Making Conservatories Less Conservative

The Hartt School claims to be one of the most prestigious centers for performing arts training in the Northeast. In addition to music and dance, the school now has a newly created drama department. When I spoke with the dean, Malcolm Morrison, who has a theater background, he did not feel qualified to answer any questions about the status of living composers at Hartt. He suggested that I instead speak to composition instructor, Stephen Gryc. Other composition professors include Robert Carl, David Macbride and James Sellars, who had an interesting piece included in Bang On A Can‘s latest marathon concert.

Although Hartt is part of the University of Hartford, there are few formal opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration between student composers and other artists at the University. Some enterprising students have established collaborations on their own, but Stephen Gryc said, “It’s been a while.”

Composition majors do write works for other departments within the Hartt School, such as the violin studio, and the dance department. However, because the drama department is so new – it was founded only about four years ago – to date there have not been collaborations between the music and drama departments. Gryc hopes that this may change in the near future. Composition students have composed pieces especially for “Performance 20/20,” which is comprised of exceptional instrumentalists who receive full scholarships. Hartt’s CD series, released approximately yearly, includes student performers mainly from within this 20/20 program. These CDs also sometimes include faculty and student works. Other good news is that the University of Hartford’s radio station has a weekly program dedicated to contemporary music. It has played faculty pieces at times, but only rarely includes student works.

A weekly seminar is required of all student composers except doctoral students. The seminars include frequent guest composers and performers who specialize in 20th Century music, and these visits are co-sponsored by the school’s Institute of Contemporary Music. Recent visitors include a series of pianists: Craig Johnson, who played an all Finnish program; Kumi Ogano, who played an all Japanese program including a piece composed by Hartt graduate Atsuko Ezaki; and Claudia Ruegg, who specializes in Central European and American music. Other visitors include composers such as Michael Torke, Lois V Vierk and Ingram Marshall, who is also currently filling in as a composition instructor at Hartt. Visitors to next year’s seminar will include George Tsontakis and Annie Gosfield. These seminars are open to anyone from inside or outside the school, but attendance by outsiders varies. The Institute of Contemporary Music has been in residence at the school since 1968, and in addition to sponsoring visits from important composers, at one it time sponsored a new music festival. Unfortunately, this festival no longer takes place.

Composition study at Hartt runs the gamut from classical practice to contemporary techniques. From the sophomore year on, all composition students receive a weekly, individual lesson with a faculty member. (Freshman composers take their private lessons from graduate students.) It is recommended that students study with as many composition faculty members as possible. Student composers also receive training in what seems to be a fairly well equipped electronic music studio. Sequencing, sound design, sampling and algorithmic composition are all taught. In addition, student composers are encouraged to study conducting, music management, and to take Jazz classes in the “African American Music Department.”

Composition majors are required to take four semesters in performance ensembles, which provide an excellent forum for student composers and performance majors to interact. Performers can also be exposed to new music via a “for-credit” group called the Contemporary Players Ensemble, and many instrumentalists ask composers to write pieces for their recitals. While a “composition for conductors” course did exist at one time, at present there are no special initiatives to expose student performers to composition. However, if students are interested, they may elect to take composition courses.

Composition majors have up to six performance opportunities per year devoted exclusively to student works: two concerts take place with the Contemporary Players Ensemble; two are called “Public Works” recitals, which the student composers arrange themselves; one concert takes place with the above named “20/20″ musicians; and there is usually another concert that takes place in collaboration between composition students and another studio or department concert. This is in addition to an annual concert involving electronic music. When a concert is devoted to faculty or student music, the composers are expected to speak to the audience and introduce their pieces, which is a good way to make contemporary music more accessible to audiences.

The school does not ignore the Hartford community. Occasionally, the orchestra and band perform at places such as Real Art Ways, which is a multi-media exhibitor within the city. Hartt also has a community division that gives lessons, including composition instruction, to children, and interested adults have become non-matriculated students at Hartt.

The Emerson String Quartet is in residence at Hartt and this is certainly a big plus for the school. The group frequently plays the standard 20th Century classics (but infrequently does new works by living composers). The quartet has an annual competition for student performers, and the winner of this competition joins the quartet in concert. A recent winner was a performer who also composed, and the Emerson Quartet performed this student’s work. However, the group has never played a composition by any student composition major, nor faculty member. This lack of interest by the Emerson Quartet is made up by some of Hartt’s faculty instrumentalists are personally interested in contemporary music, and who take it upon themselves to support living composers. Flutist John Wion,oboist Humbert Lucarelli, oboist; percussionist Benjamin Toth, and violinist Katie Lansdale all commission and perform new works often from Hartt faculty composers.

Several Hartt alumni have made contributions to the new music field including composers Barbara Kolb, Michael Schelle, and Stuart Smith, who is a percussionist and music publisher. Bert Turetsky, a virtuoso double bassist, played a big part in the new music scene in the 1960s.

From Making Conservatories Less Conservative
by Stefan Weisman
© 1999 NewMusicBox