Mizzou New Music Summer Festival: Composers with “Concerns”

Mizzou New Music Summer Festival: Composers with “Concerns”

Group discussion with Anna Clyne and resident composers

Group discussion with Anna Clyne and resident composers David Biedenbender, Michael-Thomas Fumai, and Patrick Clark

This week at the Mizzou New Music Summer Festival, various discussions and interactions between resident and guest composers have explored many issues related to being a composer. Here in Columbia, we have experienced much of the usual light-hearted camaraderie and goofing off that makes these types of festivals super fun, but we have also had an enormous amount of insightful discussion about our lives as composers and what we do (or think we are doing) when we compose. As I mentioned in my first post, on the first evening of the festival after our introductory dinner at the Sinquefield Reserve, Roger Reynolds and Anna Clyne summoned the resident composers into the sitting room for a special meeting and invited us to voice our “concerns” as composers. This immediately set the stage for a week of fascinating discussions about a number of compositional issues and helped us to be more vocal and candid as a group. Throughout this week, discussions have been both formal and informal, with Anna or Roger and without them, and aided or unaided by adult beverages.

Here is a sampling of some of the ideas that have been in the air this week:

Compositional Voice:
One of the initial themes that came up during resident composer presentations on Monday and Tuesday was the idea of having a unique compositional voice. Questions such as “What is voice?” and “How does one know if we are truly composing in our own voice?” were asked. The consensus seemed to be that your compositional voice is writing music in a way that is truly your own. Anna Clyne posed another interesting question: Can we compose with more than one voice?

Inspiration and Impetus:
Very early on during the resident composer presentations, we each discussed what inspires us as composers. Each resident composer is very different stylistically, and we also look to many different sources for inspiration. As a group, we have been directly inspired by sources ranging from popular music, folk songs, specific works of art, the music of previous classical composers, and nature, to random coincidences or ephemera. For example, resident composer Steven Snowden came across a set of hobo symbols on the Internet that inspired his A Man With a Gun Lives Here.

Closely related to the idea of inspiration, is the idea of compositional “impetus” as posited in lessons and discussions with Roger Reynolds. Reynolds thinks of the impetus as a sort of spark or seed that inspires a particular piece of music. Of central concern was how we take this compositional impetus and embody it in a piece of music. According to Reynolds, this involves looking at the impetus in many ways and trying to see all of the implications that it can have on the piece and eventually on the listener.

“We all feel that we are more understood than we are.”—Roger Reynolds

This last “issue” came up many times during the festival and centers around the ways that we communicate with other composers and inevitably, how we communicate (through our music) to the audience. The Mizzou New Music Summer Festival brought together eight very different resident composers and threw us in with two radically different guest composers. Throughout this week, we have made the best possible effort both to learn from each other and to explain our own compositional approaches to each other. Roger observed that many of us lack “clarity of intent” in our verbal explanations of how we approach composition and that many of us do not know how to adequately answer questions posed to us. Of course, language often seems woefully imprecise and different people will understand words and connections between words in different ways. However, Roger seemed to be pointing his finger at certain laziness in us all to take the easy way out with our explanations. Of course, this also extends to composition itself, and how a certain “clarity of intent” is necessary to truly communicate through our music.

Beer and Pizza

Beer and Pizza (to come) at Shakespeare’s Pizza. Steven Snowden, Liza White, David Biedenbender, Michael-Thomas Fumai

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4 thoughts on “Mizzou New Music Summer Festival: Composers with “Concerns”

  1. Patrick Gullo

    Was the idea of composer as worker discussed at all? I think a lot of composers and new music advocates today don’t think about what one might consider “practical composition” (compositions that will yield serious money for the composer and/or performer because of their appeal to a certain crowd) especially, if he/she primarily writes in an unpopular style. Perhaps, some think writing fluffy, pleasing music, while getting played more, sacrifices a certain artistic quality. Others see this as simply being a smart composer with needs–monetary needs. I’d love to see schools organize talks about this specific conundrum we seem to have. We are, of course, sending students out into the real world. A new music festival is a perfect place to do just that.

    1. Kari Besharse

      Hi Patrick,

      We did have some great discussions about the business side of composition with Anna Clyne. These were independent of the stylistic issues which you mention, which honestly I found very refreshing. I felt like at this festival, everyone was just accepted as they are. The resident composers did have a wide stylistic range, and several do write in a more accessible style which has perhaps resulted in more career/commission opportunities for them. However, I feel that as composers, we all have a choice about what our goals are when we write a piece of music. I believe that there are a lot of opportunities out there regardless of style and knowing more about the business side of composition can greatly benefit all composers. You are right that this issue isn’t discussed enough in schools, however I don’t see this as a stylistic issue.

      1. Tim Beringer

        I find it curious that among the ‘concerns’ discussed, politics and it’s affect on the arts didn’t come up. Actually, it has been my observation that of all the topics covered in such discussions and panels, politics seems to be the one thing people try to avoid. I think this might be a mistake. If you step outside and look at the whole board, it could be a huge mistake.

        We like to think that political discourse is something best left to activists political blogs. But this is America and unfortunately, politics now affects everything and in a major way.


        1. Kari Besharse

          Hi Tim,

          I don’t feel like there was any deliberate attempt to avoid politics at this festival. Most of the topics we discussed developed organically through the personal concerns and issues the resident composers voiced in informal conversations with Roger and Anna and what we brought up in the presentations of our music. The festival was more focused on the professional development of the individual composers rather than on some external agenda. There were a few private conversations among resident composers about politics and economics, but this didn’t emerge as a main theme of the festival.


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