Monday, October 18, 2021

Student composers take center stage in Illinois


PEORIA (Jan 23) — The Illinois Music Education Association celebrated the musical compositions of Illinois students here today at the 2014 Illinois Music Education Conference and, by extension, all the winners and more than 150 Illinois students who submitted their own creative work in the annual composition contest.

The Student Composition Showcase Concert, as it’s called, featured performances of four first-place winners and, after each, a brief conversation between the student composer, Mario Pelusi, and Andrew Alden. Dr Pelusi is a professor of composition at Illinois Wesleyan University and the director of the School of Music. He’s one of seven composition adjudicators for ILMEA. Mr Alden brought his wife, Teresa, and Beltran Del Campo to make a trio that performed, with the help of electronics, haunting alternative scores to four public domain films, such as “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) and “Night of the Living Dead” (1968).

Audience members tweeted questions for Mr Alden, questions about his group’s ability to produce so much depth in their music with so few musicians. This led to a demonstration of the array of electronics they use for support but the ultimate conclusion that live musicians are always—repeat, always—better than a Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) file. “If you think you’ve got the next Mozart Requiem and all it is is a MIDI file, you don’t have the next Mozart Requiem,” he said.

One person asked how the small chamber ensemble stays together without a conductor. Mr Alden revealed that the movie on the screen is the ultimate, unforgiving conductor, but that the three musicians actually cue each other all the time during the performances.

As transformative as the Andrew Alden Ensemble’s performances were, the real treat was yet to come. First, we present the first-place winners of this year’s composition contest, their schools, and the titles of their award-winning works:

  • Arranging: Reiny Rolock, Oak Park-River Forest HS, “Sarabande”
  • Avant Garde/Electronic: Tim Kwasny, Maine South HS, “Serenity and the Giant”
  • Commercial/Popular: Monica Gil, Vernon Hills HS, “The Eyes That Saw a Thousand Ships”
  • Instrumental (large ensemble): Casey Dahl, Lake Zurich HS, “Flight and Repose”
  • Instrumental (solo to chamber): Reiny Rolock, Oak Park-River Forest HS, “Trio No. 2”
  • Jazz Improvisation: Spencer Schillerstrom, Downers Grove North HS, “Have You Met Miss Jones?”
  • Jazz Instrumental/Vocal Ensemble: Mark Ninmer, Taylorville HS, “Machinations”
  • Keyboard Solo: Casey Dahl, Lake Zurich HS, “Prelude in G♭ Major”
  • Remix: Ray Bizot, Oak Park-River Forest HS
  • Vocal Ensemble: Alexander Riak, Woodstock HS, “Dreams”
  • Vocal Solo: Atticus Hebson, Glenbrook South HS, “Cradle Song”
  • Computer Based (middle school): Stephanie Chow, Thomas Metcalf Lab School, “Out of the Fray”
  • Remix (middle school): Alyson Matuchek, Oak Prairie Jr HS
  • Small Ensemble (middle school): Kate Kilmer, Geneva Middle School North, “Prelude and Fugue”
  • Solo Instrument (middle school): Miles Teague, Hillcrest School, “Inspiration (Parts 1 & 2)”

‘Cradle Song’ by Atticus Hebson

With each musical treat, audience members also got a free lesson in assorted techniques of musical composition. The lesson after Mr Hebson’s piece involved the text he chose to interpret as a soprano solo, rendered here by Laura Mosteller, who capably maneuvered through the wide range not only of pitch but also of style demanded by Mr Hebson’s vocal writing.

Both Dr Pelusi and Mr Alden wondered whether the composer had researched any other settings of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s (1809-1892) poem. Researching other settings of a text isn’t so much a matter of letting other composers influence any new work, Mr Alden explained. Rather, “you don’t want to find out that Bob Dylan did your same interpretation,” he said. Dr Pelusi said he likes to “err on the side of research” when it comes to setting poems from so long ago.

‘Serenity and the Giant’ by Timothy Kwasny

The composer here gave everyone a lesson in how electronic pieces can be notated, explaining what all the different horizontal tracks on a single slide meant to the score. But as much as that display probably made many self-declared genius composers in the audience realize they don’t really know everything there is to know about music composition, Dr Pelusi and Mr Alden decided to talk about titles with regard to Mr Kwasny’s composition.

Some composers start a piece by writing the title on the top of the page, while others start writing music before they really set the title of the piece in stone. In fact, Mr Alden said, French composer Claude Debussy, who was quite “avant garde” in his own right, once composed an entire book of preludes by writing only the number of the prelude at the beginning, then the music, then the official “title” of each piece in the work at the end.

In the case of “Serenity and the Giant,” Dr Pelusi suggested Mr Kwasny write “program notes” in order to explain that the “giant” symbolizes life itself, the entirety of the universe. Serenity, as Mr Kwasny used the term, refers to how it is experienced once people grasp the interconnectedness of events that unfold in the universe, each influencing the next event in a great chain—a “domino effect,” he called it. And knowing that, listening to the piece made that understanding of “serenity” crystal clear.

‘Dreams’ by Alexander Riak

Bringing about 20 members of the Woodstock High School Madrigal Singers on stage to perform his “Dreams,” composer Alexander Riak demonstrated how important it is for composers to have finely developed instincts as a conductor. In fact, until he turned around to bow, he could have been a well trained choral conductor, as he imparted to these performers a sensitivity in every note of the music that would have been admired by great conductors and gives him an advantage by making it possible to get live performances of his works.

Mr Riak’s piece also probably left an impression on the hundreds of young composers in the room about the importance of the piano accompaniment. Dr Pelusi brought up the accompaniment style of Johannes Brahms or even Alban Berg, both of whom are noted for their skill with the piano accompaniment. “Berg brought the poetic texts … to life with effective piano accompaniments and text painting,” wrote Sara Balduf Adams in her dissertation entitled, “The Development of Alban Berg’s Style: A Study of His Jugendlieder (1901–1908).” “The striking techniques, gestures, and patterns he employed, enhancing the vivid images of the poems, prompts one to interpret the piano accompaniments in the light of the texts.”

Besides, as Mr Alden pointed out, composers need to help out the singers with pitch sometimes, since it can’t be assumed everyone who performs the pieces Mr Riak writes will have perfect pitch every time. Enter the piano accompaniment.

‘The Eyes That Saw a Thousand Ships’ by Monica Gil

When Mr Alden read the category in which Ms Gil won, “Commercial/Popular,” he said he was expecting something like a jingle, but the piece, with an almost ethereal beauty, was much more. Based on an original email from a friend, the text led Ms Gil to use two male singers, two female singers, two violins, piano, and two clarinets, of which she played one. Sure, she may have confessed she chose the instrumentation in order to be able to make a recording, but the refined power this selective group brought to her piece was palpable.

Instrumentation is “like an artist’s palette,” Dr Pelusi said. “If you throw every color on your palette onto the canvas, it just comes out black.”

Plus, using a small group opens up opportunities for collaboration. Even her director, Randy Sundell, from Vernon Hills High School, came to conduct. When I taught, it always amazed me when a principal would show up and ask what he could do to help, and here we have a music teacher conducting a piece written by a student! The spirit of collaboration makes for great learning opportunities, as Mr Alden pointed out with his own ensemble. Mr Del Campo, he said, serves not only as a violinist or violist in the ensemble, but also as a collaborator who can give the music shape (or suggest changes) that the composer hadn’t even considered.

Composers tend to pay attention to every detail in their scores, especially if they collaborate with live performers of their works and don’t just produce a MIDI file from a piece of software. If those collaborators are trained music teachers, all the better.

Award ceremony for student composers is on Saturday

Awards will formally be presented to student composers on Saturday, Jan 25, at 9:45 AM, a presentation which will also feature a few performances of student creativity, I’ve been told.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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