The Mush Race of Boston: The SICPP 2013 Iditarod

How do you prepare for a concert presentation of over eight nearly continuous hours of new music? As a listener, it helps to read about the music, nap in advance, plan to get some fresh air, and pack a few good snacks. If you’re a performer, and the event is the Iditarod at the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice, it involves nine intensive days of practice, rehearsal, workshopping, and bonding with other musicians. SICPP (pronounced “sick puppy”) takes place every summer at the New England Conservatory. As you may already know, the Iditarod, from which SICPP’s closing event borrows its name, is an annual sled dog race held over several weeks and many different types of terrain in Alaska. It is, I am sure, a test of commitment, knowledge, stamina, and concentration. It also involves teamwork and adjustment to shifting conditions, which makes it a more apt name than the more usual “marathon” for what we experienced last Saturday.

The closing piece of the whole event was an incredibly beautiful performance of Berio's Folk Songs, featuring soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon

The closing piece of the whole event was a performance of Berio’s Folk Songs, featuring soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon.

But SICPP includes a lot more than just the culminating Iditarod. This year’s institute began on June 14th and ran through the 22nd, dipping half an hour into the 23rd. There were concerts every evening from the 16th onward, primarily featuring faculty and guests until the Iditarod, which was student-centered but frequently involved faculty in the chamber groups. Concurrent with the Iditarod was a set of installation pieces, which I unfortunately missed due to a planning error. There were also lunchtime concerts at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall, a co-presentation with Boston GuitarFest on Thursday afternoon, and an Electronic Workshop Concert on Friday afternoon. I attended the Friday and Saturday events. The Friday events, especially the evening concert, had an atmosphere more like a summer camp or a sporting event than—I think it’s safe to say—any other new music event I’ve experienced. There was a great deal of enthusiasm about the music and the performances, and it was evident that many new friendships among the players had formed over the preceding week. But the atmosphere on Saturday, though still friendly, was far from casual. All of the students were playing or having their works played that evening, and while there was still plenty of enthusiasm, it was tempered by a palpable sense of concentration.

Three performances during the Iditarod were remarkable in the artistry that the musicians brought to the pieces. At no moment did these feel like student performances. They were impeccably prepared, and transcended the requisite technical demands. Greg Jukes, percussion, Ryan McCullough, piano, and Jing Li, cello, played Rand Steiger’s Trio in Memoriam with a level of confidence and surety that allowed its emotional scope to come through with stunning clarity. McCullough was also part of the ensemble for Ives’s Piano Trio, along with Gabby Diaz, violin, and Stephen Marotto, cello. It was a full-on performance, richly conveying the wildness of the second movement and the unholy explosion of vibrant noise in the third. The closing piece of the whole event was an incredibly beautiful performance of Berio’s Folk Songs, featuring soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon, who switched seemingly effortlessly into an entirely different vocal delivery for the closing “Azerbaijan Love Song.”

Not all of the pieces called for or allowed such a no-holds-barred approach. Many of them required one very specific type of intensity. The driving pulses of Steve Reich’s Tehillim were a test of stamina that was very successfully met across the ensemble for over half an hour. In Feldman’s 2 pieces for 3 pianos, the holds were effectively, and appropriately, barred. Beth Karp, Valerie Ross, and Kyle Johnson brought great coolness, discipline, and rigor to the work.

That was also true of the two Feldman performances at the Friday lunchtime concert at the Gardner Museum: Voice, Violin and Piano by soprano Nina Guo, violinist Gabby Diaz, and pianist Angelique Po, and of Why Patterns? by flutist Jessi Rosinski, pianist Amy O’Dell, and Caleb Herron on glockenspiel. Xenakis’s Dikhthas, played with real vigor and commitment by pianist Mari Kawamura and violinist Micah Ringham, was an unrelenting volcanic eruption. Later at the Friday evening concert, Alan Sentman’s Patchwork provoked quite a lot of laughter, particularly in the third section, as Stuart Gerber very cleverly made use of the improvisational freedoms provided by the composer. Immediately after this piece he dove into the visceral discipline and tremendous energy demanded by Xenakis’s Rebonds. Adam Roberts’s Anakhtara was poised in a strange and beautiful stillness and distance, elegantly conveyed by its dedicatee, cellist Benjamin Schwartz. Schwartz followed with Ulrich Kreppein’s mysterious, oblique, and understated Abendlich auf schattenbegleiteten wegen. Xenakis’s Okho was a great closer, with its tight ensemble playing in the exploration of traditional and non-traditional djembe techniques. Mathias Spahlinger’s musica impura was the one piece to be performed both by faculty on Friday evening (Jen Ashe, soprano, Maarten Stragier, guitar, Nick Tolle, percussion) and then again during the Iditarod by student participants (Dino Georgeton, percussion, Katrina Leshan, guitar, Susanna Su, soprano). This piece presented ironically disjunct sections of material, which were both technically and aesthetically demanding. It’s to be expected that the faculty performance would be more assured. What I didn’t anticipate was that I would feel a greater interest in the piece following the student performance. It was a less performative, less extroverted performance, but the honest engagement with the problems presented by the work was invigorating.

In the Electronic Workshop Concert on Friday, Susanna Su, soprano, with Ian Headley, electronics, gave a deeply felt and richly evocative performance of Kaija Saariaho’s Lohn. Headley’s composition, Two Rules, for percussionist John Andress and live electronics by the composer, had a strikingly visceral, three-dimensional quality. David Stenson’s untitled alternated effectively between static and liquid states, while Ariane Miyasaki’s Hindsight used the electronics to sonically put the audience inside of Beth McDonald’s tuba. Asha Tamirisa’s Clark continued in this line of using electronics to reveal, rather than obscure, the physical impacts of John Andress’s performance. The concert closed with a collaboration by the participants in the Electronic Workshop and Susanna Su on Benjamin Bacon’s d’chromeo, described by Bacon as a framework for improvisation, in which dynamic shapes are given but other parameters are free.


Returning to the Iditarod performances, Scott Deal’s Goldstream Variations opened the event, with a maximal, inclusive style that provided a great set of playing opportunities for the whole ensemble. Roger Miller’s Vines for Music was an immediate stylistic contrast, and the musicians proved themselves totally ready for this pared down aesthetic. While Miller nods to Cage in the program notes because of the use of prepared piano, there is a more implicit resonance with Lucier and a piece like Still Lives in the use of shapes found around the house (in Miller’s case, vines attached to the garage door) as pitch contour. The transparent quality of the slow string glissandi and careful inside-the-piano work demanded a special kind of concentration from the players, which was beautifully met. In Rand Steiger’s 13 LOOPS, the strength of the ensemble playing continued, revealing itself as a very welcome theme of the evening. Originally dedicated to Dorothy Stone, the original flutist of the California E.A.R. Unit, in this performance the piece was a great vehicle for flutist Sarah Pyle, who really shone in this role. Taylor Long and Robin Hirshberg, percussion, and Angelique Po and Raquel Gorgojo (amplified pianos) carried the individual characters of each of the pieces of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos III. This performance was not about the many extended techniques involved, but about the states they evoked. These techniques were understood as resources, not as showcases in themselves.

Among the works by student composers (who are mostly, if not all, working at the graduate level), 27 also showed a real sensitivity in its use of extended techniques, both from the composer, Julio Zúñiga, and from Eve Boltax, viola, and Nicolas Loh, piano. It was an understated performance, deriving real intensity from the smallest actions. Later in that set, Ethan Braun’s Mud Doll displayed a far more overt intensity. In what Braun calls the “emotional centerpiece” of his chamber opera, soprano Amy Foote and saxophonist Phillipp Staeudlin invaded the stratosphere in one wonderfully terrible, indelible moment. Earlier in the evening, Clifton Ingram’s Thought Memory juxtaposed memory, represented by a tabletop guitar, with thought, articulated on a second, more conventionally held instrument. Both guitars were played by Katrina Leshan, who gave this piece a highly nuanced performance in all its dimensions. The diversity of these student works stretched in other directions, from the barely voiced and sometimes unvoiced ckifi/kn by Justin Murphy-Mancini, to the vibrant points of stasis and pulsations within a narrow band of Katherine Young’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, to the active pitch, rhythmic, and timbral cycles of Alex Huddleston’s Parallax, projected with masterly assurance by flutist Jessi Rosinski. In the next set, Onur Yildirim’s Mûş-ı Zamân II, influenced by the study of the physics of time, was rich with instrumental color and ornamental activity. José Manuel Serrano’s Breve was a work of a very different nature, made up of a series of inconclusive, yet very rich musical gestures. Aaron Jay Myers found an effective advocate for Leg and Skull in percussionist Taylor Long, who set the air ringing throughout the hall in these musical evocations of decay. The final student work of the evening was Emily Koh’s cycrotations for percussion quartet, which I remember for its haunting, ghostly, spacious quality.

Taken together, these ten works are a useful snapshot of the aesthetic diversity of composition occurring these days at the student level. In combination with Rand Steiger’s residency and the numerous other programmed works, participants and audience members, including myself, got a great view of the overwhelming breadth of this field. Most of all, it’s truly invigorating to see such capable musicians taking on the many demands of contemporary music with commitment.

One question was stirred for me in the wake of this event, however. With very few exceptions, the pieces performed by the students at SICPP were either by composers who were present or who are well established in the canon. Feldman, Berio, Xenakis, etc., are not names that a musician with an active interest in new music can (or should) miss. But there are any number of composers who might be of significant interest to performers who are neither canonized nor part of their academic institutions or local scenes. This is not so much a criticism of SICPP—I couldn’t imagine that one more piece could have been fit into those nine days—but more a question to performers such as the participants in SICPP, whose involvement in the program is proof of an active interest in new music. How do you go about finding the contemporary music that is not handed to you, either by peers, by faculty, or as recognized important literature? The argument could be made that there has never been such a promising time as the present to make your own musical maps, as you discover the work for which you can advocate the most effectively, and which brings you the most joy. So much of that joy came through during the two days of performance that I witnessed, and there is no good reason that it can’t continue to spin itself out with new musical discoveries, through the summer and into the years ahead.

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