniquely their own within this realm.  Whereas the trap of creating noise for noise’s sake is always constant, composers such as Keeril Makan expand playing technique with a vision in which the noise-based elements serve a specific purpose both musically and extra-musically.  Commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, The Noise Between Thoughts is a beautifully constructed string quartet dealing with expanded techniques as well as war in the current world.  Makan uses techniques such as frequency beating between two near unison pitches, lightly touched, glassy sounding harmonics, and bow pressure/bow angle in relation to the strings and bridge to create this landscape of restlessness and uncertainty.

Makan was first noticed for his Bang On a Can inspired sound using sequencers and pulsing rhythms to create that post-Minimalist New York sound.  Longing for a more physcial connectedness with his music, Makan abandoned this style and started exploring the sonic capabilities of stringed instruments.  Since he was trained as a violinist, but had not played for over a decade, Makan was able to “approach  the instrument in new ways… It was very much about how to place [Makan's] hands on the instruments and the sounds that would be produced.”

Using this new found knowledge, Makan utilizes techniques such as bowing the instrument at a 45 degree angle, creating pitches in the midst of other noise, applying too much pressure to create a strained sound, or applying too little pressure for a thin, restless sound. The manner of this type of playing creates a definite physical connection between the sound and score for the players.  Even if the Kronos Quartet didn’t play this, any decent string quartet could produce a convincing performance due to this physical connection with the sound and Makan’s intention to portray extra-musical ideas. Expanding on this physical approach, Makan takes his time when exploring these techniques, which produces a psychological connection with performers as well as listeners. By allowing the sounds to evolve naturally and flow in and out of one another, Makan is able to communicate the apprehension felt in these uncertain times.

From the initial idea of approaching music from a physical standpoint, to producing sounds from this physicality, Keeril Makan has created a work that challenges the notion of beauty as well as the convictions of the performers. The Noise Between Thoughts has not developed a new language of composition. It has placed a new voice in the context of noise-based composition that is passionate and ultimately original.

The Noise Between Thoughts appears on Keeril Makan’s new album In Sounds.

Lukas Foss

February 3rd, 2009


Lukas Foss passed away Feb. 1, 2009 at 86. Born in Berlin in 1922, he relocated with his family to the United States and remained here the rest of his life. Foss studied composition at Yale from 1939-1940 with Paul Hindemith and, in those same years, studied conducting at Tanglewood, specializing in new music. He was the recipient of more than 20 honorary doctorates and taught at UCLA after Arnold Schoenberg’s death. Foss was also the music director for the Buffalo Philharmonic and founded the Center for Creative and Performing Arts at the University at Buffalo in 1963. He composed numerous works for stage, orchestra, choir, piano, organ, vocal solo, and chamber music.
As an incredibly innovative mind and champion of new music, Dr. Lukas Foss will be greatly missed in the music community.