Contemporary Music Review Print



UNC Composers x Three

October 14, 2001 - Chapel Hill, NC:


October 14 was a red-letter day for UNC composer Scott Warner, who within a six-hour period enjoyed not one but two premieres in two different Triangle cities. In between came an hellacious downpour and an I-40 wreck that could well have derailed the second offering, but Warner made it back to his home base, where he joined UNC colleagues Allen Anderson and Lynn Glassock for a Hill Hall program that featured a premiere and an older work by each of them.

It's a fact that for years UNC had only one resident composer - Roger Hannay. When that Grand Old Master retired, it took several people to fill his shoes. That Glassock and Anderson and Warner have managed to do so was evident throughout the program, which was given as part of the William S. Newman Artists Series and was titled "Creativity Three--Composers at UNC-CH." The cast included thirteen artists and a playback device, of which more later.

The concert began with Glassock's Between the Lines, a 1997 work for five percussionists that won the Percussive Arts Society's 1998 composition contest. That Glassock would have carried the day then--and perhaps on the evening of October 14 too - should come as no surprise, for he's one of the great percussionists in this part of the forest, and his ideas are invariably fresh. The performers were Heather Harrison, Andrew Hummer, Phillip Long, Andrew Riley and Keith Williams, and they did their various things as the UNC Percussion Ensemble, which Glassock happens, conveniently, to direct. In the first of a fine six-part set of program notes that were surely contributed by the composers themselves, Between the Lines is described as being "divided into ten sections" in which the opening motif, stated at first by the marimba, appears in five of the parts. This recurring theme, constantly altered and varied, helps unify the piece, which lasts about ten minutes and was fascinating to hear and to observe, too--for the players often served as classic studies in kinetic motion.

Striking the set took a while, but when the stage was cleared, cellist David Russell, who teaches at Wellesley and plays with the Tulsa Philharmonic, created an entirely different mood with Allen Anderson's "Collected Letters" (1999). Two years ago in Vermont, Russell premiered this "'reading' of five metaphorical letter fragments arranged in a form to suggest a cumulative narrative." "Ruminations" might better describe it; the emotions it conveys cover a great deal of ground, and the performance was spellbinding, but this listener will need more than this single exposure to begin to grasp its form and meaning.

Warner, whose new trio had been premiered in Raleigh earlier in the day by the Eroica Trio (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), offered "Lost," from what must be an ongoing work called The Dream Diary Pages . It is an electronic piece that he humorously described as the latest outpouring of his hard drive (or words to that effect). In the notes, it's called a "soundscape," and some of its ingredients - including "third-party field recordings of Zulu tribes"--are readily identifiable as the work unfolds. It's curious how much high-tech has enhanced the ability of composers to create things like this. Reflection on some of Hannay's earlier scores brought this home with a vengeance--in his time, it took hours to create a few seconds of processed and edited sound. It would appear to be much simpler and easier now. One of the new work's most distinctive features is the clarity that four loudspeakers conveyed to the audience--the individual strands often stood out in bold relief while other material washed over or under them. Was it "quad" or perhaps "surround," minus the subwoofer?

After a brief intermission, Warner's Strange Angel (1991) was played by alto saxophonist Brian K. Doyle and pianist Elizabeth Holland Tomlin, both of whom hang their hats at UNC. The title provided a fascinating contrast with the earlier (Raleigh) performance of All Blessings to the Goddess , as if Warner has angelic things on the brain. The subplot of the 1991 work is "a meditation on what one might see if one could look directly into the face of an angel." With music that often suggested Hindemith at his most fervent, the piece seemed--to this listener--to have succeeded brilliantly.

Another long delay, this time for setting up, preceded Glassock's Three Days in May , which depicts "an unexpected encounter [that] brings two dissimilar spirits together," after which they find a few things in common. That the dissimilar spirits are a flute and a percussion battery became apparent as the work began. The players were the Armstrong Duo--flutist Eleanor Duncan Armstrong and percussionist Dan Armstrong, both of whom are currently based at Penn State University. Three Days ...wasn't altogether strange - flutes figure in all kinds of ethnic music, often with percussion, and many percussion groups include whistles, if not flutes per se. The battery was for the most part discreetly used, and the work succeeded on several levels--because of the relatively unusual combination of instruments and because of the quite compelling dialogue that Glassock has written for the two players.

Allen Anderson's An Opportunity for Mischief (based on James Baker's disparaging line about the recent Florida election - the one with those dimpled, pregnant and swinging chads) featured a saxophone quartet - Le Quatuor Fauve - that demonstrated several things, not least of which is that the New Century ensemble doesn't have a hammerlock on the art-form.... Its members are James Kalyn, Stephen Stusek, Doyle and Jonathan Noffsinger, and they hail from all over--from the NC School of the Arts, UNCG, UNC and the University of Alabama, respectively. There's something about sax quartets--and this one includes soprano, alto, tenor and baritone instruments--that can often be amusing, and this piece had its funny moments. Maybe it's those eyebrows. Or maybe it's those sometimes-nasty noises that emerge from the guttural baritone. Anyway, this piece, which is actually the finale of a larger work, commissioned by the Alpha Rho chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia (Hail, Sin!) and called All These Are Scenes of Life In and Around the Rectangle With An Opportunity for Mischief (don't ask!), worked well on its own and brought the program to a rousing close.

The show was too long and the room was too warm and too humid. Someone said that the air conditioning will come in 2003, so we'll be patient on that count, but I must again state that evenings of contemporary music that include more than three or four "new" pieces are as exhausting for engaged listeners as they are for the performers, and in this instance the performers got the better deal, for there were thirteen of them, and only one figured in more than one number. The bottom line bordered on overkill - but overkill like this we must nonetheless support, given the customary alternative, which is no contemporary music! Nothing was over a decade old, the composers were all on hand, and the playing was exemplary throughout, so under the circumstances, it's downright churlish to quibble. In closing, it may be worth noting that this old Carolina Tar Heel was particularly pleased to see Stephen Jaffe, King of Dook's outstanding new music series, Encounters..., on hand to hear what these three Chapel Hillians can do!