The Contemporary Performing Ensemble

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Within the last decade, a new phenomenon has come to prominence in American universities and colleges: the chamber ensemble, usually of professional quality, dedicated to the performance of contemporary music. Although the number of such ensembles is relatively small, they exert a considerable influence. On the home campus and on tour, they give access to skilled, well-rehearsed performances of difficult modern works which are otherwise little played; moreover, the existence of such groups is a powerful incentive to composers to create music which will stimulate and challenge these specialists.

Much contemporary music calls for performance skills which are scarcely encompassed in traditional training. Traditionally, the performing artist masters a standard technique, and a limited, standardized repertoire which he continually reworks and from time to time expands. The contemporary specialist, though he needs a high degree of conventional virtuosity, must have, in addition, a temperament that delights in innovation. Not only is he continually playing new works. He is asked to use his instrument in new ways: to pluck and rub the piano strings, to sound double notes on a woodwind, to exchange his usual mouthpiece for another, to make percussive sounds from the body of his instrument, to produce microtones and gliding effects. He is confronted with unprecedented rhythmic situations, and new problems of ensemble. He is often expected to improvise, or to make choices which may depend on the unforeseeable choices of fellow players. New procedures often require new notational symbols, and the specialist-performer develops skill at interpreting them. At times, the performer in a contemporary group may even abandon his own instrument temporarily to participate in some other fashion; he may play a percussion instrument, utter vocal sounds, or play some role that is primarily visual or theatrical. It is hardly surprising that these specialized demands have tended to call forth the performing group which specializes in new music.

Though such groups are not all affiliated with schools, the university seems in some ways a particularly sympathetic environment, given the specialized community of scholars, the emphasis on expanding knowledge, the freedom from commercial demands. Here such a group can play a powerful educative role in making new music a living and integrated part of the curriculum, rather than a rare oddity. Many such groups have arisen on campuses, sometimes created by a special grant, sometimes evolving gradually out of existing resources. The performers usually have some form of faculty status, and may or may not have teaching duties along with their playing; in some cases able students also participate. The presence in a large school of many performing teachers and students often means that the group can be somewhat flexible in its make-up, having a basic core but drawing on extra performers as needed. Groups situated in or near a large metropolitan area may draw their personnel from available free-lance musicians, and in a city like New York, some of the same performers may show up in several such groups.

Contemporary performing ensembles, especially those with campus affiliations, have been of special interest to the American Society of University Composers ever since that Society was founded in 1966.1 The annual conferences (New York 1966, St. Louis 1967, Philadelphia 1968, West Coast 1969) feature concerts by such ensembles. This year, the Society began publication of a Newsletter which has included rather extensive coverage of these ensembles, and the editor of SYMPOSIUM has invited me to pass on some of this information to members of the College Music Society.

The following survey certainly omits some representative examples. Some simply have not come to my attention; with others, I knew of their existence, but had little or no information. And I have not attempted to include here the many performing groups which, while not specializing in contemporary music, do frequently or regularly include such music on their programs. Perhaps the publication of this survey will stimulate a wider exchange of information. The activities of these groups are certainly of interest outside the home campus. Most of them are available for at least a limited amount of touring. Many of them are always looking for new scores from composers.2 Some of the groups have made commercial recordings, and others have at least taped certain performances; some kind of systematic exchange of such tapes would be highly desirable, and could perhaps be set up under existing inter-library loan procedures.

The groups are arranged here in three broad geographical regions—east, midwest, and west, and within each region alphabetically by school. At the end of each account, a source is given from which further information may be obtained.

 

The Group for Contemporary Music at Columbia University, founded in 1962 under a grant from the Alice M. Ditson Fund, is one of the older groups. Harvey Sollberger and Charles Wuorinen are its co-directors. The ensemble is extremely flexible, drawing its members from faculty and free-lance performers highly experienced in contemporary music, and also occasional students. It gives about six concerts a year at Columbia, and from time to time appears elsewhere. The Group gives many first performances of new works, and also plays twentieth-century classics by such composers as Ives, Stravinsky, and Varese. It has recorded several works under the CRI label, including Sollberger's Chamber Variations, Wuorinen's Concerto for Flute and Ten Instruments, and Wolpe's Trio. The Group has an affiliation with the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, and its programs frequently include tape works, or works for tape and live performers. A program this year included the premiere of a film, Line of Apogee, with electronic score by Ussachevsky. Davidovsky's Synchronisms, for tape and various soloists, appear on one of the Group's CRI records. In conjunction with the music departments of New York University and Princeton University, the Group issues a monthly Contemporary Music Newsletter, free on request. Address for both the Group and its Newsletter: 632 West 125 St., New York, N.Y. 10027.

The Musica Nova ensemble at the Eastman School of Music was founded in 1966 by Richard Pittman, who was its conductor until summer 1968, when he assumed a new post at the New England Conservatory. It presents about four concerts a year at Eastman, each preceded by a lecture-demonstration on the music several days beforehand, and does a limited amount of touring. It presents both new works and established twentieth-century composers; recently performed were William Bolcom, Barney Childs, Chou Wen-Chung, Penderecki, Raoul Pleskow, Schoenberg, Joseph Schwantner, and Stravinsky. Composers performed each receive a tape of their piece. An unusual feature of this group is the fact that all the performers are students and their participation is purely voluntary. Instrumentation varies, but consists basically of string quintet, single winds, brass, percussion, piano, and occasionally voice. Information may be obtained from the Conductor, Eastman Musica Nova, Eastman School of Music, Rochester, N.Y. 14604.

The recently formed Inter-Theatre Group of the State University of New York at Albany does original mixed media works and performs such works created by others. Their first tour, in the spring of 1968, presented on several eastern campuses a program of films, slide projections, poetry, electronic music, and performance. A second tour is planned for the spring of 1969. They have prepared several television tapes. The Inter-Theatre Group is under the musical direction of Joel Chadabe, who is on leave during the fall semester, 1968. In his absence, information may be obtained from A. William Clark, Art Department, State University of New York, Albany, N.Y. 12203.

The Center of the Creative and Performing Arts at the State University of New York at Buffalo was founded through a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and is directed by Lukas Foss and Allen Sapp. Some twenty Creative Associates are awarded fellowships to the Center for one or two years, for the intensive study and performance of new works. These are young professional performers who are often composers as well. This season's personnel included a variety of string, wind, and percussion players, pianists, a guitarist, and singers. They present concerts in Buffalo at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, in New York at Carnegie Recital Hall, and elsewhere, under the title Evenings for New Music. Certain individuals and sub-groups also participate in a series of Creative Associate Recitals at the University. In five seasons they have presented new works by composers well- and little-known, including modern classics, with emphasis on works which present interesting tasks for the performer. In March they participated in Buffalo's widely publicized Festival of the Arts Today, which also included symphony, dance, theatre, and special art exhibits. On this occasion the Center gave the U.S. premiere, in concert version, of Henri Pousseur's opera Votre Faust. For information contact Mrs. Renée Levine, Coordinator, Center of the Creative and Performing Arts, State University of New York at Buffalo, Baird Hall, Buffalo, N.Y. 14214.

Also funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Penn Contemporary Players at the University of Pennsylvania have as their stated aim "the performance of chamber music of every style and variety of contemporary expression." Composer George Crumb was the director during 1967-68, during the leave-of-absence of Melvin Strauss. Instrumentation consists of woodwind quintet, violin, viola, cello, piano, percussionist, and mezzo-soprano, all are professionals and about half come from New York. They give about four public concerts a season on campus, presenting both well-established and lesser-known twentieth-century composers. The past season has included premieres of works by Alan Heard and Robert Suderburg. Information may be obtained from the Director, Penn Contemporary Players, Department of Music, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pa. 19104.

The Contemporary Chamber Ensemble has just completed its third season in residence at Rutgers University. There it has presented workshops, open rehearsals, seminars, and public concerts; it also frequently appears at Carnegie Recital Hall in New York, and elsewhere. A feature of its workshops has been the reading of many new works, with the composers in attendance; some of these are repeated in later concerts. (Two articles on this Ensemble, with emphasis on the workshop activity, appeared in the 1966 College Music SYMPOSIUM.) Instrumentation consists of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, percussion, violin, viola (doubling on mandolin), cello, and double bass; one performer each, with woodwinds doubling on auxiliary instruments. Two new records by the Ensemble, scheduled for early release under the Nonesuch label, include works by Jacob Druckman, John Harbison, Fredric Myrow, Roger Reynolds, George Rochberg, Joseph Schwantner, Seymour Shifrin, and Stefen Wolpe. For further information contact Arthur Weisberg, Director, Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, 39 W. 67 St., New York, N.Y. 10023.

The Aeolian Chamber Players at Sarah Lawrence College present monthly seminars open to the public, each devoted to one composer. Recent programs have been devoted to faculty composer Edmund Haines, and to Luciano Berio, David Burge, Elliott Carter, Ross Lee Finney, Elliott Schwartz, Morton Subotnick, the Rumanian, Anatole Vieru, and others. The Players tour rather extensively; they appear regularly on the Contemporary Music Festivals of Bowdoin College. Instrumentation consists of violin (or viola), cello, flute, clarinet, and piano, with doubling on auxiliary instruments. Contact Lewis Kaplan, Director, Aeolian Chamber Players, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, N.Y. 10708.

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The Contemporary Chamber Players of the University of Chicago recently observed the school's seventy-fifth anniversary with a concert which included premieres of four commissioned works—by Easley Blackwood, Mario Davidovsky, George Rochberg, and Ralph Shapey. Other recent programs have included one given jointly with the New Music Choral Ensemble of the University of Illinois, a mixed media program including film, tape, and actors; and two New York appearances, one on the Hunter College series New Image of Sound and the other an all-Wolpe program. Information from Ralph Shapey, Music Director, Contemporary Chamber Players, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois 60637.

Grinnell College has a faculty-artist ensemble dedicated to contemporary music, consisting of the Lenox Quartet, plus flute, oboe, clarinet, and two pianists. Guest artists, and electronic music, also appear on their programs. During 1967-68 they presented ten concerts, with recent works by nearly forty composers. Among them was the midwest premiere of Treatise, an improvisatory work with a graphic score, by the British composer Cornelius Cardew. Information from Paul Zonn, Composer-in-Residence, Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa 50112.

At the University of Illinois, the [Illinois] Contemporary Chamber Players of that school are part of a noteworthy emphasis on new music which includes a biennial Festival of Contemporary Music, annual Summer Workshops in New Music, and frequent programs throughout the year. A flexible group of instrumentalists and composers, the Illinois Players have also toured widely, not only in their own region but in New York, London, Paris, Darmstadt, and Warsaw. A recent New York program included works by faculty composers Kenneth Gaburo, Lejaren Hiller, Ben Johnston, and Salvatore Martirano. Some of their concerts include tapes created in the University's Electronic Music Studio, and the Players appear on two Heliodor records, Electronic Music from the University of Illinois and Computer Music from the University of Illinois. For information contact Ben Johnston, School of Music, University of Illinois, Urbana, Ill. 61801. The University also has one of the few choruses to specialize in avant-garde music, the New Music Choral Ensemble directed by Kenneth Gaburo.

The Center for New Music at the University of Iowa consists of a nucleus of seven players, supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation with supplemental funding from the University of Iowa. Extra players are available from the University's large School of Music. The Center plays a continuing role in the theory-composition department, frequently presenting seminars on performance problems and readings of student and faculty works. Its presence has stimulated the composition of many new works. The ensemble also has a full schedule of public concerts on campus and on tour in the midwest. It participates in the University's annual Symposium of Contemporary Music, and recently gave the U.S. premiere of Messiaen's Couleurs de la Cité Celeste. Contact William Hibbard, Director, Center for New Music, University of Iowa, Iowa City, la. 52240.

At the University of Michigan, a faculty research grant has enabled the composition staff to sustain a group of instrumentalists and to procure manuscripts and performance materials, in a project aimed at providing greater practical knowledge of recent creative thought and typology. The group presents a series of concerts, summer and winter, under the title Contemporary Directions. These include, besides chamber works for from one to some fifteen players, electronic music and mixed media productions. Hearings of student works are also regularly scheduled in composers' forums. In 1968, the American Society of University Composers held its annual Summer Institute at the University of Michigan, and the Contemporary Directions Players served as the resident ensemble, playing three concerts for the Institute. The project has recently received a Rockefeller grant to expand its operations. In addition to an expanded schedule of concerts and composers' forums, a new emphasis will be placed on the training of young composers to conduct their own scores. George Balch Wilson is musical coordinator and Jack Fortner and Sydney Hodkinson are conductors of the ensemble. Information may be obtained from George Balch Wilson, School of Music, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104.

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The New Music Ensemble, affiliated with the University of California at Davis, is a group of composer-performers, mostly with jazz experience, who banded together in 1963 to explore group improvisation outside the jazz idiom. Without losing their interest in improvisation and group composition, they have extended their activities to include new music by many composers, including Robert Ashley, David Behrman, John Cage, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Gordon Mumma, Pauline Oliveros, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, all of whom have worked with them as guests. The members, headed by Larry Austin, are also active on the Editorial Board of the periodical Source: Music of the Avant-Garde, which contains an article on the New Music Ensemble, and on several similar groups not affiliated with schools, in its January 1968 issue. Address for both Source and the New Music Ensemble: 330 University Avenue, Davis, California 95616.

The University of California at Los Angeles has a new performing group for new music called Twice. (An obvious allusion to Once, independent avant-garde group based at Ann Arbor, Michigan.) It holds workshop sessions twice a week as well as public concerts. A recent concert included works by Alden Ashforth, Hal Budd, John Cage, Paul Chihara, Ramiro Cortes, Douglas Leedy, Roger Reynolds, Yuji Takahashi, and Yannis Xenakis; other composers in the broad-based repertoire are Milton Babbitt, Roy Harris, Ulysses Kay, and Walter Piston. Information may be obtained from Paul Chihara, Coordinator, Twice Ensemble, School of Music, University of California, Los Angeles, Calif. 90024.

The Mills College Performing Group is affiliated with the College's Tape Music Center, and the whole is a successor to the San Francisco Tape Music Center. The joint operation serves as a workshop for composers in electronic music and a place for new music, electronic, instrumental, and mixed, to be heard. Regular concerts offer a variety of recent works including some commissioned for the Mills Group; reading sessions feature young composers of the Bay area. The Tape Music Center, under the direction of Anthony Gnazzo, is used by about twenty composers. Classes are offered in electronic music techniques, including live electronic performance; in this field, David Tudor has been a visiting lecturer. For information contact William Maraldo, Coordinator, Performing Group and Tape Music Center at Mills College, Music Department, Mills College, Oakland, Calif. 94613.

The Contemporary Group at the University of Washington has received a Rockefeller grant to expand its activities and increase its personnel, a grant matched by the University, which will gradually take over the complete support of this Group on a permanent basis. Besides a full professional chamber orchestra on permanent faculty status, there are yearly awards [in student scholarships] for performance with the Group. Works for almost any combination—up to about twenty-five players, can be performed. Each season, the Contemporary Group gives six concerts in Seattle, three in Spokane, three elsewhere in the state, ten or more on the campus by student personnel, and weekly readings of student works. The Group has scheduled a European tour in August 1968, with a program of works by Nono, Stockhausen, William O. Smith, and Robert Suderburg, all premiered in Seattle in the previous season. The ensemble also played on recent conventions of the College Music Society and the Music Educators National Conference. Additional information may be obtained from William O. Smith, Director, Contemporary Group, University of Washington, Seattle, Wash. 98105.


1The American Society of University Composers (c/o Department of Music, Columbia University, New York, N.Y. 10027) is a national organization open to composers who are, or have been, on the faculty of a university, college or conservatory; and to others in student and associate categories. Its activities include annual conferences, a summer institute (at the University of Michigan in 1968), publications, and numerous regional activities. The Fourth National Conference of the American Society of University Composers will be held April 4-6, 1969 at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

2Composers desiring to submit scores to a particular group are advised to inquire first as to detailed requirements. Some acquaintance with works already played by the group is helpful in determining whether the group has a prevailing aesthetic outside which it seldom ventures, or draws on a wide range of contemporary styles.

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