Michael Capone on his Performance at the SCI Conference – Part 1

When I began working last year as a member of the graduate string quartet responsible for assisting the conducting classes and Nova, UNT’s new music ensemble (a separate quartet from the Bancroft Quartet, one of our Center for Chamber Music groups), I did not anticipate that the work I did would lead me to a performance at a national conference. Yet I write this post sitting on a plane to Gainesville, FL, prepared to perform at the 2015 National Conference for the Society of Composers, Inc. (SCI)

One of the responsibilities each year for the Nova graduate quartet is to record works written by composition students who are new to the school. This occurs at the end of each Fall semester, and includes at least two recording sessions of reasonable length.  We recorded two such works last year, one of which was a string quartet written by Michael Sterling Smith, a composer pursuing his DMA at UNT.

This quartet, entitled Hyperflexion, used a two-note ricochet motive as its foundation – an inherently rhythmically unstable technique – and developed it across the ensemble. As notated, we were asked to play distinct pitches in strict canon, precisely in rhythm, using a very high tessitura, with a specific number of bounces, sometimes with (practically inaudible) glissando between two pitches. At first glance, the score was more than a bit intimidating. How could we get four performers to correlate such intricate parts?

After meeting our composer, though, we realized that to be successful, we must go beyond his notation. The notes on the page were simply indications of gesture, with only approximations of the desired pitches and rhythms. Once we understood this from his directions, our job became easier and our interpretation was freer. We could now react to each other’s attacks in an organic, musical way. The music demanded our complete liberation from the score – a notion which was somewhat new to me.

Inspired by this work we had done as a quartet, I approached Michael after our recording session, wanting to work together on another project. As it turned out, he was hoping to begin writing a solo viola work that would incorporate some of the same techniques as in Hyperflexion. We quickly set a date to begin working together. Our work before that date consisted of finding new sounds on the viola that we wanted to explore.

Soon, we were meeting every week, he with new ideas and concepts, I with research and practice behind me to incorporate and make consistent the sounds we had previously discussed. We aimed to create a piece in a similar structure as Garth Knox’s Viola Spaces, a set of eight etudes, each teaching a different extended technique appropriate for contemporary repertoire. This piece, however, would not teach the techniques as etudes, but would be a performance-appropriate piece in four short movements, each focusing on a different gesture(s) or technique(s).

Our final draft of the work, entitled The Broca Divide, included a movement on ricochet bowing with natural harmonics, one on harmonic trills with manipulation of bow position, a piece exploring tremolo in all its speeds and directions, and a final movement on the pitch class D. The C string is tuned up to C# for this movement not only to better facilitate the unison D on the lower three strings, but also to exploit sympathetic resonance on C#. All pitches in the movement fall between C# and Eb. Elements of other movements as well as microtonality are also explored in this final movement.

In July of 2015, Michael submitted this work to the SCI National Conference, held at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Both the score and the studio recording we created were extremely well received, and the piece was accepted to be performed at the conference. This conference is in its 50th year, and it will be an honor to perform there. The first conference, jointly held by Columbia University and New York University, included such prominent featured guests as Charles Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt, and George Crumb, so to even remotely be a small part of this legacy is incredible. I will undoubtedly meet a large number of composers and performers from around the country, and it will surely be an excellent learning experience for me to perform this new solo work for a wider community.

I will write again when I am on the plane back from Gainesville! I am looking forward to sharing the experience of the performance and the conference with you.

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