From NEWMUSICBOX: “The Magic That Happens in a Week”

New Music USA


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September 13, 2018
Michael Garrett Steele

When I first arrived at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier for a campus visit, I was just in time for the electronic music showcase. I’d had a long flight and a drive through unfamiliar country. I was a little weary, and a little wary. I’d been to a lot of electronic showcases and fixed-media installations over the course of looking for a grad school. They’d started bleeding into each other. And none of them made me feel like my voice had any place in the programs I was visiting.

VCFA’s was something special, though. The works didn’t feel like student works. They were furious searches for answers to burning questions. In that sense then, they were student works – in the sincerest form of the word. I heard delicate soundscapes, interwoven with rotating samples of the composer’s family. I heard brutalist musique concrète. The whole thing closed with a meditative improvisation among some of the faculty. Jazz pianist Diane Moser performed in an emotional feedback loop as her sound was manipulated by Mike Early and John Mallia. It was unlike anything I’d heard before. And woven throughout this exploration of electronic art music was something else—there were snippets of video game music. There were synthesizer pieces from the ‘70s that students had pulled out of mothballs and retooled. There were straight-up techno dance pieces. And in the context of that breadth, a realization emerged – every single piece I heard that night was exactly what the composer wanted it to be. Nobody was following the dictate of an overbearing tutor or trying to impress a department head. They were following their muse, guided by folks who were equipping them to do it better every time. And the program was richer for it, in breadth and in depth. At a school that had room for me, even the musical styles that felt like a barrier to me were beautiful, because the only people composing in that space were the ones who were truly called into it.

VCFA operates in week-long residencies, followed by six months of one-on-one mentoring with a faculty member. Because there’s so little time spent together, they go out of their way to make the most of it. Every minute is accounted for, between the lectures, workshops, showcases, and concerts. My visit was only for a couple of nights, but it felt like I was there for at least two weeks. The breadth of the lectures bore out the promise of the electronics showcase. I caught the film music showcase and an ensemble concert. After that concert, I stayed up talking with one of the student composers I’d met. As we talked and I packed, I realized we’d carried our conversation on until 5 in the morning, and it was time for my cab to take me to the airport. I flew home, with something like two dozen new Facebook friends in tow.

These are some of those friends…

Those Facebook friends turned out to mean a great deal in the coming months. Even though I was on the fence about attending, I was welcomed into the community and talking to students daily. When the time came to make an admission decision, I had two offers on the table. The assistant program director called me – not to sell me on it, but to talk through my creative and financial anxieties.

She, in turn, put me in touch with the faculty chair at the time, Rick Baitz. Rick talked to me for over an hour while he was stuck in New York traffic and I was stuck in Austin traffic. His advice was enthusiastic, if cryptically Zen. “Well, I think you should come. Unless you don’t want to come. But then you probably shouldn’t be listening to me. Listen to yourself.”

In the end, I wound up listening to him. It was one of the most positive life changes I’ve ever made. Frankly, it still is. My time at VCFA is very much a going concern and a part of my daily life. I still collaborate with my VCFA fellows. I still work with them, and occasionally work for them. And two years after graduating, I still fly to Vermont every six months and take a long drive to be part of every residency.

Vermont College of Fine Arts plays up the “low residency” aspect of the program. You study remotely with a grad advisor for six months, and then you reconvene on campus for a week-long combination of a conference and a festival. But the real value of the school isn’t in the semester format. It’s in the magic that happens in that one week.

The residencies start to bleed together in my mind. They’re separated by time, and yet they’re timeless, and oddly recursive. As I walk through this week, most of the examples I think of are from the most recent residency, August 2018. It is the freshest one in my mind. But as I reach through my memories to think of all the things that the program can be—and has been, for me—I have reached for a few memories from earlier residencies stood out for me. The guest presenters and visiting performers change from residency to residency, and at least one priceless, life-changing memory seems to emerge from each one.

That first evening I experienced there may have been the best introduction to the program I could have hoped for. I quickly found that the genre-agnostic approach I encountered was de rigueur for the program at large. It bore out in the lectures, as well. Andy Jaffe is the man who wrote the book on jazz harmony—quite literally. His pet topic is recontextualization through reharmonization. He’s the kind of speaker who, even if you can barely keep up with him, will leave you with a tiny piece of insight that you can apply anywhere. In a flash, he will immediately deepen your understanding and broaden your view. Andy insists repeatedly that there’s nothing mystical about jazz harmony. One of his core assertions is incredibly simple—the more tones you have in your chord, the more common tones you have to propel you wherever you want to go. If you’re a newcomer to the world of jazz—or even unengaged completely—that’s a tiny, but powerful idea. You can hang onto it, take it home, and mull it over as you work on your own music for six months. And Andy’s approach to harmony starts quietly bleeding into student work as they progress through the program.

An impromptu jam session involving VCFA students and faculty (including Andy Jaffe at the piano) as well as visiting musicians (including violinist Fung Chern Hwei)

John Fitz Rogers speaks adeptly about principles of orchestration. This semester, his lecture is about controlling dynamic intensity artfully, by baking it into the structure of the piece itself rather than giving each part a dynamic marking. As he sifts through 300 years’ worth of examples, he casually opens windows of insight into a bottomless wealth of expertise. Even his basic thesis is one that is simultaneously core to orchestration and yet wildly underappreciated.

A trio of working media composers hold court to a steadily growing cadre of starry-eyed film-scoring hopefuls. Their advice is practical, rooted in their years of first-hand experience. Rick Baitz gives a survey course in conveying story information musically. He uses Little Miss Sunshine as an example of how you can lead a viewer to intuit things about your characters without needing to make them speak. In other years he’s shown a tense, ambiguous scene from a horror movie. A character is in a stranger’s home, looking for information on a serial killer. He’s either in grave danger, or he’s become hilariously paranoid. Rick shows us the original, and then uses several rescored versions to illustrate how much weight a good score can pull in setting the emotional tone of a scene. Horror is rich with emotional potential, and thrives on the discomfort of ambiguity. An expert composer can tip the scale on way or another to tip off a canny viewer, or to misdirect and surprise at a crucial moment.

Ravi Krishnaswami gives canny lectures in music business and deciphering client needs. He also holds a workshop each semester during which students are asked to score an ad, integrating sound design into the music itself. Sometimes he deliberately gives the assignment out last-minute, for the sake of verisimilitude. This semester, Don DiNicola talked about the importance of collaboration in an age that increasingly demands musicians do everything themselves. People came away deeply moved, almost exuberant. DiNicola himself has been a music supervisor for television studios for years. His insight into navigating through various stakeholders and getting paid is almost as incisive as his musical instincts.

The VCFA community listens to a talk by the members of the Sirius Quartet at VCFA’s Alumni Hall during the summer 2018 residency (Photo by Jay Ericson, courtesy VCFA)

Professors sit in on each other’s lectures as well, despite their time being at a premium. The collegial atmosphere is shaped profoundly by their curiosity and camaraderie, and by the cross-pollination of ideas. You’ll see the classically oriented professors sitting in on a lecture about the Futurists, given by a singer-songwriter with a wild new music streak. You’ll see the jazz cats turn up at the film scoring lectures with fresh insights about the way harmonic motion is driving a scene. That boundless insistence on the permeable nature of what we do is at the heart of the program.

Similar convergences occur among the students. Some of my classmates were fresh out of college. Some had recently retired. One is a heart surgeon who had trimmed his hours to focus more on his lifelong music obsession. An avant-garde jazz composer from Chicago takes an evening away from lectures to listen to a discussion about her work on Swedish Public Radio. One of my childhood heroes in television scoring is here, trying to rediscover his own voice after years of being asked by studios to sound like other composers. And all of these people are thrown together. They encourage each other through difficult masterclass sessions. They learn each other’s songs for the weekend showcase. They gossip about John Zorn and recommend TV shows to each other at lunch.

I join another VCFA alum Margie Halloran for one of her songs along with Rev. TJ McGlinchey on guitar during the Singer-Songwriter Showcase. (Photo by Ravi Krishnaswami)

Evenings are for showcases and concerts of student work. In addition to the electronic showcase, there are nights for film music and songwriting. All of those styles bleed into the ensemble concerts—ostensibly the meat of the residency experience. Groups like Talujon, Sirius Quartet, and Roomful of Teeth offer feedback and insight for several days before delivering their performances. They impart idiosyncratic notation tricks for their instruments. They give practical career advice. A common theme in their feedback is that it’s a performer’s market when it comes to new pieces. The performers here are all strong enough that they can play anything you throw at them. But they’re also honest enough to say, “If you want someone to actually play this thing beyond these walls, you need to tweak this, this, and this to make it manageable.”

Sometimes ensembles take student work with them. My own percussion quartet was programmed by Michael Lipsey for his percussion students at Queens College. And even if the music doesn’t travel, the relationships do. Students from Florida couch-surf with students from California. Session musicians from New York make time to grab drinks when students from Texas come to visit.

David Cossin make some edits on his part during a rehearsal of the piece Julian Gerstin (pictured on the right) wrote for Talujon which was performed during VCFA’s summer 2018 music composition residency (Photo by Jay Ericson, courtesy VCFA)

Those relationships are fostered by the evenings after the concert. The on-campus café supplies enough wine to get the conversation going, and before too long everyone wanders down the hill from the campus to the bars downtown. It’s in one of those bars that I won a minute of recording time from a Julliard instructor in a bet. Here I get lightly berated by a conservatory head for not being familiar enough with Biggie. Here a visiting music journalist breathlessly enthuses about a ‘50s pop singer from Hong Kong that I need to hear.

Beyond encouraging breadth within the program, VCFA encourages people to explore their own full richness. The professor renowned for orchestration can go on a tangent about Led Zeppelin. A songwriting student can do a multi-movement piece for brass quintet. And the people on the periphery of each of these moments get to experience people who are living in holistic fulfillment of their best artistic selves.

VCFA is a swirling vortex of bizarre, beautiful convergences, built on the idea that it’s all music. Maybe, in the end, everything is.

At the end of every residency there is a graduation ceremony for the people who have attended five residencies and have completed all of their work toward the degree. During the ceremony. For each of the graduates, one of the faculty members offers a personal statement and ceremony attendees also get to listen to recorded excerpts of each of the graduate’s musical compositions.

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