The members of The Sarasota Brass Quintet were not the nervous ones in the Mildred Sainer Pavilion on Sunday, May , as they warmed up to play the music of three new composers with distinctive styles. Rather, the composers themselves, seated just yards away, were the ones anticipating the first public performance of their own music. Started 10 years ago by Professor of Music Stephen Miles, New College’s composition tutorial has flourished with the help and cooperation of the Sarasota Orchestra.
“The tutorial was started by Prof. Miles 10 years ago,” explained the current academic sponsor of the composition tutorial, Professor Bret Aarden. “The school got recurring funding from the state for community outreach types of things. One use of the money is for the writer in residence and the other was for this, a collaboration with the Sarasota Orchestra, in which one of the ensembles each year would work with student composers each year. Originally I think there were only three rehearsals [per session of the tutorial], but after the first year the performers came back and were so happy with the program they decided that if we would pay for one more [rehearsal], they would donate one rehearsal. Going from three rehearsals to five rehearsals has turned out to be an incredible benefit for the development of the pieces.”
The three pieces performed this weekend were by Michael Waas, Brendan Rivers, and Susanna Payne-Passmore (all third-years). The first piece was Waas’ and was entitled “The Place Where You Go to Dream.” The piece was performed in seven parts and was an experiment in sonic textures, meant to start open and end closed. “The really nice thing about the music scene in this area is that a lot of the musicians are so into the new music and really willing to go with it and explore new aspects,” Waas explained. “It’s really interesting because we don’t have a performance department, but we have a composition department and we have a theory department, and while we’re so small we have access to resources like the Sarasota Orchestra and such great professors that give such great feedback. And I like the fact that New College is a lot more liberal in a lot of senses,” he said with a smile.
Writing the piece for Waas was a challenge because of his unfamiliarity with playing brass instruments.
“Coming from a woodwind perspective, it’s kind of hard to understand the brass, because woodwind is much more heterogeneous in texture but brass is much more like singing,” he said. Despite this hurdle, Waas was still able to develop his experimental theme.
“For my compositional framework, I’m really interested in how sound plays out. For this piece this year, there was a lot more melodic content, but I’m really interested in how what the texture is created by an interval of a fourth [note] between a trumpet and a tuba and seeing how it plays out. There’s this thing called the overtone series, which is actually what this piece is based off, but I didn’t want to go into that so much. The overtone series is a series when you have a bass pitch and the other pitches that make it sound good. So it goes from bass and octave, a fifth and another octave and then a third and another octave and it continues on like that.”
Payne-Passmore also talked about her difficulties with writing for instruments so different from her own.
“I play piano and I sing too,” she said. “I’ve been playing piano since I was seven, and I guess I’ve been singing for a while. I sang in a lot of choirs in high school.” Having participated in last year’s composition tutorial which performed with a woodwind quartet, Payne-Passmore had experience when she took on the challenge again this year.
“After you take Music Theory I and II they will invite you to be a part of this tutorial, so I did it last year and I did it again this year. Every year its different: there’s four ensembles. There’s strings next year, and then they repeat the cycle. So it’s a piano trio, a wind quartet, and a brass quintet. I’ve only worked on two and I don’t have much experience on brass so I think I enjoyed the wind quartet a little bit more.”
Both the composers and Aarden are looking forward to next year’s tutorial, when the ensemble the students will be writing for is a string ensemble.
“Next year, we’re going to be working with a string quartet, and strings are a very different thing,” he stated. “You don’t have to worry about your muscles tiring out, or having to get enough air, but there are whole different demands that come with writing. Each ensemble has their own strengths and limitations.”
“I plan on taking part in the tutorial next year and next year will be a string quartet, which is great because in a string quartet you don’t have the issues of breathing as wind instruments do,” Waas said with a laugh.
“I really am [excited]. There’s not much you can do with stings that sounds bad!” said Payne-Passmore.
“It changes every year and it depends upon the students,” Aarden said. “I do hope that we continue to have students who come in and take it seriously and understand what an honor and privilege it is to be able to work with these ensembles. But I just really hope, at the same time, that with that they take full advantage of the opportunity to explore and realize their own visions of music composition. It’s really interesting to hear the variety of musical ideas over the years that I’ve been here and it’s been a privilege for me to be able to work with the students and the ensembles and be a part of that process.”
Both Waas and Payne-Passmore plan on keeping up the experimental tradition of the performance, even if they’re not dead-set on what they’ll end up composing.
“All I know is that I’m going to keep on pushing the frameworks of sonority,” declared Waas. “With the strings, I hope to use more harmonics and other more extreme techniques.”