Last night the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music provided the venue for the tenth installment of a series of concerts called Viola Project. Co-hosted by String Department Chair and violist Jodi Levitz and Composition faculty member David Garner, the idea of the series is to couple composition students with viola students. The former creates a new solo piece for the latter to perform, and the two then work together to prepare the results for performance.
Over the course of a little more than two hours (including an intermission), fourteen of these pairings were given their first outing before a public audience last night. This turned out to be a valuable test, not only for the viola students as performers but also for the ability of the composers to provide brief informative introductions to each of the short selections being presented. In this respect the composers came off as well-prepared as the violists, presumably as a result of some informed coaching on “presentation of self” before an audience.
What was particularly interesting was how many of the composition students used early music as a point of departure. Five of the works involved reflection on forms and techniques predating the eighteenth century. Furthermore, none of them were simply rearrangements of old works for contemporary resources, in the manner of many of Ottorino Respighi’s pieces, which involved putting old wine into new bottles. Rather, each piece used one or more elements, such as a dance style or a performance technique, as a point of departure and then headed off in a decidedly new direction. These were works of the present rethinking the past. Most of the results were impressive when performed by the students, who clearly appreciated what their respective composers were trying to do.
At the other extreme, two of the composition students used the opportunity to bring electronica into the mix. Both of the results involved real-time control of electronic resources, meaning that the composer also served as the violists accompanist. Furthermore, real-time control was a matter of interaction. Both pieces required that the violist play into a microphone, meaning that the role of electronica was one of capture and transformation.
One of the pieces, by a student of Elinor Armer, was based on creating a fabric of counterpoint by overlaying captured phrases. This may well be the sort of music that the soloist might eventually be able to perform on his/her own without a “technology assistant.” The other, by one of Garner’s students, seemed to involve the composer engaging real-time transformation algorithms on the captured sounds, meaning that the piece was more of a duet than a solo. Both pieces were delightfully absorbing over the course of the respectively brief durations; and, in the context of the body of Bates compositions getting exposure from groups such as the San Francisco Symphony and the Del Sol String Quartet, it was highly gratifying to see the maturing of new technology-based techniques emerge as skills are passed from teacher to student.