‘New’ music rocks

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The Tutti Festival, a biennial celebration of works by young composers, recently delivered a variety of musical experiences with an ambitious series of six concerts.

But there was more happening on campus than just the performances. Professor Ching-chu Hu, chair of the music department and director of the festival, had invited renowned composer Chen Yi to share her expertise with Denison’s composition students.

In addition to her prolific output of pieces blending motifs from Eastern and Western cultures, Dr. Chen is a generous champion of young artists.

Jolyn Tsai ’13 enjoyed an hour lesson with Chen, who offered suggestions about her compositions and spoke over lunch at Brews about growing up in China.

“She’s definitely a very positive person,” said Tsai, as she recalled Chen’s encouragement to major, rather than minor, in composition.

Also joining the composer for a lesson was Danny Clarke ’12, who acted as Hu’s right-hand man in organizing the three-day festival. Clarke said he appreciated Chen’s insightful and witty personality and her advice on applying to grad schools and building a portfolio.

After guest artist and percussionist Chris Froh played her “Jing Marimba” during a performance on Friday night, Chen shot out of her seat like a firecracker, nodded and applauded excitedly, and seemed to emphasize his masterful performance rather than her own authorship of the work.

And at the reception afterward, she heaped on him the best praise a composer can bestow on a performer.  “You speak my language, ” she beamed. “You played it so naturally; I think I wrote it for you!”

Knowing how difficult the creative process is—the cathartic, exhausting nature of getting it all down on “paper,” Chen bolstered the egos of every composer in the room with her compliments.

“That was so fresh, so unexpected,” she said at one point. “You’ve made so much progress!” It gratified the students to realize she understood not only the hard work they’d invested into their pieces, but also the vulnerability of exposing themselves to the critique of an audience.

Commonly, people who appreciate music in general don’t know how to approach avant-garde music. During the reception after Friday night’s performance, Chris Kim, guest artist and director of the ensemble Brave New Works, recalled that even his own grandmother complained about not understanding “new” music.

It’s true that if you’re looking for the more rigid proportions of Bach or Mozart here, you’ll be frustrated. Instead, if you think of a modern piece visually—close your eyes and imagine a scene that fits the music—it seems more like a painting or a film clip, and you’ll be more satisfied with finding some connection to the work.

Kim maintains that there is no “right answer” as a listener and that the subjectivity of this music is one of its best attributes. If you listen to contemporary soundtracks of films such as Steamboy, Transformers, or Avatar without having seen the movies, it’s quite unlike the experience of hearing the songs united with the film images.

In concert halls, audience members invent these images for themselves, and judging from the Tutti turnout, there are many fans of contemporary music who appreciate its experimental and expressive qualities.

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