In April of 2010, Rhodes College hosted Alex Ross, the music critic for the New Yorker and author of the book and blog The Rest Is Noise. Ross addressed a cultural bias against classical music of the 20th century and antipathy toward new composition in general. The purpose of his lecture was to show how pervasive these sounds already are in our lives: The Beatles, Star Trek, Star Wars, starting-up computers all carry the imprint of music composed after the total breakdown of romantic lyricism in the last century. The melding of machines and classical instruments is a central theme of everything from the festival circuit to "Rhodes Less Traveled," a two-day collaboration between Rhodes College and the University of Memphis presenting the music of living composers. Thursday and Friday, September 18th and 19th, there will be lectures and performances that should make Mr. Ross proud.
"It's part of my mission," says Leah McGray, director of instrumental studies at Rhodes, where she conducts the Rhodes Orchestra and the Rhodes Wind Ensemble. "I'm really fascinated by new music. That's one of my areas of specialty in my own personal study and scholarship. So I do as much as I can to encourage living composers who are writing new and innovative music for winds and strings. I think this is a really great opportunity to expose people to some of the newer ideas in music and some of the not-so-new ideas."
There are outdoor concerts at noon each day. "Out on the patio of the Briggs Building, [we're perfoming] Terry Riley's "In C," McGray says. "That piece from 1964 represents a jumping-off point for discussing many trends in contemporary composition such as organizing repeating phrases and acoustic or electric processes as musical elements rather than composing melodies and harmonies." Friday's daytime performance is Louis Andriessen's "Hoketus."
"It's a similar type of mathematical development, looking at the way people have really minimized melodic content and expanded on the rhythmic interplay," McGray says. "[We want] to shake things up and to get students and the community at large thinking about how music has been developing in the last 50 years, because it's quite interesting."
There are lectures on contemporary composition, but the evening's performances are central. Thursday night is a concert by Rhodes faculty and friends. Friday night is a student concert in collaboration with Rhodes and the University of Memphis.
Each night's repertoire centers on a theme. "Thursday night is pretty conventional when it comes to instrumentation," McGray says. "This is a small ensemble of seven to 10 players. The composers are all playing with rhythmic ideas and the disintegration of melody and lyricism. That concert we're calling 'Powerless.' It's all dealing with humans' role in the cosmos and the idea of how much power we have over our own destinies."
Augusta Read Thomas is a Pulitzer finalist and a former composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Her 2009 piece "Capricious Angels" is for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, three violins, and viola.
Dennis DeSantis' "Powerless" provides the thematic inspiration for Thursday night. DeSantis is an electronic musician whose commissions include the Whitney Biennial and the SONAR Festival in Tokyo. He uses computers to trigger and modify sounds that are played in real time with instruments. This music is at the vanguard of digital composition, and DeSantis' work finds him all over the place, which makes sense in a globalized, networked world.
Roshanne Etezady's work sounds more like what you would expect from the description. Her work is at home in the harmonies and phrasing of the 20th century musical explorers. Her "Damaged Goods," which you will hear, was recorded by the Grammy-winning eighth Blackbird Ensemble in 2012. The fourth movement is like driving a car down stairs in a dream. There is a careening sense of discomfort akin to a rollercoaster.
"Hashivenu" by Elisha Denburg is making its U.S. premier. The short piece for flute, clarinet, vibraphone, piano, violin, and violoncello serves to bring the party back to planet earth. McGray conducted the piece at the University of Toronto. "Hashivenu" is a relativley conventional piece from a harmonic standpoint, lulling the listener into a melody that does some unexpected things. The piece is designed to challenge our memories as the theme varies from its original state.
McGray will conduct, as will Armand Hall, associate director of bands at U of M who conducts the symphony band and directs the Mighty Sound of the South Marching Band.
Friday's set is a student concert featuring the Rhodes College Orchestra and Wind Ensemble and University of Memphis Symphonic Wind Ensemble. Two of the pieces are works by Rhodes professor David Shotsberger. Friday night's theme? Apocalypse.
"Those themes of famine, war, pestilence, and death are all through the 21st century," McGray says. "All the pieces on that program have to deal with the apocalypse. There is a piece from the 1920s called 'Spiel,' there is a piece called 'Donkey Rhubarb' about an invasive species."
Shotsberger's two pieces, "Hammerfaust" and "Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe" are from 2014. Shotsberger is the Minister of Music at Advent Presbyterian Church in Cordova.
The most interesting composer in the mix might be Ben Hjertmann, who has challenged the norms of composition at their core. His piece "Donkey Rhubarb" was crowdsourced through voting software on his blog. Students from dozens of music programs, including Rhodes, made decisions on everything from the title to the opening theme. Hjertmann completed his Ph.D. at Northwestern in June 2013 studying microtonal harmonic structures, which are the spaces between the notes in a scale. He also heads the "avant-pop" band Kong Must Dead.
"Spiel" by Ernst Toch serves as a touchstone to the generation that really opened up the aural possibilities beyond Western conventions. Toch was an Austrian composer of Jewish ancestry who rose to prominence before WWI. Exiled to Paris and then New York, he scored films (Heidi in 1937), taught at Harvard, and eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for his Third Symphony in 1957.
Finally, Andrew Staniland's "Four Horsemen" is for concert band and Ableton electronics. Ross wrote in the New Yorker that Staniland's music was "alternately beautiful and terrifying." Albert Nguyen conductor of the U of M Wind Ensemble will conduct on Friday, as will McGray and Hall.
Contemporary classical music may be dissonant at times, but as Ross said in his lecture, we are already attuned to these sounds. We say we don't like contemporary compositions, but they are embedded in our cultural surroundings, from Bugs Bunny to the latest Batman thing. Not only do we already know it, the more we learn about it, the cooler it gets.