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What’s That Sound?

New Sounds Festival spotlights new music by living composers

Music lovers with open minds as well as open ears will be treated to an aural feast at the upcoming New Sounds Festival.

The Western Michigan University School of Music is hosting the annual festival of “new music” concerts from Feb. 26 to April 8. The festival also includes a conference of new music by living composers who will all attend the event.

What is new music? “That’s a very difficult question,” says Christopher Biggs, a WMU composition professor and co-organizer of the festival. “New music is anything happening now, on the one hand. On the other hand, there’s this Western art-music tradition out of Europe, (and there is) a new strain of that. And that’s what we’re more referring to … the continuation of this older tradition but with updates.”

Despite new music’s foundation in an older tradition, Biggs says festival attendees will not hear pieces that sound like something Mozart might have written. “What we’re focused on in the New Sounds Festival is things that are actually not just based on the past. … It’s going to be very different types of things,” he says.

The concerts will go beyond “sonic events” to include technology and multi-media. “Some of them will involve real-time processing of instruments with computers,” Biggs says, noting that the festival will include many different types of sound sources, such as an electronic-guitar quartet. A piece by local composer Betsy Start will be featured in the Society for Composers Conference and will include a theremin, an older electronic instrument.

“There’s a huge amount of diversity” in new music composition, Biggs says. In planning the concert series, he says, organizers asked themselves, “What’s interesting and cutting edge that doesn’t often happen at this school? And what can we bring in so that we can give our students those experiences and also the community can come?”

The festival will open with a concert featuring two WMU student ensembles — the new music group Birds on a Wire and the University Chorale, WMU’s flagship choral ensemble. Birds on a Wire, which is made up of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion, will appear in a second concert, featuring the works of composer James Mobberley.

“In that same concert, (trumpeter and WMU professor) Scott Thornburg is going to play one of Mobberley’s pieces for instrument and tape. It’s a long, virtuosic piece, and there’s also theatrical elements,” Biggs says. He says he doesn’t know yet what Thornburg plans to do, “but he has an option of doing a variety of theatrical things that are always very humorous.”

Chicago new-music group Dal Niente will give a free concert, which will include a newly commissioned work by Katie Young and a piece by the late Hungarian composer György Ligeti. “His horn trio is a tour de force,” Biggs says. “It’s virtuosic and exciting. It mixes kind of contemporary music techniques with folk rhythms from Hungary.”

The festival also will include a concert by Dither, an electric-guitar quartet from New York, and conclude with two concerts featuring the works of some of WMU’s 19 undergraduate composition majors, performed by student musicians.

During the Society for Composers’ Region 5 Conference from March 27 to 29, there will be eight concerts, totaling about 350 minutes of music, Biggs says. More than 550 pieces have been submitted, and judges will whittle these down to 30 or 40 to be performed. The schedule will be posted online at a later date, and registration for the conference is not required in order to attend the concerts.

Listeners should, however, come to the concerts with open minds, Biggs says. “I would encourage people to think about each piece as its own artwork. You have to think about it on the terms of the piece itself. So rather than thinking, ‘This is what I think music is, this is what I expect to happen, this is what I imagine happening,’ (approach it) like you’re a blank slate and you’re just trying to find what’s interesting about what’s happening at the time.”

Scientists have studied and compared the reactions of children and adults listening to new music, Biggs says, and they have found “(children are) much more open, it seems, than adults, or even adults in music schools seem to be, because they don’t have the same preconceptions about what’s supposed to happen.”

Still, the experience of hearing new music will not be entirely foreign, Biggs says. “I don’t think it’s radical or anything like that. It’s still just concert music being played for an audience in the western European art-music tradition.”

Kit Almy

Kit’s background in arts and nature has allowed her to explore a variety of topics for Encore over the years. This month she introduces readers to MRC Artworks, a classroom and gallery in downtown Kalamazoo that helps disabled people gain self-worth by creating art. In addition to freelancing, Kit works for the Kalamazoo Public Library and volunteers at the Kalamazoo Nature Center’s DeLano Homestead, teaching pioneer programs.

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