Making Conservatories Less Conservative

The Oberlin Conservatory of Music, founded in 1865, is one of the country’s oldest conservatories, and it is a part of an exceptional liberal arts college. Among the excellent composition faculty are John Luther Adams, Pauline Oliveros, and Brenda Hutchinson , who is an interim faculty member. Eminent composers frequently give master classes, and occasionally conduct student ensembles in concerts of their works. When I called, Kyle Gann was visiting his alma mater for a week-long residency. Other recent visitors have included John Adams, Luciano Berio, David Del Tredici, Lukas Foss, Steve Reich, Gunther Schuller, and Tan Dun.

Currently, there is an outdated division within the composition program that splits students along the lines of acoustic music and electronic music. (The electronic/computer music courses currently take place at “TIMARA,” The Technology in Music and Related Arts Department.) Composition students have been crossing this line for years, so there has been ongoing discussions to create a core curriculum offering a single degree in composition. Also under scrutiny is the situation that students only begin private instruction in their final two years. Despite the need for these changes, Oberlin genuinely appears to be an ideal place for new music. The composition program encourages students to develop unique voices, and the performance of students’ works is a top priority. Groups that perform student works include the Contemporary Music Ensemble, the Oberlin Orchestra, and the Oberlin Chamber Orchestra. Students also have opportunities to work with groups outside the school such as the Midwest Composers Symposium and the Cleveland Chamber Symphony. Additional performances at Oberlin include jazz, improvisational, rock, technological, minimalist, and experimental music – often with composers as performers.

The spirit of collaboration abounds at Oberlin. Composition seminars include visits from artists in the departments of dance, theater, art, and creative writing. Composition majors write incidental music for plays and film, work with choreographers and video artists, and have even produced operas and musicals. Students are highly motivated. Huang Ruo, for instance, recently released a CD of nine original works, which features Oberlin student performers. Ruo also teaches a popular course, Composing Music, which is open to students of all levels, from both the College and the Conservatory.

Professors Tim Weiss and John Luther Adams conduct a forum for composition and performance majors. The course includes a wide range of processes: non-notated poetic scores involving on-the-spot group composition; traditionally composed scores for particular instruments; extended instrumental techniques; and allow for in-depth collaborations. Composers will perform, and performers compose. Another course, the Craft of Composition, is designed for students not majoring in composition.

Another forum for collaboration, “art-haus,” is a monthly gathering that brings together Oberlin artists from all disciplines. Currently, many collaborations are ad hoc – students create them on their own. However, Oberlin is establishing a chair for the “emerging” arts that will be a formal catalyst for interdisciplinary collaboration between artists at Oberlin.

Although there is not an actual requirement for student performers to play new music, students are doing it, and in a big way. Performers seem to view it as chic to play new music. Even at this early stage in their careers some already consider themselves to be new music specialists. Flute student, Claire Chase, for instance, launched a project to expand the flute repertory and as a result of that effort won the 1999 Presser Music Award.

Electronic music major Joshua McFadden and composition/geology major Jim Altieri are investigating music and the Internet with research scientists at AT&T Labs. New Technologies and new recording techniques for live webcasts are being studied, and AT&T may release music from Oberlin as a trial for this new technology, including a possible CD ROM and DVD project featuring the music of John Luther Adams.

Considering Oberlin’s dedication to new music, it is not a surprise that the school reaches out to community and attempts to foster new audiences. One good example of this is an annual workshop in electronic/computer music designed for high school students, teachers, and amateur and professional musicians.

Oberlin student composers have won such prestigious competitions as the BMI and ASCAP awards, and have received fellowships from the Fulbright, Guggenheim, and other foundations. Two Oberlin graduates, George Walker and Christopher Rouse, have gone on to win Pulitzer Prizes in music composition. Oberlin graduates have also played key roles in the creation of important new music groups: Laura Kaminsky founded Musicians Accord; John Kennedy and Charles Wood established Essential Music; Allan Otte and James Culley founded Percussion Group Cincinnati, which currently coaches another important new music group that began at Oberlin, eighth blackbird, the only group dedicated to new music that has won the First Prize at the prestigious Concert Artists Guild International Competition.

From Making Conservatories Less Conservative
by Stefan Weisman
© 1999 NewMusicBox