A Composers Ensemble comes of age

One of the things I love best about my gig at the University of Southern Maine is the ensemble I founded back in 2005 - the USM Composers Ensemble. My thought was to try to deal with two problems that plague university composition students in one fell swoop. 1) The diffulty in coraling student performers for new student pieces, and 2) the difficulty in obtainining performances of large ensemble works. 

So in my first full year on the tenure track, I tacked up a poster advertising a new ensemble, and the fun began. In the early days we were small, and rather oddly proportioned. The very first incarnation had two oboes and a soprano sax (which was played by a professional jazz oboist). In subsequent semesters we found ourselves overflowing with electric guitar, theremin, bagpipes, steel pan and other delights. The challenge was always to make music for the instrumentalists at hand, knowing that you could bring in works-in-process, hear readings, go home and revise, and come back the next week. You were guaranteed a weekly rehearsal (one in the early days, two starting a few years back). Most importantly, I aimed to foster an atmosphere of total acceptance and non-judging, in which composers at various stages of development felt free to try things out amidst the total support of their peers. As composers in our program have developed, this hasn't always been so easy - since some have become VERY good, and very accomplished. It is also at times a challenge to balance the desire to become a kind of elite new music ensemble, with the group's core imperative to be a laboratory and a learning platform. We've managed it, I think, to date, somehow. 

The group has varied in size widely. We've been as small as 8, and as large - in the most recent semester - as 30(!). In recent years, there has been a trend toward more traditionally orchestral instrumentation. So much so, in fact, that in the last semester we really did have a little chamber orchestra (2 fl, 3 cl, 2 sax, 3 hns, 1tbn, tuba, gtr, 1 perc, piano, 3 vlns, vla, cb, and 8 singers). The growing strength of the USM string program has resulted in the Composers Ensemble have a strong core string section - something we never even dreamed of in the early days. After years thinking - gosh, I wish I had an opportunity like this when I was a student - I succumbed to the ultimate temptation and began writing for the group this year. I did it with some initial feelings of guilt, since it really is designed as a platform for the students to experiment with their own music. But I think my writing for the group has been helpful - my music is generally difficult (and I apparently have no concept of what it means to write a "student piece"). The two times I've written for the ensemble, my pieces felt pretty hopeless until the late going, when somehow, they miraculously came together. What I adore? Going to work, my job, and conducting rehearsals of my music. And also? Pushing my ensemble to play the same brand of contemporary music I ask professionals to tackle. Does it earn me some enmity along the way? Yeah probably, but we always all seem to be friends at the after-party!  Here's my first effort for the group, What Comes After K, in our Spring '12 incarnation, 13-strong. (looks VERY chamber after this last semester). 

The Fall 2012 semester was the first time that some students - senior music education majors - were required to take the course (it had been exclusively elective until then). So we swelled to a staggering 30. The scope of the ensemble presented real challanges - since we always begin the semester without a note written. Composers needed to have some mastery of orchestration to deal with this group, and the challenges of pulling together wholly new music for such a thick and complicated texture was immense. To make matters worse, I enlisted the entire group to attempt a performance of a wonderful Cantata written by a former grad student of mine, Don Pride. The piece is written for tenor soloist, choir, and two percussionists. So I basically turned the whole group into a choir for half of our rehearsals, one charged with learning a densly chromatic and rhythmically adventurous score. This was a way to maximize our early rehearsal time, since in the beginning of the semester - when pieces are short and really larval - we sometimes do have time on our hands. 

As composers set to work, though, we began to feel the pinch! In my own piece, I took advantage of the presence of a great electric guitarist, Jimmy Dority, and the choir, to write a kind of concerto for electric guitar, chamber orchestra and choir. The text I selected was culled first from the Wikipedia article on valve amplifiers (words selected at random, and in some cases misquoted), and then - for the choral solo section - from an old New York Times article (1928) about vacuum tubes. As is often the case, rehearsals went down to the wire, with the dress rehearsal having its typically essential urgency. 

The concert came off. But the weather was foul, and the turnout was slimmer than it's been in a long time. What a bummer to put sooo much work in (writing, rehearsing, and presenting sparkling new works for large ensemble - the likes of which rarely get heard in these parts) and have so few witness it. With two weeks remaining in the semester, I took what I thought was the only appropriate action. I enlisted the entire ensemble to use our remaining meeting times for recording sessions, stretching well into finals week, a time when most ensembles have long since given up the ghost. This also gave me a chance to show off the current state of the USM mobile recording studio, which has been a pet project of mine for the last few years. 

After much much work on all our parts, the result is a shiny new E.P. of which I could not be more proud. You can preview my own piece here (since it's MY blog!)  and you can listen to and even purchsase the entire album right here (listen to the stunning audio quality of the first piece, Tim Burns' five-movement Goyaesques.) 

Henceforth, an end-of-term series of recording sessions will be built into our curriculum. So more to come, I hope!