The UW-River Falls Commissioned Composer Project

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The University of Wisconsin-River Falls, created over a century ago as a state-supported normal school, has progressed, like so many similar institutions, from state collegehood toward a designation as an "emerging" institution during the 1960s and, finally, toward presumed full "emergence" in the 1980s as a multi-purpose university. Acquired along the way were an independent College of Arts and Sciences, a College of Agriculture, and a Graduate School, all to supplement and complement the institution's original teacher-training role. Presently the University finds itself, along with a dozen similar Wisconsin state campuses, merged into uneasy equality, at least from a legislative and administrative point of view, with the vast and prestigious UW-Madison campus. UW-River Falls, located a stone's throw from (i.e., within easy media range of) Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, has prospered in many ways by metropolitan proximity, not the least of which are opportunities to share in and aspire to some of the cultural sophistication of the Cities, as a way of living up to its recent "emergence" as a mature cultural force. Whatever the University has been able to accomplish in this regard has been done in spite of an awkward geographical location, on one hand situated 250 miles distant from the Madison-Milwaukee axis which acts as the state's cultural, political, and economic center of gravity, and on the other hand very near to, but not really a participant in a vital metropolitan area; this because of a political state boundary that is far harder to breach than the river which forms the physical barrier between the two states. Some also regard as a deterrent toward full cultural maturity a rich May breeze which, wafting over the campus around Fine Arts Festival time from the direction of the University Farm's liquid fertilizer experiments, serves to remind those who are tempted by the bright lights that their roots and, perhaps, their first responsibilities lie upon the warm Wisconsin earth, and with the young lives that come from it and look to the University for wider horizons.

The place of the fine arts in such an atmosphere is, perhaps inevitably, ambiguous. The naiveté of the students and the necessary pragmatism of the administration are equalled only by the point of view of the vocationalists who openly question the utility of spending the large amounts of time, effort, and money that it takes to support a vigorous artistic establishment. These stresses are countered by the professional aggressiveness of the artist-turned-teacher, who, unable to find a position tailored to his exact specifications in an overcrowded employment market, sets out to create for himself the conditions that will let him do his thing, as long as the teaching load is not too heavy.

It was in a spirit of seeking to give the arts at River Falls a presence as palpable as that spring breeze that prompted someone to suggest, in 1966, that a spring Fine Arts Festival be organized. Administrative amenability at high levels (someone was approached at just the right moment) led to the establishment of a fund, and the music faculty, pleased but taken somewhat by surprise, met to decide what to do with its portion of the unexpected boon. After some discussion, it was decided to commission a well-known composer to write a work for one of the student ensembles, to bring this composer to the campus for a few days, and to present performances of several of his works, including the premiere performance of the commissioned piece. The faculty committee also decided to aim high, with the result that Vincent Persichetti was finally persuaded to write a band and/or choral work for what seemed then to be a fairly substantial fee. In due course, the score and parts to Celebrations for chorus and chamber band arrived.

Looking back on that first year from the vantage point of seventeen subsequent commissions, it is doubtful that we could have planned things any better. Persichetti proved to be a most engagingly warm person who had nothing but praise for our beginning efforts at the commissioning business. His large musical output provided us with a wide variety of works for performance that were accessible both to the student performers and to the audience. He gave us some valuable advice for future festivals, and his comments on the performances of his music were warmly encouraging. The premiere performance of Celebrations was, well, pretty good. The students, stimulated and excited, worked hard and outdid themselves, knowing that the composer himself would be hearing his new work for the first time at their hands. The first Fine Arts Festival provided a sense of heady accomplishment in the Music Department, and created a momentum that has not shown signs of abating.

Following the first experience, plans were immediately made to do it again the following spring. Funds were again secured, and the project was launched as an annual event, which, like that humid breeze, has become an integral element of the University's springtime ambience.

The format of the seventeen subsequent commissions has not changed substantially. Somehow we knew that we had a winning combination. Composers are selected through a rather informal departmental consensus, taking into consideration such items as the reputation (or potential reputation) of the person, his or her willingness to work for modest fees, and the compatibility of his output with the sometimes limited performing resources of the department.

Additionally, a rather consciously eclectic approach has been taken in the selection process: we have attempted to avoid any particular stylistic bias and have thus been able, over the years, to investigate an unusually varied cross-section of our pluralistic musical culture. Perhaps in retrospect, the single bias that has been observed is an avoidance of "specialized" and "educational" composers, such as those who write specifically for choirs or for concert bands. Finally, a primary goal of most commissions has been to involve as many students as possible both in the premiere performance and in performances of composers' other works. Looking toward student resources has usually been one of the first steps in the annual process.

When the University and the composer come to mutually agreeable terms, a contract is drawn which optimistically calls for scores to be delivered two months in advance of the premiere performance. The visiting composer is expected to spend a few days on campus, deliver one formal lecture, supervise final rehearsals of his music, visit classes, and otherwise interact with students and faculty in any way that seems appropriate. Attempts to stretch the lead-time between the commission award and the premiere to more than a year have, unfortunately, proven impossible because of the mechanics of obtaining funds.

Since its inception, the project has been nursed along and given continuity by Professor Conrad De Jong, a published composer in his own right, who, in the 1960s, was a young would-be composer-in-residence teaching basic music classes and trumpet lessons. It is largely owing to his persistence, his knowledge of the field of contemporary American music, and his determination to make this institution a center for contemporary music, that the composer project has become such a valuable part of the department's activities. Funding, garnered from a number of diverse sources for the first few years, has more recently been provided regularly by the UW-River Falls Student Senate, which distributes student activity funds to various campus activities, such as athletics, forensics, cheerleader trips, and the rodeo team. Despite some demands that we continually justify the project, the Fine Arts Festival has consistently received positive support by the students, with an annual allocation presently amounting to $7000 or $8000 to be divided between the music, art, and theater departments. Commission fees have been modest, running from a low of $1000 to a high of $4500 (the latter sum was reached with some help from the Wisconsin Arts Board to commission a more extended work). These sums appear even more modest when one considers that composers must also meet their own traveling expenses. Lately, inflation, higher air fares, costs of copying of parts, and composers' higher material expectations have combined to make the annual search even more difficult. However, the continuity of the program, its growing reputation in certain circles, and the prestigious names on the list of previously commissioned composers have combined to tempt some prospects as much as—if not more than—the fee itself.

With very few exceptions, the composers chosen have proven to be the kinds of people who can interact with students and staff in encouraging and positive ways. They have been able to focus and sustain the excitement that begins to build with the arrival of a sometimes strange-looking score and the onset of intensive rehearsals. They seem to have been unanimously touched with our efforts to bring off, sometimes by stretching our resources, one or more concerts devoted solely to their music. Although some of the lectures have been forgettable (composers, almost by definition, are not always the most articulate of people), they have usually been able, somewhere along the way, to provide valuable insights into their philosophies, methodology, and any other influences that have gone into their art.

A few negative experiences—scores that have arrived late and/or in an unfinished state, the composer who disdained any communication whatever with mere students, and the person whose icy contempt of performances that were not up to New York standards—have only temporarily dampened the enthusiasm that has been fueled by a great many more fondly-remembered vignettes:

  • Leslie Bassett, who gave an undergraduate student's first efforts at composition the same kind of detailed critique that he evidently gives to his graduate students at Michigan;
  • Ross Lee Finney, a distinguished-looking gentleman then in his sixties, who delighted a group of kindergarten children with an enlightening session of tonal and rhythmic games;
  • Henry Brant, in his black bow tie and little blue cap, who attracted a Pied Piper's retinue of students within minutes of his arrival, and who did not shake them off until his plane left three days later;
  • John Cage, who led a group of art and music students on a nature hike along South Fork Creek (the season being too early for serious mushroom hunting), and who took the time to visit a student at home, ill and sick at heart at the prospect of missing his visit entirely;
  • William Albright, who performed a complete recital of barroom piano styles from the 1920s and 1930s;
  • The University Concert Choir, made up of a cross-section of the entire student body, who put a composer on the spot with some penetrating questions about his musical intentions, having for some time wrestled with a complex, non-traditional, and not-quite-finished score;
  • Barney Childs, who was determined to write for every musical ensemble in the department, kept sending a few movements every week right up to the performance date, then brought another sheaf of scores with him;
  • Donald Erb, pleased with the premiere performance of his 3 Pieces for Brass Quintet and Piano, who arranged for the student-faculty ensemble to fly to Cleveland and perform the work at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

These and other experiences have become part of the departmental lore and tradition. By themselves they would probably justify the efforts to mount the project year after year. However, those of us who have participated in these events over a period of time have seen other, perhaps less tangible benefits to ourselves, our students, the University, and, ultimately, to the art of music.

First, we feel there is no better way to renew each year a positive commitment to music as a living, vital force in contemporary society. We feel strongly as a department that the modern university must prepare people to participate in the music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and we are disturbed by the archival tendencies of much of Western Classical music culture today.

Second, to share in the creation of an entirely new art work is a unique experience that cannot be duplicated elsewhere in the curriculum. Unequalled is the excitement of hearing new combinations of sound for the first time and the process of interpreting them to the composer's satisfaction. As the composer makes suggestions and last-minute revisions on initial hearings of his music, the performers somehow begin to share in the creative effort in a way that seems to be rather unique and insightful. As the audience hears representative works of the composer, it begins to understand the continuing artistic and stylistic development of this person and to participate in his personal aesthetic life. The whole process is partly educative, partly aesthetic, and partly the pure adrenal stimulation of working with a new art work. The project tends to give a special focus to the spring term, and gives students (and faculty) the impetus to transcend their technical and musical limitations as a climax to a year's activities.

Third, aside from the obvious educational benefits of acquainting students and the audience with current trends in American music, perhaps those who actually benefit the most are the faculty. Among college music faculties that are demonstrably growing older, and as their own exciting graduate school days recede into the dim past, it is all too easy to succumb to a middle-aged temptation to slip into well-worn grooves. The necessity of learning a new score (perhaps written in unconventional notation and calling for non-traditional techniques) is one way to combat academic complacency. Our tradition of calling for the entire department to pitch in as needed to mount representative performances from each composer's body of works has meant that every performing staff member frequently takes part as coach, conductor, soloist, or as an ensemble player or singer.

Finally, a number of lesser benefits have been seen to accrue: a growing list of commissioned works that have been published and are enjoying performances elsewhere (see Appendix); growing numbers of alumni who are cultivating and promoting contemporary music wherever they happen to locate following graduation; and opportunities to coordinate this and other projects with professional arts organizations of the Twin Cities, a development which promotes much beneficial interaction.

In conclusion, let it be said that the project seems to work very well for us. In other situations, such as smaller departments with few performing groups or larger departments that have little sense of institutional cohesiveness, one could find such a project less wieldy to mount. If nothing else, on this campus, contemporary music has become, like that spring breeze, a vital, accessible, and self-renewing force, and we may perhaps be pardoned for a bit of pride in our efforts to contribute our own glow to those bright city lights that lie just over the horizon.

 

APPENDIX
WORKS COMMISSIONED BY THE UW-RIVER FALLS COMMISSIONED COMPOSER PROJECT

1967 Vincent Persichetti Celebrations, Cantata No. 3, for Chorus and Wind Ensemble (Elkan Vogel Co.)
1968 Donald Erb Three Pieces for Brass Quintet and Piano (Merion Music-Theodore Presser Co.)
1969 Chou Wen-Chung Yün, for fl., cl., bsn., hn., trp., trn., 2 perc., 2 pianos (C.F. Peters Corp.)
1970 Ross Lee Finney The Remorseless Rush of Time for amplified voice, mixed chorus, 2 fl., 2 cl., 2 trp., 2 trb., 2 perc., piano, dbl. bass (C.F. Peters Corp.)
1971 Barney Childs When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, for choruses, band, stage band, small instrumental ensembles, various vocal and instrumental soloists (American Composers Alliance)
1972 Mel Powell Setting for Violin and Tape (Variant: "Immobile V") (G. Schirmer)
1973 Talib Rasul Hakim
(Stephen Chambers)
Sketchy Blue Bop for jazz ensemble, and Tone Prayers for mixed chorus, piano and percussion
1974 William Albright Introduction, Passacaglia and Rondo Capriccioso, a concerto for tack piano, fl., bs. cl., alto sax, hrn., trp., trb., tba., perc.
1975 Henry Brant A Plan of the Air for four vocal soloists and band
1976 Leslie Bassett Wind Music, five movements for fl., ob., cl., bsn., hrn., alto sax (C.F. Peters Corp.)
1977 John Cage Quartet for concert band and twelve amplified voices (C.F. Peters Corp.)
1978 Richard Felciano The Seasons, cantata for chorus of unaccompanied mixed voices (E.C. Schirmer Co.)
1979 Barbara Kolb Chromatic Fantasy for narrator, alto fl., ob., sop. sax., trp., elec. guitar, vibraphone (Boosey and Hawkes)
1980 Edwin London Psalm of These Days V, for mixed choir and band (C.F. Peters Corp.)
1981 Stephen Chatman Screams and Whimpers for saxophone quartet (Dorn Publ.)
1982 Sydney Hodkinson Alte Liebeslieder Book III for mixed choir
1983 Frederic Rzewski Satyrica for augmented jazz ensemble (Sound Pool Music)
1984 Fischer Tull Quodlibet for brass choir and percussion
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Last modified on Wednesday, 24/10/2018

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