Story and photos by GARY FERRINGTON
When Shannon Lauriston, a student at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, checked in on first day of the Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium this summer, she felt an “instant sense of community.” Lauriston and 90 other composers and guest artists were about to set course on an intense 12 day journey of collaboration and co-creativity that would culminate in the preparation and public performance of 76 compositions — 55 of them world premieres.
Since 1990, the biennial University of Oregon symposium has brought together composers, composers who perform, musicians who compose, vocalists, instrumentalists, conductors, and emerging directors of music ensembles to participate in a new kind of culture for the creation and performance of contemporary music.
“We provide a creative context for our participants to interact and engage in creating and performing new works, but equally important, to deeply connect with each other in order to develop future projects and collaborations across the boundaries of their cities, states, and nations,” symposium director Robert Kyr explains. “We are not merely a composing and performing organization: we are committed to stimulating and encouraging new kinds of collaborations, and a wealth of future opportunities for co-creation, creative interaction, and community-building.”
The symposium envisions the composer as an individual who can take on various tasks needed to pull off collaborative performances of new music: conducting, performing in an ensemble, curating, administering, presenting and more. Such skills are essential today, when audiences who want to hear contemporary music and composers who want to be heard face limited opportunities to do either.
“Today, the most prominent emerging composers are wearing all of these hats and they understand that collaboration and community-building are essential to the artistic (as well as professional) success of their creative endeavors,” observes Kyr, who also chairs the UO music school’s composition department. He sees this as a welcome change from what he experienced in the latter part of the last century when there was often a “painfully strict divide between composers and performers.” Now, Kyr suggests, “many composers are more complete musicians, who are committed to building strong, collaborative communities of composers, performers, and listeners. And in the future, nearly all composers will probably be engaged in this way.”
Culture of Collaboration
From the first day forward, the OBF Composers Symposium stressed that a community of artists who supported one another could achieve much more together than working alone. Kyr intends the symposium to serve as a model of what artists working with one another could accomplish.
Given that there were twelve concerts for which to prepare, much time and effort went into rehearsals and program planning. The symposium participants, having diverse interests, knowledge, and skills, came together to form two performing groups; the OBFCS Vocal Fellows and the American Creators Ensemble. One composer might take up the baton to conduct the work of another composer, or join other composers as performers of yet another composer’s work.
This constant exchange of roles even engaged guest artists like eighth blackbird founding flutist and UO faculty member Molly Barth, her Duo Damiana partner and guitarist Dieter Hennings, clarinetist James Shields, Roomful of Teeth singer Esteli Gomez, and former Kronos Quartet cellist Jeffrey Ziegler, who eagerly performed as ensemble members. To me, the generosity of these accomplished professional musicians illustrated the deep respect they have for this next generation of composers.
The rigors of such an undertaking put participants on notice that the logistics of scheduling and coordinating multiple ensemble rehearsals and performances could not happen at the last minute. It quickly became obvious that good organizational and communication skills are essential to organizing or performing in an ensemble and critically important for participants when establishing their own group in the future, which many indicated they planned to do.
Anchoring the long days of rehearsal and performance were professional seminars by those visiting artists, Kyr, and the symposium’s three guest composers James MacMillan, Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon, David Crumb, who shared life experiences of composing/performing/conducting as a profession. Panels on career development addressed the challenges of forming and managing new music ensembles despite limited funding and resources, which requires skill sets beyond mastery of music, and appealing to new audiences. Working together to advance common artistic values seemed to be the underlying message in these sessions.
The symposium provided multiple opportunities to experience new musical ideas. One option was to become a member of the Pacific Rim Gamelan ensemble, where participants not only learned to perform using the unique metallic instruments of the gamelan orchestra, but also composed short works for eastern and western instruments that the ensemble shared with the public on the last night of the symposium.
Composer Shannon Lauriston discovered that an improvisation group, just added to the symposium this year, provided her with the opportunity to break out of traditional performer roles and become immersed in spontaneous music making with others. The improv sessions helped her “let go of the restraints” musicians often experience when sitting alone in a room trying to compose or practice. Improvisation involves attentive listening to others in the group and responding to what is heard as they co-create music in the moment.
These performance options, plus a film festival featuring the screening of short videos for which participants had composed musical scores, demonstrated alternative approaches to composing and performing today. For Florida State University composition major Hunter McDaniel, experiences like this opened him to not only new musical forms, but also “to new cultures” and, in the process, “some lifelong friends.”
The collaborative focus of the symposium was intended, in part, to foster creative friendships that may last a lifetime and even blossom into new projects and community-based artistic endeavors. Kyr hopes this networking will ultimately establish long-term partnerships seed new music programming.
“A few of us are planning to collaborate in a small collective that will bring each of us to each other’s home cities,” composer-performer Emma Logan, digital asset coordinator with the San Francisco Symphony, told ArtsWatch. Given that those involved live in the western U.S., a small three-city tour might be possible. “Since each city offers a unique new music scene, it would be great to tap into that scene by using local performers to help fill out the ensemble.”
Although it is too early to know what collaborations will emerge from this summer’s Symposium, the Seattle/Portland based Sound of Late, a guest ensemble this year, is an example of a group that has emerged out of the OBF Composer Symposium experience. SOL members Sarah Pyle (flute), Rebecca Olason (horn), Bryce C. Caster (violin), Milo Flutz (double bass) and artistic director-composer-performer Andrew Stiefel (viola) have all performed in past symposiums, and composer Stiefel developed many of his ensemble organizational skills as a previous symposium assistant. The two-year old group promotes itself as a “new music ensemble that creates distinctive performances and unexpected collaborations that build and inspire the communities around us” — concepts central to the symposium’s philosophy.
Even though I sensed that collaboration, given human nature, could sometimes be difficult, most participants heeded the opening-day call to leave behind any pretense of self-importance and to come together to share common artistic values. And when the long days of intensive creative endeavor faded into late evenings of socializing and networking, the spirit of collaboration, co-creation, and community grew ever stronger among the participants. The OBFCS is a totally immersive new music experience celebrating a vast range of creative expression that I believe will carry over into the lives of symposium participants as they pursue careers in music. I’m optimistic about the future as these young artists bring today’s music to audiences in their communities and beyond.
The symposium appears to have worked for Shannon Lauriston, the composer who felt the symposium’s sense of community at the outset in a Facebook posting, she called “the Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium was one of the most amazing experiences I have had in my life.” And after thanking all those who made the 12 days an “unforgettable experience” she added in the spirit of collaboration (and networking), “If you ever need a horn player, composer, or friend, let me know.”
Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.