The Contemporary Chamber Ensemble in Residence at Rutgers University

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In response to requests concerning the organization and activities of the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble in Residence at Rutgers, we are pleased to offer an account of its first year.

The impulse to establish a relationship between the ensemble and a university originated with the Committee for International Composers Concerts, Ltd., representing the ensemble. Joint responsibility then was assumed by this committee and Rutgers, The State University, at the levels of the Administration and of the Music Department. As a result of the first year's experience, the University will assume the preponderant share of responsibility for administration of the project in the future, in order to promote efficiency. It also will assume an increasing proportion of the cost of the project. Although the Music Department has contributed much toward its realization, the project is dependent on the University, and not specifically on the Music Department. Most of the cost, for a period of three years, has been assumed by the Rockefeller Foundation, but in diminishing proportion; it is expected that the University gradually will find the means for its continuance on a lasting basis.

The activities of the ensemble during its first year may be grouped into four categories.

1) Workshops, open rehearsals, performances, and seminars at the University.

The ensemble, conducted by Arthur Weisberg, consists of thirteen players: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon (all doubling on auxiliary instruments), horn, trumpet, trombone, percussion (1), piano, violin, viola, violoncello, and contrabass. In the original proposal provision was made for a second violin, a second percussionist, and a harp; these were stricken from the list in order to reduce costs, but the large number of manuscripts submitted that required these players demonstrated their importance, as well as the need for a singer. Eventually these should be added to the ensemble. A fund for the hiring of extra players was incorporated into the project, which made possible the performance in concerts of music requiring a somewhat different instrumentation; it was not, however, sufficient to permit the same practice in the workshops.

Workshops were held on Tuesdays, from 3:30 to 5 P.M. Universities and conservatories throughout the country were notified by a special flyer, as were all composers belonging to the American Music Center, New York. A gratifyingly large number of manuscripts were submitted. Criteria for selection for a workshop reading were primarily:

a. suitable instrumentation: in general, works for groups larger than the usual chamber music units (trios and quartets) were preferred, but not exceeding the number of players available;

b. that the scores present certain notational, compositional, or performance problems or complexities that could not be confronted except by an ensemble of this extraordinary caliber, with years of experience in contemporary idioms;

c. that the composer be in a position to benefit from consideration and discussion of his score, and that he be present at the workshop. Performance of compositions suitably prepared by students at Rutgers was a direct responsibility.

During the second term the administration of the workshops was assumed directly by the Music Department, together with the conductor, Mr. Weisberg. Compositions by the following composers were read at workshops in the course of the second term:

Peter S. Odegard (Toronto, Canada)
Robert Stewart (Washington and Lee; Virginia)
Romulus Franceschini (Pennsylvania)
Richard Wilson (Rutgers; New Jersey)
Joel Chadabe (Albany, New York)
Elliott Schwartz (Bowdoin; Maine)
Kenneth Dorsch (Rutgers; New Jersey)
John Harbison (Harvard; Massachusetts)
Richard Moryl (Connecticut)
Robert Lewis (Goucher; Maryland)
Robert Frone (Rutgers; New Jersey)

In addition, two entire afternoons were devoted to the reading of works by students in composition from the University of Pennsylvania and from Princeton University. Pieces by Odegard, Chadabe and Schwartz also were given performances in concerts at Rutgers, at Carnegie Recital Hall in New York, and on tour. Works by Harbison and Wilson will be included in a similar schedule of concerts for next year. All composers were present for the reading of their works.

Open rehearsals also were held on Tuesdays, from 1 to 3 P.M., and were devoted to the preparation of the concert programs.

There were four concerts during the year at Rutgers in New Brunswick, and one each in the Newark and Camden branches. The composers performed on these four concerts are as follows:

I.   II.  
William Sydeman   Karlheinz Stockhausen
Luciano Berio   Roger Reynolds
Elliott Carter   Hans Werner Henze
Charles Ives   Stefan Wolpe
    Paul Hindemith
III.   IV.  
Beatrice Witkin   Peter S. Odegard  
Jean Barraqué   Joel Chadabe  
Meyer Kupferman   Robert Moevs  
Roman Haubenstock-Ramati   George Crumb  
Darius Milhaud   Sylvano Bussotti  
    Elliott Schwartz  

The work of Henze, Des Kaisers Nachtigall, was done with pantomime. These concerts were substantially repeated at Carnegie Recital Hall in New York. Other works performed in New York, and at a series at Hunter College, included works by Edgard Varèse, Lukas Foss, Alvin Etler, Arnold Schoenberg, and Jean-Claude Eloy.

Members of the ensemble also presented half-hour concerts on Tuesdays at noon at Kirkpatrick Chapel at Rutgers. These concerts were drawn from the repertoire of earlier periods, and ranged chronologically from Baroque trio sonatas to The Story of a Soldier by Stravinsky. Performances by other University musicians supplemented these concerts, to provide a weekly series; attendance at this series grew substantially in the course of the year.

A seminar in contemporary music for high school students was given in the Spring. This was successful; more are planned for next year. A seminar in percussion technique and practice, for professional musicians, is likewise planned for next year.

2) The commissioning of new works by the Committee for International Composers Concerts, Ltd.

One work was commissioned for the first year: the Chamber Piece of Stefan Wolpe.

3) The establishment of an archive of contemporary music in the form of tapes, manuscript scores and publications.

The workshops take place in a recording studio, and are preserved on tape in the Music Department Library, where they are available. Concerts are similarly recorded.

4) The dissemination of these performances elsewhere in the country.

The ensemble has taken its concerts on tour this past year over a far ranging territory, including California and New Hampshire, Ohio and Massachusetts, and other intermediate places.

Individual members of the ensemble are assigned the rank of Lecturers in Music and as such are available for instruction in their respective instruments within the Master of Fine Arts program of the University. They also are available for instruction to music concentrators at the undergraduate level who are qualified to take a performance option.

Plans for next year involve a greater assumption of administrative responsibility on the part of the University, through its office of concerts and lectures, and a greater integration of the ensemble in the actual course work carried on by the Music Department.

ROBERT MOEVS, Workshop Director
Associate Professor in Music Theory and Composition
College of Arts and Sciences
Rutgers—The State University


The editor of Symposium has asked me to report on the activities of Arthur Weisberg's Contemporary Chamber Ensemble at Rutgers during the past year as I observed them from the vantage point of a candidate for the degree of Master of Arts in Music Theory and Composition.

As Mr. Moevs has explained in the preceding article, these activities consisted of formal concerts, at noontime and in the evening, as well as informal rehearsals and so-called "workshops." All were open to the public free of admission charge, and all were planned and publicized well in advance. Quite naturally the attendance at concerts was much greater than at rehearsals and workshops, which were gauged to the music student rather than the general listener. Considering that the Rutgers audience was in no way more prepared than its counterpart in another liberal arts college community for the splintered sound of post-Weberniana, I should say that their reaction was surprisingly favorable. At each of the four evening concerts, the Ensemble performed to an enthusiastic if not capacity crowd, despite a lack of concession in the choice of program. Altogether, Ives' Three Places in New England and Milhaud's La Création du Monde were the only "chestnuts," and they after all lie some distance from, say, Finlandia. New and imaginative sounds seemed to intrigue most listeners, who welcomed a chance to "contemporize" their musical awareness. The undergraduate music students proved especially agile in shifting from an initial attitude of horror and disbelief to blasé acceptance of even the most extreme aleatoricism.

The Music Department did not shirk its responsibility for informing the audience about the works and composers played on these concerts. For each work, Martin Picker, who gives the twentieth century music course at Rutgers, provided detailed program notes that served both as preparation for the listeners and also as permanent reference material for the students. Complicated by the inaccessibility of scores and recordings of many of the pieces, Dr. Picker's efforts as annotator, like Martin Sherman's as general concert supervisor and Robert Moevs' as workshop director, show the extent to which the music faculty voluntarily supported the project in order that it might thrive.

Although the Music Department's backing was essential, the success of these concerts of unfamiliar and challenging music must finally be attributed to the extremely high level of the performances. The virtuosity of individual players along with the perfection of their ensemble were qualities apparent to even the least initiated listener and never failed to engender respect even when the music itself escaped comprehension.

Because the four evening concerts consisted entirely of recent music, a series of biweekly recitals was instituted which featured music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The players prepared these recitals with a marked relish—perhaps in part because they felt they had been in danger of losing touch with such ancient concepts as tonality and common time. By proving themselves in the familiar world of Bach, Mozart and Schubert, they quieted the few but inevitable voices alleging that any specialization in contemporary music signalled an inability to play successfully the standard repertoire.

Workshops for composers were held once a week, each lasting about an hour and a half. The amount of music considered at each session varied from a part of one work to several pieces by different composers. Although any opportunity to hear his work played is dearly of value to a composer, the announced purpose of these workshops was to raise and discuss in the course of reading a new work questions pertaining to the notation and performance of recent music in general. Thus "problem music"—often of a sort that introduced some new notational system—tended to be favored in the choice of workshop material although works that were of exceptional technical difficulty also qualified, their difficulty becoming itself the problem. In these sessions, the members of the ensemble exhibited a proficiency in sightreading that challenged one's previous notion of human capability. Notes that could have been tamed by the normal professional group only after several rehearsals, and that often had to be deciphered from the latest revolutionary notational cure-all, fell immediately into place under Mr. Weisberg's sober direction. Because the group had dealt in the past with manifold attempts to thwart nearly every traditional assumption in music, it remained undaunted by each new invention, however clever, and demanded only that the writing be clear enough to be read off the first time with a minimum of prior explanation.

I am tempted to interject the personal observation that the Ensemble may in a sense sightread too well. Precision of notation, whether of a traditional form or not, became in many of these discussions a preoccupation that overshadowed almost entirely the music itself. Or, put another way, the surface aspects of the music received a disproportionate amount of attention because, in a single quick reading, these aspects were all that the performer encountered. Possibly because of the increasing influence of electronic music, the assumption seemed to prevail that the more quantitatively exact the data to be fed into the performer, the "better" the performance as well as the piece. Indications that in the past left the performer room for what was called "interpretation" are now dismissed as vague and inaccurate. It is said that we must be able to specify eleven different gradations of piano, seven different staccatos, and so forth. At such discussions one often wished to rejoin that music is not always written to be sightread, that some degrees of loudness, shortness, and speed must be measured relatively and only after the work as a whole is familiar to the performer, and that such familiarity usually requires more than one glance. Nonetheless, when vagueness predominates, or when the composer is unaware—as I found myself too many times—of ambiguity in his notation; a bout with the Ensemble is an almost indispensable educational experience.

Many of us attending the workshops found ourselves progressively more interested in problems of performance than of notation. In this informal setting, one was able to gather a wealth of information about fingerings, alternative methods of producing harmonics, what dynamics are possible in extreme registers, what slurs are impossible in any register, what bowings are illiterate, and many other such matters. With the limitations of each instrument came its unforeseen capabilities. Players could be depended upon to demonstrate their own extensions, often to awesome regions, of the textbook versions of the range of their instruments as well as countless amazing sound effects they had discovered in the course of trying to produce whatever was or had been called for. In addition to being instructive, such demonstrations were always greatly entertaining though they were of course delivered with that undercurrent of irreverence for the creative act for which professional musicians are famous and with which composers have patiently learned to live. I would guess that few composers came away from a workshop without some new idea or suggestion for instrumental writing.

The open rehearsals, like the workshops, provided many opportunities for studying problems unique to the performance of contemporary music. In addition, works from the evening concerts could be observed in different stages of preparation and thus the final attainment more fully appreciated. Open rehearsals were held once a week for about two hours.

As the project at Rutgers approached the end of its first year, the courage of its organizers mounted to the point of entertaining an unusually bold plan. The least prepared and potentially most hostile of all audiences—high school students—were to be invited to a seminar on contemporary music at which they would be subjected to a three-pronged assault: Robert Moevs, composer-in-residence at Rutgers and Martin Picker, musicologist, were to join with Arthur Weisberg and his men in, so to speak, singing the praises of the New Art. Despite the cynical attitude adopted by some graduate students in composition who frankly predicted disaster, the plan was carried out with a large measure of success. Professor Picker began the afternoon with a review of the major developments in the history of music since the last decades of the nineteenth century and discussed a variety of current styles and techniques. (I might add that his reference to Pierrot Lunaire, among others, evoked a decidedly blank response.) Professor Moevs then analyzed a work of his own, Fantasia sopra un Motivo for piano, showing how its different episodes were based on a single germinating motive. In conclusion, Arthur Weisberg and the Ensemble presented some half dozen excerpts from works by such composers as Stockhausen and Wuorinen to illustrate the wide compass of styles currently in vogue. Some opportunity was given the listeners to examine the scores of these excerpts. At the end of this experience, the students—more dazed than dazzled—seemed grateful for the glimpse they had been given into the world of current music, with which they had had so little past familiarity.

The two occasions on which I was most directly involved with the Ensemble were workshops in which my own compositions were read. Part of the agreement between Rutgers and the Ensemble is that students in composition at the University, both undergraduate and graduate, should be given every chance to hear their own works played. Thus I was allowed one workshop each term, the first for a trio for oboe, violin, and cello and the second for a work for nine instruments and percussion. The latter, called Fantasy and Variations, I submitted in lieu of a thesis for my master's degree. On both occasions the compositions were rehearsed, discussed, and finally played through with few interruptions for a tape recorder. The resulting recordings, which were subjected to some minor editing before being placed in the music library archives, gave quite a good idea of each piece, so much so that the tape of the Fantasy and Variations served as part of the basis upon which that work was deemed the satisfactory fulfillment of a degree requirement.

In succeeding years, the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble will doubtless assume an even larger role in supplementing the curriculum for composition students at Rutgers. And as the obvious merits of this arrangement become more widely known, New Brunswick—its inauspicious appearance notwithstanding—should flourish as a major center for new music.

Vassar College

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Last modified on Wednesday, 14/11/2018

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