Washougal Art & Music Festival

What we keep, what we leave behind: Protégés unite at the final New@Night of CMNW 2023

The fourth in the festival’s new music series featured new-but-not-too-new music by Alistair Coleman, Aiden Kane and Kian Ravaei, performed by the Viano Quartet.

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L to R: Tate Zawadiuk, Lucy Wang, Alistair Coleman, Kian Ravaei, Aiden Kane, and Hao Zhou at The Armory for CMNW 2023. Photo by Shawnte Sims.
L to R: Tate Zawadiuk, Lucy Wang, Alistair Coleman, Kian Ravaei, Aiden Kane, and Hao Zhou at The Armory for CMNW 2023. Photo by Shawnte Sims.

Being a young composer is a tough gig. As David Schiff is fond of saying, “you’re a young composer until you retire.” Out of all the great composers, few of them are revered for their juvenalia. There are exceptions: Mozart, Schubert, Lili Boulanger and Alexandre Levy never made it past their mid-thirties, and thus we only have their early works. Punk, pop and hip-hop thrive on youth, while classical music is hardly a young composer’s game. It takes years and decades to improve one’s skills, make the right connections and work your way up through tough competition. On the other hand, young performers are in a great spot. Vivacious, optimistic and in top shape, young musicians have some real advantages over their older colleagues. 

Thus programs like CMNW’s Protégé Project are a big deal for young musicians, feeling like it can be your “big break.” Wednesday July 26 was the last of Chamber Music Northwest’s New@Night series, featuring music by current and former Protégé composers Alistair Coleman, Aiden Kane and Kian Ravaei, all performed by Protégé peformers: the Viano Quartet.

The program has been active since 2010, providing summer residencies for young performers and composers. Many of the protégés from years past are names you’d recognize. None more so than Gloria Chien, a 2012 protégé who is now CMNW’s artistic director. Some more protégés whose names a local concert-goer will surely know include Andy Akiho and Gabriella Smith, percussionist Ian Rosenbaum, and the Dover Quartet. These are only some of the dozens who have gone on to solid careers. 

CMNW co-director (and Protégé Project alum) Gloria Chien in The Armory lobby for CMNW 2023. Photo by Shawnte Sims.
CMNW co-director (and Protégé Project alum) Gloria Chien in The Armory lobby for CMNW 2023. Photo by Shawnte Sims.

Intense focus

Alistair Coleman describes his new piece descendants as “mechanical,” and it offers a different take on that idea of mechanical music. Rather than a constant stream of eighth notes and oppressive repetitions, descendants moves through fits and stops, with restless vibrato and constant changes. The cello–well-performed by Viano cellist Tate Zawadiuk–spent a lot of time in the A string’s highest register, with a pained screaming tone. The ending was more spacious with some textures reminiscent of Debussy’s “La cathédrale engloutie.”

Composer (and Viano violist) Aiden Kane’s Triptych was the highlight of the night for me. In her funny pre-performance comments she said how the piece came from her trying things out in the practice room. Triptych flows well, gradually shifting ideas over time from harmonic trills to strummed pizzicati and lyrical sections. This approach to composition gave the piece a fantasia-like atmosphere. Her performance also commanded attention with its intense focus.

Aiden Kane at The Armory for CMNW 2023. Photo by Shawnte Sims.
Aiden Kane at The Armory for CMNW 2023. Photo by Shawnte Sims.

Kian Ravaei wrote The Little Things as a reminder to “please enjoy the little things,” with each movement named after an Emily Dickinson poem. It seems like an odd pairing given our typical association with Dickinson as a macabre shut-in who wrote “because I could not stop for death/he kindly stopped for me.” But like so many great poets her work isn’t so simple: she wrote about many topics through her extensive collection, from the existential to the mundane, with the throughline of her off-kilter adjectives and her famous love of the dashes. And it is from the latter that Ravaei takes his inspiration. 

You can read Angela Allen’s recent interview with the composer here

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Kian Ravaei at The Armory Lobby for CMNW 2023. Photo by Shawnte Sims.
Kian Ravaei at The Armory Lobby for CMNW 2023. Photo by Shawnte Sims.

Each movement showcased a unique color in the ensemble: swelling trills representing butterflies in air, creeping spiccato and tremolo sul ponticello depicting a spider weaving, fast legato runs and neoclassical Stravinskyan dissonances portraying a snake crawling through the grass. It reminded me of a romantic tone poem with its emphasis on imagery and melody. The opening and closing movements spawn from the same idea, a pastoral Copland-like ascending quartal chord. 

The show ended well–but then the Viano Quartet came back for a rare classical music encore of violinist Hao Zhou’s arrangement of “Fly Me to the Moon.” Admittedly, I was not a big fan (but read Angela’s counterpoint here). The arrangement felt like a grab-bag of musical ideas, a musical melange played at a whiplash-inducing pace. There are instances where this aesthetic of overwhelming the audience can work wonderfully, but it’s a delicate balance to strike between impressing with technical brilliance and exhausting the listener. I am also generally not a big fan of most classical arrangements of jazz tunes which end up being super stiff and technical, flashy but lacking in character. It wasn’t bad at all, but maybe lacking in some of the restraint that characterizes older composers.

Viano Quartet violinist and arranger Hao Zhou at The Armory for CMNW 2023. Photo by Shawnte Sims.
Viano Quartet violinist and arranger Hao Zhou at The Armory for CMNW 2023. Photo by Shawnte Sims.

Apologia

I have to ask whether it is fair for me to be so critical of my colleagues. I’m the same age as the composers and performers that night, born in those awkward years of ‘95 and ‘99. Am I being critical out of jealousy? Maybe. Is it unfair for me to hold young composers and performers to the same standard as those who have decades more experience and wisdom? Maybe. 

Many young composers come out of music school left to fend for themselves, spending years refining a unique musical voice that doesn’t sound too studious. 

After spending years in music school listening, performing and studying, it’s no surprise the aesthetic points of reference tend to be the classics. Of course critics are guilty of this too. Who are the composers I’ve compared them to in this review? Copland, Debussy, Stravinsky–hardly the vanguard of contemporary music. Maybe that’s on me, the music critic, for not recognizing how music that is truly of-the-moment has shaped those who are writing music today.

But a cynical audience member might be rightly frustrated at how the music didn’t really feel all that new. Outside of a few extended techniques, the language felt at home in the Romantic or Early Modern era. It is strange and maybe unique among classical musicians that our aesthetic points of reference are so antiquated. Then again, we live at a time when all these things appear to us via the internet. Kids these days are hearing Mozart and Beethoven alongside Hisaichi’s scores to Studio Ghibli films, Toby Fox’s Undertale soundtrack and whatever else is “classical” in the sense of music that is meticulously composed. Not to mention all the music that is new that is closer to pop music than classical. 

So young composers have to find a balance between tradition and innovation–which we can hear here with these three pieces by Coleman, Kane and Ravaei. None of them are super radical or challenging, but they don’t have to be. We (meaning young composers) are all in a difficult spot in our careers, where we are trying to find our aesthetic niches.  What shall we keep, what shall we leave behind, and what new ideas are more than mere trends and gimmicks?

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Charles Rose is a composer, writer and sound engineer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. In 2023 he received a masters degree in music from Portland State University. During his tenure there he served as the school's theory and musicology graduate teaching assistant and the lead editor of the student-run journal Subito. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of the Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. He also releases music on BandCamp under various aliases. You can find his writing at CharlesRoseMusic.com.

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5 Responses

  1. Charles, your final question is a powerful and poignant one that roughly if handily separates the 21st century from the mid to later 20th, when many were afraid to ask it. WWII destroyed Europe, but its music got no Marshall Plan. Instead an avant-garde arose, the Clemenceaus and Lloyd Georges of their time and milieu, as determined to punish pre-WWII music as the Allies were determined to punish post-WWI Germany. We know how that turned out.

    Eventually some help once again came from America, e.g. minimalism, but the esthetic swing was too radical to last, indeed it was whiplash. One thing remained as oppressive as ever – how the composer made a work was more important than what it sounded like. (Thank you, Richard Taruskin.)

    It’s taken 2 or 3 generations for composers (including myself, who hid away for decades) to return en masse to the serious business of providing intelligent pleasure for (hopefully informed) audiences, relatively free of gimmicks, concepts – always death to a sensual art like music – and the dominance of theories and their powerful advocates.

    1. Absolutely, Jeff. Although one thing I think the “populist” angle can get wrong is that the avant-garde was entirely unconcerned with the audience. They may have had a different audience in mind, for sure, but I don’t think any composer would get far if they were actively hostile towards the listener. Speaking from my position as someone who went to music school there are a lot of those pieces from that Darmstadt avant-garde that I think are brilliant (I partially have Gesang der Junglinge to thank for wanting to become a composer), but there is also a lot of self-indulgent nonsense. Plus a lot of those guys (and yes they were mostly men) who did write out-there music that was fun, dramatic and captivating, like Kagel, Ligeti, Penderecki, Ustvolskya etc. We just have to be honest when someone like, say, Ferneyhough writes a great piece and when he writes something bad.

      1. Point taken – I meant to highlight Ligeti as a particularly prominent countercurrent in the nominal avant-garde. To continue the post-WWI political analogy, sort of like Wilson, but without the racism.

    2. I already mentioned Ustvolskya but there were of course many women of that avant-garde like Derbyshire, Laurie Spiegel, Oliveros etc who are also worth mentioning in this conversation of the “listenable avant-garde.”

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