Iron Composer

Around 11 AM on Thursday, I got a call from Joe Drew of ANALOG arts, organizers of the Iron Composer competition. I’d thrown my hat in the ring for that, but never heard back from them, and had forgotten all about it.  Well, their composer judge had bailed on them, and would I judge the competition? OK…let me check with my wife…”Hell yes”, she said…OK. there went my only free night of the week (which is why I felt I had to ask my wife.)

Iron Composer is a bit like Iron Chef. 5 contestants are chosen from a field of applicants. They arrive at 9 AM, are given an instrumentation and a “secret ingredient”, and have until 2:30 to come up with a piece. Applying was sort of a dare to myself… I’m not noted for long working periods, or working quickly, so it was just as well that I was not selected. I hadn’t been notified because they had me pegged as a potential judge, and somehow I slipped through the cracks. There are three judges: a composer, a non-musician, and one of the performers (who of course is not announced until the day, as that would give away the medium).

So I friended IC on Facebook, went to the website, and tried to find out what I could about their music.  There wasn’t all that much music up, surprisingly; my site is much better provisioned in that way. And Mari Takano’s site did me little good, as it was in Japanese (duh! I just now on Monday found the English version). And all of them, without exception, had better paper credentials as composers than I do. Oh well. I didn’t have all that much time to do homework, as I’ve been solo in the library, at a busy time there, with a Thursday night rehearsal. I also heard some of the previous contestants, and had thoughts of doing a practice judging session with them; that didn’t happen for obvious reasons.

Friday I packed my suit and my camera (not the Tascam, though I probably could have found an audience member to leave it with) and left for work. Around 1PM,  the outside world discovered the terms. The medium was solo organ (the Austin in Gamble Auditorium, 4-manuals,  74 ranks, played by my colleague across the parking lot at Church of the Covenant, Jonathan Moyer…who was thus by default the third judge).  My first thought was “You sadistic MFs…”  NOBODY writes for organ, unless they’re involved in church music; I am, and I’m just beginning to understand the instrument and its capabilities. And NOBODY talks about organ in instrumentation/orchestration classes, though there’s usually something inadequate in the textbook. At least it’s a normal keyboard…solo guitar would have been far worse (I know, I’m working on a guitar piece right now), or accordion.  And…hmm, Zvonimir Nagy is an organist; is that an unfair advantage or not? Would it be so if the instrument were a violin? How do I handle this as a judge? I decided that the Iron Composer knows ALL instruments, and if you can’t write effectively for organ, it’s your own fault.

The Secret Ingredient was a pair of Regina music boxes with 11 discs. And I thought “they aren’t going to use them together, are they? Those Reginas CAN’T be at 440!” I went online trying to find a tuner to check the recordings. I never did, but the online samples compared to Finale inputs suggested F#/Gb at A440 or thereabouts. Without assurance that the instruments wouldn’t sound like hell together, my hypothetical plan of attack would have been to transcribe one of the tunes, write a final variation, then several intermediary variations as time permitted, with a lot of 2′ flutes and other music-boxy stops, possibly with the box itself making a surprise appearance, cadenza-like, near the end. I would not have picked one of the sacred pieces, even though it would make for a more useful piece, because my perception was that what would be win for Iron Composer would be fail in church…definitely a difference in function.

Dinner at Cracker Barrel (not too hungry but wanted real food, and being Friday it needed to be non-meat…no greens today!), change clothes in the bathroom there, off to Berea. I don’t get out there much, and it’s certainly changed since I lived there. Jonathan was finishing his practice when I arrived (he had about a half-hour each to learn the pieces). He got done, and I was seated onstage next to the non-musician judge, the charming Gina Cirino of the Cleveland Council on World Affairs. She claimed she was going to copy all my grades (but didn’t), but in fact her comments were quite perspicacious. There were scores on the table, so I got to study them for several minutes before the show began.

Heeere’s Jonny!

Here are the Reginas. The 440 one (that got most of the work) is on the right.

Here’s the audience, about 5 minutes before showtime. The composers sat in that empty front row during the contest.

And then we were live…everyone got introduced, and the pieces began.  First up was Melody Eötvös, native of Australia, now in Bloomington IN. No, I don’t know or care if she’s a relative of Peter.  Her piece was called Regina vs. Austin…or Austin vs. Regina; it was different on the score and verbally. The notion was that the two “instruments” were so disparate that the natural thing was to set them in opposition, rather like a bickering couple. “Austin” was pompous in a BWV565 sort of way, maybe a bit patriarchal; “Regina” was, if I remember correctly, actually “Lucia de Lammermoor”, and if I had to live with “Austin”, I’d go nuts too. At the end they find harmony together. It was a high-entertainment-value piece, well shaped, and to the point. There were no registrations in the score, but there really didn’t need to be; “Austin” was pretty full all the time.

The next contestant was Matthew Heap, doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh, a late substitution for Kate Neal, who withdrew. His work used the organ to explore the resonances of the music box. (Sorry, I forget the title…I should have been taking notes, but I was busy judging…it had something to do with resonances.) It was unique in synchronizing the organ and music box rhythmically (a nice thing musically, but I’m sure it was a PITA for Jonathan.) I found some depth to it, and liked the thematicism of his style, but also found the pacing of musical events a little slow (but then, I’m a “fast” person; even when writing pieces with a low number of attack points per minute, I tend to change harmony at a fairly rapid rate.) There were some general registration suggestions in the score.

Next we had Nearer Thy God to Me by David Kirkland Garner from Duke, based on the music box tune “Nearer my God to Thee”. The switch in title seemed to be a commentary about over-aggressive evangelization: Nearer thy (not my) God… The piece had 2 innovative uses of the Secret Ingredient: the score itself was circular like the music box discs (in the tradition of Senleches and that other Southron who went to the University of Michigan, George Crumb.). And at the end, the disc was transferred to the other music box, the one flat to the organ (Garner was the only one to use this). This was the most effective moment in a piece which seemed somewhat formulaic to me: 3 seconds of music box, free organ patterns crescendo/diminuendo, repeat about 10 times. If there was a clear sense of forward motion over the repetitions, it would have worked better (hey, Ravel’s Bolero is formulaic too, in just about the same way.). No organ registrations on this one.

Next we had Mari Takano. Leave it to the student of Ferneyhough and Ligeti to write the most tonal score of the evening (even if she did write in every flat in Gb instead of using a key signature). It was also the only one to not use the organ and music box together. I had a hard time following the explanation of the piece through her accent. but it was high concept, dealing with jazz and the memory of the dead, and beginning with a jazz-style head of “If I but knew”, played by the music box at the end, with some variations in between. It was the transition to the music box that didn’t quite work for me, coming down to the box’s dynamic. Charles Ives, the master of memory, would have used the trick he’d learned as an organist and built up something loud and then cut it off to reveal the music box underneath. No registrations.

Last was Zvonimir Nagy (That’s “Nahdge”, not like the baseball player or the baroque oboist). Here the registration information was incredibly detailed and probably Austin-specific (and why not? It’s not like you’re going to get a lot of play out of a duet for organ and music box. I suggested he could make the end into a real chorale prelude.) His piece was based on the two sacred selections of the music box, Abide with me and Nearer my God to Thee, ending with both themes in counterpoint in the pedals, over a semi-improvised manual part based on perfect fifths. The harmony was a bit grittier than I prefer, and there wasn’t much in the way of hooks, but it was well-assembled and definitely strong writing for the organ.

So we filled out our sheets and they were tabulated backstage while we heard samples of each piece and then music-box music. And the winner was:
Zvonimir Nagy, Iron Composer ($500)
2nd place: Melody Eötvös ($300)
3rd place: David Kirkland Garner ($200)

The other contestants got the same honorarium the judges did: bupkis.
I felt sad for Ms. Takano, having come all that way and returning with nothing. I thought her piece deserved better than it got (well, so did Matthew’s…and that doesn’t mean the winners weren’t deserving). On the other hand, soon she’ll be able to console herself by listening to her third CD on BIS, so there won’t be a keg at this pity party.

Judging is tough. You always want to put your aesthetic positions aside, and somehow judge pieces as pure craftsmanship, but that’s impossible, and perhaps undesirable if it were possible. I was glad there were three judges, so that my own prejudices were diluted somewhat. Joe thought I’d struck the right balance as judge between the general and the specific, the technical and the witty. I felt I did okay, but how would we have judged if we could hear each piece a half-dozen times over days?

Afterwards Zvonimir and I talked… it turns out that he will also be at New Voices @ CUA! How cool is that? And one of these days I’ll make a research trip to Duquesne (so many scores, so little scanning time… I should try to ILL them), so maybe this is the start of a real relationship.

All in all, a unique way to spend a Friday night. But the weekend was dedicated to rest!

UPDATE: Tim Robson’s review for ClevelandClassical is here.

One Response to Iron Composer

  1. silver paint says:

    silver paint…

    […]Iron Composer « The Quick and the Dead[…]…

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