The UI Electronic Music Studios Present an Evening of New Works for Fixed Media

The University of Iowa composers presented a fantastic concert of varying aesthetics and values within electronic music.  With its missing performers, contorted motives, and bursting arrays of sound, electronic and computer music has the potential to leave an audience member feeling awkward.   The experience is exclusively temporal.  It is the case more so with electronic than acoustic music because of these “missing” factors, or general aspects of a concert.  The focus becomes less about beautiful melodies and more about the manipulation of timbre, texture, flux, etc. to create an overarching soundscape.  In that regard, University of Iowa Electronic Music Studios (EMS), has accomplished a great deal.  The precise, multi-faceted, and imaginative qualities emanated from the individual works made the concert an excellent aural experience for the listener.

The December 14th concert in Becker Communications Building commenced with the audience being plunged into a ruckus noise, if I have ever heard one.  The Aggressor, a piece for fixed media and poet by Barry Sharp, startled audiences with its bold and blistering opening passage, disquieting moments of respite, and overall creepy (for lack of a better term) aura.  While mostly sound mass in nature, one can especially hear the control over pacing in the opening passage through shifts in timbre, pitch and motivic material, and dynamics.  The second piece on the concert was Piques and Vallyes by James Naigus where the utilized the “unique nature of sounds as signals of curiosity and attention as well as vessels of subtlety” to inform the piece.  Next was a piece by Bernard Short entitled Ominous Groove.  This work along with Odd Combo (later on in the program) by Jonah Lyddon Hatten projected a different sort of aesthetic quality, using elements of pop music such as “beats” and various bass lines within the work.  The piece definitely incorporated elements of pop-culture.  A highlight of the night was a work by Nima Hamidi entitled Sama; the only work in the concert that involved a lived performer.  The piece utilized a more accessible aesthetic—employing a traditional Iranian style—with the composer himself improvising in a seemingly virtuosic fashion on the setar, a folk instrument of Iran.

A work by Joseph Norman called Compulsory Deviations brought back memories of the 1950’s electronic music aesthetic.  Using sampled guitar sounds, Norman created an interesting web of timbres, gestures, and very long sounds to create his piece.  restoration/alienation was the sixth piece on the program by Jacob Simmons and utilized the aspects of dynamic swells and “density of texture while exploring contrasting timbres and registers.”  The timbre and gestures were particularly interesting, and even more so in one of my other favorites from the evening:  Plunge and Tumble.  Paul Duffy’s use of contrasting timbres and the morphing of gestures over time made this piece enthralling to listen to.  The contrasts of bright and dark sounds as well as clear and dull sounds created an exciting landscape for the listener to enjoy.

The penultimate work was Jonathan Wilson’s Chimespace, which involved the sounds of sampled bells in the composer’s personal collection.  The manipulation of sounds within the piece created interesting source material as the audience attuned to the actual “ringing of bells and the area in which these sounds are heard.”  Finally was Jonah Elrod’s installation IC1223.  Using algorithmic techniques, the piece performed a transition from night to day preceding the concert, and afterwards the audience heard the transformations once again, except from day to night.  Using the brand new Laptop Orchestra U Iowa (LOUi) speakers, the work acted as a prelude and postlude to the concert and created an interesting aural effect in the lobby of Becker Communications Building.  The concert was an enjoyable experience.  The program exhibited the diversity in aesthetic values among the composers, in addition to a high level of control and craftsmanship in each individual work.

If you are interested in learning more about the work of composers at the University of Iowa, there is a link here that will take you to the Center for New Music Website.  The site contains information about CNM, the composers, and the upcoming and previous concerts for the year.

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Center for New Music Concert: Laptop Orchestra of the University of Iowa – LOUi.

On Saturday December 13, the Center for New Music of the School of Music of the University of Iowa presented a concert of the Laptop Orchestra of the University of Iowa, which goes by the name LOUi. The orchestra performed at the Riverside Recital Hall.

According to the City Press-Citizen report, this is one among only about a dozen of these groups throughout the country, most of them associated to universities. I was very excited to attend a concert of such an unusual ensemble. In fact, after many years as a musician I had started to feel like I had never attended a concert before. What is a laptop orchestra anyway? What kind of sound you may hear? Does it require a real musician or an IT specialist? Do they use traditional scores? Those are some of many questions I had puzzling my mind, even after so many years attending concerts of all kinds of music.  Thus, what one could expect from such an unusual ensemble?

The first half of the program presented the pieces Quirky-Quotidian by Andy Thierauf, Cocci II by Alexandros Spyrou, Eco-Location by Jonah Elrod, Laptop Quartet no. 1 by Jonathan Wilson, and …by Antietam`s waves by Taylor Gillhouse and Jason Palamara. The pieces Quirky-Quotidian, and Eco-Location called my attention by the use of “ordinary” sounds. The first was built on sounds of everyday objects like bottles and cardboard boxes, the second was created with sounds recorded in different locations of Iowa City, sounds like birds singing and a truck. The pieces Cocci II and Laptop Quartet no. 1 were examples an interesting and intricate use of sound manipulating. The last piece on the first half of the program was an interesting multimedia piece based on the Civil War. It was a very dramatic piece associating manipulated sounds and dancing.

The final half of the program presented the pieces Dresses by Joseph Norman and Paul Duffy, Quartet for LOUi by Justin Comer, and past every exit… by Jason Palamara. The pieces on the second half of the program brought more acoustic sounds and multimedia pieces, like the piece Dresses, which mixes a poem by Charles Bukowski, which was actually recited on stage, acoustic sounds, and computer manipulated sounds. The last two pieces on the program, Quartet for LOUi, and past every exit… also shows an interesting mix of acoustic sounds and sounds manipulated by computer.

My first impression when I got to the hall was that I had just got inside an IT center, the only thing resembling music at that moment was the piano on the back of the stage. As the Research Assistant Jason Palamara remarked, it was not difficult to imagine that the performers were going to read their emails during the performance. In fact, as explained by the Center for New Music director Dr. David Gompper there are much more about this orchestra than “just” laptops. It is a totally different approach to musical performance, starting with the composers performing their own works, going through an intricate process of live sound manipulation, streaming what is happening in real time on a screen, dancing, and actual acoustic instruments.  What I could witness in the LOUi performance, was a concert of new music that redefines all concepts of live performance I could have so far. The LOUi is definitely pushing the boundaries of music performance practices further, and redefining the role of the composer in a concert hall.

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“Finding Hope” presented by Oakdale Community Choir

On this Thursday, 11th December 2014, Oakdale Community Choir performed the Finding Hope concert in IMCC (Iowa Medical and Classification Center) which is one of the most heart touching experiences in my life.

After about twenty minutes driving from UCC, I arrived at the IMCC. High wire fences with rows of strong lights from high above already gave me a sense of solemnity. I went into the main building, received a strict security check, then passed several checkpoints, and began to feel a little bit nervous. However, when I arrived the gymnasium where the concert took place, my nervousness was immediately dispelled by the smiles on the faces of choir members, among which are professors and students from UI, inmates, and their families, indistinguishable, all wearing purple or green T-shirts with print “Finding Hope” on it. An upright piano was in the right side, podium in the center, and three microphones in the left side. There Choir members was comfortably talking to each other, greeting visitors, some offered warm hugs. Technicians were tuning the instruments and equipment before the start. This picture has drawn a sharp contrast to the cold, dark winter night outside the building. This contrast could also be found in the picture on the cover of programme, a flower blossoming on a snowing day.

At 6:15 pm, Dr. Mary Cohen, associate professor of the School of Music specializing in music education, founder of the Oakdale Community Choir, and the conductor of the concert, gave the opening, initiated joyful interactions with the audience, lighted up the ambiance. The choreographed repertoire apparently condensed painstaking effort. The performance began with rearranged Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band of Beatles, wonderful opening song suggesting the audience to “sit back and let the evening go”. Following songs, High Hopes, Beauty before Me, That Lonesome Road, and so on, interwove with choir members’ narrations about their own stories and paths of finding hope, which augmented the theme. The standing position of members in purple and members in green were also carefully arranged, changing long with the processing of the performance in a deliberate way, provided visual tension. Christmas carols brought a festive atmosphere into the facility. Accompanied by the praising – May You Walk in Beauty – the concert entered its final phase.

The harmony in the correspondence between the choir and instruments was extraordinary. Instrumental accompaniment brought out the power of the vocal to appeal to the audience emotionally. In this unique concert, however, I feel that the musicianship that we commonly value most was only next in importance to the message conveyed by the music: Hope. A man seeking happiness through song writing, a loving mother recovering from the greatest grief one could imagine after losing her daughter, I immersed in these stories feeling their struggle as if it all happened to me. Sometimes, my fists clenched before I realized. But when the choir began to sing, the first words of The storm is Passing Over by Charles A. Tindley hit in my heart, I felt relieved and strengthened at the same time. It sang: “Courage my soul, and let me journey on.

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Healing Wars by Liz Lerman

Healing Wars was the most powerful performance I have ever witnessed. Liz Lerman’s combination of dance, music, speech, and media was ingenious.  Her exploration of humanity from the civil war to the war in Iraq was extremely sensitive, moving many to tears.  The amount of research Lerman did was obvious, from facts about medical procedures and technology to military training procedures to personal letters and interviews with soldiers and veterans. Lerman masterfully combined multiple storylines and small scenes throughout the performance without any disconnect. The layers of meaning and development of characters happened naturally. One of my favorite small details was the doll in a hoop skirt frame that the female soldier was holding during therapy, recalling the first museum scene where the same woman was in a hoop skirt frame waiting to receive medical attention. The scene changes were paced extremely well, offering moments of relief after intensely emotional scenes. With audience members saturated by iphones and computer screens, the incorporation of multi-media projections was smart, helpful, and refreshingly nuanced, including pictures, videos and text.

As I walked through the backstage museum scenes, the dancers moved in character, and at times engaged with the audience. I lost a staring contest to the dancer playing a civil war veteran driven mad and locked in an attic, another girl got a letter from the dancer playing Clara Barton, the freedman character was holding an electric light over some people. Part museum, part haunted house, I felt curious at some exhibits and passed others quite quickly. I lingered the longest listening to the middle of a conversation the navy veteran with a prosthetic leg was having about donated blood. Seeing his prosthetic leg, made me realize that this would be a very real, maybe even raw production. Not being able to answer the question, “Where were you when the Battle of Baghdad began?” made me wonder if I was ready for it.

I was expecting modern dance, but I was not expecting such truthful movements. Since dancers are normally silent, I was alarmed when they began to speak, loudly and directly to us. I was decidedly against their speaking, but as the performance continued I was anxious to hear what they would say next. Their early movements seemed heavy and difficult, without many stylized dance moves. It seemed too labor intensive, even when they were only moving a few feet. Watching them longer, I realized they were moving like real people: crawling, fighting, and dying.

A scene full of struggle was the dance against a wall of the civil war surgeon and the disguised female soldier. The harsh angles their bodies made were visually gripping.  It was a physical struggle for both of them: for the doctor, the lifesaving maneuvers were brutal, and for her it was pain to live and difficult to die. The music during this scene was slow, with a haunting melody that underscored the emotional turmoil. For an early rehearsal of this scene see this video: .

One scene that did feature more stylized, synchronized dancing was the dance of the suicidal soldiers. With sounds of a military drill team playing, the dancers began marching and saluting in time, moving around each other, simulating a drill team. The marching continued, but the movements suddenly changed to actions of suicide: a shot in the temple, slitting wrists, hanging, drinking, stabbing. How many soldiers march to this end?

A fun scene that provided a moment of relief for the audience happened when Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” started playing and the dancers let go and danced as if they were in a club. In the background, videos of soldiers dancing played.  In the audience talk back, a young veteran thanked Lerman for including this light-hearted side of soldiers.

In one of the final scenes, the navy veteran removed his prosthetic leg, and I ached at his vulnerability. The civil war freed man came to him and they began to move gently through a cathartic reenactment of the car crash that injured the navy veteran. By the end they were sitting side by side and the tenderness with which the civil war freed man sat and held his hand made me cry.

There were many different kinds of music used throughout the performance: “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” a gospel hymn,  sound effects of chirping crickets, Lady Gaga, tonal melodies, and music that sounded like a sine wave/drone tone with slow pulses. Silence was a prominent sound throughout the production, most of the time it felt heavy. There were explosions, unprepared and extremely loud, that gave a jolt to my system. These explosions prevented me from getting lost in the intellect or emotions. When I jumped at the noise, I was reminded of my own instincts, my fear response, my body.

The back wall of the stage was a mirror, used strategically to reflect the dancers.  The entire production was like a mirror, reflecting our humanity. I am still wondering, what did I just see?


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Composers Are In Town!

Such an impressive treat to end the weekend with outstanding contemporary music from 10 different composers!

As a Season 49 Concert VIII, the University of Iowa, the Center for New Music presented “Composer’s Workshop” On Sunday evening, November 9 at Riverside Recital Hall, featuring works by Luke Kottemann, Alexandros Spyrou, Nima Hamadi, Andrew Thierauf, Barry Sharp, Leonid Iogansen, Jonathan Wilson, Christine Burke, Joshua Marquez and Jason Palamara.

The night opened with a string quartet performing Train on the Crandic by Luke Kottemann. The skillful string players and their solid performance as a group created the sense of what the composer indicates “the combination of the old and the new”. The piece begins with the train effect, also at the end, reminding me a story of the train adventure starting off from the origin to the destination. The train stops by an old town presenting in the middle section featured American folk music, which the composer was inspired by. The other piece by Mr. Kottemann was Stranded, Bewildered, and Forgotten for solo violin. From what the composer describes the title “You are alone, you don’t know where you are, and no one is looking for you,” the picture came to my mind clearly when Tim Cuffman started playing, lots of long dragging of the bow, dissonant harmonies and sliding notes creates the feeling of sadness and loneliness.

There were three solo clarinet pieces performed by Thiago Ancelmo de Souza including Thravsmata, Sinews and Gap fill. Thravsmata was composed by a Greek composer Alexandros Spyrou. I was amazed by the performer, in terms of his performance technique and the effects that have been created by his instrument. A mosaic-like texture clarified the title of the piece, which is a Greek word meaning broken, fragments, wrecks and pieces. Sinews was written by Barry Sharp. A sinew is “a piece of tough fibrous tissue that connects a bone to a bone or a muscle to a muscle.” Mr. Sharp wanted to create the piece that is reminiscent of this idea of connectivity. The shorter, longer and tremolo motives are presented throughout the piece in the various registers and timbres as “connective tissue” according to the composer. There was a repetitive screaming-like passage near the end, which leads the piece into the climactic moment. Gap fill was composed by Jonathan Wilson. From the composer’s description “to explore register in terms of large leaps; and line by a pervasion of chromatic lines moving at variable rates,” exactly, with the dramatic playing of the clarinetist, I found extreme amounts of chromatic elements, register and dynamic contrasts.

Iranian ensemble?! Yes! When Permutation is on the stage. Permutation, composed by a Persian composer, Nima Hamidi, was written for soprano, tenor, clarinet and piano based on the text by Sam Collier. Male and female voices are arguing to each other simultaneously with timbral features of the clarinet and piano creating atmosphere.

I was stunned when Andrew Thierauf started pronouncing speech-like German syllables on the stage; later I realized that was a part of the composition Drumming on Ursonate. Andrew Thierauf, acting as both performer and composer, specializes in the creation and performance of contemporary music. This piece is a setting of Kurt Schwitter’s poetic work Ursonate. Mr. Thierauf took motives from the original poem and expressed them rhythmically on the drums along with nonsensical speech-like German syllables, which became a terrific show.

Music For the Rain and Time by a Russian composer, Leonid Iogansen was written for violin, horn, trombone, piano and percussion; the composer himself played the violin part. This piece seems very ‘narrative’ to me. The ‘arched-like’ structure would be the best term for it as a whole. The piece begins and ends softly with calmness, in contrast to the loudly climactic section in the middle. The composer indicates that “this piece is inspired by his childhood memories of growing up in Russia,” which could be told by the opening melody of violin and the mouthpiece of horn being reminiscent of folk singing. The piece gets more exciting building up to the climax, as if the volume button of the radio gets turned up gradually and then your hear the bass drum and brass players play rhythmically leading to the rain theme, which blasts out the moment.

Unequal Means, “is a vehicle for exploring slow growth and expansion of ideas,” by Christine Burke is really fun to watch. Performers are set into two teams, solo bassoon up front, oboe and clarinet as a duo behind the bassoon. Most of the time, bassoon is leading the piece and joined by the duo behind. My favorite part of the piece was the low flutter tongue passages in the bassoon part.

Matingkad (Tagalog for “bright”) was written by Joshua Marquez, a Filipino-American composer. This was performed by the Ensemble 319 (septet). As described in the program “Matingkad explores slight changes in color and texture through the expansion and collapse of the harmonic spectrum.” The effect was apparent to me! The hall was filled with mysterious sound-effects and atmosphere. I also heard the interesting motives pass between the players. The piece gets faster later leading to the percussion’s solo section, played by Wannapha Yannawut. This was my favorite moment of the piece, it excited me with those effects of percussion instruments set and the precisely strong playing of the percussionist bring the piece to the explosive moment. The piece’s timbral explorations are due in part to various contemporary techniques used for the composition like plugging and pressing strings in the piano, and bowing on crotales and cymbals.

The concert ends excitedly with LOUi, the Laptop Orchestra at the University of Iowa presenting, “past every exit…”, a composition of Jason Palamara. This was totally a new experience for me watching laptops create an orchestra in place of acoustic instruments. There was a laptop conductor keeping the beats, with which all the performers and their laptops had keep pace, in addition to creating improvisations and playing recorded materials from their laptop instruments.

If you are either a fan of contemporary music or an ordinary listener seeking the freshness of music by a new generation of composers, then you should keep the University of Iowa, Center for New Music in mind and on your calendar!

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“Just Catch the Wave:” A Night of Brazilian and Caribbean Music with the UI Latin Jazz Ensemble

An enthusiastic crowd gathered at Riverside Recital Hall in Iowa City Sunday, October 19, 2014 to hear the University of Iowa’s Latin Jazz Ensemble perform. The ensemble, directed by UI Jazz Studies Lecturer James Dreier, is an audition-only group of undergraduate and graduate students that performs and records works of Caribbean and South American jazz.

The concert began in the 1960s with American vibraphonist Cal Tjader’s “Mamblues,” described by Dreier as a “classic West Coast mambo.” The mambo originated in Havana, Cuba in the 1930s and is typically characterized by short, syncopated rhythmic patterns. Tjader’s piece is a synthesis of mambo with the blues. Emily Roane’s energetic execution of the vibraphone’s statement of the main theme set the tone for the rest of the concert.

“Ronita’s Nightmare,” by Michael Philip Mossman, is a jazz mambo contrafact based on chord changes from “Nica’s Dream” by American jazz pianist and composer Horace Silver. Mossman, who has worked with the UI Latin Jazz Ensemble in the past, sent the piece to Dreier for the ensemble to study and perform.

Tacho” (Mixing Pot), a jazz samba in 7/4, is by Hermeto Pascoal, one of the most influential Brazilian popular musicians in the second half of the twentieth century. Dreier provided the arrangement for this ensemble. The soundscape created in “Tacho” was quite different from the previous pieces on the program. It featured electric keyboard and electric bass, with melodies in the flute and muted trumpet. Audience participation was encouraged in this piece—Dreier succeeded in coordinating the spectators-turned-participants’ clapping pattern in seven with the band.

The fourth piece on the concert was “Cha Cha Chá,” written by influential Cuban pianist Jesús “Chucho” Valdés. The composer, whose father and son also achieved fame as pianists, has won seven Grammys for his recordings over the past thirty years. “Cha Cha Chá” is named for the Cuban dance genre (featuring the distinctive rhythmic pattern of two quarter notes followed by three eighth notes and one eighth rest in 4/4 time) that became popular in Mexico and the United States in the 1950s.

The next chart on the concert was “Wave” by Antônio Carlos Jobim. The piece is a bossa nova, a Brazilian popular music style from the 1950s created by Jobim and several other musicians from Rio de Janeiro. It is derived from the samba style, but with a 4/4 feel and more complex harmonies from jazz. Many of the songs written by Jobim during this time have become classics, such as “Girl from Ipanema” and “Corcovado.” He wrote lyrics in both Portuguese and English, and the English versions of these songs are likely the most recognizably Brazilian music in the United States. A section of the English lyrics to “Wave,” “Just catch the wave, don’t be afraid to fall in love with me,” reflect some of the most recognizable subjects of Jobim’s songs—love, the ocean, and the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. Pedro Murillo, a percussionist in the ensemble, was the featured vocalist for this piece.

Ryan Smith, a former member of the ensemble and current DMA student in saxophone performance at UI, joined the ensemble for the final Brazilian work on the program, “Rua Do Futuro” (Street of the Future). The composer is a Brazilian musician with connections to the University of Iowa. Rafael Dos Santos, who studied at UI in the 1990s, performed Saturday, October 18 at the Finale Concert of the University of Iowa’s Brazil Symposium. Although the many solos throughout the concert were excellent, those featured in this piece stood out. Jeffrey Miguel (alto saxophone), Reid Turner (piano), Ryan Smith (soprano saxophone), and Nathaniel Ferguson (baritone saxophone) delivered fantastic solos, with the support of a tight rhythm section.

The program ended with Tito Rodriguez’s “La Ley Del Guaguancó,” (The Law of Guaguancó [a sub-style of rumba]) arranged by UI bassist Genji Onishi. The group was enthusiastic in their performance of their colleague’s work. Dreier even encouraged the audience members to dance, but unfortunately the listeners had reached the limits of their participatory zeal clapping in seven to “Tacho.” The impressive final section of Onishi’s arrangement featured a stratification of melodies in the saxophone and brass sections, layered above ostinatos in the rhythm section. The ensemble received a well-deserved standing ovation for their efforts. It is certain that many listeners will be willing to “catch the wave” and return to hear the UI Latin Jazz Ensemble’s next concert.

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Brazil in Iowa

I attended the Finale Concert of the Brazilian Music Symposium this weekend on Saturday, October 18th with performances by guest artists and University of Iowa faculty and students. While I did not get the chance to attend the rest of the symposium, I was excited to hear and learn more about the music. The UCC recital hall was packed when I walked in to the concert and I was happy to snag one of the last chairs in the venue. Soon after, the place was reduced to standing room only, and still more and more people flooded into the recital hall.

The concert was bookended with ensemble pieces of guitar and clarinet, which is a common ensemble for choro music. Choro is a musical genre from Brazil that is solely instrumental, upbeat, often virtuosic, and includes improvisation. This genre was featured multiple times in this concert. The first piece was performed by Thomas Garcia on guitar, and the University of Iowa clarinet professor, Maurita Murphy Marx. Following them, Thiago Ancelmo de Souza, a graduate student studying with Dr. Marx at the University of Iowa (who is himself from Brazil), played a choro piece for clarinet and piano. Dr. Réne Lecuono professor of piano at the University of Iowa also played a solo piano piece from this genre. (For a brief overview of choro and some examples of the genre check out this radio story from NPR’s Soundcheck.)

From the standing room only section in the back of the hall, Benjamin Coelho, Professor of Bassoon at the University of Iowa, began his first piece. While playing, he then began walking up the center aisle and came to a stop in front of Maria José S. Barbosa playing the rest of the movement directly to her in appreciation of her work organizing the symposium. Also originally from Brazil, Professor Coelho shared with the audience translations of the movement titles and gave some cultural background with them. At one point he referenced a well-known Brazilian novel whose plot had been used as the basis of a popular soap opera and someone from the audience called out the name of the actress from the show. This moment of shared experience reminded me that the concert was not only about the music from one country, but a representation of ideas and culture shown through not only the music, but the personalities of the musicians, most of whom presented anecdotes about their pieces and how they were important to the culture as well as information about where different styles developed.

For me, the rest of the concert felt more nostalgic; an interpretation supported by the performance of Welson Tremura, associate professor at the University of Florida, who sang and played guitar in various Brazilian styles including tango, samba, and bossa nova. Dr. Tremura would play a tune and then present it in different styles and also switch between lyrics and verses of scat singing. A couple of the songs were known by the audience and he encouraged them to sing along, in Portuguese. It was especially captivating to witness this because I got the impression that half of the audience was familiar with the music and knew the words and the other half was as in the dark as I. As Dr. Tremura invited the audience to sing, a gentle murmur started up sporadically with more and more voices entering from different locations as the song went on.

Rafael dos Santos, professor of piano at Sao Paulo State University followed this with additional choro pieces on the piano. Each note seemed to flow smoothly and effortlessly into the next which emphasized the rhythmic syncopation of the jazz-like music. Then Dr. Tremura and Dr. Marx returned to the stage, with an additional player who accompanied them on the cavaquinho, a Brazilian ukulele. The ensemble was very enjoyable to watch because the performers brought out the dialogue between the parts with body language and shared looks. Along with the mood of the music there was a definite sense of camaraderie amongst the musicians. After the final piece, the performers received a standing ovation which elicited an encore. Dr. Tremura returned to the stage and began “The Girl from Ipanema.” One by one, dos Santos and then the cavaquihno player joined him onstage and the audience sang along, once in Portuguese and then in English giving even those of us who were mostly unfamiliar with the music a chance to sing along.


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Crescendo entertains, makes you think.

What do you get when you combine two Italian theatre artists, a former supervisor for the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, a jazz musician, and an educational sociologist? The answer might surprise you! I attended a performance of Crescendo during its first weekend of production and I walked away with a smile on my face and the wheels spinning in my head.


Crescendo is a new play making its debut at The University of Iowa. It is the brainchild of collaborators Paola Coletto, Matteo Destro, John Rapson, and Paul Kalina and made possible through the Iowa Partnership in the Arts. The idea was first planted when Kalina and Coletto travel to Italy to meet with mask makers, particularly Matteo Destro. Through a three-year process, this project grew and other collaborators were brought on board, such as jazz artist, John Rapson, who composed original music for the show.

When I first arrived for the show, the theatre was dimly lit with a bare and exposed stage. Window frames hung as the backdrop. The big band was on the second level of the set and back into a corner. Over the audience’s left hung another balcony for musicians, which became the spot where most of the improvising happened.

With only one exception, most of the characters’ roles could be determined through their interactions. The first character to appear seemed to be a “spirit”–to be honest, this is the one character I can’t figure out. It would appear that her job was to rein in the two clown characters that were oversized and over-excited. These two clowns served the grotesque caricature of a headmaster–tall skinny top hat, obnoxiously tall (he was on stilts) with an oversized trench coat that was pushed out like a hoop skirt. His long black fingernails were at least two feet long! (It should also be noted that none of the characters had names printed in the program.) The five main characters used masks of the Italian theatre tradition. Each mask had a unique persona and emotion with which it had been created; so even if the character was simply staring at you, there was a great deal of personality being displayed by the actor. (Production photos can be seen by clicking this link.)

The majority of the play takes place in a school setting. The five main characters take turns playing both student and teacher roles, with each having their own class. I was a bit lost when they began because the first class was Spanish, but as the play moved forward, it moved into web design and tests. The audience even got involved with the standardized tests. The headmaster tossed papers into the audience and was assisted by his two clowns and their three… words can only describe them as “minions” because they have no face and say no words, only utterances… pass out tests and pencils to audience members and then are graded in public–with no consistency whatsoever. (One might be able to deduce from the script of the play that the collaborators were trying to make a statement about the problems in education.) For me, the most powerful moment of the play, though it is filled with comedy, is a scene where Olive is day dreaming. She’s standing in a classroom and pretending that she’s talking to her class and asking them what they wanted to be when they grew up. The other characters physically step into her dream and each one goes through elaborate portrayals of their future. As they begin to leave and are almost off-stage, they turn back and yes, “But Olive, what do YOU want to be when you grow up?” Silence had never been more powerful in this play than in this moment before she responded, “A teacher.”

One aspect that I found fascinating was the simple use for costuming. Each character had a base costume and when they became the teacher for that scene, it was as simple as adding something to the costume–a sweater, scarf, or tweed blazer complete with elbow patches. As described in the program notes, the musicians and actors take turns driving the action on stage. It was interesting to watch as Ryan Smith and David Hagedorn would improvise to action they saw on the stage, or vice versa; an actor would change when someone in the band played something in response to a scripted moment. Of course, the musician’s can’t have free reign and play whatever they wanted. Rapson created more than 50 little vignettes to be used as a base skeleton and the musicians improvised from there.

Crescendo runs through October 19 and tickets can be purchased through the Hancher box office. With new works there is always the question of if it will ever get performed again. In the right market – academia and New York City – I think this play has the potential to become accepted by the theatre community.

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They are energized. They are expressive. They are the UI Bands!

The University of Iowa Concert and Symphony Bands, conducted by Kevin Kastens, Dr. Richard Mark Heidel, and three DMA students, presented a concert at the Iowa Memorial Union on October 9, 2014 at 7:30pm.  They played an enjoyable program from the 20th and 21st centuries. It had great variety, through lyrical woodwind solos, the brass with beautiful hymns and rambunctious, loud sections, and a vivacious, but also militaristic percussion section.

“Band” is derived from the French word bande, which means “troop.”  The first appearance of bands in the United States was during the Revolutionary War, in the form of military bands.  At first, they were to accompany soldiers during battle, but then they became town bands that would perform on special occasions and holidays.  John Philip Sousa, known as the “march king,” was a bandmaster that held many concerts, promoting bands and their music.  Sousa used several melodies from his operetta, The Free Lance, to produce this march.  This was the only march he published in 1906, as the rest of the year was spent campaigning with Victor Herbert for composers’ royalties on recorded music, which led to many of the copyright law still in effect today.

Other pieces performed by the Concert Band were Ron Nelson’s Mayflower Overture, Robert Jager’s Third Suite, and Clifton Williams’s Caccia and Chorale, which were all composed in the latter half of the 20th century.  Warwick Charlton and the Plymouth Plantation cultural museum collaborated to make a replica of the Mayflower that had brought the pilgrims to Massachusetts in 1620.  The Mayflower II, as it was called, completed her trans-Atlantic voyage in1957, and Nelson, wrote this piece to spark interest in the story.  The piece is comprised of sections called “Departure,” “Storm” and “Alleluia,” and it contains familiar tunes, such as “Simple Gifts.”  The first two movements of the Jager, were “March” and “Waltz.”  Both had frequent meter changes, making them feel off balance.  A waltz implies a dance in three, but this composer must have enjoyed the thought of people tripping with his waltz in 5.  The piece ended with a traditional, triumphant “Rondo.”  The composer of Caccia and Chorale, Williams, had rather lofty goals for his piece, when he said, “The first, Caccia, means hunt or chase, and is intended to reflect the preoccupation of most people in the world with a constant pursuit of materialism.  The Chorale is, by contrast, an urgent and insistent plea for greater humanity, a return to religious or ethical concepts.”

The Symphony Band took command of the stage with Justin Freer’s Rio’s Convergence, written only four years ago, with brilliant brass lines, flourishing woodwinds, and a zealous percussion section.  Sanctuary by Frank Ticheli was written in honor of Harrah Robert Reynolds, Director of Bands at Michigan for 26 years, “as a symbol of [their] enduring friendship.” Reynolds was a horn player, so the piece commences with a horn solo using a set of pitches derived from his first name.  It is a lush, nostalgic, and reverent piece, which contains many soloistic lines.  The next piece they performed was Vittorio Giannini’s Symphony No. 3 for Band.  Just like a symphony written for an orchestra, it contains four movements that demonstrate the luxurious expression and high energy of the ensemble.  The concert closed with a short piece by Percy Grainger called Mock Morris.  It contained rhythmic, dance-like figures that were perfect for a concert ending.

The two ensembles put on a fantastic concert.  The bands had great dynamic contrast and energy, and the soloists could be heard well.  The showed their enthusiasm with great attention and much applause. I would highly recommend a performance by the UI Bands, if you have the chance!


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JACK Performs Works by University of Iowa Composers

On October 6th, the JACK Quartet presented a concert in Riverside Recital Hall comprised entirely of works written by University of Iowa student composers. This evening provided a very unique listening experience for those in attendance. When attending a string quartet concert, one usually expects to hear the works of three or four different composers. On this particular night, the audience heard the sounds of eight different compositional voices. This created a collage of styles that was at times overwhelming, but always enjoyable and engaging.

To begin the program, Jason Palamara’s never bowing down provided a meditation on different questions relating to the nature of the human soul. Following this was Jonah Elrod’s molto agitato, a work that used algorithmic techniques to generate musical content. This work featured striking and abrupt changes of textures and rhythmic feels. Next was Alexandros Spyrou’s Esotera III. This work contained many experimental and extended techniques that stretched the limits of string instrument sounds. The highlight of this piece and one of the highlights of the night was the incredible energy buildup in a cello cadenza performed by Kevin McFarland that utilized tremelo, over pressure, and playing on the opposite side of the bridge. Closing the first half was Barry Sharp’s RAW (String Quartet No. 2). This piece at times reached incredible levels of volume and violence for just four string instruments. After intermission was Joseph Z. Adams’ Space Jumping, attempting to programmatically depict the act of space jumping as well the idea of the soul reaching it’s final resting place after death. Nima Hamidi’s String Quartet No. 2 (XonyaGar) offered a unique combination of Eastern and Iranian folk music sounds with contemporary string quartet writing techniques. After this, the audience experienced the melancholy moods of Jonathan Wilson’s The Laughing Crane’s Lament. Closing out the program was Joshua Marquez’s Pagtindig, a work taking rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic inspiration from Filipino folk music.


String quartets have been written for over two hundred years by hundreds of composers. According to the JACK’s website, their group alone has performed works by over 200 different composers. With so much music existing in this genre, it is a testament to the Iowa student composers that this concert of eight new string quartets was completely captivating from beginning to end. The JACK quartet certainly deserves the highest praise possible for this experience. They operate as a nonprofit organization dedicated to the performance, commissioning, and spread of new string quartet music. They are successful with this mission because of their world class skill and attitude. Both of these traits were on display during this performance. The JACK’s humility and willingness to commit themselves completely to whatever work they are playing in a given moment is incredibly inspiring to witness. They give every sound their utmost artistry and their musical intent and direction was clear at every instant even though they had been working with these pieces for only a few days. The JACK’s musical intensity provided an inspiring evening for everyone in attendance.


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