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Carolinians can be proud to have such a serious institution of music as the University of North Carolina Greensboro School of Music. One of the jewels of the School of Music must certainly be the annual New Music Festival. The 2009 incarnation, its sixth, included lectures by two of the featured composers – Elainie Lilios, winner of the Bourges prize for electroacoustic music this past summer, and Thomas Licata – as well as a masterclass, a young artist concert, nightly concerts for the three days of the festival, and a round table discussion with participating composers prior to the closing concert. In addition to Lilios and Licata, those composers included Mark Engebretson and Alejandro Rutty of UNCG, Todd Coleman of Elon, Allen Anderson of UNC Chapel Hill, Lance Hulme, who is a recent arrival in Greensboro, as well as Marcus Maroney, Jakov Jakoulov, Paul Moravec, Suzanne Farrin, Thomas Dempster, and the duo of Craig Hilton and Tomas Philips.
Your critic took in the round-table discussion among Anderson, Hulme, Coleman, Lilios, Hilton and Philips, with Rutty moderating, an hour which ranged over a variety of topics, including the difficulty of building audiences for contemporary music when classical music broadcasters limit their playlists to Vivaldi and Mozart, the effect of attempts to make music more palatable to larger audiences, the interpenetration of compositional thinking between electroacoustic and acoustic musics, and the low cultural level of the American (as opposed to Canadian or European) middle class.
The closing concert which followed was engaging, neither too long nor too short, not too loud (though I did see listeners with fingers in their ears at times), presented in the wonderful acoustic space of the Weatherspoon Museum atrium, and far from inaccessible. It began with Lance Hulme's brief "electronic tone poem" depicting "The Succubus" – a demon in female form which tempts men in the nighttime hours. The work combined tuned sounds recalling mallet instruments with more purely electronic sounds in repetitive patterns which evoked the obsessive thoughts which might possess one in the wee hours of the morning, an effect enhanced by rotational spatial effects.
Rutty's "City of Webs," which followed, required a certain amount of explanation before it began. It is based on a rather odd/avant-garde/advanced (pick your adjective) poem by Michael Basinski, full of play with graphics and projected for us to follow as we heard the recorded voice of the poet read/explain the text. It is around this reading/explanation (which, truth be told, leads one to wonder about the sanity of the poet) that Rutty bases the work, in a sort of "orchestration" of the reading, which is accompanied by a pre-recorded track, voice, keyboard, saxophone and viola (the latter performed by Lorena Guillén, the composer, Mark Engebretson, and Scott Rawls, respectively). The resulting "monodrama" or "melodrama" (in the sense of accompanied recitation) was fascinating, drawing perhaps more on popular than classical idioms to support and punctuate the stream of consciousness. Though it was a long piece, attention never flagged, and the audience rewarded the composer and performers with warm and extended applause.
"Acorn in the Sun" by Engebretson was a piece for solo voice (Lorena Guillén) and a pre-recorded track, setting a poem by Dana Richardson. Guillén, who is from Argentina, produces a notably Latin sound, rich and full of expression, a sound quite different from what an American classical soprano usually produces, particularly in the lower register. The interplay between the soloist and accompaniment was fascinating. I look forward to hearing this singer again.
The concert closed with another extended work, a collaboration between Craig Hilton and Tomas Philips for laptops and guzheng, the Chinese relative of the Japanese koto, usually plucked. Here it was bowed, often with two bows at once bowing different strings, and the sound processed. Hilton played the guzheng while Philips evoked clouds of electroacoustic sound from his Macintosh. The result showed how close traditional instruments could come to achieving the timbral/pitch/volume effects we often associate with computer music.
This was a rewarding evening, full of interest and variety, sharing new sounds that I certainly had not experienced before.