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  • Writer's pictureJackson Harmeyer

99. Musical Travels – Knoxville, TN: At the University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Back in September, I learned that my paper “Timbre and Melody in the Cello Concerti of Kaija Saariaho” had been accepted for presentation at the University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival. I first heard about this festival through Andrew Sigler, one of its co-directors who I had met at New Music on the Bayou this summer where a composition of his was performed. Having already given this paper in March at AMS South-Central in Asheville and knowing that Knoxville was an easy four-hour drive, I gave it a shot and submitted my abstract. How could I have known then the adventure this week in Knoxville and its environs would inspire? It really was a wonderful few days of music, camaraderie, and some hiking!

The University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival, held from October 24 to 26, consisted of presentations in the mornings and concerts in the evenings. Whereas the University of Louisville’s annual New Music Festival spotlights one guest composer, whose music is performed by our faculty and students and who gives a lecture and masterclasses, Tennessee’s is a chance for multiple academics to share their research and several composers to share their music. There were indeed two guest composers—Robert Honstein of Sleeping Giant and Chicago-based composer Jenna Lyle—whose music was performed by student musicians of UT’s Contemporary Music Ensemble; Lyle also gave a masterclass to these students. Additionally, two guest performers—trumpeter Andy Kozar of loadbang and flutist Kenneth Cox—played Thursday and Friday evenings, respectively. Many of the composers whose works were selected in the composition call either performed their own pieces or brought musicians with them to do the honors.

The fall colors were in full swing at Great Smoky Mountains.

The presentations were Wednesday and Friday mornings. As it turned out, my presentation was first thing Wednesday morning, making it the first event of the festival. Again, like in Asheville, my paper was well-received, and festival co-director Brendan McConville took the opportunity to comment to his grad students that they too should be getting out there and presenting at conferences. The next presentation was given by Anthony Donofrio, composition professor at University of Nebraska at Kearney, whom I had also met at New Music on the Bayou (actually, there were several of us who had participated in NMB at one time or another). Anthony discussed narrative in contemporary composition, specifically about modeling more innovative musical narratives after literature. The book Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace—a kind of thousand-page “choose your own adventure” novel with extensive footnotes—featured prominently in his discussion; his talk was a topic to which the group returned frequently in our social gatherings. Justin Giarrusso, a Louisville graduate whom I met for the first time at UT, also gave an insightful presentation at Friday’s session on the 2013 Grawemeyer-winning composition, Up-close by Michel van der Aa. I had not heard (or seen) this work previously, so one afternoon prior to the festival I made a point of borrowing the DVD from the UofL Music Library and watching it, score in-hand. It’s one of my favorites now in the way it integrates music and visual media into a thought-provoking chamber opera/cello concerto! Other stimulating presentations were given by Conner David McCain (Henri Dutilleux and Gregorian chant); Chris Lortie (audio scores); and the UT home team of Barbara Murphy and Skye van Duuren (a comparative study of graphic notations).

The six-percussionist “Mélanges” by Xenakis was one of the highlights of the festival.

The evening concerts, which consistently started at 8 PM but rarely ended before 10, featured music which was mostly avant-garde, if not totally experimental. Wednesday night, we heard from the composers whose music had been selected in the submission process, many of whom stayed the next two days for the fellowship. Though one piece was fixed media, many of the others also included electronics, often mixing live electronic processes with instrumental performances. It was great to meet saxophonist Alan Theisen and mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen who performed a piece of Alan’s; as well as Joshua Keeling, clarinetist Kyle Rowan, and other composers who likewise performed their own pieces. For me though, the highlight of the concert was the UT Percussion Ensemble’s performance of Mélanges, a movement from Pléïades by Iannis Xenakis, on no less than six timpani. Thursday night’s concert featured the compositions of Jenna Lyle, including the stressful Pas de Deux where two students essentially “operated” on a violin which could be seen face-up on a projection screen; Andy Kozar’s trumpet set followed. Friday night featured the music of Robert Honstein, including Middle Ground, an exhilarating piece for solo marimba. Kenneth Cox also gave his set for flute and electronics that night, featuring the music of Philippe Hurel and Salvatore Sciarrino—composers who have connections to the spectral movement—and Eve Beglarian who I had met a few years ago through my friend Matt Petty. After Friday evening’s concert, those of us who remained headed to a local burger joint where I had the chance to chat with Honstein, the final festival co-director Andy Bliss, and others.

My trip to Knoxville also included a stop at McKay's Used Books.

Between events there was plenty of time for me to explore Knoxville and also get outside hiking. Wednesday afternoon, I made my first-ever trip to McKay’s Used Books, CDs, DVDs, and More. If you’re ever in Knoxville or near another of their locations across Tennessee and North Carolina, make the stop! They have an incredible selection, well-organized and well-priced too. I left with a small stack of CDs (without spending a fortune), and next time I plan to come prepared with items to re-sell! Thursday, since there were no morning presentations, I drove an hour south to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’ve been there in the summer, but never in the fall. With the fall colors out, the mountains had an incredible beauty about them unlike anything I’ve seen before. At their giftshop, I also purchased CDs of old-time music and southern gospel from the Smithsonian Folkways label. On my way to Knoxville, I had also stopped at Cumberland Falls State Park, just barely on this side of the state line. Though I missed its famous moonbow, I enjoyed an afternoon of exploring this beautiful natural area. Then, on my way back to Louisville yesterday, I stopped at the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame. Located in Renfro Valley, which once hosted its own radio program like the more famous Grand Ole Opry in Nashville or Louisiana Hayride out of Shreveport, this museum explores many facets of music in Kentucky, from shape-note singing and the founding of orchestras in the nineteenth century to the birth of bluegrass in the twentieth. The collector and singer of American folk ballads, John Jacob Niles, and jazz vibraphonist, Lionel Hampton, both of whom were born in Louisville, are also among the musicians celebrated here. I left with two CDs, one featuring Niles and the other Bill Monroe, and also a DVD of one of their induction ceremonies.

Overall the UT Contemporary Music Festival provided a week-worth of adventures. Though I came for the new music, I also found myself gravitating toward the local music, including ballad singing, country, and bluegrass. My drives were also predominated by blues and rock—music I had gotten from a recent batch of CDs donated to the music library. This fall has been a real struggle with the thesis, so I truly enjoyed the time away this week: it was a valuable diversion but its fellowship and adventures have also given me new motivation. I’m hoping this renewal will let me make some serious progress in the upcoming weeks. Till next time!

JSH 18.10.28

About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a master’s candidate in musicology at the University of Louisville where he has been awarded the Gerhard Herz Music History Scholarship. His current research focuses on French spectral music and the compositions of Kaija Saariaho, exploring the aesthetic ramifications of timbre, harmony, and melody in this new music. He has recently shared this research at the American Musicological Society South-Central Chapter’s annual meeting in Asheville, NC and at the University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival in Knoxville, TN. Previously, Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, LA following the completion of his undergraduate thesis, “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” Then, from 2014 to 2016, Jackson served as director of the successful chamber music series, Abendmusik Alexandria. Since that time, he has remained concert annotator for presenters of classical music across Louisiana. Also a composer, his music has been performed at the Sugarmill Music Festival and New Music on the Bayou. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at


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