Category Archives: New Music

Pro Arte Quartet to Premiere Work by Belgian Composer

Mernier Composition Brings Pro Arte Quartet Full Circle

NOTE: This concert and associated events has been postponed to March 1, 2014. We apologize for any inconvenience.

by Michael Muckian

Belgian composer Benoît Mernier writes music he says communicates with audience members in a variety of ways. He believes firmly that there is no single right way to experience music providing audience members are open to its messages.

Mernier’s String Quartet No. 3, commissioned by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet as part of its ongoing centennial celebration, embraces a lyrical path that takes the composer in new directions.

The Pro Arte Quartet.  Left to Right:  David Perry, Suzanne Beia, Sally Chisholm and Parry Karp.
The Pro Arte Quartet.
Left to Right:
David Perry, Suzanne Beia, Sally Chisholm and Parry Karp.
Photograph by James Gill.

“My favorite instrument is the voice, because the singing voice is the most expressive of all instruments,” says Mernier, who studied organ and composition at the Royal College of Music in Liege, Belgium, and records for the European label Cypres. “The song is the model for all instrumentalists, and theoretical treatises in ancient music tell the players to imitate the voice in their performances.”

Mernier’s String Quartet No. 3 will receive its world premiere by the Pro Arte on Friday, March 1 at Mills Concert Hall in the Mosse Humanities Building on the UW-Madison campus. The 8 p.m. event is free and open to the public, with no tickets required.

The March concert will be preceded by a dinner and an open rehearsal during which the composer will coach the Pro Arte as they prepare for the premiere of the work, composed in honor of the quartet’s Belgian heritage. Please check back for more details.

New Chamber Work Taps Pro Arte’s Belgian Roots

The Quatuor Pro Arte of Brussels, first formed in 1911-1912, was performing at the Wisconsin Union Theatre on the UW campus on May 10, 1940, when Belgium was overrun and occupied by Nazi forces, turning three of its original four musicians into war orphans. By October of that year, the group had officially become the UW Pro Arte Quartet, making it the first artist ensemble-in-residence at any university in the world. Pro Arte also is the world’s oldest continuously performing string quartet.

Benoit Mernier
Benoit Mernier
Photograph by Bernard Coutant.

In addition to the Mernier premiere, the concert will include Haydn’s String Quartet in D Major Opus 20, No. 4, composed in 1772, and Bruckner’s String Quartet in F Major, written in 1879. Frequent Pro Arte collaborator and violist Samuel Rhodes, a member of the Juilliard String Quartet, will perform with the Pro Arte’s four musicians on the Bruckner composition.

Linear Structure, Musical Flow

Mernier’s 25-minute composition consists of nine specific movements, all of which have a compositional relationship with each other. Some movements are distinct and deliberate, while others flow into one another in an attempt to create a multi-dimensional structure, the composer says.

“The structural idea is to have a sort of linear music that moves in different directions,” Mernier says. “But at the end of the work there is a global sensation, like a story with different chapters. It will be up to the listener to structure and unify the different parts of the story.”

Mernier, who also writes opera, finds composing for a string quartet challenging, since there is only one family of instruments, limiting the voice of the composition. Employing different musical styles, from pizzicato to arco and playing sul ponticello (on the instrument’s bridge) or sul tasto (on the fingerboard), has helped the composer broaden the work’s tonal appeal.

“When you compose a string quartet, you are faced with a pure musical phenomenon,” Mernier says. “You can’t be on the periphery; you must be in the heart of things.”

Mernier’s experience writing for voice shows through the finesse applied to his string quartet, according to David Perry, one of Pro Arte’s two violinists.

“I was not surprised to hear that Mernier’s favorite instrument is voice, as there is extensive use of portamenti and glissandi,” says Perry. “I have never encountered a piece with more specific gradations of sul ponticello, or bowing close to the bridge for different shades of sounds with lots of high overtones. This technique can result in some unusual, and often beautiful colors.”

Mernier’s style and status among his European musical colleagues helped Pro Arte choose him for its fifth centennial commission. Based on the composition and its challenges, the quartet’s choice was a good one, says Sally Chisholm, Pro Arte’s violist.

“The many quick changes of sonorities from our most intimate to our most electrifying are exciting techniques that demanded much practice,” says Chisholm. “The required virtuosity of string writing in the second half of the quartet is quite challenging. Paganini would be a warm-up for some of the viola writing!”

A New CD, A Belgian Tour

Performances of Pro Arte’s four previous centennial commissions by American composers William Bolcom, John Harbison, Walter Mays and Paul Schoenfield will be issued this fall on Albany Records. The release date is on or around Dec. 1.

The Mernier commission represents the first non-U.S. composer in the centennial series. It also brings the Pro Arte full-circle to its Belgian roots, a course that will include several concert dates in Brussels in May 2014. The Belgian connection is something that makes the String Quartet No. 3 a very special work, Mernier says.

“In the history of modern music, the Pro Arte Quartet is very important,” Mernier says. “I know the commission is a very great symbol.”

The Madison-based quartet agrees with the composer, citing Mernier’s work as a strong contribution to its long tradition of commissioning and premiering new work. Pro Arte’s list includes Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings, which the quartet premiered in Rome in 1936.

“Just like the other four commissions, this new work represents a beautiful and serious addition to the chamber music repertoire,” Chisholm says.

In addition to Chisholm and Perry, current musicians in the Pro Arte include violinist Suzanne Beia and cellist Parry Karp.

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A Hilldale Award helps a student design an instrument — and a career

Alumnus Jeff Snyder, a 2002 School of Music graduate in composition who studied with Professor Steve Dembski, later earned a doctorate in music composition from Columbia University and is now an Associate Research Scholar of Electronic Music at Princeton University with a CV about two miles long. He teaches courses and seminars in sound art, computer music, and sound synthesis, and advises students on their own research projects that range from computational musicology to human/computer interface design.

Jeff Snyder
Jeff Snyder

While at UW as an undergrad, he received a $3,000 Hilldale Award to further his interest in new tuning systems and create a new instrument using a new type of tuning system.

His story is a another excellent example of how your gifts to UW-Madison and the School of Music specifically have made a large difference in the lives of our students. We asked Jeff to talk about what the Hilldale Award meant to him.

“The grant provided the funds needed to buy both books for my research and the materials for the instrument, and also allowed me some time to focus closely on the project. I ended up producing both an instrument and a research paper, and the work was incredibly important in the formation of my current career.

The "anole," an instrument designed by SOM alumnus Jeff Snyder.
The “anole,” an instrument designed
by SOM alumnus Jeff Snyder.

“The instrument I built was called the Anolé, after the color-changing lizard. I wanted to design a stringed instrument that had removable fretboards so that it could perform music written in multiple tuning systems besides equal temperament. I was strongly influenced by Harry Partch’s “Genesis of a Music,” a classic text in the field which was actually written at UW-Madison in 1947. Since my wood and metal-working skills were lacking at the time, I formed a collaboration with Visual Arts MFA student Don Miller (now an Associate Professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia). This collaboration taught me woodworking skills that have been incredibly useful in my professional life since. The instrument turned out to be very successful, and I used it in performance for the next two years. There were several problems with its design, however, and searching for solutions to these problems eventually led me down the research path I follow to this day.

“The paper I wrote was related to the same research, but focused on the tuning of bar percussion instruments. It was called “Development of a Useful Scale Based on Inharmonic Bar Partials.” The research for the paper was primarily inspired by ideas presented in the book “Tuning, Timbre and Scale,” by William Sethares, a professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at UW-Madison, and I am still quite proud of the results. My advisor on the whole project, Professor Dembski, was supportive and insightful from the very beginning all the way through the process, and I am incredibly thankful that he gave me the guidance and encouragement I needed to discover my passion that year.

“After graduating from UW-Madison, I applied for doctoral programs in music momposition. I was accepted into almost all the programs I applied for, and I credit the work under that Hilldale research grant as the primary reason I was accepted. I accepted the offer from Columbia University in New York City, and my advisor there at one point told me that arguing to accept me as a student was easy; after they had listened to my musical examples (and read my research paper as a writing example), he pointed at the photograph of the instrument I had made and said “who else has done anything like that?”. In 2011, I received a doctorate with distinction from Columbia, and my dissertation was essentially a logical continuation of the work I had begun at UW-Madison. My dissertation, titled “An Exploration of an Adaptable Just Intonation System”, includes a chapter called “Early Experimentation”, which discusses the things I learned from building the Anolé.

“Now, in addition to teaching and advising at Princeton, I have a thriving performance career in NYC playing the new instruments I continue to imagine and invent. Without the Hilldale Undergraduate Research Grant at UW-Madison, I would not have had the freedom and resources to start myself on this trajectory when I did, and I may not have found my way to the creative and exciting field I work in today.”

UW-Madison’s fall fund drive, “Share the Wonderful,” is now underway. Your donation matters. Please contribute today!

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Color Field Festival for Contemporary Music: Sept. 4-7, Madison

Never heard of the Color Field Festival? Well, here’s your chance to explore new shades of contemporary music, including a UWSOM vocal workshop and two performances by Madison’s Clocks in Motion percussion ensemble. 

We received word of a special event happening in September, sent by Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, a soprano and member of the five-person Color Field Ensemble, a group devoted to contemporary music  consisting of Bartlett; saxophonist James Fusik; pianist Karl Larson; percussionist Owen Weaver; and Jeff Weston, composer and string bassist. Here is what Amanda sent to us:

On September 4-7, the Color Field Ensemble returns to Madison to present their fourth annual Color Field Festival for Contemporary Music. Performances will take place at the Frequency, Audio for the Arts, and the Capitol Square. The 2013 festival will feature the performances of four newly commissioned works for the Color Field Ensemble as well as sets by the Anubis Saxophone Quartet from Chicago, the TIGUE Percussion Trio from New York City, Clocks in Motion from Madison, and the Brothers Grimm from Madison. A call for scores has also be release for pieces from Wisconsin student composers.

Clocks in Motion, a Madison percussion ensemble.
Clocks in Motion, a Madison percussion ensemble.

Currently in its fourth year, the Color Field Festival brings composers and performers from around the country to Madison. The purpose of bringing these creative minds together is both to create a rich cultural event in the city of Madison and to provide young musicians and composers with an opportunity to meet, collaborate, and build lasting professional relationships. Curated by the members of the Color Field Ensemble, the Color Field Festival ties together the group’s outreach, performance, and commissioning goals into a multi-faceted new music event.

About our Festival

The Color Field Ensemble formed in Bowling Green, Ohio, but the members are from around the country – Nebraska, Minnesota, Michigan, and Madison, Wisconsin. We believe that good music should spread and be heard by as wide of an audience as possible, so early on we made touring a priority. We’ve toured the Midwest four times, and love exposing the music of living composers to our home states.

Karl Larson, the pianist of the Color Field Ensemble, was born and raised in Madison, WI, and still has strong ties to the area. His parents live in McFarland, and long-time friends runs the music program at his former high school. In fact, his father, Ron Larson, is a local historian, specializing in the history of the area, and we’ve loved learning about the region.

Karl Larson
Karl Larson

Before we organized our first festival in Madison, we performed at Bethel Lutheran Church, and the ensemble was so charmed by Madison, we decided to plan a whole festival in the city, celebrating new classical music and introducing artists from around the country to a town we’ve come to love.

This year, we’re bringing artists from Chicago, New York, Phoenix, Minot, and Omaha to work with amazing Madison-based groups. The only problem? Every time we bring groups of musicians to town, they want to come back the next year! We’ve had a lot of repeat guests… : )

Wednesday, September 4 @ the UW Music Hall (free event)

3:30 PM – Workshop with Prof. Mimmi Fulmer’s voice studio members. Members of the Color Field Ensemble discuss contemporary performance techniques and music entrepreneurship.

Thursday, September 5 @ the Frequency:

7:00 PM – The TIGUE Percussion Trio performs original works and Rob Honstein’s An Index of Possibility.

8:00 PM – Color Field Ensemble, TIGUE Percussion Trio, and Clocks in Motion perform Aaron Siegel’s Science is Only Sometimes Friend.

Friday, September 6 @ Audio for the Arts:

7:00 PM – Clocks in Motion perform works by Steve Reich, John Cage, and Marc Mellits.

8:00 PM – The Color Field Ensemble performs new works by Ryan Carter, Ravi Kittappa, and Chris Cerrone. Also, premiere of the winning piece of the student composer call-for-scores.

Saturday, September 7 @ the Capitol Square (free event):

12:00 PM – The Color Field Ensemble performs Anthony Marasco’s new composition derived from Twitter feeds.

Saturday, September 7 @ the Frequency:

7:00 PM – The Brothers Grimm perform a set of original material.

8:00 PM – The Anubis Saxophone Quartet performs music by Donatoni, Reich, and Weber.

About the Ensembles:

The Color Field Ensemble is dedicated to the creation, performance, and promotion of contemporary classical music. We commission, perform, and curate music of the 21st century by emerging composers from diverse artistic frameworks, focusing on multi-disciplinary experiences and works which reflect the interrelationship between the visual and performing arts. (www.colorfieldensemble.com)

We define ourselves as a post-modern chamber ensemble. Rather than conforming to a single aesthetic sensibility, the Color Field Ensemble commissions and performs works by artists and composers operating in a wide variety of genres and artistic philosophies. By doing so, it is our intention to enrich the American contemporary music society by continuing to break down stylistic barriers between various schools of composition and performance.

Anubis Quartet is dedicated to reshaping the saxophone quartet genre and reconceptualizing the way listeners experience the instrument through contemporary music. The quartet acts as a performer, presenter, and educator; through hands-on collaborations with composers, inventive programming and curating, and a business structure as a publicly supported nonprofit arts organization, Anubis Quartet forges a model to meet the demands of 21stcentury artists and composers while engaging new audiences with the saxophone through groundbreaking new works. (www.anubisquartet.com)

From instruments to garbage; from the composed to the improvised, TIGUE Percussion is focused on creating new sounds in every way. TIGUE is the latest project by percussionists Matt Evans, Amy Garapic, and Carson Moody. Founded in early 2012, TIGUE presents new compositions by themselves and their contemporaries through a lens of percussive elements. The three members have performed together extensively over the past 6 years during their studies together at The Ohio State University and the Eastman School of Music, highlighted by performances at PASIC and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. This season, TIGUE has appeared at Spectrum, the Contagious Sounds Series at the Gershwin Hotel, and as guest soloists with Ensemble Contemporaneous.

Hailed as “nothing short of remarkable” (ClevelandClassical.com), Clocks in Motion performs new music, builds many of its own instruments, and breaks down the boundaries of the traditional concert program. With a fearless and uncompromising ear to programming challenging and adventurous contemporary percussion ensemble repertoire, Clocks in Motion consistently performs groundbreaking concerts which involve performance art, theater, and often the construction of new instruments. (www.clocksinmotionpercussion.com)

For over a decade the Brothers Grimm have been performing string music together on Guitar, Cello, and Chinese string instruments. Separately, Brian studied Chinese music in Hong Kong and AJ studied Flamenco in Granada, Spain. They draw upon these experiences in addition to contemporary classical music forming flexible approaches in composition and improvisation practices.

No “girly music” here: UW’s Schwendinger releases new CD on Centaur label

“Talent to burn.” That’s how Barnaby Rayfield referred to UW’s Laura Schwendinger, composer of contemporary classical music, in his January 2013 feature story about her in Fanfare, the classical music magazine. And that was before her new CD had come out.

Centaur Cover 2 for mini cover

Now, with its debut on Centaur Records, the advance reviews are in, and very positive.  While Rayfield had referred to Schwendinger’s music as “not girly music” (meant as a compliment),  Fanfare’s Colin Clarke said: “I would go further and add an emphatic this is ‘so not girly music.’ Punchy, imaginative, subtle, stirring, evocative … all these terms apply. She studied with John Adams, which doesn’t seem to have harmed her much. Schwendinger’s music is worth more than anything Adams has churned out so far.”

Schwendinger’s CD, “High Wire Acts,” is comprised of a five-movement chamber work of the same name performed by the Oklahoma-based ensemble Brightmusic, as well as “Nonet,” performed by the Chicago Chamber Musicians;“Sonata for Solo Violin,” played by Katie Wolfe; and “Two Little Whos,” performed  by husband and wife team Beth Ilana Schneider-Gould and Matt Gould. “High Wire Acts” was composed in 2002, and also has been performed by eighth blackbird, the Grammy-winning new music ensemble, among many other groups.

In his Fanfare review, Rayfield offered his views of why “High Wire Acts” works so well.  “…It is her unusual pairing of instruments that intrigues; flute and cello, violin and guitar. Poise, structure, lyricism. ‘Nonet’ is a riot of colorful trills, with Schwendinger’s demonstrating a wonderful ear for clarity of texture and balance. The second movement (suitably tagged ‘Tenderly’) is an assured and poised work of beauty and color that really ought to be better known.”

In a review of eighth blackbird’s performance, Chicago Tribune music critic JohnVon Rhein wrote: ” ‘High Wire Acts’ achieved more by attempting less. Inspired by the wire circus figures of sculptor Alexander Calder, the four character portraits, with their high twitterings, undulating arpeggios and rippling figurations, evinced an acute sonic imagination and sure command of craft. The piece was beautifully played by eighth blackbird.”

The Washington Post’s Joe Banno also enjoyed “High Wire Acts,” performed in Washington D.C. at a Kennedy Center concert of the Left Bank Concert Society.  He wrote, “[Schwendinger’s] harmonically free-ranging, tintinnabulary scoring — with its canny use of violin harmonics and flute phrases played directly into the open piano, to suggest aerialists in flight — evokes Stravinsky’s early ballets.”

Schwendinger, who came to UW from the University of Illinois-Chicago in 2005, is savoring this moment, which dates to 2002 when she first wrote High Wire Act. “It’s taken ten long years but it has left me with a sense of accomplishment. I’m proud and honored to be in such company.” she says. Over the years, she’s won many awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the American Academy in Berlin Prize (she was the first composer ever awarded the prize), and a Romnes Faculty Fellowship from UW-Madison. In 2010, her music colleagues nominated her for a Pulitzer Prize in composition.

Many iconoclastic chamber groups have performed Schwendinger’s music, including the Europe-based Arditti Quartet, which premiered a string quartet in 2003, and now the “alt-classical” JACK Quartet out of New York City, frequent performers at (Le) Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village.  With JACK, she’s now recording two quartets, financed by two grants from NewMusicUsA and Ditson.

At UW, Schwendinger directs the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, which offers UW musicians opportunities to play newer music; at last spring’s concert, the program included a performance of Schwendinger’s “The Violinists in My Life” by Eleanor Bartsch, a 2011 SOM grad and current member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, to whom the first movement was dedicated. Bartsch will return to UW this fall as a Collins Fellow, working toward her master’s degree.

Laura Schwendinger and Eleanor Bartsch, following Eleanor's performance of "The Violinists in My Life," composed by Laura, at Mills Hall last spring.
Laura Schwendinger and Eleanor Bartsch, following Eleanor’s performance of “The Violinists in My Life,” composed by Laura, at Mills Hall last spring. Photo by Katherine Esposito.

It’s not the first time UW-Madison has been featured prominently. Last year, Albany Records released “Three Works,” a CD of three concertos for, separately, cello, violin, and flute, performed by a student and faculty Sinfonietta and the UW-Madison Chamber Orchestra conducted by James Smith.  The soloists were Matt Haimovitz on cello, Curtis Macomber on violin, and Christina Jennings on flute.

Future UW collaborations include a recording of “Song for Andrew” (a quartet performed in 2010 by the New Juilliard Ensemble and premiered by UW’s Sally Chisholm and Young Nam Kim in Minnesota) with professor/pianist Christopher Taylor, plus a recording of the song “Sudden Light” with the JACK quartet and soprano alumna Jamie Van Eyck.

Schwendinger also sponsors visits by other notable performers of contemporary classical music; for this next year, those will include two appearances by musicians from the Center for New Music at the University of Iowa as well as Michael Norsworthy, clarinet professor at the Boston Conservatory and another champion of new music. (The CNM is scheduled to perform at Mills on September 21 and April 11;  Norsworthy on October 20.)

Working on “The Violinists in My Life” was an “amazing experience,” says Eleanor Bartsch. “I feel a special connection to the piece, not only because the first movement was written for me, but also because through Laura’s unique musical language, I feel I am easily able to express my own personal voice.”

Learn more about Laura at her website:  http://www.lauraschwendinger.com/

Listen to clips of her music: https://mywebspace.wisc.edu/lschwendinge/web/soundfiles4.html

In 2008, a profile of Laura was published in Isthmus. “Composer at Work” by David Medaris, Isthmus, 2008.

In this YouTube video about the American Composers Orchestra, Schwendinger contributes her thoughts on new music and the “reinvention” of the orchestra.