Last year I had the pleasure of traveling to Bloomington, Indiana in a cramped van full of people and instruments. We were going to the Midwest Composers Symposium and I was excited to get out of town for a few days, see one of my best friends, and hear some great performances. I wasn’t disappointed either; the weekend was filled with all sorts of new sounds, interesting compositions, and a sneak peak into the new music that is happening in the Midwest. This year the Midwest Composers Symposium was held here at Iowa. Not only was a able to hear great performances, I participated. Here’s a break down of my experience of the first concert:
The concert started with a hauntingly beautiful piece by David Biedenbender called Three Rilke Poems. It was performed by Kantorei chamber choir lead by Dr. Stalter. Each poem has German text. Only two movements were performed, Herbst and Losch mir die Augen as or Autumn and Extinguish Thou My Eyes, respectively. Both these movements sounded melancholy. First the women entered in pairs, following each other on what seemed like minor intervals. The piece continued like this for some time, with voices moving in an out and then ending in a whimper. Dynamically, both pieces never got above forte. It was such a special moment at the end of the last piece when each voice faded away.
The next piece on the program was Qurama for chamber ensemble by Turkar Gasimzada. Gasimzada talks about his inspiration for his piece in the program notes: “Qurama is an ancient handicraft of Azerbaijan, a kind of patchwork made of cloth scraps of various sizes and colors…ideas of working with different shapes and colors, adding multiple layers on top of each other or subtracting, separating them, exploring different time concepts and listening experiences are important to the compositional processes of this piece.” In Qurama, Gasimzada definitely uses the ideas of patchwork and layering. Although most of the piece sounds like random entrances and bleeps and bloops, I believe that the composer is trying to present the idea of construction or building a structure using small pieces. When construction is happening whether it is a blanket of patchwork or a building, it happens slowly and a little bit at a time and that is exactly what this piece sounded like to me. He also employs lots of colors and extended techniques for each instrument. As an example, throughout the piece the trumpet kept flutter tonguing. I found this to be of particular interest not only because I play trumpet but because each time it happened it completely changed the tone of the piece.
Cave Paintings by Chris Renk had to be the most interesting piece on the concert. I opened my program to read the liner notes and just as I did, the lights went out. A collective gasp rippled through the audience, babies stopped crying, everything became still. At the front of the stage a screen appeared showing ancient images of cave paintings and I was immediately intrigued. Here is a quote from Renk about his piece, “My goal with “Cave Paintings” is to evoke the beauty, drama and mystery of these ancient images to imagine the mythology and spirituality of their creators, and to honor the incredible sense of wonder and awe that these paintings continue to inspire in me.” Cave Paintings sounds primitive with repetitive percussion and pizzicato strings. The winds made use of extended techniques i.e. horn stops, the trombone used glissando, and even blowing backwards through the mouthpiece. On the screen the images appeared at random, almost as if someone were in a cave holding up a flashlight to see. An epilogue at the end of the piece was meant to trace the evolution of mankind. I had the opportunity to speak with the composer about the piece and he said it took him about two years to complete it. He also mentioned that mixing images with music is a great way to bring in an audience. I must agree. Cave Paintings was a great experience.
Partick Harlin is a DMA student at the University of Michigan. His piece, Rapture has an interesting story behind it. Harlin says, “A few years back I read a book about super cave exploration, in particular an expedition that descended the Mt. Everest of caves, the deepest point in the deepest cave on earth.” Rapture certainly does sound like an adventure and from the perspective of a performer, it was an exciting piece to perform. Harlin opens up with an overlapping melody in the clarinets and flutes that grind against each other in minor seconds. This melody begins to morph into a broader setting with alternating minor seconds in the flute and trumpet. In fact, the use of minor seconds in this piece is ubiquitous and really holds it together. The second section is ethereal bringing to mind the wonders of Mt. Everest and the exploration of its caves. The last section reminds me of minimalism with ostinato in the lower voices and repeating sixteenth note runs in the upper winds and trumpet.
The first concert of the Midwest Composers Symposium was a great success. Each piece presented new ideas and colors and sounds. This concert showed me that new music is alive and thriving—it is my hope that it can escape the realm of the university setting and be integrated into mainstream.