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Mizzou International Composers Festival keeps the surprises coming

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The Mizzou International Composers Festival, entering its fourth year, is built around the close cooperation of musicians and composers, a collaboration that leads to performances with an unusual degree of artistic insight.

The Festival is part of the Mizzou New Music Initiative, an array of programs intended to position the University of Missouri’s School of Music as a leading center for music composition and new music.

Managing director of the Mizzou New Music Initiative Bill Lackey explains, “The idea (behind this festival) is to put out a national call for composers of the highest caliber and give them an opportunity to work with professionals in an intense time frame.”

In addition to the festival itself, Lackey describes the opportunities given to participants, “I think the impact of this festival and what composers are doing with work beyond the festival is what is so exciting. The composers have used their recordings for winning awards, jobs and more. It provides the opportunity to propel a career even further.”

After considering the largest number of applicants (150) yet in its history, the Missouri School of Music and the Mizzou New Music Initiative chose eight resident composers.

Each applicant submits a portfolio of 3-4 scores that showcase the versatility of his or her work. Once selected, the eight composers are given roughly six months to compose a piece for the contemporary music ensemble Alarm Will Sound’s complete instrumentation. The music can last up to eight minutes.

The composers selected are Jason Thorpe Buchanan (Rochester, N.Y.), Ryan Chase (Bloomington, Ind.), Andrew Davis (Austin, Texas), Eric Guinivan (Los Angeles), Elizabeth Kelly (Rochester, N.Y.), Wei-Chieh Lin (New York, N.Y.), Greg Simon (Ann Arbor, Mich.), and David Witter (Columbia, Mo.).

Different paths to compositions

Composer Elizabeth Kelly lucked out during her six months of composition. It coincided with her selection as fellow at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Those fellowships provide every resident artist the use of a private studio, accommodations, meals and the opportunity to engage with a dynamic artistic community for up to two months.

She says, “The place inspired the piece. I’ve been a city girl my entire life so I thought the woods would be quiet. Actually, it was noisier than the city! One day I was sitting there working and a huge crash sounded off the roof. Ice slid off and sounded like a bomb. Then birds were born outside my window and I couldn’t believe the noise they could make. Life was springing up everywhere and that inspired the piece.”

For composer Andrew Davis, the process was not as simple. He says, “I was trying to juggle other composition projects and this piece for Alarm Will Sound while also traveling all over the country interviewing for PhD programs in composition. Despite the seemingly large amount of time to write the piece, it was actually quite a time crunch for me.”

Alarm Will Sound, created in 2001, is a world-renowned 20-member chamber orchestra that focuses on recordings and performances of contemporary music.

For many composers, getting to work with Alarm Will Sound is a dream come true.

According to composer Greg Simon, “Alarm Will Sound has a sterling reputation for being on top of their game. Their reputation precedes itself for not only being incredible talented but being a group that is passionate about new music.”

During the festival, the composers will also receive composition lessons from guest composers Augusta Read Thomas (University Professor of composition at the University of Chicago and past composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) and Daniel Kellogg (an assistant professor of composition at the University of Colorado who has been called “one of the most exciting composers around” by the Washington Post.)

Having run in the same music circles, Thomas and Kellogg have known each other for more than 15 years.

About the festival, Thomas says, “I am really going into this to be a giver and not a receiver. While I cherish the chance to make music with great musicians, I also want to be a very good teacher and mentor to the composers, give them detailed comments and ways to improve and widen their perspective. It's also a great chance for the audience to put a finger on the pulse of what is happening in contemporary composition today.”

In addition to mentoring the composers, Thomas and Kellogg will debut a piece each has written.

Kellogg's a new piece was inspired by the death of his mothe. He sees this festival as an opportunity to showcase a new side of his creative abilities: “I usually write much more uplifting pieces but this is a dark piece responding to sorrow. It’s a very personal piece. It's going in a different direction than my recent pieces and [this festival] is a chance to see if it works, to get feedback and see if it's something that produces good results in my music.”

As the guest composers and resident composersdrow along with the Mizzou International Composers Festival, the audience can expect some surprises.

Lackey says, "Most are amazed at the diversity. Some people come in with an idea of what music is in their head. Genres are now meshing together, rock, pop, classic are coming together and you don't know what is going to happen on Saturday night. We hope people will take advantage of this experience."

The festival is supported by the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation. Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield are donors to the St. Louis Beacon.

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