Archive for July, 2012

Summer Festival Spotlight: Stephanie Berg

Today, let’s get acquainted with one of the resident composers for the 2012 Mizzou New Music Summer Festival, Stephanie Berg. She’s one of eight individuals to earn that designation this year, chosen from nearly 150 applicants from countries around the world, including Israel, France, Ireland, Spain, South Africa, Russia, England, Thailand, Canada and China.

As a Missouri native and Mizzou graduate, Berg (pictured) is something of a local favorite at this year’s Festival. She grew up in the Kansas City suburb of Parkville, graduating from Park Hill South High School, and earned her Bachelor of Music degree in clarinet performance from Mizzou in 2008. This May, she completed her Master’s degree in clarinet performance and composition at Mizzou.

Berg was the recipient of the 2009 Sinquefield Composition Prize, which resulted in the commissioned work Motive and Reflection for full orchestra. In 2011, she won the award in the “Young Artist” category of the Missouri State Division of Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) composition competition. She was recognized for her piece “Of Air Sweet and Water Deep,” composed in 2010 for the Mizzou New Music Ensemble and premiered at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis as part of a tribute to the Garden’s President Emeritus, Dr. Peter Raven.

In addition to her work as a composer, Berg has performed in the Mizzou New Music Ensemble, the University Philharmonic, and the Columbia Civic Orchestra, playing B flat, A, E flat, and bass clarinets. She also has served for three years as project manager for the Mizzou New Music Initiative’s Creating Original Music Program (C.O.M.P.), a statewide competition for young composers in Missouri elementary, middle and high schools.

Earlier this year, Berg was the subject of a feature story in the Columbia Daily Tribune, which you can see online here. You can hear her award-winning composition “Of Air Sweet and Water Deep” and her piece “Paper Guns,” created for the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis’ Great Rivers Biennial 2010, in the embedded audio players below.

Summer Festival Spotlight: Alarm Will Sound

Continuing with our series of posts focusing on various participants in the 2012 Mizzou New Music Summer Festival, today we shine out spotlight on Alarm Will Sound.

As the resident ensemble for the Festival, AWS plays an essential role in bringing to life the new works created by the resident composers. Not many groups would be willing or able to take on the challenge of premiering eight new pieces in one night with limited rehearsal time, but Alarm Will Sound has accomplished the task each year of the MNMSF with consummate skill and panache.

Former in 2001 by former students at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, Alarm Will Sound (pictured) is a 20-member ensemble “dedicated to the creation, performance, and recording of today’s music. It is an advocate for innovative work by established and emerging composers, especially works that incorporate theatrical and multimedia elements by choreographers, visual artists, designers, and directors. It fosters the education and professional development of young musicians through residencies, master classes, readings and workshops. With the goal of cultivating a diverse and sophisticated audience, the ensemble brings intelligence and a sense of adventure to the rich variety of musical expression in the contemporary world.” You can read a detailed history of the group here.

Alarm Will Sound is connected to the University of Missouri School of Music via Stefan Freund, associate professor of composition and music theory at Mizzou who’s also the cellist for AWS. They’ve been the resident ensemble for the Mizzou New Music Summer Festival since its inception, and maintain an active touring schedule throughout the year.

For example, since appearing in Columbia last summer, they’ve had a variety of musical adventures, starting with a trip to Europe in the fall of 2011 to give concerts in Poland and Italy. During the 2011-12 academic year, AWS performed in New York City, Michigan, Ohio, and Washington state. Most recently, they’ve been involved in a series of multimedia presentations of John Cage’s “Song Books” in Ireland, the Netherlands and, this coming weekend, back in New York.

This year in Columbia, in addition to premiering eight new pieces at the Festival’s finale on Saturday, July 28, Alarm Will Sound also will perform a completely different program on Thursday, July 26 at the Missouri Theatre. That concert will feature works by Oliver Knussen and Caleb Burhans, as well as pieces written by the 2012 Festival’s guest composers Steven Stucky and Donnacha Dennehy.

AWS will perform Stucky’s Etudes, a concerto for recorded and orchestra featuring Erin Lesser as soloist, as well what are being described as “scenes from Hunger, a work in progress” by Dennehy that will spotlight guest artist, mezzo-soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird.

Down below, you can see and hear Alarm Will Sound in action in some of videos posted recently to their YouTube channel.

You also can hear most of the music they’ve premiered at the past two Mizzou New Music Festivals via SoundCloud. Audio files from the 2010 MNMSF are here, while the tracks from 2011 are here.

Alarm Will Sound plays Caleb Burhans’ oh ye of little faith… (do you know where your children are?)

Aphex Twin’s “Cliffs,” arranged by Caleb Burhans with staging by Nigel Maister. Recorded March 28, 2012 at Bowling Green State University.

A Song for Wade (This is Not That Song), composed by Matt Marks with lyrics by Royce Vavrek.

Patrick Clark – Day Eight: The Finish Line

The Finish Line: 9 July, 2012; Day Eight; Duhok, Iraq

I am at the end of the eighth day of teaching composition, theory and music history with the American Voices YES Academy in Duhok, Iraq. I am most proud to report that seven of my ten composition students have crossed the finish line with completed short pieces for anywhere from four to seven players. The proof is on camera and digital audio as several volunteers for the program recorded our first reading and rehearsal session for these pieces.

The generous string faculty allowed no fewer than three compositions to be read in their String Orchestra rehearsal time between yesterday and today. Meeting the challenge of such goodwill, string, wind, and piano students gave two hours (again, after their Orchestra rehearsal) to a very successful reading session after dinner earlier this evening.

The offerings by these seven aspiring composers exceeded even my already high hopes. I work with the students individually every other day to see the progress of the pieces and insure they meet the standards necessary for players to read them without issue. Of course I do my best in offering suggestions for strengthening the material and form. I hear them often through the obtuse Finale computer notation software, and spend time at the keyboard checking the counterpoint.

What surprises me even to this day is how much more vivid and clever the sounds are when made by real instruments! There is some principle—it must be in the science of aesthetics, recorded somewhere—that we humans find some profound thrill in all things alive, and especially those that are new. It has something to do with observing anything younger than oneself, that it always seems to have an edge of the special. That is what new music is and that is what I heard tonight. The players must have also—at least they didn’t complain about two hours of the unfamiliar along with the problem-solving that comes with the package. Okay, I’ll just say it: Here comes the next generation of Iraqi composers.

It is now 11:00 pm here. I must meet with Marc Thayer, Director of String Orchestras, and tell him “Yes, I’ve got a program of new, very new, music by young Iraqi composers! Where can we fit this into the final concert schedule?” After that meeting I had better get to preparing my history and theory lessons for tomorrow—my alarm will wake me at 6:30 a.m. in the morning. Just the usual schedule but with a bit of added satisfaction.


Patrick Clark on Day Seven in Duhok, Iraq

Day Seven, American Voices YES Academy, Duhok, Iraq

My composers have been moved by the spirit. Following yesterday’s reading of two student works by the String Orchestra, four of the remaining eight composers arrived in this morning’s class with beautifully finished scores and parts. I was caught off guard not expecting such a furious commitment overnight. I scrambled to assemble two student string quartets and some added auxiliaries (clarinets and piano) and arrange a reading and rehearsal session from 7:30 to 10:00 pm tomorrow night. I am expecting a similar phenomenon of productivity to swamp me with newly-completed works tomorrow morning.

As I pursued players for readings I happened upon an impromptu rehearsal formed by one of my students, Rebin Salar Sebir, with wind players who will augment his quartet tomorrow night. The entrepreneurial edge is coming naturally to Rebin. He has recognized early on that only hard work and self-motivation can lead to the sounds he has written being realized.

I have emphasized the importance of beautiful and accurate parts in winning over performers. It seems to have been effective and the players are enthusiastic when rehearsing the new sounds, madly counting and showing an attention that is sharper even than provoked by the familiar literature. So this is also the beginning of building the bridges with players who will, hopefully, be forever sympathetic to playing new works. Next is getting audiences to suspend their disbelief so willingly for new music as they do for the classics.

Not only has the event of an actual reading with real musicians(!) stimulated the creative impulse among my students, but also the daily confrontation with new scores and recordings that I present each day. We have listened critically, with scores, to works by many of the vanguard twentieth-century composers including John Adams, George Crumb, Michael Colgrass, John Cage, Steve Reich, Oliver Messiaen, Toru Takemitsu, Thelonious Monk, Bela Bartok, Claude Debussy, and Igor Stravinsky.

Of the ten students in my class, only the last three names were of any familiarity, and those only vaguely. Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Anton Webern, Morton Feldman, Gyorgy Ligeti, Philip Glass, Luciano Berio and Bruno Mantovani remain on deck to be introduced. This is a watershed of exposure to these Middle Easterners that I couldn’t possibly have predicted.

Please trust, gentle reader, that I do not exaggerate when I tell you that they are overflowing with excitement at hearing, and seeing, the works of these composers. A cacophony in the classroom of the three local Iraqi languages follows as each piece ends. I often let this go on for a good stretch as I believe that one understands only as far as one is able to articulate the thoughts, and they must be free to articulate to one another as I hope they will, musically, in their future compositions.

Exposure is the missing link here in Iraq. The Russian cultural influence refracted much of the West here some 20 years ago but it is long gone. These students do not know the literature of music in the twentieth-century, let alone the twenty-first. One cannot stand tall without some giant shoulders upon which to stand.

I am told several times a day that only one hour of time in our American Voices classrooms exceeds a month of their typical musical education here. It is apparent that this might in fact be true. The intelligence is razor sharp, the interest and enthusiasm is something I’ve never imagined—the potential of the Iraqi musician seems measurable precisely by the availability of information. I wish I had more time…


Patrick Clark’s Observations & Fruit of Effort

Observations: 5 July, 2012; Day Five; Duhok, Iraq

I’m in a mosaic of Turkish and Kurdish music, most of which I hear in the back of taxis. It would be terribly awful pop music to me if it didn’t sound so exotic. Iraqi music videos are hysterically bad and remind me of American shampoo commercials. The students are really unbelievably appreciative of every single thing I say or do — its weird! They thank me at the end of every sentence I speak, and even in between if I happen to pause momentarily. Their appetite for information is fierce, especially in composition; they’ve hardly heard anything at all from the last 50 years in music outside of their own country except for, oddly, Yanni and Kenny-G (the “Thomas Kincaids of music”). So it is, I suppose, kind of like people from behind the iron curtain after the end of the Cold War just nutty about absorbing anything new. They line up at the door for “lessons” of any kind and politely ask just to sit in the room while I work with other students.

Yesterday in class I played a recording of one of my own compositions: a piece written for, and performed by, Leo Saguiguit on soprano saxophone. A student later asked me for a saxophone lesson. I said I didn’t play saxophone. He didn’t mind, he still wanted a saxophone lesson. Small crowds gather around me when I’m in trivial conversations with other students in the hallway (and it is worth noting that few even understand English).

I’ve reported examples of the foregoing in previous entries and yet these things are so primary and consistent to my daily experiences here that I am compelled to write them again. It is a morale boost, but I’m too jaded from the general world of apathy to believe this kind of enthusiasm could ever be found anywhere else. Unfortunately, the food really sucks, really. I don’t know how they could be this inept with cuisine. Of the last fourteen meals I have had, thirteen have been chicken, rice, flatbread, and tomato soup. I miss the french fries at the Heidelberg in Columbia now. Ketchup sounds tasty.

They are the most cordial people you can imagine and quite the model for how we all should treat each other. Strange, I think few people would have expected Kurds and other Iraqis to be anything like this. They drive like mad and, as my well-travelled roommate Paul Rockower has speculated, do so because their nascent automobile culture developed in the span of only a handful of years from a bicycle culture where one just rides, straight and boldly, toward one’s goal, swerving only at the last instant if necessary to avoid any obstacles. It honestly looks like bumper cars out in the streets only they are very considerate to never come any closer than an inch or two from any other car at high or low speeds. I have seen not a trace of animosity from any of these people toward anyone at all, even their fellow drivers.

It is fun, it is funny, it is a pleasure to be in northern Iraq and I wish you were here. I am being only mildly facetious in saying that you should plan your next vacation in beautiful Duhok! Everyone you meet will invite you to their home where, I understand, if you compliment anything in their house, they will insist that you take it home with you packed neatly in a box. The students have taken me out a couple of times in the evenings and refuse to allow me to pay for anything.

Quite by accident I’ve found myself in an idyllic academic environment and I hope these students might find themselves someday in American Universities so that they can demonstrate the true elegance of engagement with learning as it can be. Here, they haven’t the slightest idea what reasonable facilities, or even daily meals, are. And yet it is working, really, just fine, so long as there are teachers.

Fruit of Effort: 7 July, 2012; Day Six; Duhok, Iraq

I have two especially hard-working students in my composition class; Mohammed Zeki and Jumaah Fawzi Hashem. We have a 30-minute one-on-one meeting almost every other day and the focus of these two students on what I tell them is laser- sharp. It would seem to a passive observer that I was relating the most esoteric of compositional secrets to them during our sessions, and they take vigilant notes.

By the next morning each recommendation I made the previous day has been integrated into their compositions and the fruit of this work was displayed today in the top string orchestra rehearsal as director Marc Thayer generously allowed me to have one hour of the orchestra’s rehearsal time to read these brand new works.

An original work by Mohammed Zeki cleverly incorporates some of the traditional conventions of Kurdish music into a compelling dance in 6/8 that transforms into what one might call a funky rhythmic bacchanal for the closing section. We worked closely on detail and the result was a pleasure for all to hear and, often most important to the message of music, an engaging experience for the players. The orchestra displayed a genuine sympathy to realizing the piece of music they read and heard for the very first time.

Idiomatic writing for musical instruments is the rhetorical key to revealing content, and a high mark was hit with Mohammed’s composition. Not less important to the success of encouraging a composer is the reaction of not only the players, but the audience, which today was the members of the Academy’s second string orchestra and American Voices string faculty. Mohammed was thrilled to hear his work and I suspect that he may have not heard much of his music played before this afternoon. A success has been achieved and I predict this has secured the certain continuation of Mohammed’s efforts to attain ever-higher quality in future compositions.

Jumaah Hashem’s work, “For Someone” (an English title although he speaks hardly a word of English), displayed a deep expressivity in its rich but generally soft and sensitive counterpoint. A vague feeling of Barber’s Adagio lurks within the ever-unfolding stepwise lines that move in a quasi-archaic modal fabric.

It required continual admonishment on my part as conductor to prevent the orchestra from succumbing to the temptation of the implied crescendo of the work as a whole. But its power resides in resisting this temptation and we managed to achieve this by the final full take. One is moved inside as if something needed to surge and release, but could not find its outlet. Jumaah’s music displays a deep expressivity that often touches, momentarily, the profound. What is yet more impressive is that his dedication is such that he writes each revision of the score, and finally each part, by his own hand—a lost art in the age of computer notation.

These two composers are only the first of a total of ten composers I am teaching here. They have arrived, in only one week, at the finish line with completed scores, parts, and a realization of their efforts with a string orchestra. There remain eight more composers who have been moved by hearing today the actual results that are possible. I believe we will produce ten new works by ten young composers in this American Voices program in Duhok Iraq—we have, after all, yet another week to go.


Summer Festival Spotlight: Steven Stucky

Guest composers play an important part at the Mizzou New Music Summer Festival, teaching and mentoring the resident composers, and we are most fortunate to have Steven Stucky as one of our guest composers for the 2012 MNMSF.

Called by BMI “a towering figure in contemporary classical music,” Stucky (pictured) perhaps is best known for his Second Concerto for Orchestra, which was commissioned and premiered in 2004 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2005. He is a professor of music at Cornell University, where he has taught since 1980, and also maintains a busy schedule as a conductor, writer and lecturer.

For more than 20 years, Stucky enjoyed the longest relationship on record between a composer and an American orchestra, serving as Composer-in-Residence and Consulting Composer for New Music for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He also has written commissioned pieces for many other American orchestras, as well as for many other ensembles and for soloists including pianist Emanuel Ax, baritone Sanford Sylvan, percussionist Evelyn Glennie, and cellist Elinor Frey.

Stucky also was co-artistic director, conductor, and one of the co-founders of Ensemble X, a new music group of Cornell and Ithaca College faculty members that performed from 1997 to 2006.

More recently, in February 2012 his orchestral work Silent Spring received both its world and New York premieres by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, where he currently serves as Composer of the Year. Later this year, Stucky’s Son et lumière will be performed by both the New York Philharmonic and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

You can view some scores of Stucky’s music at the website of his publisher, the Theodor Presser Company. The embedded video windows below feature three recent performances of Stucky compositions for small ensembles, followed by a pre-concert talk that Stucky gave earlier this year before the premiere of Silent Spring.

The LA Piano Quartet (Xak Bjerken, piano; Yehonatan Berick, violin; Katherine Murdock, viola; and Steven Doane, cello) performs Steven Stucky’s Piano Quartet:

Trio América (Penélope Quesada, flute; Kevin Ames, saxophone; and
Liz Ames, piano) performs Stucky’s composition Varianti:

A student percussion ensemble plays Stucky’s piece Refrains:

Steven Stucky speaks before the world premiere of Silent Spring:

Patrick Clark YES Academy Iraq Report

Patrick David Clark teaching music students at American Voices' YES Academy in Iraq

Day Three: Tuesday, July 3 – Duhok University, Iraq

Today in composition class, my ten students and I listened to Claude Debussy’s Voiles from the first book of Préludes. “What is the scale that Debussy is using in the first part of this piece?” I asked.

A general perplexity prevailed until I explained Debussy’s trademark whole-tone scale and played it up and down the piano like a harp and the generally reticent Jumaah declared it to be “magic.”

Indeed every analysis we make in class reveals magic to these Iraqi students. They are up front in confessing that they’ve never looked at music in this investigative manner and never realized that such structures exist beneath the sounds.

As is turns out, they’ve heard very few of the masterpieces of Western music. I asked if they knew Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and am excited to report that they haven’t—I’m excited because I will have the pleasure of presenting this steamroller to an uninitiated audience tomorrow. I can only hope for a riot (“If that’s a bassoon, then I’m a baboon!” -Saint-Saens at the Rite’s première in Paris, 1913).

I’m hearing everything fresh again myself—a kind of Spring of the senses—because there is a mood of excitement around the University. In the taxis the drivers subversively turn up the radio for the Americans in the backseat, giving us a dose of the exotic sounds of their native instruments: the saz, zurna, and santur. The serpentine timbres and affective decorations are as intoxicating to me as the whole-tone scales are to the Iraqi students. I’m learning how to absorb again, and perhaps growing younger in the process.


Patrick David Clark reporting from Iraq

Orientation: Friday, June 29 –  Duhok, Iraq

It is hot and dry in Duhok. I am in the Hotel Mondeal and a wedding celebration is taking place in the lobby below my room. Sounds and smells subtly spice the night air in northern Iraq.

I had the pleasure of meeting two veteran students of the American Voices annual summer program in Iraq this evening: clarinetist Dilan Muhammed, 21, 5th year, and cellist Bashdar Karim, 19, also in his 5th year. Both of these students receive the instruction available in the country through the Institute of Fine Arts, Department of Music in Iraq.

Apparently they continue to place a remarkably high value in their brief two weeks with the American Voices faculty each summer. “It was the first time I had ever seen a serious wind ensemble or full jazz band,” says Dilan of his first year.

It is also the emphasis by American Voices on instrumental technique and literature which exceeds that of the locally available instruction that brings them back. Both have developed their capabilities to play most recently in a Kurdish orchestra visiting Vienna, and the Sulimany Symphony Orchestra inside Iraq.

“So,” I asked, “do you want to be professional musicians?” “Yes. It is my dream.” These words, spoken by Bashdar, rang as authentic as any sound I’ve ever heard—these are among the most committed students I have met.

The diplomacy goes two directions I quickly discovered as they began to teach me of the idiosyncrasies of tuning in Kurdish music. This has long been a fascination of mine. I now know something of the use of the Phrygian mode with its raised third scale degree, and have confirmed that the second scale-degree is indeed raised also, ever so slightly, to produce one of the most haunting and particularly Middle-Eastern sounds in all of music.

Bringing in their instruments, Dilan and Bashdar sang and played their native strains, memorized as a cultural stamp, for me in my hotel room, an audience of one. I begin teaching theory and composition on Monday but for now they are wrapping me around their finger as I look forward to learning more tomorrow.

Teaching, Day One: Sunday, July 1 – Duhok University

To fully appreciate the pleasure of teaching Iraqi music students, one must imagine the following: a music professor walks across the commons finding him- or herself peacefully, but relentlessly, assaulted by young college-aged students asking questions like, “Can you tell me about the Dorian scale professor? And the Phrygian?…” “Can you please teach me contra-point sir?” “Who, Dr., invented modern notation?”

Several gather behind the bold inquisitor to hear how the American teacher will respond. Everyone hangs on every word and any pause is an opportunity to say “Thank you, thank you.”

Now imagine that I’m not making this up—all day long and a teacher has little time for any break in the pattern to have a drink of water. It is a dangerously high boost of self-worth but no less a realization of the responsibility attached to teaching. The moral of this story is, Iraqi students have a voracious appetite for learning and a teacher must be ready.

Facilities are the problem that anyone might have predicted. There are pianos being moved by enthusiastic quintets of students through hallways, messengers delivering news of a broken air-conditioner, perplexed faces and hand-gestures in every direction and one need not enquire because that would only slow one’s own errand pursuing a special power supply that, word on the street is, Ari Kawa can get for you.

Funny thing is that this all adds to the camaraderie that makes the program work. It is here among Iraqis, Kurds, Arabs, Americans, and even Spanish, somehow, all for one and one for all.