Five contestants to compete in
Iron Composer Contest at B-W
by Mike Telin & Daniel Hathaway
Iron Composer contestants 2012. L-R, David Carter, Anne Goldberg,
Julie Hill, Caroline Mallonée & Mark Popeney.
“For a long time I have seen reality television shows and I wondered why there wasn't one for composers”, mused Caroline Mallonée. Well, now there is, and Ms. Mallonée and four other composers will find themselves right in the middle of one on Friday, September 7, as the sixth annual Iron Composer Contest gets underway at Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory in Berea.
Based on the Iron Chef television series, where contestants have one hour to produce a dish based on a theme and a secret ingredient, Iron Composer is the invention of Analog Arts. We learned about the history of the contest from organizer Joe Drew (left), a B-W alumnus, via phone from his home in New York City.
Drew was one of the creators of Iron Composer in 2007, when it was part of a new music festival in Omaha. After two seasons, the competition moved to B-W in 2009 and now attracts between 50 and 100 entries each year.
“It's kind of a weird duck because it really exposes you as a composer. You have to be up for an adventure to do it”, says Drew. “Two things the competitors don't know until the morning of the competition: what instruments they are going to be writing for, and what the secret ingredient will be. This is usually decided at the last minute, and many times it is not decided until the night before”.
The five composers will learn about the instrumentation and the secret ingredient on Friday at 9am. Their completed pieces and scores will be due five hours later, and after a flurry of rehearsals, the results will be revealed at a public concert that evening at 8pm, to be broadcast live over WCLV, 104.9 FM.
How were those five finalists winnowed out from the many who applied? Joe Drew does most of the initial vetting of applications. After the scores and biographies come in, the scores go into a folder and he reviews them anonymously. “You quickly get a sense of whether or not someone is stronger than another. We are not looking for composers who write in a specific style, and that is the biggest challenge”.
Biographies don't come into play until the very end. “When you get to that phase we do want to see who they are and what their experiences are. You don't want to field the competition with five minimalist composers who all live in Chicago, or three women from Harvard who write avant-garde music. You want to assemble a field that has a diversity of styles and backgrounds”.
The five finalists definitely represent a wide variety of backgrounds and styles. We spoke with four of them by telephone (the fifth contestant, Julie Hill, was in Israel and we were unable to make contact).
David Carter is currently a doctoral candidate in composition at Northwestern. He began his career as an English major at Yale, studied Law at USC and worked as an attorney, then returned to composition, taking courses at UCLA. “I guess I was trying to find out what I was really passionate about”. Asked about his musical style, he replied, “Maybe I should just mention influences: Ligeti, Xennakis, Feldman, Webern, Messiaen”.
Anne Goldberg, a graduate of Wellesley and MIT, divides her time between Boston and New York, where she is pursuing a doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music and works with two ensembles, Tempus Continuum and Reform@. She's also involved in dance and figure skating. “My style? Yikes! Lyrical. Definitely pointillistic and varied. I admire Berg for his lyricism and I'm a huge fan of Messiaen”.
Caroline Mallonée was an undergrad at Harvard who went on to earn her master's at Yale and her Ph.D. At Duke. She decided to take composition lessons as a freshman, studying with Mario Davidovsky, then won a Fulbright to study with Louis Andriessen in The Netherlands. Andriessen encouraged her to seek her own compositional voice. “I felt a kinship with his music, but he never told me what to do and that was important. That sort of freedom was huge for me”.
Mark Popeney started out as a political science major at Berkeley, but added music as a second major by the end of his first year. He took his master's at UCLA (where he coincided with David Carter), and is now finishing his DMA at USC. We spoke to him only hours before he was leaving to defend his dissertation. “I am a mix of styles and formats. I am an interdisciplinary guy and I like it that way”.
If some of the composers decided on their careers after pursuing other educational paths first, most showed an interest in composition at an early age. Anne Goldberg recalls, “as a little kid, I remember crawling on the keyboard and making up pieces. I recently found a piece in my parents' piano bench that I wrote in the third grade. It's a little bit modal”. Caroline Mallonée has a similar memory. “While I was studying violin in the Peabody prep department in the fourth grade, I wrote a piece for piano in the Mixolydian Mode”. Mark Popeney, a musician all his life, eventually found himself spending a lot of time arranging music, then writing pieces of his own”.
For most competitors, writing under the pressure of time will be a new experience. David Carter usually allows about three months to craft a ten-minute piece, but had to write a solo piano piece over a weekend as a doctoral requirement. Anne Goldberg compares it to the entrance exam for the Manhattan School, which involved an overnight composition project to be performed the next day during her interview. “I do consider myself to be a fast composer”, Caroline Mallorée says, “but I'm not a morning person, so the idea of getting the instrumentation at 9 am is a little frightening”. “It is unique trying to write a piece in one day”, Mark Popeney says, “but it should be fun, and I'm looking forward to it”. Anne Goldberg agrees: “I'm not putting any pressure on myself. I'm just going to enjoy the experience. I'm very excited that one of the contestants is Julie Hill, who goes to school with me, so we're going to have some girl power in Berea from MSM!”
Joe Drew believes the audience will enjoy the experience too. “Audience feedback about the competition has been great. It has always gone over like gangbusters. You couldn't program a concert of all new music and expect a packed house to be to be rooting and cheering, but with the Iron Composer format, you have an audience that comes to listen to 100% new music that has been composed that day, and they absolutely love it. Even people who don't really understand the ins and outs of classical composition or contemporary music can relate to the fact that everyone is given, for example, a string quartet and a bag of ping-pong balls, and this is how they decided to use them. They can see it happen in real time, and we give the composers a chance during the broadcast to talk about their thought process. It is amazing how differently five people can approach the same challenge”.
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Published on ClevelandClassical.com September 4, 2012
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