Review: 25th Anniversary National Conference (part 4)

By Walter Saul

Peer Feedback Session

At 1:30 in the afternoon on Friday, October 18, 2019, we continued the fine CFAMC tradition of Peer Feedback Sessions. One of the challenges of any national conference is the small number of composers that can be presented live through the concerts, so this enables our members another avenue to share their music with other CFAMC members and conference attenders. We had three superb works to enjoy and discuss this afternoon which spanned the spectrum of concert music in instrumentation and in style.

Allen Brings set the bar high with the New York Virtuoso Chorus performance, directed by Harold Rosenbaum, of his In Paradisum, a concluding reading from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead. Many of us would be familiar with the stunning setting of this text as the concluding part of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, but Brings brings a welcome, more antiquated interpretation of this lovely poem of eternal hope. Like Thomas Tallis in his Third Mode Melody (on which Ralph Vaughan Williams based his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis) and Igor Stravinsky, in his Symphony of Psalms, he invokes the E Phrygian mode (all white notes), interchanging it with E major sonorities, but then deftly leading it to G# Phrygian and ending on a half cadence on a C# major triad. With these relatively simple elements, Brings transforms the path of a soul dead to this world into the radiance of that same being, now in the glorious presence of his Creator and Father. What could be more diametrically opposed than death and eternal life? What could be more diametrically opposed than a grim E minor tonality and the brightness of C# major? To experience it yourself in a fine Naxos recording, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lW05C59CvO0.

Brings also challenged us all with the many encounters he has had throughout his life hearing music in brand-new ways, from being transfixed by hearing monastery singers as a fifth grader, and Gregorian chant in a French cathedral, to Gustavo Dudemel’s interpretations of the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. And now we hear Brings in a new way – the music of one of America’s most extensively educated composers who is able to make every historical period and style his very own through his intimate knowledge and love of all music he truly hears with ever-new ears! May that be a goal in this new decade for all of us.

No CFAMC conference would be complete without a work – or an education – by our dear Bill Vollinger. Actually, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether it’s a composition or teaching lesson, and, in the case of It Takes a Long Time to Grow Up in New Jersey, it is obviously both, delivered with humor as only Vollinger can pull it off. For narrator and full concert band, the work sets up the narrator for a disastrous drowning out by the band – unless the narrator is Vollinger himself or some other “bad boy” of New Jersey just as irritated by the jokes hurled at his state, and yet, just as much in love with his state as anyone. The musical language helps pull off this stunt well: it’s in straightforward Bb major, but, in accordance with the Second Viennese School of free atonality (Arnold Schönberg and his students), the highly dissonant pitch-class set 012 appears in all its transpositions, such as G-G#-A. I shall not spoil the marvelous story-telling of Vollinger, but counsel you to listen to the work live at the winter concerts of the Colts Neck Community Band on January 30 and February 2, 2020, with Vollinger as the narrator. For more information, visit the CNCB at https://coltsneckband.org/events.

A young, yet remarkably accomplished composer, Ian Evans Guthrie delighted us with his introductory remarks and his Costa Rica-inspired work Thunderbirds. Turns out that, included among his many composer residencies was an inspiring visit to the Mauser EcoHouse, on the central Pacific Coast in Costa Rica. His hosts fully expected him to record sounds from the local environment and incorporate them into his new work, although he had other plans. He gamely used his phone to record sounds of the local birds as well as a barking dog, crowd noises, and the surf. He also synthesized other elements sounding like rototoms, insects, and explosions. The work takes you deep into a forest seething with all kinds of life and then it evaporates into space.

A purely electronic piece like this, so cleanly produced with every sound pinpointed in its sonic space, reminds us of how far electronic media have come in the last 40 years, when I recorded my sounds very carefully on ½-inch tape on 10-inch reels and physically cut the tape to make splices. Even an average cellphone can get better recordings than the equipment I used that cost tens of thousands of 1980 dollars.

As you can see, we experienced three very different worlds of music creation in about an hour, making me so grateful for our Peer Review Sessions!