Sunday, April 06, 2008

Musical and Symposial

I'm still in heavy jet lag from attending last week's John Donald Robb Symposium at the University of New Mexico. Now in its 37th year, the institution and individuals hosting the event have managed admirably to get the mechanics of such an event into such a smooth routine that attendees could attend immediately and without distraction to the real business of the music at hand and, even more admirably, the music chosen and played never once slipped into a routine, a risk in any institutional context. When a composer can arrive in a distant place, be warmly greeted, well-housed, -fed, and -transported, and then encounter his or her music already well-rehearsed by players prepared and open to working with the composers to give the piece additional polish, and encounter like- (and friendly but unalike-) minded colleagues, things are being done right. Here's just one small example of how well-thought-out this was: each composer could walk away from a concert with a fresh cd recording of the performance. This is correct, unbureaucratic and, unfortunately, all-too-rare. (The Robb Trust also sponsors a composition competition (contact) that is also a model of how to get things right.)

The four-day event opened with a collaborative Impr'Opera (2008), led by Molly Sturges, with members of the UNM Childrens' Chorus and the UNM Voice Lab. Pieces like this are very important for the live and liveliness of new music; we've done a poor job of making a new music that has both vertical and horizontal social reaches, and the integration of the amateur and professional is an essential way forward. The Impr'Opera was staged in the foyer area of the Center for the Arts, and like Filtered Light (Chamber Music 4) (2008) , a sound installation by Steve Peters, the physical setting provided an important counterpoint to the events held within the concert hall proper.

This was the last in a series of three featuring composers associated with the legendary ONCE festival, Roger Reynolds in 2006, Robert Ashley in 2007, and now Gordon Mumma in 2008. Mumma was represented by a series of small-scale instrumental works, one of which, from the Rendition Series (2006), added subtle electronic embellishment and commentary to a piano solo that was in turns cryptic, symmetric (or near-symmetric), and not a little sinister in resonance (to borrow a phrase from Henry Cowell). It was easily the most uncompromising work in the Festival. The formidable pianist in the Mumma, Yvonne Lee, is also a formidable young composer and I can't wait to hear more of both her writing and playing.

Each of the "local" (either UNM or from New Mexico) composers brought something remarkable to the program. Composer Christopher Shultis was the organizer of the festival and conference. His Devisidero: Six Preludes for Piano Solo (2002-2007) was the single-most mysterious item in the concerts, to my ears at least. This was music about movement, about nature, and about the Southwest, but it didn't trade in any of the obvious cliches. I can't wait to have a score in my hands in order to get at least parts under my fingers. Also from the UNM faculty, Richard Hermann's Remembering... (2007) for solo violin was a model of elegance, or rather virtuosic elegance, in that the technically virtuosic never overwhelmed the musically virtuosic. It ought to be standard repertoire for violinists. William Wood, soon-to-be emeritus in Albuquerque, had a new piece for viola and percussion, Passing Thru, that was theatrically suggestive, but not overwhelmingly so, and used a freely tonal language with the fluency of a composer who has completely internalized it. Local composer Dawn Chambers had a fine piece for saxophone solo, Remember (2007), on the final evening program, but it was her vocal music, snippets of which she shared, via recordings, in her presentation, that I want to hear more of, and soon.

A great surprise on the program was finally meeting the composer Daniel Lentz, a newish resident of Albuquerque and one of the heroes of my musical youth, a composer with landmark contributions to music theatre, live-electronic mixing, and an important figure in west coast minimal music. I have a special debt to Lentz's voice-leading and was fortunate to finally be able to tell him so. Lentz's work, The Bacchus Codices #3 (2007), involved a speaking percussionist, a digital delay line, and an ample glass of wine and was both celebratory and cautionary, as might be expected.

It's even more fortunate that in a conference like this, I quickly found a pair of fast friends and sparring partners in the scholar Ralf Dietrich, whose been researching the ONCE festival and its resonance field, and in composer Anne Marie Guzzo, who is now the center of the musical avant-garde in Wyoming. Anne dissertated on the music for cartoons of Carl Stalling, and expecting a Stalling-like mayhem, I was startled by her cycle for mezzo and string quartet, Songs I Learned from the Wind (2006), which while generally in a more conservative but masterfully orchestrated idiom, successfully introduced sharp cuts and transitions in the harmony that may still owe something to Stalling. (Anne, Steve Peters & I also sat in a panel on "Composers and the World Wide Web"; I think we agreed that traditional music publishing be dead dead dead, that web sites tend to become static, that blogging is a new and sometimes odd form, your mileage may vary with social networking, and that it's often useful to subvert free web resources from their intended functions and turn them into something more specifically your own.)

I am leaving too much out, too much good music, but inclusiveness is a musicologist or critic's responsibility, not mine, and the week was too damn inspiring (music, mesas) that I've simply got to get back to composing.

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