89. New Music on the Bayou and the Premiere of “Étude Spectrale I,” Op. 27
Last month I reported that my new composition, Étude Spectrale I, Op. 27, had been selected for performance at New Music on the Bayou. This annual festival, held each summer in the north Louisiana cities of Ruston and Monroe, is directed by Mel Mobley and Gregory Lyons. Composers from around the world submit their music for performance and, of these, approximately forty compositions are selected to be heard at the festival. Composers whose works are selected are also required to attend, so that New Music on the Bayou gains a wonderful atmosphere of community where ideas are freely exchanged and friendships are built. Last year was the inaugural festival and, though I attended a few of the concerts, I found out too late to submit any of my own compositions for consideration. I made up for that this year in submitting Étude Spectrale, and I was thrilled when I learned that it had been accepted. The following post reflects on my time at New Music on the Bayou this summer and shares some thoughts on my new composition, hopefully the first in a series of Études.
I composed Étude Spectrale I in March as inspired by my directed study on spectral music with Professor Caroline Ehman. Spectral music emerged in Paris in the 1970s and, led by composers Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, it was their idea to model their compositions after the physical properties of sound. Initially this was accomplished through mathematics and the application of general sonic principles, but quite soon they had access to computer technologies. Rather than only the musical terms to which we are accustomed, the spectralists also think in frequency, time, and intensity and get away from such things as the even division of an octave into twelve pitch classes. As someone who insistently questions received wisdom, I was easily drawn to this aesthetic which considers actual, scientific sound and not just its musical approximation. I first discovered spectral music in fall 2015; you can read my initial thoughts on this music in Part Two of my series Contemporary Voices. That listening, and particularly the compositions of Kaija Saariaho, inspired me toward new directions in my compositions, specifically the integration of electronic and acoustic music. To achieve this integration, indeed, was one of the motivations behind my scholarly research. Étude Spectrale applies the spectralists’ interest in scientific sound, although it is entirely electronic unlike so many of their compositions. To this extent, I built my composition exclusively from computer-generated sine waves—the purest of sounds consisting of only a single frequency. Then I overlaid twelve of these waves to initially approximate the harmonic series before varying the resultant spectrum. I found the finished composition quite impressive and so have those with whom I have shared it. You can read more about Étude Spectrale and listen to my composition here.
New Music on the Bayou began on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 31 with a casual lunchtime gathering at a restaurant in Ruston. There I met several of the composers and performers, such as Israelis Amit Weiner and Uri Netanel, and I enjoyed catching up with old friends like cellist Milovan Paz and composers who I had met at last year’s festival like Peter Dayton. Afterwards, we headed to the campus of Louisiana Tech where I sat in on rehearsals until the concert there at 7 PM. I had decided not to book a hotel, but rather stay nights in Natchitoches with my friend Matt Petty who also had a composition selected. This was his Sang pour Sang, a work about a Native American massacre outside Natchitoches in 1731, which he composed while a resident at the Montalvo Arts Center in California last May; here he had worked alongside Pulitzer-winning free jazz saxophonist and flutist Henry Threadgill and attempted to apply some of his improvisation methods in this new piece. Matt and I would drive up to Ruston or Monroe each day for the remainder of the festival which, unfortunately, was no easier a drive than it would have been from Alexandria but the camaraderie was definitely welcome! A concert Thursday morning at the Lincoln Parish Library was followed by a compelling lecture on Israeli jazz given by Amit. Thursday afternoon, Matt and I met composers Anthony Donofrio and Daniel Walzer at a coffee house in West Monroe where there was an invigorating conversation that kept returning to politics and the current state of the arts as much as we tried to avoid this topic. Afterwards there was more fellowship at a restaurant down the road and a concert in downtown Monroe at the Palace that evening.
The Friday afternoon concert at Northminster Church in Monroe was the occasion of my performance. Étude Spectrale, since it is totally electronic, required no rehearsal time, only a soundcheck conducted by Mel prior to the concert. My work was well-received and, immediately after the concert as well as throughout the remainder of the festival, many fellow composers congratulated me and a few asked how I had created the piece; one composer even told me she planned to “steal” my piece as it was the exact aesthetic she was missing in an unfinished project of her own! Matt’s Sang pour Sang for chamber ensemble and multimedia was featured on the same concert and also received praise. Later that afternoon, Matt and I, our own responsibilities over, joined our friend cellist Paul Christopher for his rehearsal with composer Brian Ciach of San Jose, California whose work, Chaconne for cello and electronic music, Paul would play Saturday. Brian’s was one of the most exciting pieces of the festival in my opinion and, in fact, it won second place in the competition. Brian, Matt, and I talked over coffee and, though Paul could not join us, he caught up with us for dinner that evening at a seafood place overlooking Bayou Desiard. The evening’s concert followed at the Biedenharn Recital Hall on the campus of University of Louisiana at Monroe.
Saturday morning’s concert brought us to Black Bayou Wildlife Refuge, the namesake of the festival, for two outdoors concerts. The formal concert featured Far Beyond the Dissonance by Greg Robin as performed by hornist Tom Hundemer—two Louisiana composers who I’ve recently interviewed—as well as Sometimes My Arms Bend Back, a fascinating work for percussion including toy piano by Cincinnati-based composer Daniel Harrison. Catfish and more fellowship followed in the visitor center and then began an ambient concert for which musicians were placed throughout the woods for a performance of Peter Garland’s Apple Blossom as arranged by Brett William Dietz, a composer and professor of percussion at LSU. This quickly became an incentive for the gathered composers to hike the nature trail at the refuge. The final concert of the festival moved to the Strauss Theatre Center, a black box theatre in Monroe. Besides Brian’s piece, other highlights for me were Little Wild Goose by Li Tao, a Chinese composer based in Oregon, and Nathan Haering’s Welter for cello, piano, and percussion which certainly in its cello writing had clear ties to the techniques of Kaija Saariaho which I just researched for my directed study’s term paper.
After four days of music and fellowship, it was time for all of us to head our separate ways. I enjoyed being part of this community of friends, old and new, and I especially enjoyed that I was seen as just one of the composers. Here in Louisville, I am foremost a musicology student, no matter how much I might socialize with the composition students. It’s nice for that distinction to disappear every once and a while, although scholarship and research remain my primary endeavors at present. I would spend one final week in Louisiana visiting with family and friends before flying back to Louisville on Saturday, June 10.
About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a music scholar, composer, and advocate of music. Jackson graduated summa cum laude from 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 remains active in as concert annotator and creative consultant. 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. As a composer, Jackson has worked to integrate the vocabulary and grammar of modern music into pieces which are not only innovative but also engaging to the general listener. In fall 2016, Jackson began graduate studies in musicology at the University of Louisville where he has recently been awarded the Gerhard Herz Scholarship in recognition of his accomplishments. His current research interests include French spectral music and the compositions of Kaija Saariaho. He also sings with the University of Louisville Chorus and participates in the School of Music Composition Seminar. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at www.JacksonHarmeyer.com.
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