You know why you listen to music. Perhaps for the pleasure of audio art; it keeps you moving when you exercise; or you need it to keep you awake while driving. There are profound and mundane reasons we turn to music. But why do composers write music? I think that’s an interesting question and you always get some kind of answer to this query when attending a concert by the Grossman Ensemble.
This is because when the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition, the organization under which the Grossman Ensemble operates, commissions a work, the commission includes multiple working sessions with the ensemble before the premiere, as well the opportunity to be present at the world premiere performance. Last Friday night, Dec. 2, four composers took individually to the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts stage to speak about their new works just before hearing them publicly for the first time.
The anticipation was particularly evident for the first composer on the program, Maria Kaoutzani. She was the youngest composer of the four (coming in at under 30 years of age) and seemed to positively radiate energy in her brief remarks about her work “For a while.” The title refers to her time as a graduate student at the U. of C. and how it came to be a home for her. She employs what she calls “the shadow of a Cypriot folk song” within her composition to denote home.
“For a while” opens with a single note that slowly grows in intensity as the work unfolds. The music has a soothing quality that is enhanced by a soft, gentle atmosphere. The folk song element certainly does add a down home quality as well as a slightly exotic edge. Later the work becomes more energetic, with congas and bongos (more on that later) adding a relentless, jazzy beat before the music returns to its comforting opening strains. I interpreted this as a love song to a time and a place in this composer’s life, and a very pretty love song at that.
The next work was “Rhapsody in 7sharp9” by Jay Alan Yim, who teaches at Northwestern University. This is a man of many ideas, and a lot of those ideas were discussed in his program notes, which he pointed out from the stage were much longer than anyone else’s. In these notes Yim wrote of his wife (and the fact that the premiere would take place on their 33rd anniversary), how harmony is not only a musical term but also a metaphor for human relations, his use of hockets and other compositional components and the relationship between humans and the planet. He also name drops a few famous composers in a soft humble brag. The notes don’t make it easy to understand his work, but they do open an interesting window into the way Yim thinks about music and what it should evoke in his listeners.
The most important thing Yim did from the stage was explain what “Rhapsody in 7sharp9” means. It is a reference to what he called the “Jimi Hendrix chord” which appears throughout the work. This chord is the dominant seventh sharp ninth chord, which is created by combining a dominant seventh with an augmented second. This chord, Yim pointed out, has both a major and minor third in it, so it is neither (or both) major and minor.
The music opens with a melody that moves a note or two at a time from instrument to instrument (while one instrument plays the other has a rest and vice versa—this is his use of hockets) creating a mysterious atmosphere. Sometimes the Jimi Hendrix chord was clearly evident, and at other times more attenuated via a kind of arpeggio. It was complex music that probably requires repeated listening to understand with any fluency, but also intriguing enough to hold your attention throughout.
Eliza Brown wrote “of our transgressions” using a compositional approach she describes as where “the pitches of ‘underlying’ triads and seventh chords are expanded spectrally, with corresponding expansions and contractions in harmonic rhythm.” She told the audience that it was a joyful piece, and the joy sections of music were among the most attractive moments in the work.
Aaron Travers said that the title of his work, “The Nameless Path,” was a metaphor for how the piece was created. It is a work where Travers said he reached places he wasn’t expecting and that he “let the music lead me where it wanted to go.” The music slowly unfolds from a single E-flat, which appears to represent the main path. The music flows away and returns to what Travers calls “its center.”
The guest conductor for this performance was Oliver Hagen. He’s on the faculty of the Juilliard Preparatory Division, is a member of Ensemble Signal (where he first played the music of Augusta Read Thomas, the guiding light of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition), and has worked with Pierre Boulez and Steve Reich, among many other contemporary composers.
He’s a man under 40 with an almost balletic appearance as he conducts without a baton. It seemed as if even the shape of his hands was part of his communication with the ensemble. Under his direction the ensemble sound was beautifully balanced with crisp rhythms, even when extraordinarily tricky, and in the end each piece seemed to fit the musicians like a glove. That’s due partly to Hagen’s clear skill, partly due to the fact that the works were in fact written specifically for this group of musicians, and partly due to the fact that the Grossman Ensemble is a really splendid group of artists.
There was a reception after the performance and I was charmed by Hagen, who speaks with soft wit and self-deprecation. He told me that he had wanted to be a conductor since high school and that this was his Chicago conducting debut. He said he really enjoyed working with the ensemble. I asked him to describe the Grossman Ensemble in his own words, to which he responded: “brilliant and collaborative.”
I also chatted with Grossman percussionist Greg Beyer, who explained some of the drumming in Kaoutzani’s piece. One section calls for congas and bongo. He and fellow percussionist John Corkill each had their own congas but had to share the bongo, each having to get out of the way of the other. Getting to meet and chat with the folks on stage after the concert is one of the many reasons that a Grossman Ensemble concert is so rewarding.
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