Making Conservatories Less Conservative

The University of Michigan School of Music is a large school within an even larger university. This provides for some obvious benefits in terms of facilities and the quality of its professors. Among the School of Music’s teachers are interesting and important composers, such as William Bolcom, James Aikman, Michael Daugherty and Bright Sheng. The “faculty research fund” and Office of the University’s Vice President of Research provides funds for CD releases for faculty composers.

One mission of the composition faculty is to help its students find personal modes of expression. Several current students, such as Derek Bermel, are frequent award winners and have already made names for themselves in the new music scene. When combined, the composition faculty, students, and alumni have at one time or another won just about every honor that an American composer can receive. Among the school’s celebrated alumni are George Crumb, Roger Reynolds, and Christopher Rouse. A more recent alumnus, Chris Kim, founded a new music group, Brave New Works, that performs in the University’s hometown of Ann Arbor, getting new music out of academia and into the community.

During weekly composition seminars, students typically give a lecture describing aspects of new music. These seminars are open to all, but are not frequently attended by people outside the composition department. However, eminent guest composers – such as Crumb, György Ligeti, and Steven Stucky – sometimes visit and, if needed, the seminars are moved to a larger hall to accommodate the audience that these composers attract.

Composition students have their music performed in a Composers Forum concert series and also through participation in the Midwest Composers Symposium, an annual forum for students from five local schools. Other opportunities to hear new music at the University of Michigan include the American String Quartet‘s three performances per year. They perform a contemporary piece in each recital. This semester’s Opera Theater production is Carlisle Floyd‘s frequently performed opera, Susannah. Additionally, a university as large as Michigan attracts many well-known performers including those who, like Laurie Anderson, blur lines between genres.

As its name suggests, the Contemporary Directions Ensemble performs exclusively contemporary music. The group’s conductor, Robert Reynolds, is also the director of the University Band – a group that not only performs new music but also commissions new works as well.

The University Orchestra plays new music regularly, and when I called the school, the orchestra had just presented a concert of all faculty music. Student composers also have their compositions performed by the University Orchestra, in addition to occasional opportunities to have their music played by local groups outside the school, such as the Civic Orchestra of Chicago.

It is highly recommended that student composers participate in performing ensembles, but they are not required to do so. Composition students are also expected to collaborate with other artists. The University of Michigan School of Music not only has a highly esteemed music program, but its theater, and dance departments are equally distinguished. Interdisciplinary collaboration between fields as diverse as music, dance, theater, art, film, video and engineering is viewed as a key component of the students’ experiences at the University. An example of collaboration among the faculty includes a “Words and Music” course for poets and composers taught jointly by William Bolcolm and Richard Tillinghast, an English Literature Professor. Bright Sheng also conducted a collaborative course with musicians, painters and poets during a recent Monet exhibition. Mary Simoni, a professor of music, and the director of the Center for Performing Arts and Technology is involved in a fascinating collaboration with Gregory Wakefield, a professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. They are attempting to use new computer technology to aid instrumentalists in mastering their instruments, and assist composers experimenting with orchestration, and conductors studying instrumental balances. This is just one of the many “MusEn” research projects between the music and engineering programs.

The School of Music balances a respect for artistic tradition with an enthusiasm to explore fresh ideas. It actively encourages the use of technology in music. The Electronic Music Studios and the Microcomputer and Synthesizer Laboratories have state of the art facilities including two electronic music studios, a recording studio, a video studio, a music technology lab, multimedia lab, a music listening lab, an electronic library, interactive multimedia classrooms, and a virtual reality lab. The school promotes technology based music applications with a special workshop that requires no prerequisite computing experience. This popular course includes the study of MIDI, notation software, sequencing, digital sampling, computer-assisted music instruction and has a special focus on applications for the music teacher. “Gypsy Pond Music II“, the culmination of a class project under the direction of Stephen Rush, a professor jointly in the music and dance departments, used a campus pond as both “canvas and soundboard,” and is a perfect example of the school’s open-mindedness.

From Making Conservatories Less Conservative
by Stefan Weisman
© 1999 NewMusicBox

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