Saturday, 20 June 2015

Charlotte New Music Festival, USA: Day 5

Notes and coffee during Trey's presentation
First up for the presentations this morning was Trey Makler. Trey's style I liken to Calvin Hitchcock's
(and actually the more I listen to them both the more I think I would love to hear them programmed in the same concert), and I especially like Trey's piece, "Study in Water Colour". Originally an assignment where an Asian influence was required in the piece, Trey did state his fear that any Asian influence he might write would potentially appropriate the culture, and inevitably sound cheesy. On hearing the piece I would say he created a really beautiful piece that was idiomatic of a Japanese style (and reminiscent of Joe Hisaishi, composer for the film 'Spirited Away'), particularly in his piano writing. Trey also openly admits that he never writes a title for any piece first, he prefers to write through ideas first, and then create meaning of it all later. It's an interesting approach, not one I do often (although it does happen from time to time), and it just highlights really that there's always more than one solution to any problem.

Next up was Zack Pentacost, who states that, as a composer, he has been most successful in writing for guitar. A guitarist himself, I found it intriguing when he said he stopped playing guitar when he started his MA, but continues to write for it. I don't know if I could ever stop playing an instrument, especially one I know so well and want to write for. I'm currently in the middle of writing for solo cello for my speedwriting, and it is driving me a little nuts having to mime everything I'm wanting to achieve because I've no cello to hand. But clearly, after hearing Zack's work, this is something that's worked and is still working for him, as his guitar writing is very, very good. I find his use of harmony and counterpoint really natural, and it just seems to generate itself in a really unprocessed way. Zack also writes electronic music, but unlike some other electronic composers I've heard so far this week, I feel Zack's music has much more emphasis on melody, and a certain 'filmic' quality to it, which I really like.

Last up for the morning was Andrew Binder, who's style seems to come from many different sources and influences, giving him a very eclectic sound. As a bass player Andrew's work is focused on feels and grooves in the music, and this is evident across his work, be it his octet 'Potential Energy' which very contemporary, his romanian/gyspy-esque string quartet 'Boshomengro", or his big band piece 'Limbo'. I sometimes wonder if I'm stretching my style too broad in the many things that I do and what I write for (and the way it varies depending on the instrumentation), but hearing Andrew's eclectic sound gave me a certain sense of comfort that it is perfectly acceptable to be eclectic, and that you can maintain your own voice across any instrumentation or genre.

Presentation from Armando Bayolo
Our afternoon session was a presentation and discussion with the artistic director of Great Noise Ensemble Armando Bayolo. We heard from Armando earlier in the week, focusing on the business side of new music and ensemble work - this presentation was much more focused on his own personal compositions, and his development as a composer. Armando told us that he has a pretty fast-paced process when it comes to writing, and that he is rather prolific and tends to set music traditionally, which I can really relate to (I was often told at uni that I was a very prolific writer). He went on to give great advise about taking to learn to write away from the piano, and to not rely solely on MIDI sounds and programmes like Sibelius and Finale (in essence, remembering to use your ears and your instincts), but one thing that I really loved was his statement that, "you'll never just be a composer - you'll always be doing something else alongside it." This is most certainly true - you only have to ask around anyone at the festival who composes and they will list of the many other sources of income they have. Armando also advised on the benefits of composers knowing how to conduct, at least on a basic level, which is something I know I'm not the best at, and think I will push myself to be better at.
We're even social when we're working hard.... and in silence!
- One thing that keeps cropping up in discussions is the education system, by which I mean how we, as composers, have been taught, what we have be taught and how this has developed us. And, for me, it's really fascinating to know everyones different experiences. I'm in the minority here in Charlotte - most of the composers are American, or if they are not they are at least studying in some form in the US college system (I believe it's just myself, and Marc, who is from Barcelona, who are not in this system), and the silliest things are suddenly really relevant. In the UK we refer to crotchets, quavers, semi-quavers, but in the US the equivalent is 1/4 note, 1/8 note, 1/16 note etc. I've discovered that Graded Practical Music exams like that of ABRSM and Trinity that we take in the UK are unheard of here in the US - and the other day I caught myself feeling really dumb because I had to ask my fellow composer friend Carter what a Fermata was (it turns out I did know what it was, we just call them 'pauses' in the UK). Finally, today, after a few days of agonising and hearing Armando talking, again, about how "If you use key signatures, you'll be shunned as a composer", I plucked up the courage to raise my hand and ask him (and, indeed, everyone else in the room) what on earth was meant by that. In the UK, sure, I've been taught about atonal music, and modern techniques, and with those styles you really don't need to use a key signature - but the way everyone in the US talks it's like that is the only way to write, and you'll be castigated if you don't adhere to a certain way of composing. My simple question turned into a lengthy discussion, and we eventually concluded that it probably has a lot to do with politics (doesn't everything?!) - Quite possibly one of the most enlightening moments in my compositional education.

The evenings concert featured the Beo String Quartet and Mixed Ensembles, featuring works of the guest composers, and some of the workshop composers as well. A really great array of new music works, and the first to set the ball rolling as to what the rest of the concerts will be like for the reset of the festival. There was one particular piece of music for solo Flute, "A turn Inwards" by Maxwell Dulaney which really resonated with the audience for it's extended flute techniques (and epically immaculate playing), but in particular, I really like the Beo String Quartet: how they present themselves, their sound as an ensemble, and just as people in general, they are really great people to talk to (And I must thank the cellist, Hannah, for introducing me to Bulliet Bourbon - very happy with that!) - The more I talk to these guys and the more I hear them, the more I really want to try and get them over to Guernsey for a concert or two. New music in Guernsey is pretty behind (especially in comparison to what I'm experiencing at this festival), but I think these guys would really sell it well. Something I'm thinking about at least (very seriously though, I might add!)

Speedwriting delirium may have set in by this point....
American measures will sort it out!!
The social side of things for this workshop has been great. Sure, everyone is working hard, and everyone has the micro-management of fitting composing in between classes and rehearsals down to a tee (I'd expect nothing less from this bunch), but we also know how and when to let loose and enjoy ourselves, and tonight was definitely one of those nights. Post-concert everyone (composers, performers, program directors etc etc) all headed down to a local bar named Pint Central to unwind and indulge in local brews (and a cheeky bit of southern cooking). It's taken a few days, but I think the group has gelled, and the relaxed atmosphere really settled tonight.... as evident by all the charming photography! And one
other thing I really love is to have the Great Noise Ensemble staying in our dorms with us as well - it's bridged the gap (or 'broken the 4th wall' as Armando says) between composer and performer, and I must say I really enjoy being able to just talk to these people openly and in the comfort of our living space - it makes the whole process much more human. Plus there's the added hilarity of realising that you've been up until 3am talking about incredibly nerdy music things and that you have to be up in 5 hours to go to a classroom to talk even more about nerdy music things #bliss

And, of course, the #bantermobile has hit it's stride in hilarity: not only was I crying with laughter tonight, but our wheel man Jeff seems to be a big hit with other male drivers..... Let's just call it a "hit-on-and-run" and leave it at that :)

#CNMF2015, L-R: Niki, Marc, David, Bill, Cassie, Cody, Chih-Liang, Michael, Myself, Scott & Calvin