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Friday, October 17, 2008

Concert Review: Tufts Composers

Last evening the Music Department at Tufts University presented a free concert of new music at Distler Hall - which is located in the universities’ new state-of-the-art Granoff Music Center.

I have to say that I have sat in a lot of concert halls, but find the acoustics and atmosphere of Distler to be among the finest I’ve experienced. The Granoff Music Center, inaugurated last year, dwarfs the facilities of most university music departments. Aside from being an architectural gem, it is filled to the brim with new Steinway grand pianos housed in bright and comfortable climate-controlled rooms which are spacious as well as acoustically isolated. Tufts should be proud of their new music center.

But buildings don’t make music. They are the accouterments of culture, not culture itself. Ultimately it is the how the space is utilized and what transpires within its’ hallowed walls that count. If the Tufts Composers concert I attended last evening is any indication of that, I am glad to report that new music is being well served at the Tufts campus in Medford.

Those of you who have been following this blog know that it is not intended for mass-consumption. I am essentially writing about things that are on my mind as a way to keep busy (and relatively sane) since I have way too much free time on my hands. My readers are essentially a small circle of friends and family: some of which are musicians, but many of which are not. So, while I may digress into areas that may seem obscure or even theoretical, think of my postings simply as random items in my journal. Given my inclinations, the subject matter will often relate to contemporary music. You are welcome to take it or leave it.

As a white-haired “mid-career” composer, I have consistently made an effort to get out and hear what’s happening in the arena of new music - especially to hear scores penned by young composers at the cusp of their careers who are experimenting with innovative ideas. I find this a necessary and important aspect of the profession, although I often have to force myself to be curious and open-minded given the amount of listening options that present themselves to us. Confronting new music ideally challenges our beliefs - either directly or indirectly. Often my own sense of musical aesthetics and cultural mindset (developed and cultivated over the past 40 years or so) are challenged in ways that surprise me – even today. And I don’t allow myself the luxury of an excuse to avoid a new music concert because it will provide a mental distraction to projects that I might be working on. It’s true that writing music is a 7 x 24 process, and like many of my colleagues I don’t easily “turn on” or “turn off” pieces that I’m in the process of composing. But working in complete isolation would be artistic death, and it fosters the negative mentality of the ivory tower.

That said, the Composition Department at Tufts is pretty unique. It is led by formative composer/pianist John McDonald who teaches by example. The Tufts Composers series is impressively “non-hierarchical.” There does not seem to be any social segregation between students, faculty, or music department graduates. Everyone is there to contribute to the success of the concert experience as an equal participant, and talent is tapped and praised wherever it comes from. Intermingling is strongly encouraged and all approaches to music are fair game. Impressive guest artists join the core faculty in providing instruction and mentoring. It appears that departmental comradely goes a long way to support Tufts composers – even after graduation.

Another interesting characteristic of music making at Tufts that it encourages self-performance. John McDonald not only skillfully performs his own works, but that of his colleagues and students. He is an stellar example of the “composer-musician” who is intimately involved in the music making process from beginning to end. Although willing to experiment and take risks, it is clear that he instills in his students a sense of respect for the performer while inspiring them to exploit musical instruments – of all kinds – to the fullest extent, and if possible perform themselves.

The featured guest artist at the concert last evening was Su Lian Tan, also a formative composer-musician. Tan, a new music flutist extraordinaire, along with McDonald shouldered the major responsibility for performance last evening. She has a strong penetrating sound, and feels at home with extended flute techniques such as key slaps and live electronics – although I didn’t hear any mutiphonics in this concert. Oddly enough, we did not get to hear Tan play flute in one of her own compositions at this concert. Her featured work was a large solo piano piece from 2006 titled “Orfeo In Asia.”

Su Lian Tan has a long and impressive bio which I will not recall here, but she does represent a trend in music that embraces the musical zeitgeist of the 21st century. What I heard in her piano work was a willingness to incorporate musical elements from whatever time and culture she finds interesting – without pretense or self-consciousness. Her large three-movement piano work alternated seamlessly between 19th-century Lisztian romanticism and Balinese gamelan music. And yet it does not come across as a synthesis between East and West similar to that of Stravinsky, Ravel, or Debussy. Rather, Tan’s music is more akin to a stylistic juxtaposition – almost a direct confrontation – between the two distant worlds. Tan introduced her piano piece verbally by alluding to a personalized narrative deriving from the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.

After her impromptu introductory comments, her piece was performed confidently by McDonald who used his formative experience and skill to lead us around the work like a magical tour guide. McDonald held his concentration throughout his energetic performance Tan’s long but intriguing musical landscape, particularly during the ferocious and climatic third movement. It was a North American premiere.

I spoke briefly with Su Lain Tan after the concert, and found it interesting that she studied composition with a former classmate of mine at Brandeis. Her PhD advisor at Princeton was Steven Mackey.

Another highlight of the Tufts Composers concert was McDonald’s two works for flute and piano. The first, “Brief Lyric,” was born during a spontaneous single-day of inspiration in 1994. It was the only 20th-century work on the program (most of the other works were “hot of the press” from earlier this year). One could clearly hear a difference in language and sentiment between “Brief Lyric” and his new “Flute On the Bottom” which was written specifically for Tan supported by the upper registers of the piano. The former work is deliberate, astute, methodical, and - like a fine art print - delicately etched. The recent work is wild, rambunctious, and unabashedly exploits the raw sound of the two instruments, although the two works are clearly by the same composer. McDonald is always looking for new things to say, and with over 440 compositions to his name, he continues to find and express new ideas in music everyday.

McDonald and Tan performed several works together on the program - including well-titled “Grand Theft Flauto” written for flute and video game controller. The work by Peter Hamlin utilized real-time sound processing of the flute with a microphone, notebook computer, and audio output to two very strange looking hi-tech speakers on the stage. John McDonald performed his part on a Sony PlayStation II game controller, which was programmed to capture musical phrases uttered by the flute or to trigger the playback of the captured but altered sounds while Tan added fresh new layers of music on top. For the most part it went well, except for a tad of unintentional feedback as the piece progressed. It would be interesting to hear “Grand Theft Flauto” in additional performances to see how much of the overall texture remains consistent.

McDonald and Tan also performed a six movement piece by Mary Montgomery Koppel titled "Horizons" which depicts the passage of a day. Later the two musicans rocked in "Down at the Crossroads" by Montana-based composer Matthew La Rocca where Tan was featured alternating between playing flute and singing the blues.

Throughout the evening, a number of pieces of music drew specifically upon the culture, philosophy, and music of Asia. I don’t know if this was consciously intended as a unifying theme for the program, or is just an overwhelming fascination with the subject by the composers. One example was “Kangeki” - a solo cello work by Justin Tierney. The title can be translated from Japanese as space, interval, or void, but the music is eloquently written for the western violoncello. It utilized some nice double-stops which were often mixed with harmonics (such as at the end).

Giving Tan and McDonald a performance breather was faculty member Elizabeth Reian Bennett on shakuhachi. She was joined by Tufts graduate and freelance cellist Jason Colman. The acoustics of Distler Hall came to life when the two played “Forest Whispers” by Marty Regan. It was as if the music was specifically written to emphasize the characteristics of this unique performance space. The work utilizes a proportional notation system that gives the performer some leeway in the durations of notes based on breath and I would assume the brightness of the hall.

Cellist Colman also performed two solo cello works - “Capriccio” by Roberto Toscano and “Kangeki” by Justin Tierney – in addition to his own virtuosic “Revel.”

John McDonald performed solo in "Solin" by Kota Nakamura. The rather expressionistic work exploited the rich sonorities of the piano and (to my ear) was a dramatic study in contrast and color.

The 2008/2009 concert season is in full swing, and I'm going to be busy hearing lots of new music. I'm glad that the Tufts Composers series is a major stop on my Boston-area musicial tour.

Tufts Composers - featuring composer and flutist Su Lian Tan
October 16th, 2008
Distler Hall
Tufts University
Medford, MA