With SoSI’s new focus on student composers in 2013, I wanted to highlight some of the work that came out of last year’s residency at Princeton University.
For almost a decade, So Percussion has worked on and off with the Princeton composition department. This year’s Summer Institute is our fifth at Princeton, and many of the faculty have written major pieces for us.
I’ve written previous articles here about our projects with Paul Lansky and Steve Mackey. Dan Trueman’s huge work “neither Anvil nor Pulley” will be released this year on Cantaloupe Music.
One of our favorite attributes of the Princeton department is the stylistic diversity and openness of their culture. Students come in with many different ideas and influences, which they are encouraged to explore. Steve, Dan, and Barbara White are all serious composer/performers, who incorporate improvising and fluid collaboration into their work.
During the 2012-2013 academic year, they invited us to be in residence full-time. We taught a fall seminar on writing for percussion, and spent the spring collaborating with each grad composer on a new work for quartet. As we have so often realized, teaching folks how to write for percussion is actually teaching a process of exploration. Of course, there are always helpful hints we can give about orchestration, mallets, etc. But it seems that unlocking a composer’s imagination for percussion is mostly about encouraging their willingness to conceive a new world with each piece.
In some cases, the composers surprised us by suggesting a technique or way of making sound that we hadn’t thought of: Elliot Cole wondered about bowing harmonics on vibraphone. We said we’d never tried it, and then discovered right in front of the whole class how magical it was.
Below are a few that came out really well, and for which the composers made nice online audio and video links. Listening to these again seven months after the premieres, I’m blown away by how different and developed each voice is.
Although we enjoy doing readings and short residencies with new work, there is simply nothing to compare to this long collaborative process, especially for percussion. You quickly become aware that the one true thing that students often lack is the time, resources, and exposure to create mature work.
I’ve done many weeklong composition residencies, both with So Percussion and as a conductor with the International Contemporary Ensemble. The goal of these residencies is usually to get a decent live recording to help the composers develop their careers, which is a great thing that they really need. But you rarely leave one of those weeks feeling transformed by the process. Usually, the performers are exhausted, and sometimes the composers are exasperated by having so little time to experiment and develop their ideas with living people.
Obviously, it’s often the most that can be done. Our Princeton year was a dream come true, a chance to truly see how far these composers could take their ideas when given the chance.
The composers’ websites are linked below, if you’re interested in learning more about their music.
Postludes for Bowed Vibraphone
These pieces were a breakout success from the residency. We programmed them again at SoSI, and they’ve since been performed all over the country and even the world! Elliot passed along a list of performances as of Jan 1, 2013, seven months after the premiere. Below is my favorite, No. 5 in Db.
So Percussion – Elliot Cole – Postludes for Bowed Vibraphone (No. 5) from Elliot Cole on Vimeo.
What Hath II
We first commissioned Kate to write for SoSI students. She had a very strong language and set of ideas to explore. This music is based on naval codes, semaphore, and morse code. The visual and theatrical elements of the piece are very detailed.
What Hath II: excerpt 6min. from Kate Neal on Vimeo.
Cenk is a friend of ours and a frequent collaborator. He loves to write extremely quiet music. For this piece, he took a common percussive nuisance – the snares on a snare drum rattling in resonance – and made a whole gestalt out of it. As usual with Cenk’s music, what at first may sound like ambient activity is actually very rigorously organized, exuding a Feldman-esque beauty.
Troy’s piece speaks quite well for itself. He was very sensitive to the excitement and intimacy of chamber music playing on percussion instruments. I’m proud of the performance, because I think it exhibits a level of familiarity that is impossible in a reading or with one week of rehearsal.
So Percussion – Earth Crust by Troy Herion from Troy Herion on Vimeo.
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