Iron Composer Concert at B-W (September 7)
Iron Composer contestants 2012. L-R, David Carter, Anne Goldberg, Julie Hill, Caroline Mallonée & Mark Popeney.
Baldwin Wallace University again hosted the "Iron Composer" competition and concert on Friday, September 7. Patterned on the "Iron Chef" reality TV series and various other reality shows, five pre-selected composer/competitors were given at 9:00 AM an instrumental ensemble for which they were to compose a short chamber work. They also were given a "secret ingredient" that they had to incorporate into their work. Each composer was then assigned a private studio with piano, and five hours later they were expected to have completed their pieces, including finished scores and performing parts. There was half an hour for each composer to rehearse his or her composition with the ensemble. The day concluded with an 8:00 PM concert in Gamble Auditorium in BW's Kulas Musical Arts Building. The concert was hosted by WCLV radio personality Mark Satola and was broadcast live on WCLV, 104.9 FM. There was a substantial live audience in the auditorium with listeners of a wide age range. The five composers sat on the stage to the left and behind the performers; the judges sat along the opposite side of the stage.
The panel of judges for the competition included noted composer Margaret Brouwer, former head of the composition department at the Cleveland Institute of Music; non-musician James DeRosa, Commissioner of Real Estate for the City of Cleveland and a member of the Ingenuity Festival board; and performer Ken Heinlein, principal tuba of the Akron Symphony. Besides Mr. Heinlein, the other intrepid performers were Dan Snyder, B-flat clarinet, and Robert Mayerovitch, who played the "prepared piano." All should be commended for succeeding in the terrifying prospect of sight-reading and publicly performing five complicated new pieces with a half hour rehearsal. How accurate the performances were is known only to the composers, the performers, and judge Margaret Brouwer, who was provided with the scores, but the performances were all convincing.
The prepared piano was a nod toward the 100th birthday earlier in the week of composer John Cage, who famously wrote a number of works for a piano with various nuts, bolts, weather stripping, aluminum foil, etc., inserted into the strings to magically alter the sound of the piano more into an instrument of percussion, exponentially expanding the tonal range of a typical grand piano. Also marking Cage's birthday was the Iron Composers' "secret ingredient": eight seconds of silence. One of Cage's most notorious works was "4'33" for piano, which consisted completely of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence (or, rather, the ambient noise of the concert hall and audience. The pianist does not play a note.)
The five competitors come from eclectic backgrounds, from playing the role of Dorothy in a national touring production of "The Wizard of Oz," to being a member of a rock band, to having a second career as a choreographer, to changing from a career in law to composing, to studying on a Fulbright award in Amsterdam with Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. All were clearly talented and took the Iron Composer challenge seriously. Perhaps with some further refinement, each could stand as a substantive work worthy of repeat performance.
The composers (again in homage to John Cage's chance music) tossed the dice to determine the order of performance for the concert. New York composer Anne Goldberg was first up, with her "TessiturA." The piece starts with very high solo clarinet notes in dialog with piano. A motoric and rhythmic piano part takes over, with interjections from clarinet and tuba, which was required to play in an extremely high register, attacking high notes without any preparation. The piano part was dominant and the most interesting; the tuba and clarinet seemed like afterthoughts. The eight seconds of silence were not apparent.
Also based in New York, Julie Hill, the second composer, had a career as actress and pop singer before turning to concert music. Before the performance of her work, "S.peak!" she likened it to a recent trip to Israel and the awkwardness of silence that can take place when new people meet. Her jolly—and quite tonal—piece made effective use of contrapuntal dialogue among the instruments, interspersed with silences. After a quiet middle section featuring a haunting clarinet melody, the active opening material returned with the tuba and piano tremolos. After the performance of each of the new works, the judges gave verbal comments. In this case, tuba player Heinlein characterized "S.peak!" as a pleasure to play.
David Carter, now based in Evanston, Illinois, began his professional life as a practicing attorney before turning to music full time in 2004. He effectively set up the "secret ingredient" silence in his composition "Eight Degrees of Separation" by creating an increasingly tense musical texture, followed suddenly by silence. The prepared piano part featured a rhythmic bass line reminiscent of boogie-woogie, contrasted with the clarinet in high range and tuba in a very low range. Judge Brouwer complimented the piano writing and instrumental colors. Mr. Heinlein, who was the voice of practicality in his comments to several of the composers, pointed out the lack of rehearsal numbers in the score, thus making it much harder for the performers to coordinate their playing. Mr. DeRosa, who as a musical amateur does not have the musical jargon that Mr. Heinlein and Ms. Brouwer can draw upon, called Mr. Carter's piece "thrilling." Overall, for this listener, Mr. Carter's was the most effective piece on the program. The three judges concurred, awarding Mr. Carter first prize and the title "Iron Composer 2012."
Los Angeles composer Mark Popeney also performs in a rock band, although in an opening discussion with MC Mark Satola, he said that he rarely crosses musical lines between rock and concert music. The title of Mr. Popeney's work was "Bend, Don't Break." Like several of the other contestants, he made use of the sounds of the prepared piano in a percussive motoric rhythm, weaving the clarinet and tuba in dialogue with the piano. Although in his spoken introduction to the piece he pointed out increasing durations of silence, to this listener, they were too short as to be audible. A half second of silence is too subtle to hear on a first or second listen; interesting in concept, although not practical in performance. Indeed, in Mr. Heinlein's comments, he noted how hard it was to play Mr. Popeney's piece and the gap between what was in the composer's mind and in the score, and what the audience heard.
The final Iron Composer contestant was Buffalo-based Caroline Mallonée. Her background was the most conventional of any of the composers, with degrees from Harvard, Yale and Duke universities. She explicitly acknowledged the John Cage connections in this year's Iron Composer competition in the title of her new work, "For Cage, on his 100th anniversary." Her piece was in a quite traditional three-part structure, with a rhythmic opening section dominated by the piano, with interjections by the clarinet and the tuba in a low range. A central section featured the clarinet, followed by a tuba melody. There was a slightly truncated return of the first musical material, with the silences even more obvious. Big piano clusters ended the piece. It was a well-crafted and thought-out piece which hung together as a whole.
The judges scored each contestant on a points system on the basis of their use of the secret ingredient, originality, technical command, and overall presentation. In the case of a numerical tie, the composer who scored higher on originality and use of the secret ingredient would be ranked first.
While the judges' scores were being tallied, Mr. Satola led an amusing question and answer discussion from the audience directed toward the composers and performers. When asked why they entered the competition, each of the contestants said it seemed like it would be fun, although all said that the day had been highly stressful.
As noted above, David Carter was chosen first place, winner of a $500 cash prize and the "Iron Composer Trophy," a metal quill pen mounted on a wood base. This year each of the contestants was award a cash prize. Ms. Mallonée won second place and $350; Ms. Hill won third place and $300; Mr. Popeney won fourth place and $250; and Ms. Goldberg won fifth place and $200.
What was notable about this and past Iron Composer competitions was the overall positive feeling and camaraderie among the contestants. If there was the behind-the-scenes drama and backbiting depicted in some of the TV reality series, it was not apparent here. These five composers showed their mettle in being up to the challenge.
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Published on ClevelandClassical.com September 11, 2012
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