Friday, 26 June 2015

Charlotte New Music Festival, USA: Day 11

Hanging out on the CPCC Overcash steps
Thursday at the festival began as typically as the other days at the festival, and slowly but surely progressed through the realms of awesome - as you will read below:

Shawn Milloway was up first for the presentations, opening with a solo trombone piece. Shawn’s writing for trombone is very idiomatic, and the funk/jazz elements of the piece was brilliantly displayed by his performer (who, it turns out, has played with Ray Charles!). There were also elements of Shawn’s piece that sounded reminiscent of The God Father, which to me is no bad thing! Among the other pieces Shawn presented was a piece for percussion ensemble, which he admitted was now laid out particularly accurately (as evident by some frightening moments between the marimba and xylophone that turned out to just be bad layout by Sibelius - ‘Sibelius-isms’ is the industry phrase) - Despite that, his percussion piece was incredibly well received by the group, and in fact Marissa made a suggestion that he send the piece to college percussion groups (in particular freshman groups) as good percussion music for these standard and types of groups is hard to come by. 

Lydia Demspey (the ‘other’ Lydia) is going into her 3rd year at Bowling Green State University. He first piece entitled ‘Tahka’ scored for soprano, harp and percussion was an instrumentation Lydia stated she wouldn’t have thought to write for herself, but she ended up loving it - and I can see, and hear why. Firstly, Lydia has a great ability to write atmospherically, and her voice leading comes from a very natural place. This was also her first time writing for harp, but I certainly wouldn’t have known that. Other composers will tell you, harp is an instrument we like to conveniently forget out - it’s a scary prospect writing for all those pedals and whatnot, but Lydia went about it the right way: sticking to the simpler pedallings and wholly idiomatic writing. Matt Makler made a note of how effective the voice/percussion relationship was in this piece, in particular the setting of the word ‘Tahka’, where the voice will sing the ‘tah-‘ syllable and the percussion with react with a ‘ka’ sound. One of Lydia’s other presented pieces was a piece for A clarinet and cello, which was written as part of a 48-hour composing project. Essentially, composers and musicians are assigned to each other on Friday night, and the composer has 24-hours to write a piece, and then the performer has another 24-hours to rehearse it for a performance on Sunday night. Having done many a 24-hour musical in my time, this concept completely agrees with me, and is something I’m very keen to develop a version of for composers and musicians back on Guernsey to have a go at - watch this space on that one!

Scott Miller initially started out as a rock band performer, learning guitar, and (in his own words), "realising he was the worst at guitar and so became a bass player”, and didn’t become a composer until much later when he realised that “not all composers are dead”. Knowing his rock background it was fascinating to me just how different his sound was to what I was expecting: much more atonal and experimental. That being said, Scott’s eye (and ear) for intricacy and detail is amazing, and his layering of sound is very effective. In particular his solo ‘Etude' for double-bass (played by himself on the recording) showed some tremendous command of the extended techniques and capabilities of the instrument, and I especially like his use of pizzicato harmonics on a double bass - most effective. 

Our final presentation by a guest composer for the festival was Lawrence Dillon (who had a piece performed at the first concert). I don’t think it would be too bold to say that Lawrence’s presentation had a profound effect on everyone. There’s something about the way he talks - he’s able to say truly deep and philosophical things with an air of absolute honesty, so you really believe in everything he said, and that he cares about, not only music, but the continuation of new music. He talked about how, like a novelist shouldn’t be smarter than the characters they create, a composer should not be smarter than the piece - essentially, you have to let a piece develop from a natural place. It is really obvious when a piece has been forced into a certain idiom that doesn’t suit the composer, or it’s rammed with ideas that don’t corollate, and Lawrence stated that when writing stylistically composers should use what they know, or have learned or are learning, but that honesty is the most important thing. “It’s our job to show the world how we think.” Make sure everything you write expresses you. The second half of Lawrence’s presentation was more focused on composer ideals, and work related ideals. He talked about the four key elements of composing:
  • Rational: Structure/form, method and language  
  • Intuitive: Improvised ideas, listening, general flow 
  • Emotional: Imagery, feel, visceral reaction/responses
  • Sensational: Textures, Timbres and instrument techniques
Most composers usually have one of those which is dominant, one which is significantly weaker, and the other two somewhere in-between. He discussed these components in relation to 'writers block', and how writer’s block is usually because a composer is focused almost blindly on one particular aspect (say for example, if you’re obsessing over the form of a piece, you’re obsessing over the rational aspect of composing) - he suggests that the best composing comes from being somewhere in the middle of these four ideals, and that finding time to compose no matter what will improve you and help you thrive. Another aspect he discussed was the three stages of composing:
  • Initial Stage: time to let ideas flow and be completely uncritical
  • Body Stage: when you’re fitting ideas together and developing
  • Detail: intricate reviewing of your work, be highly critical at this point
The concepts Lawrence presented are wonderful lessons for anyone who considers themselves a composer (or songwriter) to learn. I almost feel like I’ve learned more in Lawrence’s two hour presentation than I did in my year long master’s degree. His presentation was wholly intelligent, un-egocentric and truly caring, and I think (and hope) everything he said will stick with me forever.

Carolina BBQ + Whiskey - absolute heaven
Speedwriting also means speed rehearsing! After writing my 3-minute solo cello piece for Hannah to play (cellist with Beo String Quartet), I only have 15 minutes with her today to get in a practice room and have a go at it! I’ll admit, I’ve not written an easy piece - it’s inspired by elements of North Carolina folk music, but also my experience in my years of playing cello with the Irish session band from the Cock & Bull back in Guernsey - so I know what I’ve written is playable (I spent a lot of time miming cello in the common room last week), but it’s very different suddenly asking another cellist to not only play it, but rehearse in very little time for a concert performance. Hannah’s tackled it really well however, and I think she’ll do a great job - she seems to really enjoy what I’ve written for her, and wants to continue practicing it for possible further use in solo gigs in the future, so I’m really happy with that! 

"Loooooov-in' yoooouuuuuuu"
One unusual part of today was realising that we had no concert to attend, and did in fact have the night off. I took the time to have dinner with Katie Kellert from Great Noise Ensemble to discuss the more finite details of planning a new music concert series, and what elements are needing to make the time of performances GNE do possible somewhere like Guernsey (I have ideas, I’m just putting that out there!). It was fantastic to be able to pick someone’s brain about this type of thing, and especially someone from a professional group like GNE, and someone who already likes my music as well. Plus, we went to Midwood Smoke House: finally got myself some quality North Carolina BBQ, so an absolute win all round.

The rest of the night was spent, essentially, filling the concert void: Karaoke. My word, I can’t remember the last time I had that much fun at Karaoke. A smaller group of us (a cross-section split of faculty composers, workshop composers and 75% of the Beo String Quartet) frequented a sports bar called ‘Steamers’ and essentially descended the evening into hilarious carnage. I would a say you’ve not lived until you’ve seen Adam Scott Neal perform Karaoke - the man is an entertainment legend, and I feel honoured to have shared the stage with him for our ’stunning’ rendition of ‘A whole New World'. I have to say a massive thank you to Adam ‘Mercury’ Scott Neal, The 'System-of-a-Neukom' Brothers, Elizabeth ‘my humps’ Kowalski, Olivia ‘Lauper’ Kieffer, ‘Enter Sandro’, and David ‘Vogue’ Schneider for making utter tits of yourselves - it was truly epic, memorable and hysterical! 

As a special treat, follow this link to instagram to watch 'System-of-a-Neukom in action!

  • And remember #Don’tStopBelievingCNMF2015 (from Lydia ‘Lovin’ You’ Pugh)
Yes, we took over the whole bar.... what of it?...