A few weeks ago, Voices of Change hosted its annual young composers concert. The works featured on this concert were the four winners of VOC’s “Texas Young Composers’ Project”, a composition competition for both high school and college-level composers. At the concert, the winners were called up to receive their awards. Judging by their excited smiles and young faces, a member of the audience might expect from them corresponding compositional quality. But their music told a different story.
I had the privilege and challenge of playing the piano for three out of the four composers’ works. Privilege, I say, because the pieces were marvelous. Challenge, I say, because I could barely keep up with the virtuosity, especially the virtuosity embedded in “Without Twilight or Compromise” for violin, cello and piano. This was the winning college-level work by Ross Griffey, from Rice University. The work was technically demanding, and what impressed me with Griffey was how knowledgeable his demands were. The challenge of “Without Twilight or Compromise” was not the result of a young composer’s lack of foresight (“You mean a person’s hand can’t reach a two-octave span?”) but rather the result of a composer who intentionally challenges a performer and yet respects that performer’s inescapable physical boundaries. The rushing sextuplets fell comfortably under the hand, the spacing of the chords was timely and elegant, the exploration of the piano’s range was logical. Tempo proved the biggest challenge, but Griffey had every right to set his metronome marking where he did. This was a young composer thinking of all the right details.
“Dissolutions” for clarinet, violin, cello and piano came next on the program. “Dissolutions” was composed by Hilary Purrington, another Rice University student. This work intrigued me, and I hope to hear more of Purrington’s work in future years. As a composer myself, in my weaker moments of general artistic angst, my thoughts sound something like this:
“All the good music has been written! There’s nothing more to say! John Cage wrote music for a CACTUS, for crying out loud, I can’t do ANYTHING new anymore!”
There are days of composing where no tonalities sound new (“I sound too Bartok” or “too Debussy”), no melodies intrigue (“people will think I stole from Lutoslawski”), and no textures feel innovative (“I’ve got to stop listening to Penderecki”). Such feelings can strike the desire to write dead in its tracks, because NEW music just doesn’t seem feasible.
But there was this moment in Purrington’s piece, where I had a glimpse of that “new” again! It was a section change: the clarinet burst through with insistent pulsing, the violin and cello weaved in and out of each other while the piano rang out minor chords, and I suddenly thought, “I’ve never heard anything like THIS before!” Pieces like Purrington’s renew my hope in the possibility of original music. Despite all that has been written, there will continue to be new sounds, new voices, new expressions. Purrington is certainly making her contribution.
In the high school division there was Kyle Barnes, from Abilene, and his “Sonata for Clarinet in Eb Major” for piano and clarinet. Barnes’ music was melodically driven, recalling something of Beethoven. I was impressed with Barnes’ classical knowledge, from his use of sonata form to his harmonic experimentation. Barnes obviously had a knack for Classical harmony. His chord progressions played upon the audience’s expectations and either cadenced appropriately or took pleasurably unexpected detours. How impressive for a high school student to know his way so well around a Classical medium!
Booker T.’s own Chase Dobson showcased “Edifice In the Clouds”, a multi-movement trio for flute, cello and violin. Dobson wrote admirably for the instruments, utilizing many extended techniques. Trills, note-bending, harmonics and tremolos filled the air, but every gesture came about so naturally the “extendedness” of the technique did not distract from Dobson’s mature musicality. This composer was the youngest in attendance, yet his music expressed a maturity that is rarely seen at sixteen years of existence.
In our culture, 18 years old is the age of idealism, uncertainty, and naivete. For a late teen or early twenty-year old, many mistakes and much maturing loom on the horizon. As those young composers took the SMU stage, I looked at their faces and still saw that sense of youth. But when I worked with their music… when I sat there, closed my eyes and heard the harmonies, textures and melodies emerging from their scores, I didn’t hear their youth. I didn’t hear their lack of experience. I heard eloquence, maturity, technique and some beautiful moments of risk-taking. I understood why VOC features young composers every year. They are not just the next artistic wave to come: they are here now. They are not the voices preparing to be heard in thirty years, they are part of what we need to hear now. They are responding to our times and our world in the same way that seasoned composition professors at Indiana or Juilliard are responding to our times and our world. All of it needs to be heard, all of it says something to who we are today, so let us always remember to give both the oldest and the newest music we have a voice in our world.