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Future Classics

Music Score by the blue deviant fox

Those of you who are regulars here at Anatomy of Perceval will recognize the title of this post.  It’s the title of the concert the Minnesota Orchestra gives at the end of the intense week called the Composer Institute.  Seven young composers from all over the country come to Minneapolis to work with Minnesota Orchestra musicians as well as attend seminars about the business of being a composer. The Minnesota Orchestra rehearses each composer’s submitted work, and then at the end of the week, performs all the pieces in concert. It’s my favorite Minnesota Orchestra concert each season.

While this season’s group of composers offered interesting listening and quite a variety, I’m still waiting for the composer who will feel challenged to write tonal music using melody, harmony, and maybe even a form that makes sense. The first half of the concert stood out with pieces that lacked resolution at the end.  I wanted to shout, “It’s OK to resolve the sound at the end!” The entire concert also offered a tour of sound effects, including human voices talking, interspersed with the instruments playing tones, sirens, and lots of glissando.

I thought three of the composers managed to achieve a goal with their pieces. One composer talked about being influenced by the sight of the night sky, the points of light that are the stars, the immensity of the blackness, and a feeling of being inside of that night sky. We are a part of the universe, of course. But I understood the sensations she talked about because I’ve had them myself. The night sky is an amazing and profound sight. The sounds she began her piece with were all staccato points of sound.  Gradually, the staccato sounds open into a vast flow of sound that seemed to swirl around us through the air. I was quite enchanted by this piece.

Another composer talked about his work with his mentor, the composer Steven Stucky, and how working with him had influenced how he composed the piece he’d brought to Minneapolis.  His piece was probably the most tonal of the seven, with lush strings and restless woodwinds.  The third composer was inspired by his Arabic heritage and a famous Arabic singer, Umm Kulthum. He incorporated Arabic music in his piece as well as Western tropes. It was mesmerizing.

My history with the Composer Institute begins in 2006 when I attended the rehearsals as part of my research for the Perceval series.  Evan Quinn is a conductor who encourages young composers, and he meets a Maori composer with whom he becomes good friends. I wanted to learn what composers go through to get a piece performed by an orchestra — it’s a lot harder than you’d think. It was interesting, also, to see some parallels with the writing life. What has been a near constant every year: the dearth of music I could hum as I left Orchestra Hall.  While I understand (and support) the composer’s need to be true to his imagination and what flows from it onto the staff paper (or screen), I often wonder if what they are composing is in fact what they truly want to listen to. Writers often comment about writing what they want to read and hoping that other people will want to read it, too.  It’s possible for both writers and composers, however, to produce such inaccessible works that no one but them will want to read or listen to it.

In writing also we talk a lot about “voice.” Each writer has his or her own unique voice. I think of composers having unique musical voices also — Beethoven doesn’t sound at all like Brahms who doesn’t sound like Shostakovich, etc.  When I attend Future Classics, I hope to hear a strong, unique musical voice that’s comfortable with itself. Each year, I go away disappointed (except for one year, a composer brought a couple movements from a symphony he’d composed and his musical voice sounded quite mature). It’s not easy to compose music.  It’s not easy to write fiction or nonfiction or poetry. Both demand that struggle to find the voice and that takes time.

I look forward to next season’s Future Classics. While this particular concert can be challenging, it’s never dull and usually gives me a lot to think about for days afterward. Special thanks to Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra for continuing to support young composers and new music.


Future Classics 2017

93022-300x224-sheetmusicpagesEvery year I look forward to the Minnesota Orchestra’s Future Classics concert, the culmination of a week of  seven young composers chosen by the Composer Institute‘s composer-director, Kevin Puts, working with the Minnesota Orchestra. I cannot say strongly enough how much I love this concert. It is my favorite in the Minnesota Orchestra’s concert season. The Orchestra and their Music Director, Osmo Vanska, have committed to bringing promising young composers to Minneapolis for a week of seminars on composing for an orchestra as well as the business side of composing, and they have opened the rehearsals to the public each year. I used to attend the rehearsals, but my part-time job now prevents me from attending them. I attended the Future Classics concert, however, last night.

How are young composers thinking this year? Are they using conventional musical structures like rondo or sonata that composers in the past found so challenging and inspiring to their musical imaginations? Will there be any lyrical melodies this year? How will the composers use the orchestra? Will they engage all the instruments or focus more on one section like percussion? These are the questions in my mind as I take my seat in Orchestra Hall. Fred Childs, from Performance Today on public radio, hosts and introduces each young composer before his or her piece is performed. What struck me this year was how young they were. They are at the beginning of their creative output and still growing into their musical voices. Some have already enjoyed some success with their music. At least one was hearing their work played by a full orchestra for the first time. But overall this concert was a showcase for potential.

Photo courtesy Microsoft

Photo courtesy Microsoft

Also in my mind is my composer, Owen te Kumara, in the Perceval series that I’m writing. At the rehearsals of the first Composer Institute I attended, I sought a composer with whom I could talk about the composer’s life, to be a reference source for me while I developed Owen and how he’d fit into Evan Quinn’s life. Owen is not a young composer just starting out. But the elements of a composer’s life are the same in 2048 as now. So for me, the Future Classics concert is still research, a way to touch base with a composer’s world and remind me of how they pursue their art.

The music displayed great potential. When I look at the notes I wrote last night, I see over and over “good orch” which means a good use of the orchestra as a full instrument rather than sectioning out the sound. I also noted  far less emphasis on percussion which pleased me a lot. Not that I dislike percussion, but when a composer is using an overabundance of it, the experience is one of only sound effects rather than music. A really lovely surprise to see the harp used prominently as well as brass and piano and…oh, my, god, strings. And another interesting experience was listening to the instruments blended but at the same time used in unconventional ways to produce unconventional sounds, e.g. sliding the strings or doing quarter steps, muted trumpets and trombones in different ways. And there were a couple pieces in which I sensed a story being told. Programmatic music was the norm, i.e. music inspired by an event, experience, a story, a character, a landscape, etc. It was fun.

During the Q&A with the audience after the concert, one guy asked if any of the composers used musical forms such as rondo or sonata. The composer who answered stated rather emphatically that those “archaic forms” were irrelevant to her as a composer. That made me smile. After all, programmatic music is also a very old form, and that composer as well as the majority of them had written programmatic music.  The next question came from a guy who sounded irritated when he asked if composing in a key was irrelevant, too. I thought: and now these young composers are coming face to face with an audience, and what the audience wants to listen to, in fact, demands from them. Another composer tackled that question by pointing out that it was impossible to write atonally, i.e. without a key, when writing tonally, but they still played with pitch. They were all amazingly articulate when talking about their music, but I was left a little disappointed.

Photo from artofcomposing.com

Photo from artofcomposing.com

I began thinking about my experience as a writer and how I had wanted to write the way I wanted to write and not be constrained by any kind of narrative structure or rules governing plot, character development, story, or dialogue. Writers experiment with form as much as any artists, but an interesting thing often happens. With me, too. I discovered that artistic forms or structures challenge the artist to be creative within the form and that paradoxically liberates the artist to truly be creatively expressive. Furthermore, readers might read one or two experiments but will always return to the “ancient” narrative structure called 3-act dramatic narrative. Within that “ancient” narrative structure, a writer can do anything. So, I smiled when that young composer stated that those “archaic forms” of rondo and sonata (and others, I’m sure) were irrelevant to her. She was well on her way to discovering just how relevant they could be to art if she was truly as open to her art as she seemed to claim she was.

Osmo Vanska spoke about how he and the Minnesota Orchestra wanted to insure that there would be good orchestral music for future audiences. They are committed to finding young composers to support and help through the Composer Institute. Kevin Puts, the Composer Institute Director, brought the evening to a close by commenting that composers needed to understand that it was great to experiment while in school, but afterward, they needed to consider creating music for subscription concert audiences which received loud applause. Undoubtedly, the Composer Institute and the Future Classics concert are important experiences for these young composers and I suspect will change them in ways they cannot even know right now, but I hope will discover when the time is right.

And now I can’t wait for next year’s Future Classics concert….

New Music Now

Music Score by the blue deviant fox

Music Score by the blue deviant fox

Every year, I look forward with excitement to the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute and Future Classics concert. For five intense days, seven young composers attend workshops led by the Orchestra’s musicians, and by people on the business side of composing so that the composers can learn how to navigate the business and compose music for orchestra. I used to attend the rehearsals, but I have a part-time job now and my schedule doesn’t allow me to go to the rehearsals. I continue to attend the Future Classics concert, however.

Over the years, I’ve developed my own ideas for what I’m looking for in the new music presented at the Future Classics concert.  First and foremost is a confident and original “voice.” The notion of voice in music is similar to voice in fiction. Compare the sound of Beethoven’s music to Brahms’. They each have a distinctive sound based on their unique use of harmony, melody, dynamics, and meter.  It’s not uncommon for young composers, like young writers, to compose in the voice of their teachers or mentors. So I listen for music with a distinctive, original voice.


Second, I look for compositions that use all that the orchestra has to offer for the music. Lately, I’ve really wanted someone to write a tonal four-movement symphony with melody and exploring that melody in new ways. I suspect that composers now don’t compose 4-movement symphonies because it’s so difficult to get them performed. Most audiences still struggle with new music, preferring the old masters. I think the Minnesota Orchestra has gone a long way to educating their audience about new music which is a step in the right direction. Maybe someday I will hear my 4-movement symphony.  Until then, I listen for truly symphonic orchestral music.

This year’s Future Classics concert was on Friday, January 29. I was unable to attend in Orchestra Hall, but I listened to the Minnesota Public Radio live broadcast of the concert. Fred Child from Performance Today served as host and interviewed each composer before the orchestra performed his or her work. As I listened to each composition, I wrote notes about what I was hearing and my reaction to it.

Celestial Dawning by Kirsten Broberg: this piece began with high, tingly sounds that created a sense of floating through outer space, and grew into a mass of sound. A chime ushered in a section of low, hymn-like music, a single note increasing in volume like controlled explosions of sound. I detected rhythmic phrases and sound motifs, but no real melody. This music reminded me of accompaniment for an outer space movie. Nice use of orchestral colors.

Barnstorming Season by Matthew Browne: inspired by small plane acrobatics in air shows and pilots barnstorming during the 1920’s, this music struck me as Looney Tunes meets Stravinsky. I heard echoes of Copland, Bernstein and Tchaikovsky, as well as a lovely use of “Charleston” music. It explored the colors of the orchestra quite effectively and was more symphonic and fun to listen to.

Asphodel by Nick DiBerardino: after a slow start, this piece was more symphonic in the last half, and reminded me a lot of Jennifer Higdon’s Blue Cathedral. DeBerardino is a Higdon student. He wrote an intriguing melodic line in the bass trombone that I liked a lot.

Magayon by Joshua Cerdenia:  this piece reminded me of a hot-house tropical flower, delicate, bright color, and very symphonic. A good use of the orchestra’s colors and dynamics.  I thought I heard an echo of the first movement of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony in the slow section.  Really enjoyed this piece.

Scroll of the Air by Emily Cooley:  another Higdon student that echoed Higdon’s voice. She used a longer melodic line and some effective impressionistic effects.  Another work inspired by the acrobatics of small planes. I enjoyed it and its symphonic character despite the Higdon influences.

Transmission by Anthony Vine:   the composer of this piece said that he wanted to turn the orchestra into a radio. He wrote in his score that two boombox radios should play static throughout the piece. There were heavy percussive effects, and instruments producing sounds far removed from their usual sounds.  I thought this piece harkened back to musique concrete of the 1950’s.  It was my least favorite piece of the evening because I don’t think it used the orchestra to full effect.

Sinfonia after Vivaldi, movements III and IV by Michael Gilbertson:
this piece, inspired by motifs by Vivaldi, was the final two movements of a four-movement work, probably as close as I may ever hear of a 4-movement symphony. This music was confident, assertive, and original, symphonic, and using the orchestra well. It made me want to hear the first 2 movements.  I thought this work, along with Barnstorming Season were the 2 most successful pieces of the evening.

I consider listening to the concert akin to research for my writing. In the Perceval series, my main character, Evan Quinn, is an orchestra conductor who supports new music by programming it. One of his friends in Vienna is a composer. They work together throughout the five novels in the series. I don’t believe that it’s possible to write about a future world of classical music without including future composers and their music. The Minnesota Orchestra’s Future Classics concerts give me a glimpse of the direction classical music is taking and the composers who are creating its future.

For past Anatomy of Perceval posts about the Composer Institute and Future Classics, check here, here, here, here, and here.

Future Classics 2015

classicalmusicRegular readers of this blog know that I am a huge, huge fan of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute and Future Classics concert.  Since 2006, I have missed only one of the concerts, in 2009, due to surgery.  This past Friday evening was the Future Classics concert for the 2014-15 season and it was absolutely astounding.  Which is what’s usually true for this particular concert.

The future of classical music interests me, of course, because of the Perceval series which is set in the near future in the classical music world and because I love classical music.  The characters in the series include an orchestra conductor (Evan Quinn), a composer (Owen te Kumara), and the orchestras that Evan conducts in each novel, among other characters.  The Minnesota Orchestra and the American Composers Forum are even more interested in the future of classical music, coming together to hold the Composer Institute for nearly a decade now.  Attending the Future Classics concert, the culmination of an intense week of workshops for the participating young composers, may give a glimpse of what the future has in store for classical music.

The challenge for me each year has been to see if any of the showcased works have what it takes to earn more performances.  This year there were three in the group of seven outstanding scores that struck me as having the depth and breadth to enter the regular orchestral repertoire immediately.  What do I look for when I’m listening?

Demonstrated knowledge of the orchestra and what an orchestra can play: This can be the immediate stumbling block for composers.  It’s hard to compose for an orchestra. It consists of at least twelve different instruments, often more, plus percussion, and each has a different sound with the potential for different sonic colors that need to be blended and balanced.  How a composer writes for each section, how she blends or contrasts the sounds, and how the composer maintains a musical momentum all demonstrates knowledge of the orchestra.  This year’s group of composers did an excellent job, and I think it’s been true that each year the composers have handled this challenge better and better.

Music Score by the blue deviant fox

Music Score by the blue deviant fox

The musical material: This is where a composer reveals his “voice,” his musical imagination, as well as a knowledge and skill at composition.  None of the composers failed to rise to the challenges inherent in this area.  What I look for, however, is a composer’s use of tonality, melody, counterpoint, and if there’s a theme or motif that’s developed.  Sad to say that contemporary composers tend to shy away from writing melody that is developed.  This group actually came close in a couple compositions, but there was really no theme plus development which is just as challenging as dealing with disparate motifs.  What astonished me was the continued (from previous years) exploration of tonality and dissonance.  I don’t like dissonance used for shock value.  What I admire is when dissonance is used in contrast to consonance, or when dissonance is used to create tension that’s resolved.  There was a mixture of all three in several pieces.  I still left the concert craving melody and its development.

What will classical music sound like in 2048, the year in which Perceval’s Secret is set? I don’t know for certain, of course.  I think it’d be interesting to contemplate a musical backlash to the music we have now, as I explore a backlash to futuristic gadgets and developments.  One thing I do know: classical music will continue to exist.  I am very, very glad, also, that the Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vanska, and the American Composers Forum continue to support young composers and perform their music.

Want to read my earlier posts about the Composer Institute and Future Classics?  You can find them here, here, here, and here.  And if you’d like to read about how I learned to love modern music, I wrote about my experience at ClassicalMPR.

Congratulations, Maestro!

Photo Credit: Toshiyuki Urano

Photo Credit: Toshiyuki Urano

Over at ClassicalMPR.com is the wonderful news that Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Conductor Laureate of the Minnesota Orchestra, has been awarded Poland’s highest civilian honor, the Grand Cross of the Order of Reborn Poland, also known as the Order of Polonia Restituta, by Poland’s President Bronislaw Komorowski.

In an early October post, I reviewed Frederick Harris’ biography of Skrowaczewski.  After reading in this extensive biography about his early years in Poland, surviving WW2 in Poland as well as the Communist regime that followed, plus his deep involvement in Polish musical life during those times, I can only imagine what it might mean to Maestro Skrowaczewski to be honored for his contributions to and support of Polish culture.

Congratulations, Maestro!