Dallas — We got a rare glimpse of the future on Thursday. A concert of music by young composers was presented at Caruth Auditorium on the campus of Southern Methodist University. They were carefully chosen to take part in an intensive workshop on all aspects of being a composer, from first idea to a recorded piece, by violist Nadia Sirota. She is the winner of the 2013 Meadows Prize at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts and is here as part of her prize. This workshop and concert is in conjunction with with SYZYGY, the Meadows new music ensemble.
In a recent interview with TheaterJones, we discussed the complicated subject of the musical language that young composers can use. In the 60's and 70's, and still hanging around in some places, there was a set style of music, atonal and experimental; you wrote in tonality at your peril. Music history is littered with great composers who felt the sting on “the establishment” when they wrote in a neo-romantic style. Samuel Barber is the most famous example, but many others, such as Lee Hoiby, found themselves shunned. Sirota saw this up close and personal because her father is a composer.
“My father faced this judgmental attitude with his own more traditional music,” Sirota said in our interview. “I call it an Uptown/Downtown argument with both sides being very combative. It was a huge argument at the time and was used as a measure to decide what does and does not constitute good music. Young composers sometimes see this argument (still happening) among their teachers, but in a weird way, it provides a circumstance where they are pushing this aside and saying 'I can write how I want.' "
Oprah Winfrey once said “When I look into the future, it's so bright it burns my eyes” and that quote kept coming to mind during the concert.
The musical languages used by the young composers covered an amazing range – from minimalism and experimentation right up to some rock 'n' roll. This is also a tribute to the composition faculty at SMU for encouraging young composers to find their own voice and to affirm their decisions. Such was not the case in the past.
“Metamorphose” by Vincent Gover (B.M. ’14) is for an eclectic chamber group of strings, clarinet, percussion and piano. This basically tonal piece built slowly, adding instruments as it progressed. A rhythmic contrasting section got an assertive introduction in the piano and bass drum. He built to a big crescendo, which sounded like he could have used some more instruments.
“Mamihlapinatapai on Regionale 21479” by Guido Arcella (B.M. ’14) uses an unlikely combination: flute, trombone, viola, cello and marimba. This piece had many experimental elements and alternative ways of playing the instruments, such as air blasts on the flute and slides on the trombone. It is a collection of fragments and isolated events which occasionally burst into unison passages.
“Interruptions and Diversions” by Jason Platt (M.M. ’14) used another inventive combination of a wind and a brass trio: flute, oboe, bassoon, trumpet, horn and trombone. At the opening, he builds a chord one note at a time. Random musical events alternate with some jazz influenced riffs. You could hear hints of what has come to be known as the Paris Conservatoire style of music, that was mostly for wind instruments.
“Celesti Alignment” by Nathan Courtright (M.M. ’13) uses a string trio and a horn. This piece has some strong dissonance alternating with some wonderfully complex harmonies. There were times when you wanted less of the horn, but this balance problem was probably a product of minimal rehearsal time. The strings were mostly used as a block, even when written for pizzicato. The piece built to a big release.
“Drifting” by Michael van der Sloot (B.M. ’13) is a virtuoso piece for solo viola and Sirota played it herself. Rich melodies made good use of the lower strings, minimalist passages are contrasted with string crossing arpeggios. The upper register of the instrument was rarely, if ever, used so the entire piece had a dark quality.
”Orca” by Uriah Rinzel (M.M. ’14) uses an electrified viola and cello, an electric guitar, a vibraphone and piano. Minimalism influences were cleverly used. For example, a rhythmic and rugged ostinato was a driver. Unrelentingly dense harmonies alternated with fuzzed out rock riffs creating a harmonic grab bag. It was all very tribal.