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‘June in Buffalo’ is a necessary showcase for new music

For 29 years, Artistic Director David Felder has nurtured the “June in Buffalo” modern music symposium at the University at Buffalo’s Amherst campus and seen it grow into a model for other like-minded programs across the country. While the main audience for music heard at this event is, due to the perceived “difficulty” of the scores, generally limited to students, teachers and performers, that doesn’t take away from its importance as a proving ground for the future.

In any event, publicly expressed opinions by contemporary tastemakers have never been particularly kind to sonic experiments. It would be instructive to keep in mind past critics who observed that “(Beethoven’s) great qualities are frequently alloyed by a morbid desire for novelty; by extravagance; and by a disdain of rule …” or thought Igor Stravinsky had “transformed music into a collection of qualified noises.”

It’s true that seeing avant-garde violin icon Irvine Arditti interpret and transform the musical calligraphy of a score spread out over five music stands, hearing part of a song cycle where the vocals are electronically transformed, or listening to the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra tackle an interesting piece of music that would never fly with Kleinhans Music Hall season ticket holders, is not to everyone’s taste. Still, there’s a valid reason for the sheer presence of “June in Buffalo” on Western New York’s art calendar.

Although the evening concerts featuring internationally prominent composers and musicians are the most public expression of the daily sessions, they are arguably only the face of the conference, not the heart. While this year’s featured artists showcase curriculum vitae (résumés) with impressive listings of prizes won, compositions performed and favorable reviews cited, arguably the most important thing that they do over the week is to work with student composers and musicians, guiding them through the process of creating and performing music.

Getting admitted to the program is highly competitive and once approved by the admission staff, the workload is intense. This is the part of the “June in Buffalo” model that most folks don’t get to see.

There are workshops where budding composers discover that what instrumentalists are capable of doing (and they are capable of a lot) doesn’t necessarily match up to the expectations written in the score. Rehearsals are where practical lessons take hold, concepts bump into reality, and “process” becomes “product.” This is where raw materials are shaped and refined.

Different instruments have different ranges and despite the formidable advances in performance techniques acquired over the last century or so, the process of transforming an idea or set of ideas into a performable whole is not always as cut-and-dried as it may appear initially.

Bernard Rands, one of the “senior faculty composers,” noted that the neophytes needed to think about the physical attributes of the instruments being written for, that a flute is capable of playing a phrase quicker and cleaner than a string bass can and if you’re running the lines in tandem, you need to take that into account.

One young composer, going over her score with the group that would be performing her piece later in the evening, was informed that, in the words of the conductor, the “twiddly bits” she had assigned to the flute were a bit difficult to run in tandem with the violin and that she might want to rethink the process. Given the technical abilities of the performers involved, it was advice that caused her to make the small but necessary adjustments to the score that would allow the music to be heard clearer.

That said, the young composers were working toward an individual vision for their art at different paces. Many of them were writing scores as if a teacher had instructed them to explore chaos and provide logic to the results. The use of space was prominent, “extended techniques” practiced by the musicians were frequently relied on to cover up a paucity of ideas, and beauty as a concept was secondary to the idea of creating an engineered product.

Then again, there were moments where lessons learned yielded promising material, when inspiration and intelligence combined to create moments that didn’t (as one of the faculty expressed) “concede to a dogma.” It is this – an attempt to develop an individual approach to music as an art instead of someone who knows the process but can’t deliver the goods – which is at the heart of the “June in Buffalo” experience.

In one lecture, faculty composer Hilda Paredes said, “If you’re open (to it), music can reach the heart through the ears.” Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington once put it even more succinctly when he wrote in his autobiography, “I am an optimist. From where I sit, music is mostly all right, or at least in a healthy state for the future, in spite of the fact that it may sound as though it is being held hostage.”

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