Exchange of Midwestern Collegiate Composers: A performer’s perspective

An ominous thunderstorm wasn’t the only out-of-towner in Iowa City this weekend.

Composers, teachers, and performers from the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of Missouri-Kansas City were in town for the third annual Exchange of Midwestern Collegiate Composers (EMCC), a two-day event in which student composers had their pieces performed in a series of four concerts at the Riverside Recital Hall.

As a member of the Center for New Music here at the University of Iowa, I have had the opportunity to participate in this event for the past two years. Held in Kansas City last April, EMCC is a great outlet through which student composers can share their compositions with the public and with each other. There were approximately 20 composers from the three schools who had pieces performed.

The event kicked off at 7:30 on Friday evening. The first piece was entitled Extrication and Transcendence for chamber ensemble, written by UMKC graduate student, Brian Padavic. I was involved in this piece and had the distinct honor of opening the entire weekend of events with an un-conducted, unaccompanied four-bar solo. No pressure at all!

The piece was well-written, and unlike a lot of other “new music” I have performed, the composer seemed to understand how to write for the instruments involved. So often, I find that I don’t enjoy playing a lot of newer compositions, not because I don’t like the actual music, but because it seems like the composer doesn’t understand what an instrument is and isn’t capable of doing. It is then on the performer to find ways to make a non-idiomatic passage sound convincing. Padavic’s piece was enjoyable to play, however, and seemed well-received by his peers and audience members.

In the program notes, Padavic says that the title refers to “removing oneself from a difficult situation in order to gain a new perspective.” The theme of turning a negative experience into a positive one of personal growth was represented in the music by the single melodic line at the beginning of the piece that was restated in all the instruments, then fragmented until it finally settled as one vertical harmony sounded simultaneously by all six of the instruments.

Following a soprano and percussion duo by UI composer Zach Zubow, the next piece I played in was a three-movement quartet for flute, clarinet, cello, and piano entitled Fire Dance. Composed by UC-Boulder graduate student Jing Zhou, the melodic and harmonic elements of the piece were heavily inspired by Zhou’s Chinese heritage, including folk melodies and rhythms found in Beijing opera.

Of the three pieces that I performed on Friday night, Zhou’s was far and away the most challenging. Whether it was the composer’s intention or not, Fire Dance had a conductor, something I think was truly necessary for the successful performance of the piece. In addition to an almost unplayable piano part that had to be altered during rehearsal to accommodate the performer’s ability (a superb ability, I might point out), the tempos that she provided were impossibly fast. Several other slight “alterations” were made to the piece in order for us to play it.

I think Zhou’s ambitions far exceeded the normal limitations of our instruments, which is a common occurrence in the performance of many new works. Despite the challenges, however, Fire Dance came together for the performance and we were able to share Zhou’s imaginative writing with her peers.

Sprinkled throughout the concert were string quartets and quintets, but I was backstage making sure my reed was surviving the temperamental Iowa weather.

The third and final piece that I performed on Friday night’s concert was Shooting Snowburst Silhouette Spectacular by UI graduate student Brian Penkrot. The ensemble included soprano, clarinet, cello, piano, and percussion. The text was set to poetry by Thea Brown, an alumnus of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Each poem in the series was named after a type of Christmas lighting, and Penkrot said that he was drawn to both the “direct and abstract” nature of her writing. Penkrot emulated her complex writing style in the music by juxtaposing contrasting imagery and mood. The soprano’s part was both lyrical and harsh, with several spoken verses, just as the instrumental parts alternated between melodic lines and sound effects (such as key clicks on the clarinet to represent the cracking ice of a frozen creek).

The first night of the Exchange of Midwestern Collegiate Composers proved to be as much of an educational event for the performers as it was for the composers. Performing new works often comes with many challenges, but the insight and exposure gained makes it worth it. Hopefully the fourth annual EMCC conference will offer its participants the same rewarding experience.

…and better weather.


Links to two of the aforementioned composers’ websites can be found below:

Brian Padavic:

Brian Penkrot:


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3 responses to “Exchange of Midwestern Collegiate Composers: A performer’s perspective

  1. mtabora

    Speaking with some experience of playing new works on a regular basis, it seems to me that composers and performers are always in a slight “tug-of-war” as far as the demands that the composers make and the abilities that the performers and their instruments bring to the table.
    One thing that I often think about is that if composers had always limited themselves to writing only what was “playable,” some of the greatest music that we now have would not exist, or it would perhaps sound completely different. Also, the technical standards of proficiency might be substantially lower than they are today, if we didn’t have those composers constantly making more and more demands of us performers. I am not talking of just modern music, but of “classical” music as a whole.
    I wonder if the instrumentalists of the future, maybe 50 years from now, will possess a substantially different skillset that what we now focus on. Instead of practicing only major, minor, chromatc, and other such traditional scales, perhaps they will work on microtonal scales. Extended techniques may become the foundation of technique, rather than extensions of it. For the time being, you and I must continue to struggle in the practice room to make some of these things work, but maybe our grandchildren will be far more proficient interpreters of new music because of what we are doing today.
    Enough speculation….

  2. marjorieshearer

    You make a very good point! While I completely agree that the technical demands and limitations of our instruments have been constantly expanding – as they should – over the course of time, there are simply some things that an instrument can’t do. I think it would benefit composers and players alike if the composers had more education on the physical capabilities of an instrument. I can only speak from the point-of-view of a clarinet player, so what I had in mind when I wrote this was flutter tonguing in the altissimo register starting from niente (which I had in my music on the one of the pieces) or wide, slurred leaps from an upper to lower partial of the instrument at a very fast tempo, which can’t be done without re-voicing or re-articulating the note. Of course, nothing is ever “impossible” and certainly there are clarinetists out there who could do these things and sound great. I just get frustrated when I can’t make something sound as effortless as the audience or the composer expects. You have a very good point though, and until someone invents a magical version of our instrument that can do anything we want, we must struggle in the practice room.

    • driverson

      I like this idea of “struggle in the practice room,” since it shows one of the ways that new music challenges us as musicians–we must continue to grow…

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