This past weekend I came down to the American Academy in Rome for three concerts given by Scharoun Ensemble Berlin—featuring premieres by current Rome Prize composers Kurt Rohde and Keeril Makan as well as two older pieces of my own. It was my first time in Rome and I have to say it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever had a chance to experience—definitely a more varied color palette than I’ve grown accustomed to this Winter in Berlin!
The Rome Academy is a much larger operation than the Berlin Academy, with at least three times as many fellows in residence at any particular moment. And initially I was a little bit nervous to be sharing the program with Kurt and Keeril, both of whom are fantastic, accomplished composers several years my seniors. They instantly made me feel right at home, though, and it was really a pleasure to connect with such a generous and supportive community. I really hope the two academies can make this exchange a regular staple, as the music scene in Rome isn’t quite as developed as Berlin’s.
Kurt’s pieces, Under the Influence and All Thumbs were an interesting listen partly because the two works shared many surface similarities—in fact, if my memory serves the more recent All Thumbs actually revisits a couple elements from the earlier Under the Influence quite intentionally. As a result, I felt I was really able to focus on the smaller musical details that made each work unique. The pieces were rhythmically driving, dare I say funky at times, and against this Kurt was somehow able to weave some very delicate and nuanced gestures colored with extended techniques. This is the first chance I’ve had to hear something of Kurt’s, so now I’m really interested to hear some more.
The next evening featured two older pieces of mine that are pretty much on the extreme opposite ends of the spectrum in which I normally compose. Fractured Jams is about as close to the New Complexity a piece of mine is ever going to get, and Remembrances is a three-minute encore-type throwaway with a mostly traditional use of harmony. Most of my music has located itself somewhere in the middle of this continuum, but I was grateful for a chance to present a pairing so perplexing to one set of ears that it prompted her to ask, “What camp are you in?” Maybe the combined impression of the pieces lacked focus, but then again it’s not a bad question to be asked.
Finally, Keeril’s Washed by Fire for string quartet was surprisingly different than the bulk of his music I’ve previously heard—it’s meditative without being brooding, and uses some of the sparest materials I’ve encountered in a recent narrative-driven work. Keeril’s writing for the strings was similarly assured and understated, and for me one of the most interesting qualities of the work—its ability to present contrasting material that somehow never acquires the typically obligatory sense of conflict—seems in line with a similar modesty and restraint.
The precise relationship between the academies of Rome and Berlin has always eluded me, but I think it’s clear that when they pool their resources everyone benefits. Hopefully, this exchange program will become a permanent fixture.