Though the composition program at Lawrence typically maintains a relatively low profile on campus, Composers of Lawrence University offered their second annual New Music Concert Sunday, April 24. Comprised of six pieces from CLU members, the concert was bold, eclectic and often wholly unexpected. CLU also released the new edition of Stretto, a collection of all the compositions performed at the concert.
Things began with a performance of Diana Sussman’s “Thermodynamics.” Loosely based on the concept of conservation of energy, the piece is essentially a structured improvisation. The ensemble, comprised of tuba, electric guitar, cello and melodica, plays a number of motivic cells that eventually evolve into the piece’s more freely improvisatory third section.
Sussman lead the piece from the piano generally providing a minimalistic ostinato over which she too improvised. This careful construction lends the piece a definable dramatic arc, thus avoiding the pitfalls of pure improvisation while leaving its spontaneity and energy intact.
After Sussman’s rather abstract rumination on thermodynamics, Evan Williams introduced his piece “Black Waters.” Commissioned and performed by the Lawrence Saxophone Quartet, “Black Waters” is an emotional reaction to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and though the piece’s subject matter is thoroughly contemporary, its musical foundation is largely Baroque in origin.
Based on a hymn melody that evolves into a fugue and then into a concluding chorale based on a Bach cantata, “Black Waters” was in some sense the concert’s most traditional offering. Williams isn’t one for stagnant, predictable music, however, and “Black Waters” is anything but obvious. The juxtaposition of jarring dissonances with mournful, repentant melodies made for an evocative portrait of great emotional depth.
“Chandrasekhar,” another scientifically inspired piece, provided an otherworldly respite from the prying emotionalism of “Black Waters.” Composed by CLU’s president, Mark Hirsch, the piece is based on the “fusion cycle within a star leading to a supernova.” But instead of embodying that process with implied grandiosity, Hirsch uses layered dissonance and unique instrumentation — bowed percussion, viola and cello — to reflect the emptiness rather than the vastness of space. Though the piece was rhythmically uninteresting Hirsch’s heavy-handed but artful use of dissonance lent it a kind of movement that worked well with his conception of space.
Next came Jim Fabry’s “Aural Hygiene,” a piece for fixed electronics, meaning he simply played a pre-recorded track through a set of speakers. Interestingly enough, the vast amount of sound that comprised the piece was created almost entirely by an electric toothbrush making contact with an electric guitar. The result is a wall of sound, swelling and panning seemingly at random. The sound itself is indescribable and is all the more impressive for being created by such simple means.
Following Fabry’s electrified experiment, Carl Kennedy presented the second movement of his Park Suite, a jazz piano trio, with a modernist foundation. Kennedy wanted to represent the passing of the seasons in City Park within the jazz idiom while using “additive rhythms” as part of an assignment in his Techniques of the Contemporary Composer class. The movement as a whole is placid and meditative, reflective of Kennedy’s walks through City Park on his way to the Conservatory.
The final piece was Lawton Hall’s “Animal Voices” from his larger composition “Mineral Hum.” Written for violin, viola, cello, percussion and solo guitar, the piece follows the rather traditional “theme and variations” form. However, Hall’s use of dissonance and inclusion of an elaborate cadenza for the guitar underscore Hall’s sophistication as a composer.
In his introduction to the piece in “Stretto” Mark Hirsch writes, “…Mineral Hum as a whole is a…beautiful and sophisticated declaration of where this composer finds himself within the spectrum of contemporary music in the modern world.” This statement seems a fitting epigraph for each of the pieces performed at the concert and an insight as to the daunting challenge of identity set before all young composers.