Making Conservatories Less Conservative

Ever since Jacob Druckman, Yale’s beloved teacher and composition department head died in 1996, the composition program has been in constant flux. David Lang filled in at first. Then, Evan Ziporyn was hired as a permanent replacement, but he returned to his former position at MIT after only one year. So, once again, the position is empty. To make matters worse, in 1998 Martin Bresnick, who became the Coordinator of the Composition Department, was the first winner of the “Charles Ives Living” prize. This award comes with the stipulation that the composer must not teach nor do any work other than compose for three years. During that period he is awarded three installments of $75,000 each. Of course, this is great for Bresnick, but it leaves as the only constant presence in Yale’s composition department, Ezra Laderman.

There is, however, a silver lining in Yale’s cloud. They still have the clout to get top-notch substitutes until Druckman’s true permanent replacement can be found. This year, two Pulitzer Prize winning composers are there – David Del Tredici, and Joseph Schwantner – in addition to Alvin Singleton, who was recently the composer-in-residence with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In any case, visitors are nothing new for Yale, which has a tradition of inviting distinguished composers to teach for a semester. Recent visitors include: Louis Andriessen, Anthony Davis, Lukas Foss, Betsy Jolas, Leon Kirchner, Tania Léon, Nicholas Maw, Ingram Marshall, Roger Reynolds, Frederic Rzewski, Roberto Sierra, Morton Subotnick, Nicholas Thorne, and Charles Wuorinen.

Student composers typically study with a different member of the composition faculty each semester, and are thereby exposed to various styles and points of view. Yale composition students are in the enviable position of writing just about anything they desire and having student performers assigned to play their piece in a concert series called New Music New Haven, which takes place six to eight times each year. Unfortunately, at times this forces an unwilling participant to take part in the concert, but more often than not a student composer will arrange in advance to compose for a particular student performer or ensemble. Student composers themselves sometimes take part in the performance of their piece as a conductor or instrumentalist. Each New Music New Haven concert also includes the work of a professional, active composer from inside or outside of Yale. Before each piece, the composer speaks to the audience and introduces his or her music. Then a few days later, during the regularly held composers’ seminar, each student’s work is examined, and the composer must respond to critiques and inquiries from colleagues and professors. In this way, it is hoped that the composers will learn to discuss and defend their work.

Yale’s electronic music studio, called The Center for Studies in Music Technology (CSMT), is directed by John Halle and Jack Vees, both of whom are notable composers in their own right. CSMT offers courses and supports composition, performance, research, and any other activity that deals with the application of electronic and computer technology.

One must not underestimate Yale’s vast resources. A recent student was working on a project that required a score that had not been published since the late 18th Century, and incredibly he was able to find that score in a Yale library and have it copied for his use. Also, students of the School of Music are welcome to take any class in the University for which they are eligible.

Student composers are required to complete an orchestration class, and they have the opportunity to have their orchestrations played by the School’s orchestra in special readings. However, there is no established new music ensemble. Also, it has sometimes been difficult for students to get the cooperation of the opera department when a student composer writes a piece involving voice. Another unfortunate shortcoming is that there is very little interaction between the students at the School of Music and the community at large.

Nevertheless, many alumni composers have gone on to establish groups that have played vital roles in new music. Of course, the most notable is Bang On A Can which was founded by David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon. In fact, it was Martin Bresnick’s all-night marathon at Yale called “Sheep’s Clothing” that inspired Bang On A Can’s popular marathon concert. Bang On A Can’s marathon itself is clearly the model for the Common Sense Composers Collective‘s annual all-day “Opus 415″ concert. Although it is not made up exclusively of Yalies, Common Sense has a very heavy Yale contingent. While he was still a student at Yale, Harold Meltzer founded his ensemble Sequitur to add elements from other media – most particularly theater – to concerts of new music. The group has been gaining momentum and reputation recently through its concerts in New York City. The Minimum Security Composers Collective is another exciting group that was started while the members – Dennis DeSantis, Roshanne Etezady, Adam Silverman and Ken Ueno – were student composers at Yale. The group now has a regular series of concerts that almost always includes musicians who are Yale students or recent graduates.

There are some differences between Yale’s music program and that of just about any other school. For example, the School of Music is considered a “Professional School,” and includes no undergraduate students. Undergraduate composers and graduate music theory students study in the Department of Music, which is located in a separate building. The composition faculty of the Department of Music includes Kathryn Alexander, Michael Friedmann, and John Halle. However, particularly advanced undergraduate students can request private study with a composer from the School of Music’s faculty.

The School of Music exclusively grants graduate degrees in performance and composition. Since it has no majors in theory, it is much less academically oriented than one might imagine. To receive a doctoral degree from the School of Music, a student must first complete a Master of Musical Arts degree at Yale. After finishing this pre-doctoral degree, the student leaves Yale for a length of time, during which he or she must demonstrate “distinguished achievement” in his or her field to earn the Doctor of Musical Arts degree. Because of this system, composers who intend to receive a Doctorate from Yale are forced to remove themselves from academia and proactively make a name for themselves in the “real world.”

Perhaps the most unique thing about the Yale School of Music is its association with Vivian Perlis and her Oral History American Music project, which produces and collects recorded interviews of major figures in American music. Perlis, known for her book Charles Ives Remembered and for co-authoring Aaron Copland‘s memoirs, founded Oral History American Music in the late sixties. The project, which now includes over nine-hundred audio and video recordings, aims to make the materials accessible to as many users as possible.

Finally, Yale also has a summer music school, the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, which is now in its 59th year. Many notable composers have received premieres of their music at Norfolk, including Grainger, Bruch, Vaughan Williams, Coleridge-Taylor, Victor Herbert, and Sibelius. More recent visiting composers include Betsy Jolas, Scott Lindroth, Lee Hyla, Yehudi Wyner, and Harvey Sollberger. A major part of Norfolk is its Contemporary Music Seminar, which is headed by composer Joan Tower, and percussionist, Robert van Sice. Students of this program include both composers, who bring a piece written for the program, and performers, who prepare these pieces to be played in the final concert of the Seminar. Unlike the Yale School of Music as a whole, the Norfolk Festival has formed an outreach program that reaches out to children, the elderly, disabled, and the socially or economically disadvantaged. It also features pre-concert talks, inexpensive music lessons, open rehearsals, workshops to encourage active listening, tickets subsidized through community organizations, and a popular family concert. Norfolk’s initiatives should be an affirmative example to Yale’s School of Music at large.

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