71. Matt Petty and I in New Orleans; New Directions in My Compositions
This spring I have returned to my undergraduate Northwestern State University to take some additional classes as I prepare to start grad school at the University of Louisville in the fall. Mainly I have been working to build my practical musicianship as I know this will assist me as I work toward my master’s in musicology. One of my instructors Matt Petty has become a good friend; he is a trombonist, composer, and video artist. Only two years older than me, Matt was an NSU student the last time I was an NSU student and, indeed, he was shocked to find me in his class this January. I indicated almost a year ago that my compositional system had reached a crossroads; working with Matt though and exchanging compositional ideas has given me a new impetus. His ideas and his experiences are vastly different from mine, so that, on one hand, I see many of my compositional thoughts taking inspiration from his approach and, on the other, challenging and reacting to it. Regardless it’s been great having someone to exchange ideas with, for I have been working totally on my own for years now.
There has been one adventure in particular worth sharing here at MusicCentral. Over Easter Break, from March 28 to 31, Matt and I were in New Orleans shooting footage for a video to accompany a composition by Eve Beglarian. Eve is a composer based in New York and Vermont; she is affiliated with Bang on a Can and her music is in a similar post-Minimalist, post-Cage idiom. Matt had written his master’s thesis on her music and reached out to her in the process; they are now friends and collaborators. I had a chance to meet Eve and talk with her over lunch when she visited Natchitoches in late February. Her piece Wet Psalm is about Hurricane Katrina and belongs to her BRIM: The River Project which involved her kayaking and bicycling most of the length of the Mississippi River and dreaming-up compositions along the way. The text of Wet Psalm is taken from Psalms 70 and 71—specifically, from a difficult-to-read waterlogged Bible found in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. For her this said something about the Catholic city and its devastation a decade ago by Katrina. I am, of course, a New Orleans native, and, though my family had wisely evacuated before the storm hit, I have vivid memories of New Orleans before, during, and after that crisis. Thus, when Eve commissioned Matt to create a video for Wet Psalm, Matt recruited me to help him find places in and around New Orleans still neglected eleven years after the storm; our finished video is here. Reliving Katrina in this way was a tough experience, but a necessary one as I prepare to leave Louisiana, a place which has always been my home, in August.
Matt met me in New Orleans the afternoon of Monday, March 28. Our first destination was Lakeshore Drive and then we visited the neighborhood where my elementary school had been. My elementary school, where I spent ten years of my life, had been torn-down and rebuilt as the beautiful Holy Cross High School campus, but a nearby daycare still laid in ruins. Its grass overgrown, its windows broken, Matt pulled-out his video camera. Tuesday we had our best finds of the trip in New Orleans East. Much of this once-prosperous suburb had been rebuilt, but just as much hadn’t; often the destroyed sat immediately next to the rebuilt. The old Grand Movie Theater was a sight to behold; where I had seen Star Wars Episode III the summer of Katrina, now half the theater was boarded-up and covered in street-gang graffiti reading “New Warleans” and “A Black Man’s Door of Opportunity” among other things, whereas the side facing the interstate had been freshly painted with a “Creation of Adam”-style mural celebrating Black Lives Matter. We rummaged through an abandoned apartment complex near the NASA facility and also drove to the entrance of the ruined Six Flags theme park where the Ferris wheel creaked, the wooden rollercoaster decayed, and a sign warned “WILDLIFE IS PRESENT: DO NOT ENTER.” The abandoned Six Flags has apparently been a popular place for intruders; I can only imagine that the sign implied, “keep out for your own safety, even if the law does not scare you.” Six Flags had been built on a drained swamp—like New Orleans East itself—and seemed to be sinking back into the swamp with alligators, snakes, and other wildlife helping to make that transition. A stop at a lively Buddhist Temple that evening was a needed relief. Then Wednesday we explored the business district and several historic cemeteries. Our last stop, and one of the most meaningful, was on Thursday at the Chauvin Sculpture Garden southwest of New Orleans near Houma. Here military veteran and folk artist Kenny Hill had sculpted numerous figures representing his life, his struggles, and the salvation he found through Christ and his angels.
One night while Matt and I were walking in the French Quarter, I mentioned to him some of the new directions I hope to pursue in my upcoming compositions. Primary among these are the idea of co-creation between composer and performer and also the integration of electronic and acoustic music. So often classical musicians are trained to exact every detail from a rigid score, but unless they have experience in jazz or some other form of modern music they are totally unable to do anything more than interpret a score. Like Gunther Schuller in his Third Stream concept or Krzysztof Penderecki in his graphic scores, I want performers to play an active role in the creation—not just the interpretation—of the music. I see this as a democratic approach, more apt for our time and our society than the tyrant composer or tyrant conductor we inherited from the Age of Absolutism. I’m not sure yet how to devise such works, but I feel they should also allow for open instrumentation—a concept introduced to me by Matt. The second direction I hope to explore has something to do with my recent exploration of spectral music, including the novel, almost-electronic sounds Kaija Saariaho has summoned from her instruments as well as my increasing fascination with microtones. In my first years as a composer, I created much more electronic music than instrumental, and I have always admired the diverse timbres and sonic freedom of these compositions even as I have been preoccupied with instrumental music. The evening of March 31, after returning home, I immediately got to work on two new movements to add to the existing Study for trombone and player piano from the Opus 19 set. Movement II makes room for improvisation while I have also begun transforming the player piano part throughout into an electronic track. These represent initial efforts toward these new directions and, now envisioned as a Concertino for trombone and electronics, it will be a piece that I hope Matt will perform at some point.
Yet, more classical composition has not been totally absent from my mind either. This spring I have taken composition lessons from Samuel Stokes to strengthen my instrumentation skills. In the process I have made an arrangement for woodwind quintet of the Veni Sancte Spiritus chant as a precursor to continued work on my Organ Symphony, Op. 22. I see this short piece as a draft of sorts for a third, scherzo-like movement to the symphony. I have also given more thought to the Kyrie. Specifically it was one of three pieces I discussed at a presentation I gave Friday at the University of Louisiana System Academic Summit in Thibodeaux. This presentation, titled “Musical Ghosts: References and Associations in the Works of Luciano Berio and Alfred Schnittke; and an Original Composition,” draws on research I did for my Scholars’ College thesis; it also shares thoughts on my term “referential music.” The formal abstract and PowerPoint are at the Presentations and Panels page, but here are some specific ideas I discussed. With Berio I spoke on the Third Movement of his Sinfonia, sharing his thoughts on this definitive work as well as some thoughts Schnittke had conveyed in an essay. With Schnittke I emphasized the Second Movement of his Piano Quintet which seems haunted by a nineteenth-century waltz. In regards to my own compositions, I argued that references are generative, as they were for Berio; that there is no haunting like there is in Schnittke. I also demonstrated through score and audio excerpts how everything in the Kyrie evolves out of chant quotations much like Richard Wagner’s leitmotivs and structured contrapuntally as Arnold Schoenberg would have done. Additionally I shared familiar thoughts on the tonalizing effort of referential music and the effective diatonicism of a strictly-presented tone row. I will give this presentation again in Natchitoches at NSU’s 29th Annual Research Day this Thursday, April 21.
This next month is bound to be busy as I prepare for exams and as we collectively prepare for our inaugural Sugarmill Music Festival which will be held just south of Alexandria at the Rosalie Sugarmill from May 13 to 15. Stay tuned! I’ll be posting my festival program notes soon as well as interviews I’ll be conducting with two Louisiana composers whose music will be featured at the festival.
About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a music scholar, composer, and advocate of music. Jackson graduated summa cum laudefrom the Louisiana Scholars’ College located in Natchitoches, Louisiana in May 2013 after completing his undergraduate thesis “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” As series director of the successful Abendmusik Alexandria chamber music series from May 2014 to April 2016, Jackson played a vital role in the renewal of interest in chamber music across central Louisiana. This interest has encouraged the creation of the annual Sugarmill Music Festival and the new series Nachtmusik von BrainSurge, both of which Jackson will remain active in as concert annotator and creative consultant. Jackson has in fact written program notes for many of central Louisiana’s key music presenters, including the Rapides Symphony Orchestra, Arts Council of Central Louisiana, and Northwestern State University. He also blogs at MusicCentral where he shares concert experiences, gives listening recommendations, posts interviews with contemporary composers, and offers insights into his own compositions. Jackson has followed classical music around the world, including trips to Colorado’s Aspen Music Festival and the BachFest Leipzig in Germany. As a composer, he has worked to integrate a modern vocabulary into established classical forms in ways that are not only innovative but also engaging to the general listener. His four-movement Suite for solo guitar, Op. 21 received its world premiere on November 5, 2015 and has also been aired on public radio. In fall 2016, Jackson will begin graduate studies at the University of Louisville with the ultimate goal of earning his doctorate in musicology. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at www.JacksonHarmeyer.com.
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