Monthly Archives: September 2013

Can you sing the blues if you were raised in the Hamptons?

It has been said that only Frank Sinatra can sing My Way. Similarly, unless you grew up in the Mississippi Delta or were born in the back of a Greyhound bus you have no right to sing the blues. And only if your name is Maria Callas or Joan Sutherland can you do justice to the Mad Scene in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.

When an artist puts their stamp on a work it can elevate that work to a status that places it out of reach of lesser mortals. This is especially true when the artist has lived the experience the music speaks to; the reason Woody Guthrie sounds authentic when he sings of the depression is because he was authentic – born and raised in the dust bowl, he was a true “Okie” – and it paints his recordings with a sound so real you can feel the dust swirling in the air.

This phenomenon is especially challenging for young musicians. Eager to place a definitive mark on their craft, they reach into the catalogs of established artists and genres, seeking to connect themselves to events they have not truly lived – and in so doing render themselves legitimate champions of causes that are, more often than not, beyond their experience.

Perhaps in no genre is this more palpable than in songs of war and protest. Can we imagine anyone but Martin Luther King Jr. expounding the phrase “I have a dream?” And if we did not live through the dark days of Vietnam, what does it really mean if we belt out the chorus of We Shall Overcome?

On Sunday, September 22, the University of Iowa vocal studio of Katherine Eberle presented a concert of just such material. While the average age of these students is perhaps twenty one, the melodies and lyrics they sang date from the American Revolutionary War to the Vietnam era – well before these performers were born. Many of the fourteen selections are time honored classics: When Johnny Comes Marchin’ Home (by Patrick Gilmore, writing under the pseudonym Louis Lambert), The White Cliffs of Dover (Walter Kent), George M. Cohan’s The Yankee Doodle Boy, Kurt Weill’s Dirge for Two Veterans, and Pete Seeger’s Where Have all the Flowers Gone. These are iconic songs, songs that defined an era and summed up the angst of a generation in a few poignant stanzas. Many of these songwriters themselves lived these experiences; Gilmore enlisted in the Union army, Seeger was blacklisted during the McCarthy era and sentenced to prison, and Weill fled Nazi Germany, a move that likely saved his life. These artists did not practice a craft – they lived one.

So what can we draw from a recital of such emblematic works? Do we require authenticity in performance? Must these performers learn to suffer themselves in order to truly express the horror of the conflicts of which they sing? And while there were some fine performances in this recital, reflecting much diligent work and training, is that enough to convince us that they, the students of the twenty-first century, are worthy to pass on the torch of the greatest of generations?

Thomas Jefferson famously said that “every generation needs a new revolution”. That is to say, every generation must fight its own Vietnam. Perhaps it is a war of words, thoughts, or ideals and not of tyrants and persecution; perhaps it is both. Thank God it is not the job of today’s youth to fight World War II over; it is, however, the responsibility of each age to learn from the past and avoid the mistakes of history.

To this end we must encourage and congratulate these young vocal students and their mentor. These are not art songs in the strict sense; nor were the performances all worthy of critical acclaim. What this effort does embody is a generation seeking its soul, searching for meaning amidst the sacrifice of those who walked and died on the road before, a generation striving to transform the tragedies of the past into the dreams of tomorrow.

Perhaps these students were not born with the right to sing the blues or to lament the heartache of war. But they must, as we all must, reconcile their conscience with both the tragedy and the success of our humanity. In lieu of fighting a war themselves, they seek this reconciliation through knowledge. In the end, they must find their own voice  – and they must do it the only way they know how – their way.

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David und David

Sunday afternoon at three o’clock proved to be monumental at The University of Iowa.  Guest violinist Wolfgang David and our very own David Gompper performed four breathtaking pieces, two composed by Dr. Gompper himself.

Every time Wolfgang David takes the stage I feel as if he has a secret connection to the room and the audience. There is a surreal understanding of what each performance will be before he even begins to play. He did not disappoint this weekend. I am still in awe of what these two musicians accomplished.

 The concert opened with “Nuance, for solo violin” by David Gompper. This piece has been revised a number of times and this is the “final revision” according to Dr. Gompper, and I believe the best by far. The opening figures were reminiscent of wind. A soft rustling of sound, that carried through the entire first half of the concert. Dr. Gompper favored extended violin techniques throughout this piece including sections of flute like sounds on the violin, extended range and bowing I had never seen before. It seemed to me that the piece was structured around dyanmics (p/mp/p/ff/p/ppp) with the p sections being the anchor and containing similar sonorities of tri-tones mixed with P4s along with the light wind-ish rustling motif. I believe that this structural element was one thing that laypeople could grasp as “comfortable” in a sea of sound. Though for me, it was a favorite.

“Violin Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, op. 80” by Sergei Prokofiev was next on the program and continued the rustling wind sounds set in the first piece. The common ground between the two pieces created a nice relationship for the audience. There was a little girl sitting in front of me who leaned over to her mother and said “ooooh… more leaves.” I smiled as I was thinking the same thing. There was a rich interplay between the piano and the violin throughout all four movements, which included long “Straussian” lines and the occasional soaring high note. This first movement explored two different emotional areas (despair and hope for lack of better words).

 The second movement had a much fuller texture, large amounts of imitation between the two instruments and incorporated areas of harsh percussiveness in both piano and violin. There was not a moment of wasted energy in this entire movement; it was a roller coaster of sonorities, large intervallic leaps and virtuosic playing. There were sweeping legato violin phrases that were far from tonal, however, it drew me in as if I knew where they were going. And maybe that’s just because it’s Prokofiev, and I kind of knew what to expect.

 The Andante movement brought back the rustling and fluttering sounds, but more like birds; exotic and meditative but with a full bodied intensity and sensitivity. This movement reminded me of Hollywood silent film music or a modern ballet. Wolfgang closed his eyes as he played for almost the entire concert, but on this movement they were open and it seemed as if he could see the scene unfolding in front of him – whatever it was that he imagined, and it drew me in, almost seductively. I was surprised that after a few weeks of deeper study I could hear transpositions and inversionally related transpositions in some sections. The piano ended the piece with what felt like a classical chordal ending. Of all the elements of the various types of music I heard on the concert this ending was the one thing that didn’t sit perfectly with me, but I feel that many people in the audience appreciated that gesture.

Movement four introduced much simpler lines with thinner textures. The closest I could come to describe it would to be early Copland-like with a short perfect unison duet followed by a chase. At the end the violin comes back to beginning motive and the somber feel from movement one. This entire piece felt like it lasted no time at all, as it was a roller coaster of movement, sound and enjoyment.

 “Ikona, for violin and piano” by David Gompper again contained the rustling sounds on the strings, but in a more ethereal ambiance. This piece featured WT tetrachord chunks, sound mass planing on the piano, extended bowing techniques on the violin and a slew of sounds I wouldn’t expect to hear from a piano. There was one section toward the end where I heard water droplets in both instruments and then new motivic ideas that overlapped then evolved – almost fugue-like until all of a sudden everything started to fade, like a dream when you start to wake up and keep grasping at sleep so the dream won’t end.  This was my favorite piece on the concert and I was almost sad when it ended.

 The afternoon ended with “Dikhthas for violin and piano” by Iannis Xenakis. Dikhthas means “a dual entity made up of two natures”, and this couldn’t be more telling. I almost thought that the two parts could have been composed independently of each other, with the same mathematical elements and notes. After letting my initial thought of “that’s a lot of notes” sink in I heard elements of Penderecki and Reich. This felt to me like a pedagogical exercise mixed with a swarm of bees and a plane engine. Xenakis incorporated extended techniques on the violin, creating a radio static kind of sound.  The music seems to be built on only a few pitches that are repeated over and over but in different registers and the separation versus unification of textures.

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Left “Lang-ing” for More…

On Sunday night the University of Iowa’s Center for New Music (CNM) presented the works of U. Iowa alumnus and Pulitzer Prize wining composer David Lang. The concert also featured pieces by Michael D’Ambosio and Brian Ciach, who was in attendance and played his own work. I have always found David Lang’s music very interesting and having been to a couple of lectures that he has presented in the past has added to that interest. His ideas for compositions are always very specific and often deeply philosophical. He also strives to compose in a way that challenges the performers, usually with repetitive rhythmic patters that differ just enough that the performer has to stay focused throughout the piece. 

The concert began with one of my favorite works, “Cheating, Lying, Stealing.” Since I played on this piece I wont talk about it to much. As Lang says in his program notes he wanted to change the typical idea of a composer writing about what they like about themselves and instead decided to write about what he disliked about himself. This idea can be seen the two brake drum parts that are used to accent the rhythmic cell. The parts are written at forte with accents on every note and are intended to be the focus of the work. As he told the ensemble during the sound check, “this is a concerto for break drums.” The abrasive break drum parts are offset by a beautiful but very difficult cello melody. We decided to amplify Tom Maples’ cello to help him be heard over the rest of the ensemble, and when Lang saw this he told Tom that “the microphone shouldn’t make it easier to play, it will just make it easier for everyone to hear you struggle.” For those that were not able to attend the concert here is a link to a performance of “Cheating, Lying, Stealing.” 

The second piece of the concert was a piano sonata written and performed by Brian Ciach. In watching his performance and hearing the way it was composed it was obvious that he had a deep personal connection with each note that he played. The first movement, World of Hate, began with a thick chord played in a Stravinsky-esque rhythm at the bottom of the piano. The first movement continued to show the composers anger with closely voiced chords and, for lack of better words, pounding on the keyboard. The second movement, Broken Love, traveled through a number of the composers emotions, from overwhelming sadness to jubilation and back. 

“Pierced” by David Lang featured Anthony Arnone as the cello soloist as well as Casey Rafn on piano and Andy Thierauf on percussion with additional member of the CNM ensemble. This piece was composed with the idea that the three soloists were playing playing together and the CNM ensemble was playing together. It starts with the three soloists playing a pointilistic, highly chromatic melody while the CNM ensemble played a more traditional chord progression. During the piece the roles switch and the Piano and Percussion begin playing a chord progression made up of simpler major and minor chords with a cello solo soaring over the top. While they have become more traditionally tonal, the members of the CNM ensemble begin playing more dense harmonies in sharp rhythms. This combination created a really interesting juxtaposition of tonal and atonal, but despite the fact that they do not seem like they would work together to the listener it comes across as one cohesive idea. 

“Super Groove” by Mike D’Ambrosio was performed wonderfully by Elliot Czaplewski on oboe and Casey Rafn on piano. That being said this composition was probably my least favorite of the night. The title of the piece gave me an expectation of a funky, Tower Of Power, like groove but I felt like the work ended up being sort of floaty and it seemed to drag on for a long time. Harmonically the piece was very interesting and it’s possible I would have enjoyed the piece more if I did not have the preconceptions of what the piece should sound like, but with a concert filled with amazing compositions it seemed out of place. 

The final piece of the program was another David Lang piece called “Increase.” This piece featured challenging rhythmic patterns with slight variations as the piece progressed. While the ensemble continues to play short, busy, rhythmic passages the stings begin playing a beautiful melody made up of mostly longer note values that create a nice compliment to the busy underlay. In true David Lang style near the middle of the piece heavy percussion kicks in and begins accenting specific beats. After a dropping of all the instruments except flute and vibraphone a thick texture is created by having everyone join back in at the same time, all playing forte that goes until the entire ensemble abruptly stops signaling the end of the piece. 

All of the works presented in this concert were well executed by the CNM ensemble members and made for a fantastic evening of great music. It was very evident that all of the performers, as well as Dr. David Gompper and Professor Zachary Stanton worked hard to show our guest composers that the University of Iowa can execute these extremely difficult works and put on a thrilling concert for the audience.

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Caffeine and Creativity

My undergraduate theory teacher, a new-music composer, hypothesized that in ten years we’d all be listening to recordings. Exclusively. Why go to the concert hall, he argued, if you can have the best hi-fi recording of the piece in the comfort of your living room? My classmates and I were skeptical. For the new music that he and we loved, it wasn’t possible and still isn’t, even in the age of YouTube. We wanted to believe in the stage; we were training to be performers, after all. Why we still go to the concert hall is an open question, but I think the precariousness of live performance must be part of the answer. Will the performer stumble? Fail? Phone it in? Succeed wildly? Performers and composers in last Sunday’s 24+24 Hour Composition Project concert must have been wondering the same things. The premise of this wet-ink-style concert organized by the Iowa chapter of the Society for Composers is this: composers and performers are randomly matched. Composers have 24 hours to write for the drawn soloist or ensemble. When the music is delivered a day later, performers have 24 hours to rehearse the pieces. Then, the stage. [Exhale. Swallow hard.] When I arrived at Music West atrium, I was pleasantly surprised to see a standing-room-only crowd. Apparently I wasn’t the only one mulling the precariousness of this endeavor.

The concert opened with a dramatic, engaging piece by Ph.D. student Jonah Elrod titled “WRAITH.” Setting a poem of the same title by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elrod wrote skillfully for tenor and piano. He evoked the haunted loneliness of the poem with piano clusters, which were sparsely scattered in both register and time. The pianist knocked below the keyboard on the wood of the piano case as tenor James Judd sang in response, “Hush with your knocking.” The poem, which toggles between a creepy thunderstorm and the ghostly supernatural, was carried off with serious intensity and drama, both in Elrod’s composition and in the performances of pianist Casey Rafn and tenor Judd. Ph.D. student Leo Iogansen wrote only other piece that included a vocalist, titled “How About It?” for soprano and two percussionists. Leo treated the soprano, Janet Ziegler, as an instrumentalist more than a vocalist. She entered the texture admirably after percussionists Aaron Ziegler and Andy Thierauf began the piece with bass drum rhythms and perhaps the most ingenious instrument of the evening, a partially-full saucepan struck with a metal mallet. The timbral mixtures of marimba, vibes, and soprano were at times interesting; Janet’s melismatic “ahhhh”, which pervaded the piece, finally narrowed to a “how” followed by a sprechstimme “about it” as a closing gesture. This brought a chuckle from the audience, though I couldn’t help but wonder if more couldn’t have been done with the voice in the realms of either text or timbral variation.

A number of composers drew solo instruments, including Ph.D. student Dan Frantz, who wrote “aliisd:hamk” for contrabass trombonist Shelby Kifer. The piece explored the instrument’s range of possible articulations, from short, detached, running notes to long, plodding, legato melodies. The most interesting aspect of the piece were the numerous multiphonics, created by either singing while blowing into the instrument, or by overblowing, taking unusual shaft positions, and incorporating lip trills. M.A. student Barry Sharp’s piece “spirit song,” for vibraphonist Wannapha Yannavut, seemed to also be conceived as a continuum. The piece featured melismatic triadic arpeggios as responses to the sol-do and sol-re calls that began the piece.  Yannavut switched to larger yarn mallets and, in the center of the arch form, to harder cord mallets; here the harmonic language became more dissonant, pervaded with fourths and sevenths rather than thirds and sixths. The return to small yarn mallets marked the return of extended tertian sonorities and the long fade-out into the distance.

Faced with the task of writing for a solo instrument, a number of composers took the opportunity to use ostinati, especially rearticulations on a single pitch, as a recurring theme in their pieces. Ph.D. student Nima Hamidi presented MOTREB for bassoonist Fabio de Silva. A Ligetian piece in the best possible way, the register gradually rose as the familiar rearticulated ostinato and pitch bends of the opening returned. de Silva’s playing was impressive to say the least, considering  the numerous multiphonics interspersed with long tones, which required circular breathing–a technique where the wind player puffs up the cheeks to keep air blowing through the instrument at the same time as he or she breathes in. Speaking of precarious performances, extended techniques like circular breathing are a pleasure to watch, especially in such a small space. M.A. student Justin Comer’s piece “Amen” for snare drummer Andrew Veit likewise made use of a rim ostinato throughout the piece. The syncopations Comer wrote against the ostinato were clever and aptly performed by Veit. Comer experimented with using the snares on and off as well as using a large yarn mallet on the outside of the drum, welcome timbral variations in a snare drum solo. Finally, Ph.D. student Jason Palamara’s “not in vain” for solo violist Manuel Tabora made use of triplet ostinato articulations during a long held pitch. The ascending minor scalar patterns gave way to the ostinato, which pervaded the piece in spirit if not literally. In an interesting technique, Palamara called for the violist to strum with the left hand at the fingerboard while bowing an open string with the right hand. Tabora’s enthusiastic performance captured the driving, rhythmic nature of this piece.

Composers who drew a chamber ensemble included Ph.D students Joseph AdamsJoshua Marquez, and Jonathan Wilson. Adams wrote “Fractured” for bass (Michael White) and percussion (Tyler Swick). The atmospheric percussion sound effects, which included cymbal rolls, a mark tree made of keys, whistles, and a wind machine (a toothed wheel tented in canvas that makes a wind-like sound effect) added interesting texture to the bass melody. My favorite moment in the piece was the use of toms and snare drums played in the same rhythm as the bass pizzicatos, which had the effect of “texturizing” the pizzicato notes. Marquez’s piece Contention” used a violin (Haley Leach) positioned on stage in the usual way and a trumpeter (Dee Bierschenk) positioned off stage in the back of the hall. The piece was, as the title suggests, a conversation apparently without cooperation between the two instruments. While the idea of contention came across clearly, it seemed to me that the violin and trumpet were also not equals; the violin experimented with many timbral variations such as pizzicato, double stops, wide vibratos, bow bounces, and glissandi, while the trumpet played in traditional melodic and timbral profiles. Wilson’s “String-streamed, Wind-wreathed” was a Bartókian-inspired modal folk dance in compound meter for flute (Amanda Lyon) and two violins (Lucy Lewis and Timothy Hsu). In the most neo-tonal harmonic language of the evening, also evocative of Copland, the instruments traded call and response melodies and worked in parallel sixths.

The thirteen composers in this project were fortunate to have six dancer/choreographers available for collaboration as well. The two Ph.D. students who drew dancers, Alex Spyrou and Will Huff, wrote electronic or fixed media pieces and turned them over to the dancers to choreograph and perform. Spyrou’s “Ex Machina”, from the Latin phrase deus ex machina–God from the machine, or more colloquially, a solution seemingly out of nowhere–evoked the relationship between humans and robots. The night sounds that began the piece were quickly contextualized by persistent metallic, high, rushing sounds that made me feel as though I was rocketing through space. Meanwhile, the dancer’s choreography emphasized disembodied movements that treated limbs like robotic prostheses. Later, when the duo spasmed and shook their heads violently, I had the strong sense they were cyborgs undergoing a technological malfunction, a sense that was increased by Spyrou’s cutting metallic sound design. Huff’s “family portrait,” for four dancers, began with an attention-grabbing crescendo toward a piercing, crystalline timbre. The deep bell or gong that followed was an important element that would return and ground the piece’s sound design. The dancer’s choreography emphasized the ephemeral connections we find even in intimate relationships; their movements showcased falling, catching, and exploring the other’s space as if to ask, “who are you now?” The physical themes of assembling (for a portrait), breaking apart, and reassembling were dramatically suggested by Huff’s sound design, which in one place featured a rumbling contrapuntal sound that became increasingly noisy, until it was metallic and screaming: the break. Yet when the deep gong returned, I could sense the regrounding of the family, the willingness to smooth over old wounds, and to try again to reassemble for the metaphorical portrait. 

Ph.D student Brian Penkrot, the organizer of the concert as well as its emcee, wrote a very nice piece for solo clarinet. In “Uroboros” Penkrot expolited a limited motivic vocabulary, which included a flourish, a rearticulated long note, multiphonics, and legato melody. The piece featured extreme dynamic contrasts and fast changes between the motivic elements, but also connected the motives through return and subtle variation. The piece, particularly with its multiphonics and extended techniques, was technically challenging. Clarinetist Thiago Ancelmo de Souza handled the piece masterfully, with verve, seriousness, and commitment. de Souza’s virtuoso performance was my favorite of the night.

Thirteen world premieres, given by 24 performers and dancers, makes for a lot of excitement. At the end of the night, this concert seemed less like a gimmick and more like a demonstration of the state of affairs at the University of Iowa School of Music. Like taking a temperature, this project gives composers and performers a chance to see where they are now. By my estimation, their talents are not precarious but rather thriving.

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