Over the course of the last four months, NEC composer Joan Arnau Pàmies has founded, curated, and overseen the creation and execution of a new student-run organization: the NEC Young Composers Forum, a program made possible thanks to an NEC Entrepreneurial Grant. The forum set out to bring in interesting and relevant composers to introduce themselves to the NEC community and to present their work and topics related to its creation. As Pàmies saw it, this would allow NEC students and composers “the opportunity to not only learn about the transformations that music is going through today, but also to be more familiar with late 20th Century musical, aesthetic, and philosophical terms."
The aim of the forum has been to bring in outside voices that otherwise wouldn’t be heard in typical Composition Department master classes, which generally opt for older, more established and conservative composers. Instead, the NEC YCF brought in an array of much more identifiable figures. The age range of the “young” composers Pàmies recruited runs from about 25 to just under 40, and the career status of these musicians is something that an NEC student could aspire to, and achieve, within a few years. They were young, diligent, daring composers, who talked not about their careers, nor life as a successful composer, but talked, quite simply, about their music. Each presenter brought in a number of slides and musical examples, and many brought in sketches and graphs of the pre-compositional process.
The composers involved were a varied group, not of one musical school or particular aesthetic, but all with interesting approaches and techniques that were fascinating to hear about. Harvard composer Trevor Bača has developed his own code to realize complex, multi-dimensional musical processes in small chamber pieces with extramusical, often mystic, poetic aims. Columbia’s Paul Clift brought in an elaborate multimedia work featuring pre-recorded soprano, a dancer triggering sensors, and live audio processing involving highly sensitive microphones being placed inside the instruments. From the younger of the visiting composers like Alec Hall and Diana Soh, we saw a number of skilled and engaging chamber pieces. Regardless of the style, what these musicians had in common was their attention to detail, the level of their craft, and their relevance within the current musical framework.
We have the unique privilege of being able to attend a cultural institution with as much international renown as NEC. The school has had a long history of bringing in relevant and influential composers over the last couple of decades, and the guests who visited the forum in its inaugural year were all thrilled to be presenting in such a setting. It is important for the NEC community to trade on this cachet. Once or twice a year, the Composition Department brings in a composer for a colloquium, but this is not enough. In order that the world of composition at NEC may remain viable, we need to seek out the best of those around us, and the task needn’t fall solely on the Department.
As it was, the Forum was not limited in its appeal to composition majors, but, rather, drew a wide array of attendees from all the school’s disciplines. As Pàmies puts it, “I still think I failed at one of the most important goals of this whole project, which was to attract the majority of the students in the NEC Composition Department—I can recall barely ten students out of over fifty who came to at least one of the lectures. It was surprising to see that more jazz and CI majors than composition students attended the lectures."
Where the forum did succeed, however, was in allowing young minds to interact. The visiting composers, being in the germination stages of their artistic endeavors, are vulnerable, fallible, and still not set in their ways, and, moreover, have as much to benefit from presenting their music as we do from hearing about it. Bringing in successful composers can be a good model for the career-minded among us, but how much more fruitful would it have been to hear these composers hashing out their ideas 30 years ago, when they were still young, when they were first making their creative strides? Theory faculty Stratis Minakakis made a similar observation. “I always imagined how fascinating it might have been to meet the young Xenakis and Stockhausen in Darmstadt at the moment when they were composing ‘Metastasis’ and ‘Gruppen.’ Such festivals were started in the early fifties in Europe to provide a podium to the younger generation for the exchange of new ideas. The NEC Young Composers Forum started from a similar impetus and I hope it is an effort that is seriously undertaken by students next year and in the years to come.”
So, returning students, the onus is on you: the NEC YCF needs to and deserves to live on. Now that Pàmies has the ball rolling, all we need is for someone, be it one student or several, to step up and take the reins and reapply this fall for an Entrepreneurial Grant. Continuing the momentum set forth by this successful first year of the forum is an important step towards seeing that NEC remains a relevant institution, at the forefront of contemporary composition, and so that we may continue to witness the future of music in the making.
Ryan Krause is a composer currently finishing his Master of Music at NEC. This article was first published on Issue XXX of NEC's student newspaper "The Penguin".