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Michael Capone on his Performance at the SCI Conference – Part 2

Conferences such as the SCI (Society of Composers, Inc.) National Conference are a fantastic opportunity for performers just getting their careers started in new music. They can meet a variety of like-minded individuals from all over the world, broadening their horizons to learn from new composers, watch performances of brand new pieces, and hopefully find new opportunities for work in the future. The SCI Conference celebrated its 50th anniversary this year at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and distinguished composer Don Freund was the Composer-In-Residence.

This conference boasts a rich history of prominent composers – just from their first conference, the program of which was provided to us as a souvenir, names such as Milton Babbitt, George Crumb, Charles Wuorinen, and Mario Davidovsky popped right out at me. To be even a small part of such a rich line of participants in these conferences was a huge honor. It also reinforced the idea that “all music was once new” – in 1965, during the first conference, we were still 10 years away from the Shostakovich Viola Sonata, for instance. Pieces by composers who are now firmly entrenched in contemporary “canon” (insomuch as there can be such a thing) were performed at the first Conference – perhaps some of the pieces performed and their composers at the 50th Conference will also become significant in history.

SCI Program page 1SCI Program page 2SCI Program page 3

One aspect of performing at a conference that is different from most performances at school or at a gig, for instance, is the extremely limited amount of rehearsal and warm-up time available in the actual performance space. There were seven total pieces during the concert on which I performed The Broca Divide, by Michael Sterling Smith, and the sound check began only a couple of hours before the performance began. With four of these works using electronics in some form, and my own performance needing to be amplified, the sound engineer running the concert had quite a busy afternoon. I came prepared to simply check the loudest portions of the piece, but with no expectations of running through the whole work in the hall. With warm-up space and practice space at a premium, this would be some of the only time I had that day to warm up at all.

Fortunately, however, the sound check had gone quickly, and one group had not yet shown up, despite their call time being earlier – so I had enough time to hear the space, first checking levels for the microphone, then running the piece once. One interesting aspect of performing Broca is that there is a degree of bow noise and surface noise that makes up a rather significant percentage of the sound transmitted to the audience. Usually we try to hide these noises as part of our preparation for performance. It can therefore be difficult to know just what the right percentage of “noise” versus pitch content is for a given moment. Additionally, what sounds quite loud under my own ear sounds quite muffled and less apparent in the hall; the microphone helps ensure that the sounds of the ricochet harmonics, for instance, are heard throughout the auditorium. Having both the engineer and the composer in the hall while we checked levels ensured that the balance would be appropriate for each movement. (The fourth movement, containing more straightforward pitch and rhythm content, can be lowered in amplification significantly.)

The performance itself was a great experience, too. I found it extremely satisfying to perform in front of a very supportive audience of other composers and contemporary performers. During intermission, I was able to network with some of the audience members who were interested in learning more about the composition. By far the most frequent question that Mike and I fielded involved his notation – how much of this piece is strictly notated, and how much freedom and interpretation is given to the performer? The answer is a mixed bag – some movements, like the second and fourth, are quite restrictive in their notation. Specific pitches, rhythms, and effects are called for, with a relatively reliable expectation of what sound will be produced. The third movement is also fairly reliable in terms of sound production, but much more freedom is given to the performer in terms of what pitches are played and how long each gesture is to last. Approximate durations are given in seconds above each gesture, but a stopwatch is not necessary for the effective performance of this movement.

The first movement is perhaps the most ambiguous in terms of its notation – a series of “32nd notes,” all under a ricochet bowing, without any rests or pauses notated save one towards the end. At first glance, this seems to be a frenetic perpetual motion, but remember – this piece is all about gesture! The speed of the ricochet is determined in part by the initial attack’s dynamic, so already, we know that not all notes will be perfectly even rhythmically. Softer dynamics will tend to be slightly slower, and louder dynamics have more elements of a “thrown” ricochet, with less regard for the specific number of bounces. It is up to the performer to create his or her own phrases and breaths as appropriate in this music.

The Broca Divide page 1

Overall, everyone we talked to seemed very supportive of the work that Mike and I had done. Hearing interested questions and observations from composers and performers across the country helped us realize that the efforts we put into our independent project were not in vain. Having worked closely with him on this new piece, I felt quite comfortable fielding questions independently, and could include an informed perspective on the processes behind it. It was also valuable to talk to other composers because I could better understand how they view our work. The more we can open ourselves to conversations with our composer colleagues, the more we can find opportunities to work and grow together.

Until next time,

Mike


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