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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