In the "that-was-so-five-minutes-ago" world of pop music, Carlton Gamer's Aria da Capo wouldn't exactly be considered hot off the presses. He wrote the first version of the ten-minute-plus piece for a New York City dance troupe in 1952, when the composer was beginning to wrestle with the nuclear implications of the burgeoning Cold War.
In the centuries-old tradition of Gamer's training -- orchestral music composition -- the technically challenging work for piano and vocal is still a baby, however -- a quintessentially modern piece that uses atonal counterpoint to hint at the dark and very contemporary possibility of nuclear war.
Revised in 1991, Aria da Capo is still very fresh and entirely relevant, in part because it deals with a perennial theme: the cyclical patterns of human ambition that lead nations and people from peace, to war and back again, time after time.
"The whole idea is that this thing you're repeating is violence and conflict and you go back and do it over and over again," Gamer said, noting that the words "aria da capo" are essentially Italian for "Play it again, Sam." They are often put at the top of musical scores as a way to tell the performer to repeat the tune from the beginning.
Gamer's musical commentary is just one of 16 pieces to be performed during the Colorado College's New Music Symposium, which brings the work of numerous living composers to the stage for a weekend full of interesting musical surprises and variety this Saturday and Sunday.
The brainchild of Colorado College music professor and composer Ofer Ben-Amots, the symposium is an unusual event in the world of orchestral music, which tends to relish the music of past masters over the work of living composers.
But the two-day musical mystery tour has become increasingly popular among local music fans and musicians, who have consistently swelled the ranks of audiences, performers and composers in each of the last five years.
To composers such as Gamer, Ben-Amots' efforts are a valuable service in a field where artists often have a hard time getting their works performed, and who also tend be somewhat reclusive. "A lot of composers tend to focus on their own work, getting their own work performed; but Ofer's not like that," Gamer said. "He works very hard to give other composers a chance to be heard."
Not that these works of new music have sat in closets collecting dust in recent decades. Gamer's piece, for example, has been performed numerous times at some pretty prestigious venues: numerous venues in New York, concert halls in Denver and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., among other places.
But compared to 18th- and 19th-century works, modern music has a far smaller range of venues and so any stage is greatly appreciated. After all, the possibility of live performance is one of the best accelerators of new music creation.
This year, the symposium focuses less on academic analysis (i.e. seminars and lecture) and more on musical performance, bringing an impressive list of both well-known composers and newer names to the stage.
Among the newer names, CC philosophy professor Jonathan Lee has composed a piece for French horn based on the old Anglo Saxon idea of Middangeard, a place in the middle of the sea. Of the more well-known names, modern music pioneer George Crumb tops the list with a piece transcribed for French horn and percussion by Memphis, Tennessee's Robert Patterson, who plays the horn for this performance.
In between Lee and Crumb are numerous composers who, in big and little ways, are pushing musical instruments and musical concepts to new limits -- or using unconventional vocals and spoken-word narratives to create a new vision of chamber music.
Composer Adrienne Elisha's "Once emerged from the grey of night" is just one example. Based on a painting and poem by Paul Klee, the piece uses resonance between the piano and the marimba to suspend harmonies, creating an "otherwordly" effect, she writes in notes for the program. "In a similar fashion, the players voices are threaded through the work, mixed with the timbres of their instruments," she adds. "New sounds created by this technique add power to the harmonic and melodic structure."
Similarly, local composer Stephen Scott creates eerily melodious sounds by rubbing tape and fishing line -- as well as numerous other improvised objects -- against the strings of a grand piano. Scott's Bowed Piano Ensemble is well known to local music fans; but his new piece "Entrada" is probably less familiar. This year, concert goers will see a film of the ensemble performing "Entrada" produced by Amy Scott and Tom Sanny.
"Entrada" was composed to open the ensemble's 1999 performance at the 10th Visual Music Festival in Lanzarote, Canary Islands. But after the ensemble had to pull out of the festival, members decided to create a film to honor the festival and its founder, visual artist Ildefonso Aguilar, with whom the composer now intends to collaborate on a work for the 12th annual festival.
Other composers include Masaru Kawasaki, who is well known in Japan for, among other things, his orchestral work commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which was once performed here as part of CC's commemoration of that event. A more sparse composition by Kawasaki, "Essay on a Day," featuring Paul Nagem on flute and Susan Grace on piano, will be performed at this year's symposium.
The program is too diverse to describe in detail, but pieces include: a sonata for cello and piano by Ofer Ben-Amots; a piece by George Crumb's son, David; a capriccio for flute by Colorado composer Charles Eakin; and a ten-minute cello solo by Frederick Kaufman, among several others
As for Gamer's Aria da Capo, it's to be performed with Susan Grace on piano and local actor Herb Beaty narrating. Beaty will recite a poem by choreographer Ilka Suarez, the dancer who used Aria as a backdrop for a modern dance piece inspired by the one-act play of the same name by Edna St. Vincent Millay.
In Millay's Aria da Capo, the action begins with one character proclaiming her love of macaroons, after which the drama slowly descends into chaos and destruction. At the end of play, calm is restored and the same character again proclaims her love of macaroons in the same exact exchange of words, hinting of an eternal repetition of the play's drama.
Gamer's piece is far less programmatic and literal, being based on Suarez's poem, which itself is only metaphorically suggestive of Millay's play. Here's an excerpt of her poem:
It was foolishly said long ago
Or possibly not long ago
That man was his master
Then who orders: "Repeat the tune"?
Ten years ago, Gamer added his own words at the end of the piece, using imagery that still rings true in the age of "National Missile Defense" and continued nuclear proliferation.
Rise, rise away;
Then bend, subside, decline, abate --
Immense, immutable trajectory of fate
Da Capo al fine
At the end; cadential stillness,
The sleep of stones,
Mute relics ...
Gamer avoids a direct parallel to Millay's narrative by constructing the last section of his piece quite a bit differently than the piece's introduction. "I do return to the same theme, but it's been very much transformed," Gamer says. "It's been transformed by all this violence and ferocity that's taken place in the center."
It's a fitting musical metaphor, perhaps, since history tends to disguise its repetitions in new cloaks, beguiling us into thinking that our challenges are unique. "Things repeat, but they are not the same," he adds. "Take warfare itself. Originally, it was with stone axes and later it became atomic bombs ... so the end of this piece is much more complicated than the beginning."
In another departure from Millay's work, Gamer was also aware that, given the potential of mutual nuclear destruction, history may not get a chance to repeat itself after the next big human blunder. It's another reason his piece doesn't end exactly as it begins, and it's another reason you'll want to check out CC's New Music Symposium ... before it's too late.