What a difference an academic year makes. When I flew the coop in August of last year, I knew that big contemporary music things were afoot at the University of Minnesota, but I didn’t realize how big those things were destined to get until last Tuesday. I caught a program of old European chestnuts and new, acutely American pieces by a few of my colleagues at the U (as it’s known locally), courtesy of the recently formed Contemporary Music Workshop (CMW, if you’re hip). Having just come back from London, my personal bar for performances of new music is pretty high, but these students—grads and undergrads—really took it to the hoop on some very challenging literature.
CMW members acquitted themselves admirably when it came time to play Stockhausen’s Adieu and Nono’s Polifonica-Monodia-Ritmica, although I have to admit I’m not crazy about either piece; the Stockhausen gambles on moments that don’t quite transcend the sum of their parts, and the Nono isn’t as cooked—sublimated, maybe, would be a better word—as his later work. I was heartened, however, to note that the group really excelled in its renderings of new pieces (premiered a week earlier) by Mike Duffy, Schuyler Tsuda, and Jeremy Wagner, three of my fellow students. All three seemed to have approached the process of composing for the CMW as a genuine collaboration with the performers, but somehow this give-and-take produced remarkably pure distillations of the composers’ aesthetic concerns: Mike’s quartet was evocative and faceless, turbulent and static at the same time; Schuyler wrung textures from the ensemble that seemed flatly impossible for those instruments alone to have produced; Jeremy actually accomplished what so many program notes purport that their pieces do—that is, the embedding of extant material in a manner that does not defamiliarize so much as refamiliarize. Furthermore, all three pieces took as their conceptual jumping-off point the question of what it means to be an American composer; although each dealt differently with this predicament, a strong thematic thread connected them.
It was enormously invigorating to get back to the Twin Cities and be immediately confronted by such a vivid, uncompromising concert. Because the CMW’s activities are yoked (for now) to the school’s calendar, you may have to wait a while for another performance. However, I can assure you that next time they’re performing, it’ll be well worth your time to check them out. Word on the street is that the next concert will integrate vocalists into the CMW’s roster, a pretty ambitious move given the programming precedent set by this most recent performance. Not to be missed.