Melos Music Festival in San Francisco


Catching the wave: The next generation of contemporary composers.

Ten young and audacious composers gathered in San Francisco on Friday, August 20, at the Community Music Center to hold the second annual Melos Music concert of original works. The composers, many of whom are also electro-acoustic, have loosely organized as “Melos” to publish and publicize their music. Last year’s concert, held in Chicago, featured six of this night’s composers, and next year they plan to air their creations in Philadelphia.

1315446689MelosComposersSml.jpgOrganized by Jason Thorpe Buchanan in 2007, Melos began as a composers’ forum in San Jose. Many of its members since met at summer music festivals, primarily the Brevard Institute in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

Their energy, musicality, and professionalism made for an impressive showcase. While there were similarities in approach there were also unique perspectives and even magical moments.

Many of the pieces used a “Pierrot” ensemble—flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and soprano—a coloristic instrumentation named for Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and used extensively by contemporary groups like Earplay and eighth blackbird. For Friday’s concert, Melos partnered with Nonsemble 6, an ensemble—or “nonsemble”—that met as students of the SF Conservatory and went on to collaborate in performances of new music.

The opening salvo was an eye-opener: a brilliant solo piano piece performed by Ukrainian-born Stepan Rudenko. Full of the violence of the street, Greg Simon’s Blood on the Curb was a gritty ragtime punctuated with sharp chord clusters. Rudenko slowed to moody circular motions in the middle register before amping back up to rhythmic “stomps.” Greg Simon wrote of our society’s fascination with violence: “…we celebrate it with a zealous, almost pornographic fervor.” But beyond that violence, this work is an angry celebration of life.

Members of Nonsemble 6 took the stage for Brian Penkrot’s lively Shooting Snowburst Spectacular Silhouette. Soprano Amy Foote was joined by Jeannie Psomas, clarinet, Sung Bin Choi, cello, Daniel Temkin, percussion, and accompanied by Rudenko on piano.

Bowed cymbal and cello whispers made an airy tisane for the poetry, written by Thea Brown. Her poetry lifts off the page, all inner rhymes and twisting alliteration. Foote employed an arsenal of voices, opening with intimate vowels chopped off by over-pronounced consonants. Then she pushed shrill repetitions and dropped into a throaty Sprechstimme. The last poem opened with somber clarinet and closed with violent piano, but the vocal was cold and metronomic, difficult for the audience, but fitting the disconnected text.

Home Suite was Nick DiBerardino’s nostalgic offering for violin, cello and piano. Written at Brevard, it is a little too spacious. But slides and cello knocks soon turned into backcountry fiddling with an eastern flair, and an affinity for slow fervent climbs.

In Magis, Ryan Olivier set three poems by nineteenth century British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose sprung rhythms harkened back to Old English bards and presaged the free verse of hip hop. “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” was effervescent, paced piano chords and joyous wind dissonance. Amy Foote returned to sing the poetry, particularly gorgeous in “Bright Wings.” Her tight vibrato and soft high entrances matched the careful “ting” of mallet on metal.

Amy Michelle FooteThough also known as an electro-acoustic artist, Olivier’s final movement matched Manley’s humble lyrics, with voice merging beneath xylophone, one of the loveliest moments of the festival.

“And I have asked to be

Where no storms come,

Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,

And out of the swing of the sea.”

Patrick Chin Ting Chan was inspired by French composer Olivier Messiaen’s bright complex chords. Acoustic Field balanced thick pianistic colors with high flute double-tonguing and low cello scrubs. Flutist Justin Lee and clarinetist Jonathan Szin slowly climbed a temple scale against group tremolos, creating a sense of space amid the airy weave.

Bringing a different sensibility, composer and percussionist Daniel Temkin chose bursts of energy in his Sextet: Butterflies and Dragons. Here, each instrument is treated almost as a form of percussion: short motifs come off the strings as an explosive force, then refer back to Temkin’s own playing on an array of percussion.

In his other works he displays a contemplative side, writing for voice or piano or chorus with careful evolution of short motifs, and even his percussion works are surprisingly lyrical and coloristic. Sextet, though exuberant, contains a thoughtful core, perhaps the butterfly within the dragon.

After a much-needed intermission diminutive Hawaiian Tonia Ko took up the gauntlet with Wanderer Moon, for Pierrot orchestra and soprano set to three poems by William Carlos Williams. This is a gentle work, with cello, flute and wooden blocks combining to sound almost harp-like. Low monotones and large vocal jumps added an uncertain piquancy to the text.

Leaving regret behind, Corey Keating’s A Moment Revealed was a lively romp for clarinet, piano and strings. Improvisatory moods made way for more rhythmic material with a Spanish texture—half seduction and half grope. The second movement contained a lovely “Satie” moment where a slowly rising clarinet met descending strings.

Trio, David Carpenter’s intriguing composition, held soap-slick runs and improbable unisons. The front-accented piano rhythms and thickened texture added Hungarian flavor.

Melos organizer Jason Thorpe Buchanan saved the last spot for his Berlin Songs, featuring the entire cast of performers: ten instrumentalists and two singers, soprano Foote and baritone Jeffrey Goble. The plain-speaking poetry of Katherine Thorpe glittered in this setting, sharply edged, with piano notes like drops of water. Hiss of bowed cymbal backlit a duet of soprano and baritone. “We thought,” they sang, leapfrogging in lovely fugue. The slow text and shimmer reminded me of a Ralph Vaughn Williams song.

The evening would not be complete without watching a percussionist create a sinuous texture by stroking a Chinese gong with a quarter—and I remembered that he had borrowed a quarter from me, a willing stranger, at intermission!


—Adam Broner

Photo, top, of six of the ten composers: from left Daniel Temkin, Tonia Ko, Greg Simon, Jason Thorpe Buchanan, David Carpenter and Ryan Olivier (not pictured, Brian Penkrot, Nick DiBerardino, Patrick Chin Ting Chan, and Corey Keating). Photo, bottom, of soprano Amy Foote.