October 4, 2007, marked the birth of a winning new music enterprise in Durham. George Lam and his ensemble of graduate and undergraduate musicians performed a program of music composed by twentieth-century-born composers at the Brody Theater on Duke University’s East Campus. Featuring works by James Tenney, Arnold Schoenberg, Alex Kotch, David Stock, Christian Wolff, and Henryk Gorecki, Lam’s musical selections were based on flexible instrumentation, contrasting styles, and sonorities. The black box theatre, which seats about 70, provided an intimate setting for the debut of the Duke New Music Ensemble (dnme).

The ensemble entered center stage to James Tenney’s 1963 “Ergodos,” an early exploration of recorded electronic sound, named for the mathematical theory that inspired it. This was a fitting start. Observing the faces of a young audience weaned on technologically enhanced utterances of the loveable R2D2, I wondered how 1960s audiences “heard” the montage of whirring, beeping, and wind-like white noise that emerged from speakers. Schoenberg’s Seven Canons seemed so accessible by contrast, yet the composer was so misunderstood during his lifetime. Schoenberg might have smiled.

Not only was this program interesting, but it was also very well prepared. Alex Kotch’s “The Way Home” (2005), inspired by a sojourn in Europe, was played by pianist Kirill Zikanov. With flawless technique and athletic approach to the instrument, Zikanov navigated abrupt dynamic and tempo changes and transitions, allowing the listening audience to fully appreciate the craftsmanship of the piece. David Stock’s 1981 short minimalist piece “Keep The Change,” conducted by Lam, was performed with clockwork precision. And Sarah Griffin, former student of Eric Pritchard, played Polish composer Henryk Gorecki’s exquisite “Little Fantasia,” a violin piece dedicated to Joachim and penned for the final round of the Hanover Competition. A representative in miniature, Gorecki’s fingerprints are all over it — stark dissonance and shades of purple. Griffin played fearlessly, with beautiful control of the bow, producing a range of color only the violin can produce. 

The score of Christian Wolff’s “Toss” (1970), for any instruments or sounds, is accompanied with a set of directions and (as Larry Austin says) looks like a dress-maker’s pattern. Unlike Morton Feldman, who completely threw in the towel with graphic notation, Wolff entertained the idea of allowing players control. (When trying to decipher this, one immediately sees the utility of standard notation.) But what makes this piece work are Wolff’s contributions to indeterminate performance practice, his invention of “zero time” (an event can have any time), and “cueing.” dnme musicians created a delightful and convincing piece for us…, and we can be assured that subsequent performances will never be the same. Come again in November. This ensemble rocks!

The 2007-8 Duke New Music Ensemble’s members are Peter Dong, flute, Sarah Griffin, violin, Alex Kotch, clarinet, George Lam, violin and conductor, Dan Ruccia, viola, Elizabeth Terry, violin and piano, Michael Wood, flute, and Kirill Zikanov, piano.

Interview: George Lam, composer

October 7, 2007, Durham, NC: On Thursday, October 4, the Duke New Music Ensemble, directed by George Lam, Duke University graduate student and Ph.D. candidate, presented a concert of music by an impressive list of 20th and 21st century composers including Henryk Gorecki, Alex Kotch, Arnold Schoenberg, David Stock, James Tenney, and Christian Wolff. The Duke New Music Ensemble [dnme] performed, making its debut in the Brody Theatre on Duke East Campus. Lam hopes that this will be the first of an enduring new music performance tradition. In a recent interview, director and composer Lam said he hopes to “present music differently, trying out different settings, and seeing what works…. It’s like a laboratory experiment.”

On his page on MySpace.com, George Lam pays tribute to composers who inspire and influence his writing — John Adams, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Maurice Ravel, Steve Reich, Stephen Sondheim, and others. I asked him about himself, his writing projects, and the Duke New Music Ensemble.

CVNC: What are your compositional interests? And what are you working on at present?

GL: I’m interested in stage music — opera, musical, chamber music. There will be a reading of a chamber opera piece for American Opera Projects, which will be performed in October, in New York (http://www.operaprojects.org/); a project with the Duke University Department of Theater of Shakespeare’s Pericles; and a project for Volti, a San Francisco based chorus that focuses on new music, which will premiere in May 2008.

CVNC: During a composition fellowship at the 2006 Aspen Music Festival, Lam met conductor Ken Lam (no family relationship), who commissioned a new work for Hong Kong Voices.

GL: Yes, and this fall, I’ll be returning to Hong Kong for a performance with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta of my chamber concerto “Variations On.”

CVNC: You are very busy! How do you get all this done?

GL: I have support from the [Duke] University…. They have a great composition faculty for students in residency.

CVNC: Lam talked about the ensemble, which has also received support from the faculty.

GL: The purpose of the ensemble is to bring together graduate and undergraduate student performers to present music from the 20th and 21st centuries. Through direct involvement by both graduate and undergraduate students in the ensemble, I also hope that we can expand the audience for new music within the University community.

CVNC: Lam planned the budget and music during the summer. Through the music faculty, he sought out hard-working students who were excited about new music. In answer to my query about the first program (reviewed immediately above), Lam made the following comment.

GL: I looked for pieces with open instrumentation; pieces that are flexible and provide contrast. [I view new music programming] as the juxtaposition of completely different sounds — something provocative.

CVNC: Will you invite special guests in the future— composers, performers?

GL: Yes! Susan Fancher, saxophonist and teacher from UNCG, will join us on November 29. She’ll be performing a new piece by Kathleen Bader, a graduate student composer at the Department of Music.

CVNC: Where will you go from here?

GL: I love to teach — perhaps a college job. I have a background in music education — maybe [I’ll do something with that].

CVNC: What would you like the community to know about you and the ensemble?

GL: It’s going to be a fun [season], and hopefully this can continue after our pilot year.

* * *

Lam grew up in Massachusetts, beginning his composition studies in the New England Conservatory pre-college program; he then arranged pieces for bands in his high school. He holds a MM from Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University and a BM from Boston University. In 2006, Lam received an honorable mention for an ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award. Lam expects to complete his Ph.D. at Duke University in 2010.