Co-Parenting Composition: Composers and Musicians Deliver Nascent Works to Berkeley

By Andrew Gilbert

Part of the challenge and much of the fun of performing contemporary music is navigating relationships with living composers—as the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players have discovered as they are halfway through their grandly ambitious Project TenFourteen.

Project TenFourteen, an unprecedented season-long collaboration between SFCMP and Cal Performances featuring 10 newly commissioned works premiering over the course of four concerts, returns to Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley Campus Sunday, Feb. 22 for its third installment. Last month’s performance offered premieres of distinctly different pieces by two artists, 36-year-old Polish composer/vocalist Agata Zubel and 37-year-old Chinese composer Du Yun.

“Getting a new piece is like going over and seeing a new baby,” says percussionist Steven Schick, SFCMP’s artistic director and conductor. “Everybody looks over and says how beautiful, when it’s really a small red crying thing. But it is beautiful, both as it is and for the promise it holds.” 

In many ways, TenFourteen has been a process of co-parenting, with the composers “offering a level of collaboration that exceeded my expectation,” says Schick, a professor of music at the University of California, San Diego. “In every single case when the composer was present she was very open to changing things, accommodating suggestions by players, and making her own suggestions that were fleshed out in rehearsals.” 

TenFourteen came together as an initiative of the Jebediah Foundation in partnership with Cal Performances (and is dedicated to the late Boston composer Lee Hyla, who died last June). Schick, who also serves as music director for the 2015 Ojai Music Festival, which returns to Berkeley on June 18-20, credits Cal Performances Director Matías Tarnopolsky for bringing the SFCMP to the UC Berkeley campus. 

The cross-Bay alliance is the latest sign that Schick’s arrival has energized the 21-member SFCMP, the longest continually active new music ensemble outside the East Coast. Since Schick took over the reins five years ago, he’s expanded the organization’s range and vision, working assiduously to bring new music into new venues while partnering with other arts organizations. 

Project TenFourteen exemplifies the way that Schick seeks to present new music as part of a vital on-going conversation. Each concert is designed to draw conceptual and sonic connections between seminal modernist pieces and new works of active composers. 

Sunday’s program includes Luigi Nono’s late masterpiece Hay Que Caminar Soñando and Luciano Berio’s sinewy, polyphonic Linea, a piece for marimba, vibraphone, and two pianos.

The TenFourteen commissions are by two renowned Bay Area composers, Laurie San Martin and Ken Ueno (Zetsu).

“We had to figure out how to effectively pair the new works, often before we’ve really had a chance to play the piece,” Schick says. “In the case of Ken and Laurie’s commissions, I knew Ken was interested in exploring secondary techniques, and Laurie is interested in dual violin, which made it a logical companion to Nono’s violin duo.” 

When Ueno got the TenFourteen commission he fulfilled a longtime desire to compose for violin master Gabriela Diaz, a close associate from his days in Boston. “It was this perfect opportunity to bring one of my friends from a previous home to my current home, to the collaborators I treasure here,” says Ueno, the winner of both the Rome Prize and the Berlin Prize. Ueno, a vocalist who has developed a vast palette of extended techniques, including throat singing,  joined the UC Berkeley faculty as an associate professor of music in 2008 and also serves on the SFCMP’s board of directors.

Zetsu pairs Diaz’s violin with two percussionists playing homemade instruments, two cellists, two bassists, and two clarinetists who also play “a hacked hookah sax,” an alto saxophone with a seven-foot tube inserted to create a disturbing, rumbling sound, Ueno says. “I’m a foodie inspired by Alice Waters and René Redzepi, who go around looking for local produce and materials. You’re not going to hear these instruments anywhere else.”

TenFourteen concludes on Sunday, March 29 with Edgard Varèse classic percussion piece Ionisation, and world premieres by Koji Nakano, Lei Liang and Chou Wen-chung. George Crumb will put a cherry on top of his long and fruitful relationship with SFCMP by delivering three new pieces, two of which premiered as part of TenFourteen’s opening concert on Nov. 16. The third, Xylophony, is part of the closer. 

“It’s a percussion quintet, his first piece he’s ever written for percussion ensemble,” Schick says. “You can imagine how I felt as a percussionist coming home one day and finding the manuscript.”

With any live musical performance there is the thrill of immediacy, of knowing that these sounds are taking place in one particular place at a moment in time. But a premiere ups the ante considerably; it holds the promise that these sounds may reverberate through time, creating a chain of unanticipated reactions and influences. 

Schick and SFCMP share in that excitement, but they also understand that a premiere is just a first step. Players and composers all return to their respective corners, thinking about what transpired, and where the music might go next. 

“We know we haven’t solved every performance problem for these new pieces, but we started a relationship,” Schick says. “We may get revised scores. And we’re not just commissioning. We intend to be advocates. We hope to play these pieces again, and to get other ensembles interested in them, once our period of exclusivity is over. We hope this new work will be implanted into the scene.” 

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