Author Archives: driverson

Christmas Dreams, Inside and Outside

Posted on behalf of Jeongmin Gloria Song

After checking in with security and entering through the long sequence of impenetrable doors, the community choir members and I finally arrived inside of Oakdale Prison. This extraordinary and unusual event was an inspiring experience. Three days ago Dec. 10th, 2013, I attended a choir concert in Oakdale Prison auditorium; It was my first visit to the prison. The director of this unique choir, Dr. Mary Cohen, planned to form a choir with both members from the community and inmates. Dr. Cohen preferred to address the prisoners here as “inside members,” which I will use as well.

My goal was to observe the contemporary programming aspects of the concert, and I hoped to experience some of the materials we covered during class. However, breaking all my expectations, the concert’s program was rather traditional for Christmas season. However, the concept behind the concert was sensational. The story goes like this:

This event happens about three times a year, in spring, summer and Christmas seasons. The summer season concert is typically a smaller-sized choir, focusing on publishing the compositions by the inside members during their songwriting seminar. In this Christmas season, the construction of the program was holiday-focused, with a theme: “love lives on,” I heard a couple of familiar Christmas carols, such as “Silent Night,” which we all sang together. However, most of the lyrics performed by this choir were written by the inside members, carrying their personal messages to the audience by applying their own stories. In my personal point of view, the concept of the whole program was not only for enjoying the music together, but also for confessing their inner feelings and thoughts with the people there. As a result, the inside members are healed by each other’s memories.

There were approximately fifty members in this choir, composed of half inside and half outside members. Dr. Cohen mentioned that almost half of the inside members are inexperienced in music, so she had to begin the process from the most basic level. I could hardly notice this while listening, as everyone did an excellent job with their parts. The program included a short narration at the beginning of every song alternately recited by the inside and outside members. The program was composed of fifteen songs total; some of the titles show the deeper thoughts of the inmates, such as “More Than You See,” and “Healer of Our Every Ill.” The theme of the concert “Love Lives On” also has published as a written song, I will attach the part of lyrics so you can see what kind of messages they try to deliver. “In a world gone wrong, we pray that you’ll stay strong and when the hurt hits home, just know that love lives on…”

I had a chance to talk with many of the outside members. One woman who was in her fourth year of singing in this choir, said she had experienced a great deal through memories of the inside members. At first, they acted very defensively but eventually, they found the way to smile through the process of collaborating and making music with the community members.

With a strong will, people can overcome tremendous obstacles. Many people complain about unfairness of life and they make mistakes once in a lifetime. It was fascinating how many of the inside members’ lyrics incorporated some wishes for a second chance, or to become a better person. Perhaps not everyone gets equal chances in life, but there should always room to improve, and to dream again. The Oakdale Prison Concert represents a great effort to revive the hopes and dreams of the inside members, and has the potential to be a source of great change for both the inside and outside members.

Here is the official site for the Oakdale Prison Choir.

–Jeongmin Gloria Song

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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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Revelation in Collaboration

On Saturday December 1, I attended the collaborative performance class’ annual production, titled Revelation Pending: PastPresentFuture. The show is a culmination of a semester’s worth of collaborative work between dancers, choreographers, composers, musicians, stage managers, and lighting designers. The course is taught and supervised by UI Dance faculty member Charlotte Adams. While many of the students (dancers, choreographers) hail from the UI Department of Dance, the Theatre Department (lighting designers, stage managers) and School of Music (composers, musicians) departments play a crucial role in the collaboration. The creative energy of Adams and the student creators, who appealed to the audience to share in a “spirit of adventure and new possibilities,”  was a rejuvenating blast at the end of this semester.

The first piece, “The Shape of Memory,” choreographed by Jessica Anthony and Kristin Marrs, gave physical shape to a smattering of childhood memories. “When I was very young, I remember I was holding a red balloon…” The composer, PhD student Jason Palamara, sampled and mixed the dancers’ speaking voices for playback during the piece; the dancers recited an amalgamated narrative of memories—somewhat disembodied and abstracted beyond the original remembering subject, but re-embodied as five dancers performed the choreography. One of the most striking moments of the piece was a long scene where the dancers, heads turning as if following cars on a busy street, looked in vain (perhaps for their child selves?). Palamara’s minimalist-influenced music worked well for the piece, providing a sense of rhythmic undulation and meandering harmony that was well suited to movement, and to the disjunct yet oddly familiar sensations of memory.

The second piece, “’Til Death Do Us Part,” read as musical theatre. The scene opened on a couple beginning their second marriage at the altar, to quotes of traditional wedding music. From here, the narrative digressed into the “backstory,” as dancers reenacted the drama of teenage sexual encounters, parental awkwardness, and religious dogma. The playwright/choreographers, Zoe Bennett and Michael Medcalf, invoked themes of the blended family as well as homosexuality, bringing forth a poignant and funny piece that had the audience laughing out loud. Palamara and William Huff chose many other quoted pieces—from Bach to Billy Joel—that underscored the drama and helped the piece feel grounded in American culture and of its time.

The third piece, “Finding Home,” began with a female dancer clothed all in white speaking emphatically, though completely unintelligibly—unless you were Danish.  The staging and choreography emphasized my sensation of isolation. PhD composer Will Huff’s sparse instrumentation and plaintive minor-sixth motive perfectly underscored the emotional tenor of loneliness. Huff’s music brought a welcome rhythmic drive to the piece as the back curtain opened and dancers began duets and trios against a blue-lit backdrop. When the lead dancer approached the audience again—uncomfortably close—she spoke in English about being lost in a forest and finding her way back by the hum of street lights. Here Huff’s minor sixth motive reappeared, the opening story retold in the new community and the new language after the transformative interactions throughout the piece. Huff told me that he improvised as the dancers choreographed and rehearsed, developing and discarding material as the dancers’ movement evolved. This tight-knit exchange showed, with the music leading the emotional energy of the piece.

By all accounts, this production is a lot of work—but the rewards are enormous. Go and make something together! When you do, the Revelation is no longer Pending—it is right there in the collaboration.

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Teaching-Learning: Outreach and Contemporary Music

“Does music have to be virtuosic to engage us?”

This is the question with which Dr. Alan Huckleberry began his pre-recital lecture at the Piano Sunday concert at the Old Capitol Senate Chamber. “No!” was his emphatic answer. Huckleberry is currently engaged in a project to video record over 7,000 pedagogical pieces on the Iowa Music Teachers Association repertoire list and post the performances to YouTube. As Huckleberry said, the small pieces are often just as well crafted and can be just as engaging as the virtuosic war-horses… if they are given a sensitive, thoughtful performance. Huckleberry’s project aims at giving students access to fine playing, marshalling beautiful demonstration as a powerful pedagogical tool.

On Huckleberry’s repertoire list on Sunday were selections from Japanese composer Yoshinao Nakada‘s Japanese Festival. The miniatures were very much like a 20th century version of Schumann’s Album for the Young–engaging, well-crafted pieces with distinct and memorable characters. The third piece in the set, “A Green Caterpillar and a Butterfly” was particularly evocative, with the sluggish, octave bass melody of the caterpillar contrasting with the major, high treble flights of the butterfly. Throughout, Nakada invokes harmonic idioms characteristic of the common-practice era, but bends the ear with unexpected resolutions. For example, the seventh piece “The Ballet by the Little Flower” begins with a long prolongation of the dominant sonority–so long, in fact, one wonders if V7 has substituted for tonic. Very Schumann. In another humorous nod to our tonal expectations, the “Etude Moderato” veers toward the whole-tone scale at the end, only to be reeled back in safely with an authentic cadence. Nakada’s pieces and Huckleberry’s playing are, simply put, a delight.

On the second half of the program, Dr. Réne Lecuona gave inspired performances of Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 90 No. 1 and the first movement of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata Op. 53, replete with all of the orchestrational changes of color and timbre that she reported were a part of her imaginative interpretation of the works. The most intriguing piece that she played, however, was the newly composed Imprimitivity by UIowa faculty composer Dr. Lawrence Fritts. Fritts is known for his work in the UIowa Electronic Music Studios, but this piano work was completely acoustic. It began in the upper reaches of the piano, with the hands playing in complex rhythmic relationships like 5:4 and 7:5. These tuplet relationships between the hands are a major technical and intellectual challenge for the pianist, but Lecuona handled them gracefully and accurately. Given the repetitive texture, the mind and ear begin to play tricks, separating the highest pitches from the lowest. Do we hear two streams (high and low), or three (high, middle, and low)? As the patterned hands fell into a flexible, shifting ostinato working gradually lower toward the middle of the keyboard, I began to experiment with my perception. (What happens if I shift my attention to the lower stream, or the higher?)

A few minutes into the piece, the texture thinned considerably, the meditative tuplets disappeared, and the two hands engaged in what sounded like a free improvisation–a conversation of gestural counterpoint. The quasi-minimalist texture returned to close the piece, with the hands following one another down into the bass (LH) and baritone (RH) ranges. The left hand seemed to fall off the keyboard near the end, running out of keys to play all of its tuplet pitches, and interjecting only intermittently as a result. The dramatic trajectory of the piece is available to the listener upon a first hearing (like this Ligeti piano etude), and is a feature that welcomes the listener and encourages interpretation. For me, the tuplet relationships between the hands were like two friends walking or breathing together and falling slightly out of phase. The global direction of the piece was almost never in doubt–you and your friend continue walking in the same direction–but the moment-to-moment relationship is always shifting and flexible.

Both performers engaged the audience through expert and beautiful playing, but we should not overlook the power of the spoken word. Both performers spoke to the audience multiple times, contextualizing their work, as well as the composers and pieces on the program. This type of dialogue and engagement with the audience is surely one of the best ways to draw audiences toward contemporary music and its delights.

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What’s the scene?

Welcome to the University of Iowa, where we are passionate about contemporary music. Our renowned Center for New Music, along with a thriving recital calendar, provide many opportunities to hear new music on campus. This blog reviews of some of the most current avant-garde music to cross our eardrums each semester… read on, and find out more about what you’ve been hearing.


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