Oregon Composers Forum: Eugene’s Incubator For New Music

The Fireworks Ensemble (Brian Coughlin, bass) conducts a reading session of OCF student work. February 22, 2014.

The Fireworks Ensemble (Brian Coughlin, bass) conducts a reading session of OCF student work. February 22, 2014.

Story and photos by GARY FERRINGTON

Most Oregonians with an ear for classical music will likely identify Eugene as the home of the Oregon Bach Festival. Yet Eugene also harbors a unique incubator of new contemporary classical music on the University of Oregon campus.

The Oregon Composer’s Forum (OCF), founded and coordinated by UO music professor and composer Robert Kyr, is composed of UO School of Music and Dance (SOMD) graduate and invited undergraduate student composers committed to the creation and premiering of new music. OCF composers’ music is often performed by visiting artists in residence or student-organized groups such as the Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble and Tai Hei Ensemble, which explores a dialogue between Western and non-Western traditions in music with works and improvisations by OCF composers and others from around the world.

The incubation process begins when Kyr invites nationally recognized contemporary classical vocal and instrumental artists to participate in an artist-in-residency program during the coming academic year. With the artists booked, OCF participants gather in the fall for weekly meetings to plan formal concert events for which music is specifically composed. Composers receive a number of opportunities to prepare works for reading or performance by artists, who this year include New York’s Fireworks Ensemble, soprano Estelí Gomez, composer Libby Larsen, Chicago’s eighth blackbird ensemble, and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, formerly of the Kronos Quartet.

“A composer writes a score that is read and reviewed early on by forum members,” Kyr explains, using Gomez, who will be in residency this May, as an example. This provides invaluable feedback for each composer. The finished piece is sent to Gomez a month in advance of her residency, giving her time to ask any questions about it before arriving.

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OCF members read scores in the early stages of development and provide feedback to composers. Foreground: David Sackmann. Background: John Goforth.

Once on campus, Gomez holds individual rehearsals with each composer, some of them private, others held in a seminar setting so all forum members can hear her comments and benefit from the interaction. During these sessions, she talks about a composer’s work in terms of vocal technique and how effectively the composer has written for voice, and about the relationship of the text to the music and its setting. She not only works with the composer but also with any ensemble that might be involved addressing issues of combing voice and instrumentation.

At the end of the artist-in residency workshop sessions, the music is often publicly performed by the visiting artists and accompanying ensemble(s). Each performance is recorded, giving the composer quality portfolio audio and video documentation of his/her work as performed by a major artist. And the university live-streams many of the concerts, making it possible for worldwide audiences to hear the premiere of new music “live” from Eugene’s Beall Concert Hall.

Developing Professional Skills

Today’s composers must be able to not only write music, Kyr emphasizes, but also conduct and perform it as well. They also need to know how to organize, manage, and promote ensembles and events in which their music is performed. The opportunities to work with professional artists in numerous Forum concerts helps students gain these skills.

“The Oregon Composers Forum is a great training ground for the new music world that exists outside of school,” former OCF member Brandon Scott Rumsey wrote in an e-mail. “When I was in OCF, I gained a new appreciation for the amount of organization and detail that must go into creating a successful and meaningful concert experience. When distinguished guests would visit, they wouldn’t stand in front of the room and talk at us for two hours; instead, we would all play on a concert together, or they’d perform a student work in addition to their own repertoire. There was never a feeling of superiority — just passionate artists who are interested in communicating something beautiful and meaningful to people.” 

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Soprano Estelí Gomez performs Jacob Walls’ Sol de invierno with Diana Rosenblum, cello; Jacob Walls, trumpet. Spring 2013. See video.

“Composition is a study, but it’s also a trade, straddling the worlds of classical theory and “boots-on-the-ground” performance, production, and entrepreneurialism,” says OCF alumnus Ethan Gans-Morse. “As a result, composition doesn’t always fit easily in the university structure, where conceptualization often trumps practice. The Oregon Composers Forum is a rare breath of fresh air, combining grad student-produced concerts with world-caliber guest performers and mentors. During my time in the Forum, I was particularly inspired by our concert of original unaccompanied vocal works in collaboration with [vocalist and] Grammy award-winner Lucy Shelton. Projects like that laid the ground work for my being able to compose The Canticle of the Black Madonna, a full-length opera premiering in Portland in September. Dr. Robert Kyr deserves tremendous appreciation for his selfless commitment to fostering a new generation of composers who have the capacity to combine artistic sensibility and innovation with practical and technical know-how.”

Spring Concert

OCF’s spring concert, which will be live streamed from Beall Concert Hall, Eugene, at 8 pm (PDT) on May 4, features these new works by forum members.

Ein Parr Variaationen, for flute and alto flute by Alexander Bean, is a set of variations on the hymn “Ein Feste Burg.”

Premiered at last month’s Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble concert in Portland’s March Music Moderne,  John Goforth’s Three Preludes for cello and double bass explores the relationship between the two lowest instruments of the string family.

The spring concert features two pieces by the SOMD’s 2014 Brandon Scott Rumsey Award in Composition recipient, Noah Jenkins: his String Quartet No. 1 and …or just after, for flute, clarinet, violin and cello, which takes its title from Wallace Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” whose the fifth stanza reads:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Within These Vertical Spaces for oboe and bassoon by Alexander Johnson explores melody and its potential for creating an illusion of harmony. “I was inspired by early music polyphony,” notes Johnson, who has heretofore focused on vocal and choral composition.

Randall Klein writes that his Stream of Consciousness for piano “was written down directly as it came into my consciousness. The inspiration for the piece was solely the beautiful sound the piano made and its tactile touch under my fingers.”

David Phillip Kobaly’s Dämmernd liegt der Sommerabend (text by Heinrich Heine), one of the composer’s first attempts at writing a song for a vocalist, employs “elements of Schenkerian theory [which] has traditionally been an analytical means of description rather than prescription, into my creative process.”

David Sackmann’s three-movement String Quartet explores the characteristics of the instruments and the colors that can emerge out of this classic ensemble.

Suite for Solo Bassoon, by Andrew Stiefel, was inspired in part by Stiefel’s trip across the United States. “As I traveled to Oregon from Texas. I was most impressed by the expansive landscapes as I crossed through Wyoming and Idaho into Oregon.”

Dr. Robert Kyr introduces visiting artist Jeffrey Zeigler (cello) along with Molly Barth (flute), David Riley (piano)  Steve Vacchi (bassoon) and Brian McWhorter (trumpet prepare to perform an evening of OCF compositions. February 19th, 2014 Beall Concert Hall, Eugene.

Dr. Robert Kyr introduces visiting artist Jeffrey Zeigler (cello) along with Molly Barth (flute), David Riley (piano) Steve Vacchi (bassoon) and Brian McWhorter (trumpet prepare to perform an evening of OCF compositions. February 19th, 2014 Beall Concert Hall, Eugene.

New Music From Eugene 

New music from Eugene can also be heard this spring in a number of concert events at the UO’s Beall Hall in Eugene, in Portland, and over the Internet. Check the UO School of Music and Dance Calendar for details or changes.

Gary Ferrington is Senior Instructor Emeritus, Education, at the University of Oregon. 

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