The Kid Composers Are All Right

The high-school-age composer is a beast with whom I have very limited experience. I guess I used to be one, but only for about a year and a half; since then, I don’t think I’ve encountered more than one or two specimens. Thanks to a substitute lab-monitoring gig, however, I’ve had the chance to witness a number of these creatures here at the University of Minnesota, a consequence of the Junior Composers Institute. Apparently this Institute has been around for a long while, but its concept seemed quite novel to me: Rather than work with a resident ensemble or soloist, the students—who are also required to be capable instrumentalists—write pieces for one another.

This strikes me as quite an elegant solution: It’s cheaper than retaining a pro ensemble, no doubt. It also doubles down on the preparation the Institute’s participants receive, and it gives each student more stage time. But I have to chuckle when I wonder how this model would work if a summer program for grad and undergrad composers adopted it. For one thing, a healthy proportion of composers would be outright disqualified; not all of us have kept up our chops. For another, collaborating with one’s peers rather than with established players doesn’t address the pedagogical goal of exposing young composers to professional performers, a major selling point for many such programs. And the level of polish on the final products may of course be a smidge lower.

Nonetheless, it’s a charming concept, and the task of writing for a bunch of composers who aren’t virtuosi actually kind of appeals to me. Furthermore, as I mentioned, I imagine that such a program would be much easier to set up than one that requires the complicity of legit performers. It’s the kind of thing that could even be self-organized, assuming availability of studio and performance spaces. Who knows what creative forces such a DIY, anti-careerist vibe might draw out of a heterogeneous crowd of composers? We’ll have to ask the minds behind the Junior Composers Institute, I suppose.

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New Music Scrapbook features composer Mike Duffy this week. Mike’s Obair Pháirce is a great introduction to his work: Its textures, brought into being through a highly refined integration of instruments and electronics, give the uncanny impression of three-dimensionality. It’s easy to get lost in Mike’s music—but you won’t want to, so stunning and strongly characterized is each new vista that confronts you. Mike’s interview is gripping too: How did the axeman from Jersey hardcore institution Endeavor end up analyzing spectra in Minnesota? Listen in and find out.

2 thoughts on “The Kid Composers Are All Right

  1. kmanlove

    We’ve been doing that in Austin for about 10 years now! It’s obviously got its up and downs. At the Austin New Music Co-op, it’s a mix of composers and performers… and I’d say everyone is quite capable at what they do. The confusing part is that’s not always “play these notes from this measure to this measure perfectly on this instrument.”

    The trombone player may read well, improvise well, but have little to no experience with extended techniques. Another performer may hate improvisation. And then finally, someone may make beautiful music, but can’t read music at all. And of course, everything in between.

    What happens is that as composers, we don’t allow ourselves to compromise more than the weird ensemble (you can end up choosing accordion, bass, bass clarinet, and electronics if you don’t watch out) we created. You begin thinking more about what makes a good part. Where’s the line between compromising and actually thinking critically about whether you NEED to write that line in that way.

    For the performers, you’re faced with the seams in your playing, and that sucks, but it’s great for your growth. I feel that you begin to learn and borrow from each, critique and investigate other people’s music. It’s certainly been instrumental (zing!) in my growth.

    Reply
  2. jonrussell20

    I also find that nothing inspires dedication on the part of a performer like the knowledge that the person whose piece you’re performing will also be performing YOUR piece. You want them to give your piece their very best, so you feel compelled to do the same for them. At its best, collaboration between groups of composer-performers can be one of the most stimulating and joyous musical experiences there is.

    Reply

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