108. Musical Travels – Columbia, MO: At the Mizzou International Composers Festival
Something about Missouri has intrigued me lately. Having now explored the musical cultures of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta, I was glad to instead venture westward to St. Louis in May on my drive home for the Sugarmill Music Festival and there see the Scott Joplin House. Now, in the final week of July, I was on my way back to Missouri to continue my explorations and catch a music festival. I first became aware of the Mizzou International Composers Festival through my friend Jacob Gotlib, who serves as Managing Director and is on the composition faculty at the University of Missouri where it is held. Jacob though is a Louisville resident: his wife, Heather, is Manager of Educational Partnerships and Volunteers at the Frazier History Museum, and he was the creator and first host of the new music radio program, Muddle Instead of Music, which my mentor Matt Ertz now hosts. It was through events related to the Grawemeyer Award that I first met Jacob, and we quickly struck-up a friendship. When the opportunity presented itself this summer to attend his festival, I knew I had to go!
The Mizzou International Composers Festival, now in its tenth year, is like other new music festivals I have attended and participated in—composers submit scores, a certain number are selected, and then these are performed over the course of a few days. Often other music is performed too to fill-out the concert schedule, and that was also the case here at Mizzou. What is special about Mizzou, however, is that Alarm Will Sound is the resident ensemble, and the resident composers whose scores have been accepted have the chance to work with these musicians and have their polished works performed by them. Directed by Alan Pierson, this twenty-piece “band,” as they prefer to be known, is based in New York City and is regarded as one of our country’s leading new music ensembles. They have commissioned, performed, and recorded works by John Adams, Steve Reich, David Lang, Kate Soper, and other composers at the forefront of contemporary music. As Tanglewood is summer home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Columbia has become summer home to Alarm Will Sound. Partly that is because their cellist, Stefan Freund, is Artistic Director of MICF and, like Jacob, is on the composition faculty at the University of Missouri. And, in a strange twist, I learned that, growing up, Stefan’s first cello teacher had been my friend and colleague Paul Christopher! Paul and Stefan’s father, Don Freund, who teaches composition at Indiana University, are old friends from their years together in Memphis.
The festival officially began on Monday, July 22 with rehearsals and presentations by this year’s two guest composers, Donnacha Dennehy and Amy Beth Kirsten; I was still in Louisville nevertheless. Dennehy, an Irish composer, was early in his career influenced by the spectral movement; these days he is known as the founder of the Crash Ensemble, Ireland’s celebrated new music group, and for integrating Irish folk influences into his music. American composer, librettist, and vocalist Amy Beth Kirsten had been a resident composer the very first year of MICF; now back as a guest composer, she is probably best-known for her Colombine’s Paradise Theatre written for eighth blackbird. I arrived in Columbia on Thursday, July 25 in time for the opening concert at the historic Missouri Theatre, featuring Alarm Will Sound playing world-premiere works by Dennehy and Kirsten—the concert version of his opera, The Hunger, chronicling the Great Irish Famine of 1845 to 1852, and her operatic scene, Jacob in Chains, based on the character of Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Stefan Freund’s jazzy con/influences, written in 2014 for the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis, was also played, and it was perhaps my favorite work that evening. Afterwards, all were invited to Café Berlin for the after-party featuring Mizzou composition professor Bret Bohman (as Bels Lontano) for electronic music in the manner of Aphex Twin. [Evidently every good EDM artist needs an alias! Aphex Twin is Richard James.]
The next two days featured more concerts. The Mizzou New Music Ensemble and Mizzou Percussion played Friday evening. Dennehy’s energetic and timbre-focused The Blotting and Kirsten’s They Might Be Giants with its special role for tuning forks were festival highlights for me. Later that evening, Columbia’s experimental music alliance, Dismal Niche, hosted percussionist Eli Keszler at the enigmatic Firestone Baars Chapel for an entrancing hour-long solo improvisation on drum set which called to mind the structural realms of John Coltrane. Saturday afternoon the eight-piece Khemia Ensemble led by Bret Bohman and Carolina Heredia—a fourth Mizzou composition professor—presented a concert called Identity, stringing-together works on this theme by several composers including pieces by Bohman and Heredia themselves. That evening Alarm Will Sound closed the festival with the premieres of the eight scores selected in the composition call. Although I enjoyed many of these pieces, my favorite was the rousing closer by Chelsea Komschlies, Hexactinellida, which replicates in sound the structure, texture, and shape of a species of deep-sea sponges. Overall I enjoyed hearing much new music in a wide-range of idioms and appreciated the fellowship of Jacob, composer/conductor Yoshiaki Onishi, the Freunds, and quite a few others. We celebrated the success of the festival over drinks at a downtown pub following Saturday evening’s concert.
My trip was not limited to the festival, however. Wednesday afternoon on my drive west I paid a brief visit to Alton, Illinois where Miles Davis was born and then followed the River Road north to Hannibal, Missouri. Thursday in Hannibal I toured the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and related attractions, before heading south to Florida, Missouri where I ran into participants of the Clemens Conference at Twain’s birthplace. Several of the old Twain scholars even wore their gray hair and mustaches to look like the esteemed author! And, a different scholar pointed to his Japanese translations in a display case! In preparation for my trip, I had read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, so I was eager to see the Mississippi and the sites in Hannibal which had inspired Tom’s tales; I am currently following-up with Huck Finn. Friday afternoon I visited Sedalia, Missouri where pianist Scott Joplin began his career as an entertainer at the Maple Leaf Club. The club burnt down in the 1950s, so now a Maple Leaf Park commemorates the site. Driving through historic downtown was enlightening as was a stop at the Katy Depot where the International Ragtime Foundation is based. I learned from their exhibits and a conversation with their secretary that Sedalia had been a train town on the Missouri Kansas Texas Railroad—the MKT or Katy for short. It was not surprising then that ragtime would flourish, not only in Missouri, but also in Texas, for the railroad linked these places. Saturday I explored the university campus and an affiliated art and archeology museum. Finally, on my return trip Sunday, I visited the Cahokia Mounds World Heritage Site outside Collinsville, Illinois, which, near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, had been the Manhattan of its day from AD 1050 to 1200; more than one hundred mounds survive, and the Interpretive Center contains detailed and fascinating exhibits.
These destinations—some musical, others not—added with the Mizzou International Composers Festival made for an unforgettable trip. I filled my drives with plenty of good music, including other works by Dennehy; symphonies and concerti by hyper-instrument pioneer Tod Machover; the free jazz of Coltrane; more traditional, contemporary jazz by Wynton and Branford Marsalis; and, to reenergize me on my long drive, the electrifying Chronologie album by the French electronic music composer Jean-Michel Jarre. When returning from Sedalia, I also listened to Ragtime at the Rosebud by pianist Milton Kaye, one of three CDs I purchased at the Katy Depot; the others were Gems of St. Louis Ragtime and Gems of Texas Ragtime with pianist Richard Zimmerman. Plus I made tasty barbecue stops in Owensboro, Sedalia, and A Fine Swine in rural Illinois. All-in-all a really good trip!
About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer graduated with his Master of Music in Music History and Literature from the University of Louisville in May 2019 upon the completion of his thesis, “Liminal Aesthetics: Perspectives on Harmony and Timbre in the Music of Olivier Messiaen, Tristan Murail, and Kaija Saariaho.” He has shared this pioneering research through presentations given at the American Musicological Society South-Central Chapter’s annual meetings in Asheville, NC and Sewanee, TN and at the University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival in Knoxville, TN. During his studies in Louisville, he was the recipient of the Gerhard Herz Music History Scholarship and was employed at the Dwight Anderson Memorial Music Library where he did archival work for the unique Grawemeyer Collection which houses scores, recordings, and documentation for over five thousand entries by the world’s leading contemporary composers. Previously, Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, LA. Then, from 2014 to 2016, Jackson served as director of the successful chamber music series, Abendmusik Alexandria. He has remained a concert annotator and organizer, co-directing the annual Sugarmill Music Festival. The scholarly writings he has produced for this festival have even attracted the attention of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Aside from his studies, he is a composer, choral singer, and award-winning nature photographer. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at www.JacksonHarmeyer.com.
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