Monthly Archives: May 2012

Heavy Lifting

Programming can be an interesting concept. When you think about things from an audience perspective, what is it that we want to hear? Do we want to be both excited and challenged all in the same concert? How can the performers/directors choose a program that can please everyone? Is that even possible? In an ensemble scenario (i.e. an orchestra where the personnel stays the same or changes only minimally from one piece to the next), how much do you have to take into account the performers ability/stamina? This concept is something I spent a lot of time thinking about in preparation for my own recital. Pushing myself is one thing, pushing a large number of others can be a different issue.

Last week’s orchestra concert that included Strauss’s Don Juan and Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture on the same half of the same concert left me pondering some issues. Both of these works are prominent in the western repertoire, standing out as “heavy lifting” type works. In other words, neither are pieces to be taken lightly. Both require an intense respect for the music. My professor (Dr. Dan Moore) recently made a statement about Bach that I think can apply aptly to both of these works, “…it’s like a motorcycle, if you lose respect or concentration for one minute, you’re gonna’ be thrown.”

The programmatic aspects of both the Strauss and the Berlioz lend towards the unexpected. This means that the performers have to be very well acquainted with the events within the piece in order to successfully navigate the ink. Even at that, the performer (or collective performers in the case of an orchestra) has to be concentrating at all times in order to know exactly what is happening at any given time. As a percussionist, I am well adjusted to the idea of counting for an unmentionable number of measures in between playing a cymbal crash here or a bass drum note there. Typically, pieces are broken logically into rehearsal numbers that line up to sections in the music, allowing for ease in following long instances of tacet. Even with this, the Straus was not easily navigated. The Berlioz (immediately preceding the Strauss), was a lot easier to navigate but is a very busy work to play. When these two works are put back to back, demand on the performers goes up tremendously.

I can only speculate about the other sections. For me, the biggest challenge in orchestral works is not the physical aspect of playing. There are many instances in percussion that involves serious physical stamina. Orchestral playing seems to physically require a fine touch, but more mental fortitude than anything else. As I watch other sections play, I wonder how it is for them. Strings look as if there is a respectful amount physicality to deal with, and I know the muscle stamina in the embouchure for wind players can be a challenge during lengthy stints of playing. It makes me curious to know what the experience is like for these players. Does the back to back performance of two long and challenging works falter from when programmed together, or does the added challenge of presenting two hard pieces together excite the performer enough to properly prepare, knowing what is in store for them?

All this to say, last Wednesday, the University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra attacked both Strauss and a double shot of Berlioz (I have yet to mention the second half of the program that included Berlioz’s Les nuits d’ete, a song cycle for soprano and orchestra). Roman Carnival (which started to the show) seemed to warm the audience up quite nicely as the applause was equal to the energy of the piece. Moving straight into Don Juan, the audience seemed to respond with the same enthusiasm, filling the IMU Main Lounge with an extended and exuberant round of applause. In this case, for any number of variables, the programming seemed to play very well to the audience at hand. The performers stepped up and took the challenge and the works soared to an exhilarating high. My hat’s off to you, Dr. Jones.

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Not Just a Good Source of Dietary Fiber

Pears are probably not what you would expect to take center stage at an electronic music concert, though I am not sure what type of fruit would be expected.  It all began last Sunday at 7:30pm in Room 101 of the Becker Communications Hall right here on the University of Iowa campus.  The Electronic Music Studio presented a concert to showcase many of the talented local electronic music composers along with their special guests from Kansas City, The Digital Honkbox Revival.

The Digital Honkbox Revival, for this performance, was comprised of regular members Brad Baumgardner (bass clarinet, pear), Scott Blasco (guitar, computer, pear), Andrew Cole (computer, pear), Katherine Crawford (voice, pear) and local guest artist Rebecca Ashe (flute, pear).  The Revival is a new music ensemble that has spawned from a collection of past and present students from the University of Missouri – Kansas City.  They produce an eclectic mixture of acoustic and electronic music using some rather unique methods.

The program kicked off with a composition by Earle Brown, a contemporary of John Cage, titled Four Systems.  This is normally performed on a solo piano, but Brown set no limitations on the number or groups of instruments that can be used.  The Revival used all of their forces available to perform Systems, including their computers, for a truly 21st century adaptation. Systems was composed using graphic notation and is interpreted individually by each performer.  The overall effect is very improvisatory and gives the listener a lot of interesting events to focus on.

The duo of Baumgardner and Blasco took the stage next to perform Adam Hardin’s piece Echolalia. The title refers to a speech disorder in which an individual uncontrollably repeats words that are spoken to them.  This idea was tied directly to the composition.  Echolalia featured a solo bass clarinet, that when filtered through a computer, mimicked its original sound with added effects, echo, and phasing.  The overall product was astonishing and the bass clarinet playing of Baumgardner was extremely creative and virtuosic.

UI composition students Yungsoo Kim and Shane Hoose both presented their purely electronic compositions A Play on Sounds and Recoil.  Kim’s Sounds utilized recorded voices and other sounds that had been broken apart, reversed, sped up, slowed down, or altered in a number of other ways. The overall effect of this piece was one of many different scenes that at shifted to very quickly and frequently.  As if one is attempting to pass through a crowded and noisy room at a quick speed.  Shane Hoose’s Recoil featured components mainly derived from the sounds made by various firearms.  The work was very well organized and delivered what was expected.

UI percussion Andy Theirauf performed two compositions on the EMS concert.  The first, titled Pisces Piece was composed by Thierauf himself and featured various found-percussion instruments and a large quantity of water.  As the instruments were banged and dipped, Thierauf looped the many sounds into a finely woven tapestry of interesting rhythms and timbres.  The second piece performed by Thierauf was UI student composer Dr. Zach Zubow’s Copenhagen Wheel. This piece combined a set of cardboard boxes and electronic sounds to form a highly rhythmic soundscape.  The work suggested a very primal feeling at times and the use of cardboard boxes reminded me of street performers in my hometown of Chicago.

The final performance on the EMS concert once again called the entire Honkbox crew back to the stage to perform what may have been the greatest crowd pleaser of the evening.  Baumgardner and Blasco’s Yard Pears featured the use of our unlikely star, the pear.  The fruits were utilized as percussion instruments for multiple players by the use of tiny microphones inserted into them.  Surrounding these delicious rhythms were multiple other layers of sound.  Vocal loops were introduced by various performers on stage and played back is succession. The performers improvised every new track that was looped.  The last section of Pears called for free improvisation of acoustic instruments.

As an orchestral-oriented instrumentalist my knowledge of and exposure to electronic music is limited.  I was unsure of what to expect when attending the EMS concert last weekend.  In my experience, most people tend to shy away from events like this one as they are considered to be nothing more the a lot of beeps and bloops.  In reality, what this concert offered was a collections of well-crafted compositions that were executed by highly knowledgeable and gifted musicians.

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