Upstate NY Tour Retrospective

Clay Mettens

Spring 2018

From February 21 - March 6 2018, the [Switch~ Ensemble] embarked on a tour across upstate and western New York to celebrate the ensemble’s five-year anniversary by returning to the region where we began our musical journey. With grant support from the Paul R. Judy Center for Innovation and Research, NewMusicUSA, and the Amphion Foundation, we made stops at Bard College, Ithaca College, Cornell University, and Buffalo State College. This extended, two-and-a-half week period of work together was an invaluable opportunity to re-connect and revitalize our artistic practice. We had the luxury of getting to grow with several of the works through repeat performances over the course of five concerts (including nine world premieres), two workshops, two recording sessions, and one reading session.

One of the cornerstone projects of our tour was premiering a new commission by Bard College professor Matt Sargent entitled Unwound Path. About the work, Matt says:

Unwound Path began from a poem by Robert Creeley, entitled “Kitchen.” Over the twelve lines of the poem, Creeley details three markers of the quiet passage of time within the stillness of one’s day: the “lace-like patterns” that sunlight reflects about the room in the morning, the silence of noon, and in the evening, a line that reflects about the wider passage of time, “perpetually sweeping this room, I want it to be like it was.” The poem’s exposure of the circadian repetition – the habitual periods that compose one’s life – formed into a kind of musical thinking that I sought to work out through writing this piece. As the title, Unwound Path, suggests, the music slowly unravels, built almost entirely, somewhat obsessively, from a single unfolding melody, which is heard again and again across the score in many different guises. There is an element of obsession, rehearing, and stillness to the music that, I hope, pervades the listening experience.*

Sargent’s patient and luminescent new work affirmed a key component of our ensemble’s mission: premiering and recording pieces by promising composers whose music transfixes us. We gave the premiere of Unwound Path in Bard College’s Blum Hall after recording it in an early morning session, with subsequent performances at Cornell University and Buffalo State College. With each performance, we grew to hear Sargent’s beautiful, metallic harmonies with greater clarity and understood the space and breath of his expansive form.

Early morning recording session for Matt Sargent's Unwound Path at Bard College

Alongside Sargent’s premiere, [Switch~] performed works by Alican Çamcı, D. Edward Davis (a runner-up in our International Commissioning Competition), Morton Feldman, and Eastman/Cornell alumna Tonia Ko. Additionally, while in residence at Bard’s Electronic Music Department, [Switch~] collaborated with three undergraduate composers on new works involving technology for soloists and smaller subsets of the ensemble. These collaborations placed [Switch~] musicians in a more pedagogical role, helping the student composers unearth and polish their visions for the interactions between electronic and acoustic worlds. The results spanned a wide aesthetic range, from lush cello drones to bass clarinet accompanied by electronic shadows to the enigmatic juxtaposition of garbled radio voices and minimalist chamber music textures. We premiered these student works alongside two previously composed works by Sargent at the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum in Woodstock, NY.

[Switch~] clarinetist Madison Greenstone in a dress rehearsal with a Bard College undergraduate student

On February 26th, [Switch~] travelled to Ithaca, NY and worked directly with six student composers during a reading session at Ithaca College. Each work varied widely in style and duration, presenting [Switch~] with the unique challenge of rapidly changing gears to tackle the six compositions. Some pieces were complete, while others were sketches and works-in-progress. The laboratory-like environment allowed students with in-progress works to hear different orchestrational possibilities and later make informed decisions about the version they prefer. [Switch~] musicians also utilized their intimate knowledge of their instruments to make suggestions that the composer might not have otherwise considered.

[Switch~] listening to feedback from a student composer at Ithaca College

Directly following this reading session, we set up shop at Cornell University’s Barnes Hall for a week-long residency and collaboration with five graduate student composers on brand new works written for [Switch~]. These new pieces ranged from solo percussion to our full sextet, and we premiered them across two concerts also featuring works by Cornell faculty members Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri, Kevin Ernste, and Roberto Sierra, as well as works by Sargent and Ko.

[Switch~] rehearsing at Cornell University's Barnes Hall

Sergio Cote’s raw and visceral La Sed Es Tierra utilized four amplified surfaces, which Megan Arns, Switch’s percussionist, scratched and struck as if digging into earth. Barry Sharp composed Recitations, for flute, percussion, cello, and electronics, in collaboration with poet Vincent Hiscock and his poem entitled “animal torsion.” The trio is a sort of transcription based on a recording of the poet reading his text. Sharp refers to this compositional process and the work as a filter for the poem. Jihyun Kim’s sextet Once Upon a Time reflects upon the nature of fairy tales and make-believe through a fast-paced and virtuosic work with rapid shifts of character. Motor-rhythms propel the music along before an unexpected and gradually unraveling climax. Daniel Sabzghabaei’s At any rate was the first in a series of transcriptions of popular music, slowed beyond recognition and orchestrated ethereally, accompanied by the sound of a record needle stuck in the inner lock groove of a vinyl disc. Piyawat Louilarpprasert’s Silhouette for piano trio is a playful and virtuosic collection of five miniatures, influenced in part by his study and analysis of Thai instruments, such as the Jakhe.

Megan Arns and Sergio Cote
[Switch~ Ensemble's] executive director, Chris Chandler, introduces the ensemble for an informal concert at Telluride House

During our time at Cornell, we stayed at the Telluride House, which is a community of scholars—undergraduates, graduates and faculty—passionate about intellectual engagement, democratic self-governance, and community living. This housing arrangement provided a wonderful opportunity for Switch to interact with other members of Cornell’s community that we might not have encountered were it not for the close living quarters. We were fortunate to share our music with the Telluride community both in conversation around the dinner table and in an intimate concert held at the house.

We capped off the remainder of our Upstate NY tour with a two-day residency at Buffalo State College, where members of the ensemble presented three workshops for students. In one workshop for composers and music technology students, we addressed the challenges of and solutions for recording and presenting concerts that involves both acoustic instruments or real-time sound processing. Musicians Zach Sheets (flute), Madison Greenstone (clarinet), and Megan Arns (percussion) gave two other workshops for woodwind and percussion students that addressed new and innovative performance techniques for their respective instruments. The last day of the tour concluded with a concert at Ciminelli Hall, where we performed works by faculty member Tomás Henriques, Victoria Cheah, D. Edward Davis, Morton Feldman, and our new commission from Matt Sargent.

Zach Sheets and Madison Greenstone present to woodwind students at Buffalo State College

In the time since we established the [Switch~ Ensemble] in Rochester, NY, our musicians and composers have spread across the country pursuing careers as professors and freelance musicians. Our upstate and western New York tour was a culminating event that enabled us to come together and pursue our mission of working closely with young and innovative composers, bringing new music into the world, and sharing our art with new audiences. It afforded us the time and space to not only fulfill this mission but also reflect on our achievements over the past five years and plan for future projects to come.