After tossing that silly-looking mortarboard into the air and thus cutting the umbilical chord of grad school, many young composers are faced, unprepared, with the confounding syndrome known as: Now what am I going to do? Even if you aren’t graduating, the barren expanse of time until the Fall semester action kicks-in again can leave a composer scratching his or her head with the same question. There is, however, a big sigh of relief that keeps hands from idling, a cure-all that injects large doses of contemporary music—something that seems to hibernate during the warmer months. Yes, summer festivals are a godsend for emerging composers looking to make a mark in the field or maybe just take a few baby steps. While America boasts several stellar summer programs such as Aspen and Tanglewood, which are often garnished with national press coverage, June in Buffalo has been running in the top of the pack for over two decades. So what sets June in Buffalo apart from the rest?
“In terms of the festival profile, June in Buffalo is clearly more focused on contemporary music than Tanglewood or Aspen,” according to composer Oliver Schneller, who has participated in all three programs. With the emphasis shifted away from standard repertoire, June in Buffalo tends to invite performers known for their contemporary music chops, such as the Arditti Quartet who read and performed student works in 2007. The origins of the festival can be traced back to Morton Feldman, who founded it in 1975 in an effort to establish a Darmstadt-like atmosphere, where young composers could gather and learn from their elders. As funding became increasingly difficult to come by, the festival was dissolved five years later. Enter artistic director David Felder, the mastermind behind the festival since he resurrected it 1985. Under the guidance of Felder, the festival manages to nurture around 20 participants each year as well as a handful of auditors, who do not have their compositions read or performed as part of the festival.
The number of students allotted to participate in June in Buffalo is another difference that Schneller points out—by contrast, Aspen and Tanglewood only select a handful of composition fellows. “There are pros and cons to both models,” he explains. “More composers mean possibly more perspectives, broader exchange and exposure, but also less performances per composer and less attention to the individual in masterclasses or fewer one-on-one lessons.”
To June in Buffalo’s credit, whatever individual attention is lost as a result of larger class sizes, the sheer amount of diversity among the students and the faculty can often be quite inspiring. According to composer Patrick Castillo, who attended June in Buffalo in 2005 and 2007, “the overall experience of working with such a wide array of composers within a short amount of time was really rewarding.” Castillo elaborates that “there was a much more diverse array of languages that people brought to the table last year  than what I experienced the previous time that I was there.”
Faculty member John Harbison concurred, remembering that in his past experiences June in Buffalo students used to be “monolithic in their aesthetics, they seemed to come from a very similar perspective. This group [in 2007] is wider and I’m less able to expect what they’re going to bring, which is nice.” A frequent member of June in Buffalo’s faculty, Charles Wuorinen weighs in on the subject, adding that the 2007 participants represent “a change in attitude and a change in quality for the better. They seem to have a seriousness of intent that I haven’t always detected and that, of course, is a very encouraging thing since it is going to be up to them to shape the way music turns out.”
Sounds as if the attendees in 2008 have a lot to live up to, but this year’s festival is going to be a whole different kettle of fish as the festival shifts its focus to electronic music. The faculty composers include Charles Dodge, Cort Lippe, Roberto Morales, Miller Puckette, Morton Subotnick, Ben Thigpen, and Hans Tutschku. The pool of performers available to perform student works includes the famed German group Ensemble for Intuitive Music, as well as members of Ensemble SurPlus and the New York New Music Ensemble. Nicholas Isherwood will return to the festival to sing some Stockhausen accompanied by composer/sound projectionist Gerard Pape. The fun begins on June 2, 2008.