Monday, March 07, 2005

Thoughts about Music of the 21st Century

Augusta Read Thomas was the guest composer for DePauw University's Music of the 21st Century festival. On Thursday, I conducted a question-and-answer session with Augusta. She revealed that despite her vividly descriptive titles, she regards her music as absolute. She has withdrawn over fifty of her works from the beginning of her career, as she regards them to be too immature. Augusta doesn't own the copyright on any of her recent works, so she cannot withdraw any more.

Friday night Augusta was very nurturing with the five students in the composition masterclass. She is distinctly Modernist in her perspective, discouraging unvaried repetitions in the students' compositions. However, she did not try to limit the students voices, even the student who wrote a distinctly Beethovenesque piano piece.

Saturday afternoon was the student symposium. Three of my students presented analyses of Chopin mazurkas and the Brahms Romance in F, op. 118 no. 5. Then three students from the 20th Century Music Literature class presented analyses of Augusta's Magneticfireflies and Fruit of My Spirit. Professor Thomas was present as the respondent. As a composer, Augusta is concerned about the placement of each work within the composer's oeuvre. When and why the mazurkas and the Romance were written, that her pieces were written specifically for high school band and amateur church choir respectively, and what other experience she had in composing vocal music were all things she wanted included in the presentations.

The closing concert was held Sunday afternoon. After another performance of her fanfare (Ring Flourish Blaze) three of the main ensembles performed works by Augusta and others. The orchestra was quite challenged by Galaxy Dances, A Ballet for Orchestra, composed for the National Symphony Orchestra, but they acquited themselves nicely. The work depicts timeless space (low strings and contrabassoon) bookending five different galaxies dancing through the cosmos. The chamber choir sang Fruit of My Spirit, a fairly short setting of John 15:5 and Galatians 5:22-23. It had some very evocative yet subtle text painting, including some clever passing of syllables from one voice to another. The band performed Magneticfireflies, which it also recorded last spring. Both Galaxy Dances and Magneticfireflies end with loud crashing chords that give way to decaying percussion, though in the first case both pitched percussion and piano is included, whereas Magneticfireflies was only cymbals. It was fascinating to listen to the changes in timbre as the pitched and unpitched sounds decayed. The combination of piano and non-pitched percussion provides a whole slew of inharmonic partials to clash and shift around in, even when using a consonant fundamental chord as Augusta did. Not only did some partials die away, but other partials became louder when their "big bully" masking partials lost energy. It was almost a melody rather than a timbre change, perhaps the closest thing to a true Klangfarbenmelodie that I've ever heard.

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