This week’s tornadic events in Moore, Oklahoma, brought back more than a few memories for me, as I lived and taught in the Sooner State for two years before I moved up to western New York. The topic of Oklahoma comes up from time to time in discussion and, more often than not, the reaction is surprise and disbelief that there is anything musical going on in that part of the country. To that end, I would like to take this opportunity to shine a light on a few of the notable composers, conductors, performers, ensembles, and presenters that make sure that there is a healthy dose of contemporary music north of the Red River.
Composing in a flyover state like Oklahoma has its share of challenges and several of the composers living there have addressed them by finding both local and national musical collaborators with which to work. Emmy Award-winning Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate incorporates the music of his own people (he is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation) into his concert works. These range from a recent recording of two pieces for flute and orchestra with the San Francisco Symphony and Taloowa’ Chipota (Children’s Songs) with the Dickson Middle School Choir as part of the American Composers Forum ChoralQuest program to a premiere of a work for baritone and orchestra in the Lakota language with the South Dakota Symphony to future ballet, oratorio, and opera projects in Oklahoma City. Edward Knight often collaborates with the Brightmusic Ensemble (more about them below), as well as his colleagues at Oklahoma City University; just last week his wind band work Peace and Light Rising was given its Asian premiere at the All-Japan Band Clinic in Hammatsu, Japan, by the Oklahoma State University Wind Ensemble. Sam Magrill has written for large and chamber ensembles throughout Oklahoma and has collaborated extensively with his University of Central Oklahoma colleague, cellist Tess Remy-Schumacher, who has recorded two albums of Magrill’s chamber works for cello.
As in other parts of the country, the educational institutions in Oklahoma tend to foster strong new music performance and pedagogical opportunities. Wind bands are just as popular in Oklahoma as they are with their neighbors to the south, and conductors such as William Wakefield at the University of Oklahoma, Matthew Mailman at Oklahoma City University, Brian Lamb at the University of Central Oklahoma, and Jacob Wallace at Southeast Oklahoma State University are constantly premiering and performing new music. During my year teaching at the University of Oklahoma, I was lucky enough to see a brilliant performance of Louis Andriessen’s De Tijd by the OU Symphony under the direction of Jonathan Shames as part of a week-long minimalism festival curated by flutist Christina Jennings. Ed Knight oversees Project21 at OCU, a top-notch student-run composers’ collective that helped to prepare me for my own student group. While I lived in Norman, Oklahoma, I had the chance to see Jerod Tate teaching composition to pre-college students from many different Native American Tribes at the Chickasaw Summer Arts Academy in Ada, Oklahoma; I’ve worked with many students in that age range myself, and I’ve never seen students so elated to hear their new works performed for the first time.
There are two notable presenters in Oklahoma that consistently and unabashedly feature new music. The OK Mozart Festival might sound like it would focus entirely on traditional fare, but this presenter has been surprisingly willing to bring new works by living composers to the festival on a yearly basis. Founded by Christina Jennings before she left for Boulder, Colorado, the Brightmusic Chamber Ensemble is one of the strongest chamber ensembles in the state; co-directed by clarinetist Chad Burrow and pianist Amy Cheng, they have commissioned new works by composers throughout their ten-year history. (Last weekend they premiered Quasi un Fantasia by Christopher Theofanidis with guest clarinetist David Shifrin.) Speaking of clarinetists, an Oklahoma native, Christina Giacona, recently moved back to the state to teach at the University of Oklahoma. As Giacona continues to be the founding director of the Los Angeles New Music Ensemble, one wonders if she may begin a similar venture closer to home.
Before I close, I must give a shout-out to Brad Ferguson at KCSC-FM in Edmond, Oklahoma. I contacted Brad during my first year in Oklahoma and asked him if he’d be interested in a show that focused on living composers and new music. It turned out that he had been an undergraduate composition major back in the day, and he loved the idea. His generosity allowed me to start my show “The Composer Next Door,” which ran for almost three years and was, in many ways, my introduction into the new music community. While it was a lot of fun working with composers from all over the country, it was extremely satisfying to know that there was a large audience of listeners who had never had the exposure to new music that audiences in New York or Chicago would have had.
My first introduction to Oklahoma was driving up I-35 in 2003 in transit from Austin to Chicago the day after a previous tornado had hit Moore; I’ll never forget seeing the flattened shops and houses on either side of the highway and, to be honest, those images flashed through my mind when I found out I’d be teaching there years later. When I left, however, my impressions were not of windswept plains but of a surprisingly strong community of musicians and audiences who are open to performing and hearing new music.