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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

ICE at ’Deis: Graduate compositions impress

Published: February 5, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

avant garde: ICE performed modern pieces composed by Brandeis grad students
ILLUSTRATION BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot

“This time in your career, you don’t get a chance to write for a group like that.” It’s Wednesday, and Christian Gentry (GRAD) has just finished teaching a course in country music and society. I’m making him late for his 2 p.m. seminar, but he doesn’t seem to care as he starts discussing his philosophy of modern music composition. I’m enthralled too; it’s not often that you get to talk to a successful artist about his art.

And make no mistake about it, Gentry is about as successful as any composer could hope to be while still in college. His Web site lists several regional ensembles that have premiered his work, including Brandeis’ own Lydian String Quartet, and he has already received a prestigious Barlow Endowment Composition Commission for an original work to be performed next spring. Another career highlight came last Sunday with the premiere of his piece “No Epiphanies Yet (Stumped)” at New Music Brandeis, a two-day concert series held in Slosberg Recital Hall by the International Contemporary Ensemble. Gentry still seems incredibly grateful for what he considers a unique opportunity.

The ICE was founded in 2001 as a touring ensemble to perform aggressively modern works of art music. Already, they’ve developed a strong reputation on an international level, winning prestigious prizes, performing at festivals, and releasing several recordings. Dedicated to remaining on the cutting edge of art music, they’ve premiered more than 400 new works and organized eight festivals of their own. “They have an incredible mission,” Gentry says, based on the optimistic idea that “if you as a musician are completely devoted to a piece of music… the audience will listen.”

Their appearance at Brandeis was thanks in large part to James Borchers, a PhD student in Music Composition and Theory and the head of New Music Brandeis.

The ICE is receptive to paying the school a visit, because “Brandeis has a tradition of excellent composers,” Gentry said. Their Saturday night performance consisted of several electro-acoustic compositions from the past thirty years, and their Sunday concert was dedicated solely to music by Brandeis graduate students.

Gentry was asked over a year ago if he wanted to write for the ICE, and he immediately accepted and began sketching out a piece for flute, clarinet, percussion and guitar. Though the harmonic language he employed was typical of his other compositions, he claims “the form and structure were a little different.” They were specifically designed to take advantage of the virtuosic talent of the ICE’s instrumentalists.

He included solos for each of the instruments, stretching the woodwinds to the upper reaches of their registers, and experimented with different instrumental combinations within the quartet. Finally, all that was left to do was to pick a title, a process that proved surprisingly challenging. Gentry was stuck until he drew inspiration from that very mental block, and “No Epiphanies Yet (Stumped)” was born.

Five other composers premiered works on Sunday in a well-received showcase of the best that Brandeis has to offer in modern art music. Daniel Neal’s “Three short pieces” opened the concert with a strongly atonal and varied set of compositions. Michele Zaccagnini’s duo “Quetzelcoatl” matched a gentle flute with spry, percussive guitar harmonics. “God Particles,” by James Borchers, created a science fiction-like atmosphere to explore the theme of musical elements traveling through time in the manner of hypothesized subatomic particles. Yohanan Chendler’s “Lullaby” focused on an interplay between the flute and clarinet that was tight enough to obscure the musical shifts of the piece, creating a fascinating environment in which musical progression was felt before it was heard. Peter Van Zandt Lane closed the concert with “Poa Pratensis,” a concertino for electric guitar that would have come off as danceable at times if the propulsive rhythms hadn’t been so unusual.

The pieces all shared a relentless embrace of the avant-garde, and while I found something interesting in each of them, my inexperience with the style left me feeling like I was missing something. Listening to Gentry, it almost seems like this is his intention.

“[I want to] write in a way that I feel best… that presents the audience with an experience that forces them to listen,” he said.

If Gentry and his fellows continue to attract the attention of ensembles as strong as the ICE, they’ll find a lot more listeners in their future.