Every 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
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
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….