Oregon Composers Forum preview: New voices from Eugene

Premieres of more than 30 new works by students in the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance’s composition program.


Spring is shaping up to be a season for exciting new music in Eugene. The University of Oregon Composer’s Forum (OCF), a group of graduate and upper division students committed to the creation and performance of new music, hosts two concerts of solo and ensemble work in May — Spring Adventures: Ten Premieres (7:30 pm Monday, May 4, live-streamed from Beall Concert Hall) and Celebrating Innovation: Nine Premieres (Aasen-Hull Hall, 8 pm Friday, May 22). Two more concerts at Aasen-Hull hall feature works by composition students of Dr. Terry McQuilkin (8 pm, Sunday, May 31) and those of Dr. David Crumb (7 pm, Sunday, June 7), and the March 28 Oregon Percussion Ensemble concert at Beall features works written or arranged by UO music students. Numerous individual student composition recitals will also be performed from late April into early June, making, all told, more than 30 new compositions by young Oregon composers premiered in the next few weeks.

 UO student composers organize, and often perform, or conduct, their work in public concerts. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

UO student composers organize, and often perform, or conduct, their work in public concerts.

ArtsWatch asked five OCF composers — Justin Graff, Nathan Engelmann, Pedram Diba, Brittany Studer, and Tao Li — about their compositions that will be performed in concerts this spring.

AW: The UO composition program is recognized for the many opportunities it provides for the public performance of student composer work. What do such opportunities mean for you?

“I feel like I’m experiencing my music with the same freshness as the audience,” Brittany Studer suggests about the public performance of her work. “I didn’t realize until recently how fortunate we truly are to have our pieces performed. I’ve learned that other student composers around the country aren’t so lucky; some never get a performance during college.”

Pedram Diba believes that the UO program facilitates student professional development and notes that participation in the Oregon Composers Forum teaches students “how to be a composer in the real world,” via its loemphasis on how to organize a concert, how to build audiences, how to recruit performers, and most important, meeting deadlines.

Nathan Engelmann agrees with Diba and adds that he appreciates the opportunity to “experience the role of the composer in a holistic sense,” he says, rather than composing “in a box. I feel like I really benefit from making connections with UO musicians, organizing rehearsals, and being able to enjoy my pieces with friends, colleagues, and family. It reminds me of why I was first drawn to composition, and why I continue to devote my time to writing music.”

“Every artist wants the same thing: recognition,”adds Tao Li. She suggests that recognition for composers comes about primarily by having their music performed, as it really can’t be “heard” if it remains an unplayed score. “In having my music performed, I not only learn the difference between my imaginary world and that of its actual performance, but I also increase my chances of gaining recognition for my work.”

AW: What inspired you to write this work?

Inspiration for Studer’s Ocean In The Sky for wind octet came while driving and noticing that cloud formations on the horizon looked like giant ocean waves. “I started composing as soon as I got home,” she remembers. “Having never written for brass before, I wanted to include those instruments along with woodwinds to create a full sound. Film music often uses brass for epic adventure themes and I really wanted to create that in my piece as well. A lot of my compositions are programmatic and very influenced by film music.”

Justin Graff.

Justin Graff.

Graff is drawn to the music of the great contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, which has been a strong influence in his music. “I’ve been writing little exercises in close imitation of his style for learning purposes,” he explains, “and I’d say that my Rumination for string quartet is a summary of how I’ve incorporated Pärt’s techniques into my own compositional voice.”

German composer Paul Hindemith’s influence on Engelmann is apparent in the harmony of his Cascade for an eleven-member chamber orchestra. “Just the idea of writing for such a large ensemble sparked a lot of my creativity, he adds.

Pedram Diba

Pedram Diba

Diba’s Going to Tehran is based on childhood experiences growing up in Iran where, twice a year, his family would take the train to the Iranian capital. His three-movement string quartet reflects significant moments in the 15-18 hour trip from his hometown of Kerman. The first movement, “Train,” captures the “sounds and rhythms” of rail travel. The second movement, “Azan,”reflects the Islamic call to prayer. He notes that the train would stop at 4 or 5 am and those who wanted could get off and pray. Diba composed a theme and variation for this movement based on an azan he often heard while growing up. The third movement, “Tehran,” captures the sights and sounds of what he has experienced in one of the world’s busiest and crowded cities.

Tao Li

Tao Li

Inspiration for Tao’s Bei for solo cello, tam-tam and kick drum, comes from her Chinese and Buddhist culture which is rich with mantra singing and the sound of wood blocks stroked by monks— “images and sounds” that are so much of who she is, both as a person and composer.

AW: What were the challenges for you in writing your piece?

For Graff the biggest challenge was making the musical form feel natural. “I’m still learning how to organize my ideas and maintain a sense of continuity with them,” he says. “I often get stuck in a linear writing mode where I only think of what comes next rather than thinking on a larger scale.” On a more personal level, Graff has had to “wrestle with a great deal of self-doubt” with this being the first complete chamber piece he has ever written and his first contribution to an Oregon Composers Forum concert. “Being the new guy comes with a certain degree of fear,” he admits, “and I had to learn to release that fear if I wanted to get anywhere with this composition.”

Brittany Studer

Brittany Studer

The challenge for Studer, having never composed for brass, was “orchestrating in a way so that the instruments never overpowered the woodwinds unless called for,” she explains. “This meant putting the brass instruments in their more pale register, and at a low dynamic level.”

Orchestration was also a challenge for Engelmann. “I’ve never written a piece for a chamber group of this size (11 instruments), and composing it posed unique challenges,” she says.

Writing for solo cello when not being a cellist herself posed a challenge for Tao, as did figuring out how a single performer could play cello, tam-tam, and kick drum in her Bei. She humorously suggests that what she heard while composing her piece “will just have to stay in my head” when she hears it performed.

Public performances and responses benefit young composers.

Public performances and responses benefit young composers. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

AW: Composer Samuel Adler once noted that music should give the audience an experience, adventure, something different. What is it you hope your audience will experience in listening to your music?

Studer hopes that her piece will provide a sense of adventure for the audience. “The name itself (Ocean In The Sky) invokes an expectation of something majestic and expansive: rolling, powerful ocean waves.” She also suggests that there is something mysterious and fantasy-like about the concept of an ocean in the sky that adds to the enjoyment of the work.

Nathan Engelmann - business-portraits-headshots-eugene-oregon-2 Engelmann wants his listeners to have fun, noting “there are many contrasting parts that I hope will weave together into something exciting for the audience.”

For Justin Graff, the focus of his string quartet, Rumination, is to “create a strong sense of tension-and-release,” through which “the audience feels (an) emotional pull without feeling jarred,” he says.

“The history and culture of my country has influenced me profoundly as a Chinese composer,” Tao Li (from Beijing) writes. “My music has always been inspired by my culture, [and] I can introduce a hint of it to the audience through my music.”

See the SOMD events calendar for details about other new music recitals by University of Oregon composers offered this spring.

May 4, OCF’s Spring Adventures: Ten Premieres concert, 7:30 pm, Beall Hall (live-streamed), includes Justin Graff’s Rumination for string quartet, Tao Li’s Bei for solo cello, tam-tam and kick drum, and new compositions by Nikolai Valov, Rebecca Larkin, Alex Bean, Ramsey Sadaka, Peter Avelar, Benjamin Penwell, and Mark Cooney.

May 22, OCF’s Celebrating Innovation: Nine Premieres concert, 8 pm, Aasen-Hull Hall, includes Pedram Diba’s Going to Tehran for string quintet, Nathan Engelmann’s Cascade for eleven-member chamber orchestra, Brittany Studer’s Ocean In The Sky for wind octet, and works by Rhys Gates, Nikolai Valov, Izabel Austin, Benjamin Penwell, Ramsy Sedaka, Bryce Miller, Tim Bloch, and Kei Hong Wong. 

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

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