Festival Review


Not too long ago, Buffalo, in the far northwest of the American federal state of New York at Lake Erie, used to be a busy industrial and commercial city. Nowadays, downtown looks more like a gigantic ghost city, dominated by the huge city hall, which for me is by far the most impressive art deco building I have ever come across.

The surrounding high-class suburban districts, architectural gems, built around the turn of the last century, remind the visitor of the past glory, while presently Buffalo is generally known as the gateway to the Niagara Falls and to Canada. From a political and historical point of view Buffalo will be remembered as the City, where on the 14th September 1901 William MacKinley, the 24th president of the USA, had been assassinated. For everybody who visits Buffalo today and has a keen interest in the arts, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery with its outstanding collection of paintings, drawings and sculptures from the 20th century is a must. Afterwards, a hungry stomach can be best satisfied in the Anchor Bar, from where the famous Buffalo Wings, delicate chicken wings marinated and served with creamy blue cheese and celery, originate.

Further, Buffalo is able to boast a unique musical attraction, which usually takes place during the first week of June. All the concerts & lectures are open to the public, but because they are solely dealing with contemporary music and its issues, they are sadly not too well attended by the local population.

This year, June in Buffalo, the world-renowned Seminar and Festival for emerging composers at the Music Department of the State University of New York at Buffalo (North Campus) celebrated its 25th anniversary in style. Its motto "From Feldman to Felder ..and beyond" hit the mark. It had been founded by Morton Feldman in 1975, to confront student composers with the works of eminent colleagues, among them John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, Milton Babbitt, Earle Brown and Elliot Carter. Ever since David Felder, the Birge-Cary Professor of Composition at University at Buffalo, took over the artistic direction in 1985, the Festival went from strength to strength.

Felder's ambitious goals succeeded: to give the young composers not only an open-minded environment and present them with the best instrumentalists for contemporary music to guarantee an ultimate interpretation of works by faculty members and students alike, but also to confront their quite often introvert campus mentality with the most diverse musical views. I vividly remember the years when Vinko Globokar and Gerhard Stäbler, two of the most avant-garde and performance orientated European composers, roused the students and even divided the rest of the faculty. For the anniversary David Felder invited an extended faculty of composers, who over the years had left their mark upon the festival. Sadly, Babbitt, Carter and Xenakis were for various personal reasons unable to come. But with George Crumb, Donald Erb, David Felder, Lukas Foss, Philip Glass, Bernard Rands, Augusta Read Thomas, Steve Reich, Roger Reynolds, Harvey Sollberger, Nils Vigeland, Charles Wuorinen and the Japanese composer Joji Yuasa all in residence for at least some days between June 5 and June 15, giving lectures and master classes as well as having works performed, the anniversary turned into an unique and overwhelming contemporary music heaven.

David Felder commented: "The celebration of a 25th anniversary in a millennium year gives a special opportunity for reflection. The June in Buffalo Festival was formed in an environment of artistic discovery, wherein composers and performers collaborated in order to find ways towards another expression, and for these 25 years has sustained an optimistic vision about the possibility of `new music´. Such longevity and commitment is unique in American Music and merits notice and celebration. We look back to recognise many of the individual composers who have contributed so much to our program and also to our collective heritage in contemporary musical culture, while simultaneously presenting the best of their current work and their individual visions about possible futures."

This year 22 emerging young composers were invited to present their work in master classes and have one solo piece performed in concert, while 37 auditors had the chance to participate in all events. It marks a new direction for the future as David Felder explained: "We set new ground rules. We will concentrate more on readings of pieces and on performances of small solo or duo compositions by between 15 and 20 students. In the past we have invested a lot of energy in resources for works by emerging composers, on a very high level. I came to the stage in my life, when I realised that something else is needed, particular in America. We have a lot of repertoire written by masterful senior composers, people who have been on the scene for a long time, which has not been played and not been heard. My responsibilities have changed. I feel more the responsibility to put this work out there and help the students in a variety of ways, but one of those ways is exposing them to a high level performance of these works, which they are not hearing. Other people, who want to come and observe, are more then welcome. May be, there is even a certain comfort in not having a piece played, as one does not feel as exposed." David Felder´s newly found responsibility had been very much in evidence during the anniversary. His emphasis was directed towards the huge faculty, and towards some composers who, like John Cage or Jacob Druckman, are no longer with us, but had played an important part in the history of June in Buffalo.

Only three concerts in the afternoons were left to solo works by emerging composers, and one has to say that there was not much proof of a exceptional talent. Only "Inner Voices" for Viola by Adrienne Elisha, the bassoon piece "Galapagos Lions" by Jonathan McNair, Brook Joyce´s "Piano Music, 3rd movement"(his composition "La Quinta del Sordo" for an ensemble of 14 players impressed during master classes), "Sequence" for piano by Moiya Callahan or "Three Pieces for Solo Cello" by Michel Kama Galante really impressed me, because I felt those pieces had already something important to say.

10 further concerts from orchestra to solo bass were devoted to great music of the past and the present. It is impossible to mention all 33 works in detail - their variety in style and contents was beyond all expectations. The Festival opened with an unsurpassed bang: the world premiere of the concerto for percussion and extended chamber orchestra "In Between" by David Felder, commissioned by June in Buffalo. Felder has proven himself many times before as one of the very few composers who knows the past, stands with both legs in the present, and writes unbelievably strong, complex, but captivating music for a new century. To a certain extent, for me Felder reflects, in his technically extremely demanding, but from a listener's point of view breathtaking way, and with his very own distinctive energy, the same kind of musical fulfilment Mahler and Ives were fighting for a hundred years ago. This powerful concerto is dedicated to the percussionist Daniel Druckman, who gave the world premiere conducted by Harvey Sollberger, and to the memory of Morton Feldman, "my colleague and friend".

The evening contained two further highlights: "For Toru" for flute and orchestra(1996) by Lukas Foss and Morton Feldman´s "The Viola in My Life IV"(1971) with Jesse Levine as soloist. The three movements of "For Toru", a homage "to a friend I admire and miss", are deeply moving and honest; Foss describes the middle section "as a portrait of Takemitsu´s delightful, witty, exuberant personality". "The Viola in My Life IV" came as a complete surprise to me, having never heard this work before. What a genius Feldman must have been, being able to break completely with his stagnant time sense and composing instead the most delicate and sensitive love letter, comparable only with Mahler´s "Adagietto". Later on in the festival, I had once again the chance to listen to Feldman´s "Crippled Symmetry"(1984), interpreted by the three musicians he had written it for: Eberhard Blum - flutes, Nils Vigeland - piano/celeste and Jan Williams - percussion.

Nils Vigeland, whom I only knew as a pianist and advocate of his teacher Morton Feldman, turned out to be a composer, whose sense for balance, colours, structure and wit whetted my appetite - "Journey"(1991/2000), with the incredibly versatile and harmonious piano duo Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams together with the percussionists Justin Foley and Christopher Swist, as well as his string quartet "Aurochs and Angels"(1994) with the Cassatt String Quartet, left a lasting impression. The New York New Music Ensemble and Friends gave a fascinating contrast of various aspects of American music: Donald Erb´s "Sunlit Peaks and Dark Valleys"(1995) and George Crumb´s "Makrokosmos III"(1974) as well as the world premiere of "Brass Quintet"(1999) by Charles Wuorinen, Carter´s"Enchanted Preludes"(1989) and Harvey Sollberger´s colourful and energetic "TheAdvancing Moment"(1991-93).

With Wuorinen I have certain problems, his music does not attract me, the heart is missing; unlike that of Erb - he presented his visionary symphony "The 7th Trumpet" in his master class - or Crumb, whose sound world is expressive and very human. Wuorinen's "Brass Quintet" was well crafted, but did not touch me at all.

One concert was left entirely to Philip Glass, another to Steve Reich, the two icons of minimal music; Reich with the percussionist Craig Bitterman performed his famous "Clapping Music"(1972) and Bradley Lubman conducted "City Life", while Reich controlled the sampler. The Slee Sinfonietta and Guest Soloists presented three world premieres, commissioned by June in Buffalo: "Blizzard in Paradise"(2000), a short, but delicate movement for String Quartet by Augusta Read Thomas, "Interlude"(2000)for flute, viola and harp as part of a series of future reflections and interludes by Bernard Rands .

The theatricality of this "brain ablaze.she howled aloud" (2000), dealing with the extremity of Cassandra´s ways, by Roger Reynolds was just phenomenal -another work-in- progress, for two piccolos with real-time computer spatialization and the occasional insertion of pre-processed materials. Reynolds wrote in his note: "Torn by her Dionysian possession, she slips back and forth between prophetic ecstasy and a more lucid engagement with her real-world circumstances."

For me, the most important aspect turned out to be my first encounter with Joji Yuasa. His string quartet "Projection II" (1996 ) as well as "Jo-Ha-Kyu"(1994-96) opened a completely new, deeply moving and honestly searching sound world. In the later, Yuasa attempted for the first time to adopt the structure of the well-known Japanese aesthetics in his music. "Yet, I intend neither to reflect the peculiarity of Japanese tradition onto the content of the piece nor let it support the piece." For Yuasa, his music is a reflection of his own cosmology, "Every person harbours cosmological polarities. On one side is the universality of human mankind, the commonalities we all share; and the other side is our individuality, rooted in linguistic and particular cultural differences, otherwise known as tradition." Yuasa started his master class by playing his concerto for violin and orchestra "In Memory of Toru Takemitsu", the shortest 20 minutes I ever experienced. It made me realise that even in contemporary music there is not only music reflecting the past, reflecting the time of its creation, reflecting a specific technique or trying to create the future, but there is also music of eternal depth and everlasting quality.

The daily timetable for June in Buffalo is itself a work of art. After lunch all the students share various master classes with faculty members, whereby every effort has been made that each student can present works to all the eminent composers. Simultaneously the students may have to go to rehearsals of their works presented in concert. Those concerts take place at 4pm, while the evening concerts are entirely devoted to the faculty and take place either in the ideally suited Slee Concert Hall, the Baird Recital Hall or other venues on the North Campus.

Every morning, another faculty member presents a two hour long lecture, consisting of his or her own thoughts on composition and including, on CD, works which could not be played live because of their size or instrumentation, followed by an extensive question and answer session. Those lectures give not only a phenomenal insight into the composers' views, but in most cases also produce works one has never had a chance to hear. Because of the sheer number of visiting composers this year, it is impossible to quote them all.

These lectures should be published in an edited version, as any young composer and anybody interested in the music of our time would only stand to gain - be it the extremely energetic and outgoing young Augusta Read Thomas (37), who currently is the composer in residence of the Chicago Symphony and just loves writing music for orchestras; be it the gentle and warm Bernard Rands, whose half hour long "Symphony" expressed the wishes and fears of his entire life in a breathtaking, deeply moving manner, or be it Nils Vigeland, who had been studying with Feldman and Foss and whose temperament and wit electrified the students - "What do you choose, how do you choose to present yourself is one of the weirdest aspects of our profession, and life decisions are made in those ten minutes." - all their comments, their refreshing and open minded attitudes breathed fresh air.

Philip Glass, asked, if he composes with the help of a computer, answered: "The only thing I have in my study is an electric pencil sharpener. Later, being asked about his time with Nadia Boulanger, he commented that it was a complete nightmare. To prove it, he quoted, in the most hilarious way possible, a short conversation with her while entering her study and presenting some work. "She looked at me and said `How are you feeling´, `I am very fine, Mrs. Boulanger´, `Do you have a headache?´, `No, no, I am feeling fine´, `Did you sleep last night?´, I said `yes, I slept fine´, she said `do you have trouble at home?´, `No´, `If you need to see a psychiatrist, it is very confidential and I can recommend you to someone. Don´t be embarrassed at all.´ I said `No. I think, things are fine´. And after a pause she said `and how can you explain this??´ and looked at my composition!"

George Crumb, one of the elder statesmen of American music, presented his recently recorded symphony "Star Child", a work reflecting in its orchestral forces and space dimensions Mahler as well as Ives, but with an incredible sound quality of its own. Asked, why he does not use computer generated sound, he smiled: "It would take a J.S.Bach, to write really impressive things, because I think the problem with that music, unless it involves the live performer, is that one can´t admire the machine. There is no bravura. The machine can do everything. When the live performer is on stage, there is an element of danger in the music and it comes from the knowing that this performer can be defeated. With Bach the bravura is already in the music, no matter on which instrument you play it... When you compose, the composer is also the representation of the audience... I never believe this thing that people have to be specially trained in the whole theoretical side of music. Music is speaking directly in its own terms, in its own values."

Joji Yuasa, whose music (having discovered it in Buffalo this year) will be with me for the rest of my life, tried to formulate his credo, what music means for him: " First of all I consider music as a sonic or tonal phenomenon. It is an entity of a temporal transition of the intensity of the energy of sound. At the same time, I have observed that music is a reflection of a composer's own cosmology. Cosmology I see here rather in a wider meaning than Galileo Galilei - a cosmology, which is formed by one's geographic and climatic circumstances - in other words, where one was born and which language one speaks as a mother tongue - which defines one´s way of thinking and quite often dominates even one´s way of feeling and what one has learnt and has experienced. All those factors consequently make one´s own cosmology, which leads to one´s originality and identity in one´s creative activity." In one of his master classes Yuasa pointed out to the students that it is not important to study the architecture of our house, but how we live in it, how we make the architecture one´s own."

Finally some quotes by the most generous, most knowledgeable, most experienced and most honest composer and musician I ever had the honour to meet- Lukas Foss, whose influence on the American music scene has not yet been fully appreciated.

Lukas Foss gave his lecture the title "A 20th century composer's confession about the creative process": "Arnold Schönberg once said `Talent is the ability to learn - genius is the ability to develop.´ Developing is difficult. Maybe it takes a genius to develop. Our daily lives throw obstacles in our way. To develop, one needs inner peace of mind, faith, courage and belief. Above all, there has to be passionate involvement in one´s work. The word composing means to put things together. Anybody can put things together that belong together. To put things together that do not belong together, and make it work - that takes geniuses like Mozart.....It is important to make something one´s own. Influences are enriching. One must always steal, but never from oneself. Why make something my own that is already my own? One is indulgent and one does not learn anything new. If I steal from another source, I enrich my vocabulary. Influences can be found in any work, even in the most original. Musicologists and critics always bring them to our attention. They are proud to detect the influence of one composer or another. Little do they realise that detecting an influence is only the first tiny step towards the real interesting research: what does the artist do with the influence. If one uses music one does not really love, one will not succeed in making it one´s own. By immersing ourselves in what we love, we find ourself, we do not lose ourself… One does not lose one´s identity bay falling in love...Style and technique are often treated as one and the same. The more influences, the richer the vocabulary. The more techniques, the richer the vocabulary. Why should an artist stick to one technique? Many say, I am a minimalist, a twelve tone composer or a neoclassicist . I find it more challenging to use many technics, often in the same piece, and make them my own. The resulting music is more challenging and it is more likely that one wants to hear the piece again. I believe that the only criterion for making an intelligent evaluation of a piece of music is: does it make you want to hear it again...? The worst thing you can do to your wor,k and the ability to work, is to worry about your image. Image building is a form of self-exploitation that is dangerous, and it means that one is no longer developing.. If you don´t feel the need to compose, if you do it only out of duty to get a degree, you should not do it!"

Yuasa & Foss

Reynolds & Felder



Photographs: Irene Ikner-Haupt

David Felder, in his closing statement to the students: "Many of you are young composers, who are absorbed in technical issues and - I am paraphrasing a remark, which Charles Wuorinen made to me once - `there is certainly a lot to learn, but after school there is an awful lot to forget.´ Your process of composition is really a process of self-transformation and of self-awareness . You are not who you think you are. The process of transforming oneself into an artist is one that actually very few can make, because it is not a question of technique. One has to work very, very hard and study oneself. That presumes that you have technique, that you have all the tools in place. If you don´t have those, it is not possible. If you do have those, it is still only the beginning."

This Festival had been worthwhile every second. I deeply admire David Felder who, despite the most desperate financial situation, every year manages again to find the necessary resources, and whose energy seems to be unlimited; I only can wish for another 25 years of exciting confrontations on such a high level.

May June in Buffalo be instrumental in giving birth to the music of the 21st century.

Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt


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