May 10, 2010
It's no surprise that student composers often create music that sounds like the music of their teachers. As in most if not all fields of learning, students learn by emulating the techniques and principles that their teachers pass on to them. And creating music that's in the mold of the teacher's style is flattering and more likely to gain approval. It's usually the case that students are not expected to create anything wildly original, but rather to follow the rules and build something that's well-made. Creativity, if it comes at all, is a post-graduation right.
The 14 student pieces that constituted the San Francisco Conservatory of Music's choral composition competition mostly perfectly met these expectations. The competition, which is run by composer and conservatory composition professor David Conte (pictured) and takes place every two years (this is the seventh iteration of the event) was full of pieces that were a) very similar in feel -- most of them were ponderous, earnest and basically tonal -- and b) written in a style approaching the teacher's own compositional slant.
The choral ensemble with which I perform, The International Orange Chorale, was one of three choirs charged with performing the compositions. We were lucky enough to get to perform the winning piece -- a ponderous, earnest and basically tonal work entitled Peace by Aaron Pike. The song was a setting of a poem by Louise N. Parter. Because this piece won, we ended up giving it a "lap of honor" by reprising it at the climax of the event.
The winning work was certainly well-crafted, but it wasn't my personal first choice. I would have chosen one of the few works on the program which veered in a different direction from the rest. Performed by another local ensemble, the San Francisco Choral Artists, Carry, by Anthony Porter, juxtaposed a poem by e. e. cummings with the words of the Kyrie Eleison. Packed with jaunty rhythms, playful polyphony between the chorus and soloists and unexpected harmonies, the composer's writing demonstrated some measure of originality. The pace and energy of the work made for a welcome break from the rest of the dreamy-serious pieces, as inoffensive to the ear as all of them were.
Originality clearly isn't ranked high on the list of criteria for judging student compositions at the Conservatory. (The judges, by the way, were composer/conductor John Kendall Bailey, composer/organist Stephen Main, and singer/conductor Jeffrey Thomas.) The fact that veering away from the status quo seemingly isn't foregrounded is a shame in a way, especially since the pieces are given a public performance. The compositions might reflect the different personalities of the composers in the eyes of their teacher. But to most audience members, I suspect it was hard to distinguish most of the works from one another.