Making Conservatories Less Conservative

The Indiana University School of Music is considered one of the finest institutes for music in the country. It provides both the advantages of a large university’s facilities and, unfortunately, some of the disadvantages of a conservatory’s unprogressive character.

The composition faculty includes Claude Baker, David Dzubay, Don Freund, Jeffrey Hass and Eugene O’Brien. All students in the department, from freshmen to doctoral students, receive private instruction. As the department is quite large, with approximately sixty composition students, professors have to juggle between ten and eighteen students each.

The entire department, including majors and minors, meets each week on Monday nights for a seminar. Renowned composers visit frequently. Some of the past visitors include William Bolcom, George Crumb, Philip Glass, Osvaldo Golijov, Arvo Pärt, Shulamit Ran, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, and Joan Tower.

Approximately ten department-wide student composition recitals are given each year, with generally excellent performances. However, it is important for students to think ahead while composing because willing performers can be a challenge to find. Students must consider practicality as they compose. When I spoke to composer and faculty member Don Freund he told me that the school feels it is important for student composers to practice their recruiting skills. Composers sometimes perform or conduct their own work. And to qualify for their degree, each composer is required to participate in the performance of at least one of their works in their final recital. In addition to the regularly scheduled composers concerts, there are readings with the wind ensemble and orchestra, and students occasionally have their works performed by the New Music Ensemble.

Several IU composers have found performance opportunities outside of the University. The music of student composers Forrest Pierce and Kenneth Froelich has been performed by the Indianapolis Symphony. And the New York Youth Symphony commissioned David Hueser and Keith Fitch. The School’s students also typically do very well in nationwide contests such as the BMI and ASCAP young composer awards.

University composers, including both faculty and students, can get performances with the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble. Founded in 1980, the Ensemble is a highlight of the music program. Members include singers, composers, and instrumentalists. The group exclusively performs 20th Century choral repertoire, which ranges from the “classic” works of the century to special commissions. Repertoire has included the music of Stockhausen, Reich, Glass, Pärt, and MacMillan. A recent project includes the commission of a “Miss brevisby Mario Lavista, a recording of which was subsequently released on CD. The group also encourages multi-media and theatrical collaborations.

Like the Vocal Ensemble, the University’s New Music Ensemble performs a wide range of 20th Century music, but it attempts to concentrate especially on music written since the 1960s. The New Music Ensemble, which is not ad hoc but made up of a regular group of students, performs four concerts each year on campus. Concerts usually feature the music of a guest composer and a member of the composition department. The group also tours regularly. For example, in 1995 they returned to New York’s Merkin Hall for the second time. They have released five CDs to date, the latest of which features the music of the University’s faculty.

Other important aspects of the School of Music are its band, Jazz Department, Latin American Music Center, and Electronic Music Studios. The concert band incorporates new music into its repertoire and has performed the music of Karel Husa, Joseph Schwantner, William Bolcom, Samuel Adler, John Corigliano, Luciano Berio and Ingram Marshall, among others. It should certainly be noted that the School of Music’s Jazz program is one of the best in the country. The Latin American Music Center encourages research and performance of Latin American art through concerts and commissions. And the Center for Electronic and Computer Music includes two well-stocked studios, which are used to provide technical training, composition, research and public concerts.

Another opportunity to hear this century’s music is the opera department’s upcoming “Tribute to 20th Century Opera.” The department invites us to join them as they “boldly step across into the new millennium.” While, perhaps, it cannot be denied that the opera department is celebrating and commemorating the “milestone achievements and the unforgettable moments that have marked this century,” a closer look at the chosen composers – Berg, Stravinsky, Barber, Britten, and even Puccini (?!) – makes their claims of boldness questionable, to say the least. On the other hand, productions in the past five years have included Adams‘ “Nixon in China”, Bolcom’s “McTeague,” and Corigliano’s “Ghost of Versailles.” Both Bolcom and Corigliano helped coach these productions.

Although the opera department is not designed to do regular readings for student composers, special readings are possible and happen approximately once every 3 years. The School’s composers find it easier to get the cooperation of the ballet department, which is always looking for new things to do. They have done many new works, including a piece by Don Freund two years ago.

Freund also organized the 1998 Society of Composer Inc.‘s national conference at Indiana University. Most of the faculty took part in playing new music during the festival – even those like Janos Starker and the opera department, who are usually considered quite conservative. But, Freund was quite candid about his frustration that followed the festival. Although the students and faculty were clearly excited and energized while performing new pieces by living composers, they immediately fell back to their standard works as soon as the festival was over.

However, some of the instrumental faculty are known as advocates for new music. Bassoonist Kim Walker is particularly outstanding in this regard. She has worked closely with, and premiered the works of, composers such as Stockhausen, Berio, Gubaidulina, and Bennett. Her recent commission of “Ad Ora Incerta” by Simon Bainbridge even went on to win the 1997 Grawemeyer Award. Flute professor, Thomas Robertello commissioned a piece from student Martin Kennedy, who, for better or worse, has become type-cast as a composer for the flute.

There is no question that the Indiana University School of Music is an important and excellent center for music in the Midwest. They present nearly one-thousand public concerts on the Bloomington campus each year. The University has tremendous resources, and therefore their shortfalls are all the more disappointing. Don Freund quite candidly confessed that, although students are sometimes aggressive about posting things around town, the school does not do much to foster new audiences among the local community. Despite this, some events, and the New Music Ensemble in particular, are well attended.

While the School of Music has an active outreach program, it does not involve contemporary music. The “Bloomington Composers Project,” organized by students to perform new music outside of the University and speak to audiences, is inactive this year.

There are no formal opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration between student composers and other student artists (dancers, film, video, playwriters). The students who are interested in such collaborations arrange them on their own – many of them work with independent filmmakers in town. And Freund admitted that a recent, intriguing multi-media project organized by three composers – which took over a room and incorporated dance, theater and many instrumental ensembles – was not at all typical.

Finally, Freund was disappointed that enthusiasm for new music at the School of Music is not wide reaching. It is the faculty who decide what their pupils will play, and the reality is that the pool of students and faculty at the school who are interested in new music is quite limited. Some are enthusiastic, but because of the way the system is set up, these same players are the ones recruited for student concerts. And these same performers end up appearing at these concerts over, and over, and over again.

From Making Conservatories Less Conservative
by Stefan Weisman
© 1999 NewMusicBox