In an open rehearsal in Harlem, the bespectacled composer sat listening intently as the string quartet rehearsed his new piece. He made comments and asked the quartet to play certain sections more slowly. The players asked questions and plunged into the piece once again. Focusing on the music, it was easy to forget that these serious musicians were at an age when you might expect them to be more interested in Katy Perry than Mozart. In this case, the composer was 11-year-old Daniel Ma, a student in Kaufman Music Center’s Face the Music and ComposerCraft, and the quartet his fellow middle school students.
It’s a great time to be a young musician. Not only are established composers increasingly writing new works for a burgeoning pool of talent at the pre-college level, but teen and pre-teen composers have more opportunities than ever before to see their work performed. “Kids in my generation definitely have more opportunities to hear and perform contemporary classical music than even just a few years ago,” says 12-year-old composer and violinist Paris Lavidis, who notes that the growing number of composers his own age makes him optimistic about the future of classical music.
Like Ma, Lavidis is a member of Kaufman Music Center’s Face the Music ensemble and also a student in ComposerCraft, a Lucy Moses School class taught by composer Robinson McClellan in which gifted young composers study scores by the likes of Beethoven and Bartók as well as their own work. The students, who write everything from operas and symphonies to klezmer tunes and electronic works, see their pieces performed by professional ensembles such as Yarn/Wire and Metropolis Ensemble at venues like LPR and Symphony Space. McClellan has developed an innovative online “textbook” that includes lectures, interactive scores and assignments that students complete using their choice of notation technology.
Members of Face the Music, who range in age from nine to 18, cut their teeth on works by the likes of Michael Gordon, Terry Riley and Philip Glass. This year they will take on works by Daniel Bernard Roumain, Vijay Iyer and Nico Muhly among others. They will also premiere 15 new works by their own members at venues throughout New York City. Last spring, Face the Music director Jenny Undercofler put out an open call for scores from ensemble member and was excited to receive what she calls a “treasure trove” of works the students have written for each other, which range in size from a string quartet combination with a sampler and flute to full orchestra pieces. “I think it's just going to set the world on fire when audiences see what students can write at this age level,” she says.
If the incessant stream of bad news from Washington, D.C. depresses you, take heart! It turns out that government dysfunction is excellent fodder not just for late-night talk show hosts, but for creative young composers as well. Struck by news reports on the national debt and the Sequester, the automatic cuts to federal government spending that kicked in last March, 13-year-old Face the Music member Owen Carter wove current events into his composition process. “I did not actually start writing the piece thinking that it would reflect the Sequester,” he explains, “but then I started ‘sequestering’ off the ends of measures, or leaving out notes here and there. I also had a whole-tone section that represented the chaos before the Sequester, like Congress’s inability to make a decision.” Face the Music will premiere Carter’s The Sequester, on April 25 at P.S. 142.
The current U.S. political system also inspired Lavidis’s This Is Not Spartacus, which premiered on December 2 at Roulette. “You’ll hear a monstrous amplified chamber orchestra, a Geo manual keyboard and a drum set representing America,” he explains, “and the conductor has a part at the end where she screams ‘I Am Spartacus.’” Ma shares his fellow composers’ preoccupation with the U.S. government, but from a slightly longer historical perspective. His Music of the Presidents, No. 1 is a musical exploration of the first 16 presidencies – Washington through Lincoln. In this piece, which required extensive research, Ma tries to express the events and emotions during events like the War of 1812, the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination. Ma, together with Face the Music, will premiere this piece on May 8 at Museum of Chinese in America.
How does it feel to see their work performed? There's this deep excitement in your stomach,” says Lavidis, whose works have been performed by the Metropolis Ensemble and JACK Quartet. “It feels great to have my piece chosen to be played by an ensemble,” Ma explains. After a premiere, he feels proud of his accomplishment and grateful to the audience. When they see professional ensembles performing their pieces, “the kids are ecstatic and look like they can’t believe what’s happening,” says McClellan. Often, they even feel comfortable critiquing the performance, telling the players what they could have done differently. “They don’t feel intimidated or restricted and do what they need to do to get it to sound right.”
The three composers approach the process of writing a new work somewhat differently. Carter begins a piece at the piano, improvising patterns. “If I like what I’m playing, then I write it into a piece,” he says. “If it doesn’t work out, then I try again. I also arrange and transcribe a lot of music, which helps me come up with new ways of writing.” Ma, whose main inspirations Bach and Mozart, often starts with the intention of writing a certain type or style of piece, or a piece with certain instrumentation. He’ll write a short phrase and use it as a jumping point for the rest of the piece.
Lavidis lists Stravinsky, John Adams and Julia Wolfe as some of his many influences, but much of his inspiration comes from everyday sounds. “Really for me, music begins with a sound,” he says. “I never plug my ears when a train goes by furiously in the subway station because I love that sound. Even though it doesn't necessarily have a defined pitch in equal temperament, it doesn't mean that it's not a valid and beautiful sound.”