Learning from the New: Santa Fe New Music Young Composers Program



Similar to how high school history always seemed to stop just shy of WWII every year, music education never seems to get even close to the present. As a music student, I started with Bach and, by the time I got to Bartók, high school was over and I was off to college without ever reading a note of Kernis or Corigliano.

In New Mexico, Santa Fe New Music is working to correct that problem by skipping right to the new. They have announced the establishment of a youth ensemble program dedicated solely to contemporary music.

John Kennedy, a composer/conductor who serves as SFNM Artistic Director in addition to his duties as AMC president, feels strongly that an understanding of new music repertoire is vital to a young person’s music education. “I think really the key for me is trying to find more ways to connect what we perform in the new music world with how we teach young people about music because there always seems to be such a disconnect there.”

To foster that, the new ensemble will study and perform a wide variety of new music repertoire. “We want to have a healthy dose of very recent music, as much as we can get, and then also work with the classic works from a number of the different genres after World War II,” Kennedy says. That will include a roster of composers such as Reich, Glass, Stockhausen, and Cage.

Kennedy reveals a personal motivation to make the program a great experience for the students, recalling his own frustrations during high school. “I had a really hungry mind for learning all I could about new music. I was reading Cage’s books and listening to the most out-there LPs I could find, but then I’d go to band and we’d be stuck playing the same old stuff. If I had had the chance in high school to do something by Steve Reich, I would have been thrilled.”

In addition to the performance opportunities for the students, the new SFNM Young Composers Program will pick up where the New Mexico Young Composers Program (held under the auspices of Twentieth Century Unlimited) left off. The composition competition is a statewide event that will also include workshops in various cities, read-through opportunities for substantial works-in-progress, a professional panel review process of submitted pieces, and one or more performances of the selected pieces by the SFNM Youth Ensemble in Spring 2003.

According to Kennedy, the combination of programs is a natural fit. “It occurred to us last spring during this process that it would be wonderful to have the kids playing this stuff. There was definitely an overlap between these young composers and the best instrumentalists, too, so there’s a synergy there between composition and performance that really isn’t being addressed in existing educational programs. Since so many people get into composition through their primary focus on an instrument, this just seems like a natural way to help nurture both ends of it.”

A program of this sort is quite unique in the States. The closest comparison is found on the other side of the country. In Cleveland, Ohio, the Contemporary Youth Orchestra has dedicated itself since 1995 to offering students the opportunity to study and perform contemporary orchestral literature, spanning from as far back as Grieg to several premieres during their three-concert season. (Read a brief Q&A with CYO Muisc Director Liza Grossman for more on the orchestra.)

Though Santa Fe doesn’t reach the number of young people a Cleveland institution can, Kennedy has already seen demonstrated strength and interest among the students there and he expects they will quickly adapt to the new musical language placed in front of them.

“What we’ll do is throw a lot of different kinds of scores at them—scores that also ask for different kinds of virtuosity and different kinds of performance attitudes and techniques,” Kennedy says. “Very often when working with professional musicians who have no exposure to quasi-improvisational stuff they just don’t know where to begin, but I think, in general, young people are more open to that because they haven’t gotten into the same bad habits. I think the way to approach it is to give them scores that do engage them, and then let them make their own decisions as players.”