In the first session of NEC’s Young Composers forum, we met Alec Hall, a Canadian studying at Columbia, who talked in depth about a piece for clarinet and piano, prefacing his description with the caveat that he was currently more involved in electro-acoustic music. While a simple duo between two classical instruments might be seemingly at ends with his electronic aims (Hall currently studies with Tristain Murail, and before with Philippe Manoury), the piece made full use of the variety of timbres available to the two instruments and their combinations, as enveloping shrieks of the clarinet multiphonics and the persistent tinkling at the extreme ends of the piano coalesced into one beautiful whole.
Hall gave a great talk—he talked about his process, his influences, musical or otherwise, and his objectives with the piece. He shared slides of some Philip Guston drawings in particular that had inspired his direction in the piece. Guston, also Canadian, had, in this early drawing, created a very crude, but architecturally conceived arrangement of smeared lines and a few specific angles and relationships that Hall worked into his music. He shared graphs from various stages of his compositional process, in which he had mapped out these lines as contours for various aspects of the piece; he identified three types of motion in the Guston that he would use. The piece, which was a commission from a clarinetist friend, relied heavily on a number of multiphonics worked out with the player. Hall then worked to create progressions between the variety of these, and then worked further to obscure from them the blatant predictability that would result from a simple chorale progression. Though for me, some of the most satisfying sounds were when Hall was able to place a single note from the chalumeau register of the clarinet at the base of a series of oscillating multiphonics while the piano clamored with both hands in its upper register, so that, with the wild swirl of sound above it, the sotto voce tone at the bottom remained virtually indistinguishable as to from which instrument it came.
Featured as he was on the opening session of the NEC YCF, Hall embodied, in a sense, the ideal archetype for what was to come. Unlike the typical talks we see at NEC, involving more established and generally more conservative older composers, in Hall we were able to see a “young composer” who was still grappling with his own stylistic direction, yet in whose process, we witnessed a sort of daring and diligence far surpassing that of the standard stock of visiting composers. But it was this naked honesty, this vulnerability, that I feel had much to offer the attending group of fellow “young composers.”
Ryan Krause is a composition major at NEC currently studying with John Mallia.