The Rodland Viola Studio has collaborated with the ESM Composition Department on a group of commissions for solo viola , viola and piano, and one piece for viola and voice.
New works for a new generation?
By Jake Belissimo for the American Viola Society Eastman Studio Blog
When confronted with the challenge of adapting concert music for the 21st century, there are many different topics discussed, including performance practice, preserving “masterworks”, and making the music more accessible. However, possibly the most talked about subject is the incorporation of new works into recitals and concerts.
Frequently you’ll find contemporary pieces either sandwiched in-between canonical pieces (in order to persuade the audience to listen to them) or just thrown on the beginning so the audience can be late if they want to—of course, that’s not always the intent of the people making the programs, but it’s become common practice to do so. Even then, though, that’s if you’re lucky and people want to perform your works. This has always been a perplexing challenge; how do composers get performers to program contemporary works?
This question is not an easy one to answer, and it’s easy to feel that the amount of performers who want to play abstract contemporary works are a niche (already within the niche of people interested in classical music). Thankfully, at Eastman, this isn’t necessarily a problem. Here, composers have very strong relationships with performers, and there is plenty of support from the faculty with regards to performing new works.
Like many places, juries at Eastman require performers to have contrasting pieces, oftentimes having the contrast coming from a recent (written in the past 50 years) piece. Professor Rodland typically has her students “commission” works from composition majors, but this year she decided to take it one step further. There are currently 7 new works being performed within the Rodland studio written by Eastman composers. However, these works aren’t just being written for juries—there is also a concert where all of the works will be performed.
This has been a great opportunity for violists to gain more experience with new music and for composers to be able to play around with the elusive “solo viola” (gasp), an instrument that many people write for at one point or another within an ensemble, but not one that people have the opportunity to write for in a solo setting.
In general, the dynamic between performer and composer isn’t something that is often explored in-depth, and frequently composers don’t get to speak with performers or performers don’t get to ask any questions. What made this a unique process was that the performers worked directly with the composers.
From a compositional standpoint (as I mentioned above), solo viola is a field not often explored in contemporary composition. Alexander Leon (BM ’16) said that “[he had] written for viola before, but only in ensemble settings…[he has] written a lot of solo violin music, and was thinking of the viola as a violin with a deeper range.” Of course, using the viola as a viola is a complicated matter, and separating the viola from the rest of the string family (“a bigger violin” or “a smaller cello”) was an important part of the process. “You can do a lot with color on the viola,” said Daniel Sawler (BM ’18), “Each string has a very different feeling, in particular the C string, which opened up many warm possibilities in terms of composition.”
Exploring new possibilities is always an exciting prospect in composition, and being able to work with the performers directly only made the process smoother. In the case of Alexander Leon’s piece, he “wrote a first version, and then Sergio [Muñoz Leiva, MM ‘16] and his pianist came to my composition lesson and, together with Professor Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon, found compositional problems and thought of different approaches to solving the issues.”
With new compositions also comes a different musical language, and some of the violists had to explore new techniques and interpretations in order to effectively perform the pieces. Alex McLaughlin (BM ’18) said “[his] rule of strictly following the music loosened a bit.” Because he was able to work directly with Daniel [Sawler] as he wrote the piece, they were able to find an interpretation of the piece that didn’t stray from Daniel’s vision but satisfied Alex’s creativity. Alex commented on approaching contemporary pieces with his conservatory training, saying that “with Daniel’s piece, I feel like I had all of my previous experiences with canonical music in a little toolbox that I could pull out when appropriate.”
Overall this project has been productive in expanding the solo viola repertoire, and along the way it became a learning process for both the composers and the violists. The importance of new music is often an overlooked problem, and its opportunities like this concert that make both the composition and viola departments at Eastman unique.
The aforementioned concert will take place at Howard Hanson Hall at Eastman on Friday, March 27th, at 8pm.