Performers Who Compose

During my graduate studies and my first few years of teaching, more than once I experienced seeing student composers not taking seriously performers who tried their hand at composition. The reasons on the surface tended to be that the performers either didn’t have as much training as the composition majors or didn’t consider it their primary focus, although I understood that it usually had much more to do with the self-confidence of the composition majors in question. Since my own career had taken several twists and turns before finally settling on my current path, I’ve done as much as I can to encourage students outside of the composition major to compose their own works and have them performed, which is why the past couple of weeks have been so satisfying.

Earlier this year I wrote about the student new music organization I oversee at SUNY Fredonia and the NewSound Festival they hold every February. This year we decided that because of the number of groups and guests that we were bringing to campus, we would split this festival in two–a FallSound festival in September/October and a NewSound festival in February/March. This semester we had four sets of residencies in quick succession: the Mivos Quartet (just back from their stint at Darmstadt), the unique quartet loadbang, pianist and NOW Ensemble founding member Michael Mizrahi, and three composers–Daron Hagen, John McDonald, and Caroline Mallonée–in town to hear their works performed by our faculty-based ANA Trio (soprano Angela Haas, cellist Natasha Farny, and pianist Anne Kissel). Over the course of the festival, the students had the opportunity to experience concerts, lectures, masterclasses, private lessons, and–best of all–down time with some of the most talented performers and composers out there today.

One thing that took me by surprise was the programs of our guest ensembles. Both the Mivos Quartet and loadbang presented repertoire that ranged from established masters (Rihm by Mivos; Cage and Lang by loadbang) as well as composers from their own generation (Mincek, Bettendorf, and Lara by Mivos; Lunsqui, Worthington, Akiho, and Futing by loadbang), but what caught me off-guard was that both ensembles featured works by members of their ensembles. loadbang brought forth a movement (“Gloria”) from an extended work entitled Mass by trumpeter Andy Kozar and an arrangement of Guillaume de Machaut’s 14th-century “Gloria” by baritone Jeffrey Gavett, both of which were extremely effective and quite touching. A week earlier, Mivos performed Mura by quartet member Olivia De Prato and after the concert I had several students comment to me that her work was one of their favorites of the evening.

We learned later that both ensembles encourage this “writing from within” to a great degree. Kozar has an upcoming CD of his original works (including the aforementioned Mass) on the horizon and loadbang’s newest member, clarinetist Carlos Cordeiro, has composed many electroacoustic works. Mivos seemed quite proud of the fact that all four members were composing for the quartet and an entire concert of music composed by themselves is in the works.

In the past, we’ve seen many examples of composers performing their own works alone or with others–Cage, Reich, Glass, and Tower come quickly to mind. With the influx of chamber ensembles gaining traction since the late 1990s (taking their cues from Kronos Quartet and Bang on a Can All-Stars before them), there has been a growing surge of groups that foster an openness to performing their own members’ works (ETHEL, Alarm Will Sound, and SO Percussion are but three examples). Lately there has been a growth in academic programs that allow for this openness during school, with the graduate programs in contemporary music at the Manhattan School of Music and Bowling Green State University being formed within the past ten years.

This is a good thing–and not just in the contemporary concert music world. The more performers compose, the greater their understanding, appreciation, and insight will be of works by other composers, and the more creative voices we include in our musical community, the further our musical boundaries will ultimately reach.

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