This is my fifth year attending a MATA Festival concert, and though the organization’s steady expansion is welcome—six nights of concerts in 2014, and around 1,000 scores submitted—one key element that has been prevalent across the years continues to be puzzling: the overall conservatism of young composers.
These composers—at least the ones I have heard—write poised and polished music. They make skillful use of instruments, their orchestrations are clear, but they play it safe. And that, increasingly, strikes me as the issue: graduate and post-graduate music programs are turning out composers accomplished at recreating musical ideas of the near and recent past but don’t do so well in adding to the storehouse of knowledge that is the Western classical tradition. Since being a professional composer means getting a doctorate and making a living teaching composition, there is little incentive to break the mold, take chances. And MATA, staffed by these composers, picks what it knows.
At least we’re past the inane and infantile ideological wars over serialism, minimalism, etc.: variety is the new value. For the show on April 18, there were two vocal pieces on the program that represented entirely different ideas about how, and why, to write for the voice. The concert opener was Martin Iddon’s Hamadryads (2011), four singers accompanying themselves with ad hoc glass harps. The group performing the piece was the excellent Ekmeles. Iddon’s concept is as imaginative as his scoring: slowly dismantling and transforming a piece by Josquin. The gossamer sound is lovely, but the technique turns form into vapor. As an excerpt from a larger work, the piece sounds like it needs more context.
Ekmeles also performed Josep Sanz’s King Lear, Act IV Scene 6 (2009), and the music’s means undermine its goal. A verbatim setting of Lear’s dialogue, the piece cannot convey the impression of instability and strangeness because it is an ordered, formal setting of words that must be articulated clearly to have any effect. The result is compelling but also dense and confusing, abstract and not dramatic.
There was a vocal part to Edward Hamel’s Approach Prune Destroy Begin (2014), his own verse spoken and sung by baritone Michael Weyandt, backed by the Talea Ensemble. The words are weak—“I bask in the impressions / impersonating and excreting guilty need / needing every value dispersed”—and the accompaniment makes use of a limited amount of material, to no lasting effect. MATA Executive Director Todd Tarantino’s Cap Malheureux (2012) also puts a voice to the fore, that of soprano Charlotte Dobbs. The over-determined process—extracting frequencies from an audio recording of wind, using those for harmonies, then pasting a children’s story plus cries and shouts on top—makes for an alienating listen.
The two purely instrumental works were the low and high points of the evening, respectively. Simon Vosecek’s Mice (2012) marked the former, a stiff exercise in atonality and effects, played by Talea under a stop-motion animation film. When I closed my eyes, the music had little purpose. But Clara Iannotta’s Clangs (2012), a quasi-cello concerto that put Talea’s Chris Gross up front, was fantastic. Her piece is finely made and entirely unself-conscious. It not only goes against concerto type, folding the soloist’s quiet, minimal activity into the overall ensemble, but also features invigorating expanses of space and silence. The musicians doubled on a variety of instruments, including segmented plastic hoses and a music box. Iannotta uses these sounds without a hint of obviousness, they create a delicate and mesmerizing texture. Her composing managed to overcome the terrible amplification that hampered the entire concert. Clangs was beautiful.
George Grella is the Rail’s music editor.