Intrepid sonics at the CSUS Festival of New American Music
Ever listen to your surroundings? No, I mean really listen—to the Doppler-effected fade of the car rounding the corner and driving away that blends nicely into fractal syncopation from a pickup basketball game at the playground across the street, with the shouts of children, the shifting gears of trucks and the hum of air conditioners providing added compositional elements.
To capture that rippling fabric of sounds—and similar sonic textures—has been an objective of a number of modern composers. Two of the better-known ones working in that milieu, George Crumb and Steve Reich, will appear at the Festival of New American Music, which is staged annually by California State University, Sacramento. This year’s festival began Nov. 1 and runs through Nov. 12.
And, get this—most events are free. In this city, where people routinely complain about having nothing to do, there’s a top-notch program of adventurous music events in the concert-hall tradition, most of which have no cover charge.
This is the New American Music festival’s 23rd season; the first one took place in 1978. Now-retired music professor Gene Savage, who taught piano at CSUS, ran the festival for the first 15 years. “He had a vision for this, and he’s the architect of the whole thing; he came up with the mission statement,” says Daniel Kennedy, the CSUS music professor who was handed the festival baton by Savage in 1993.
Savage wanted to provide the opportunity for composers, performers, students and teachers to experience what he called new American music. “He felt there was a need to put this area more on the cutting-edge, in terms of contemporary music,” Kennedy says. Not only that; Savage wanted to bring in first-rate performances from nationally and internationally acclaimed artists, and he wanted to generate interest in the music among area performers, composers, educators and students. Most importantly, he wanted those locals to interact with the acclaimed artists he brought in.
“That’s why the festival is more than just a bunch of concerts,” Kennedy explains, pointing out that various forms of educational outreach—classes, in-class performances, composition seminars and concert previews—make up much of the program. “There [are] quite a few community-outreach events this year,” he adds. “There are 17 concerts at area schools, and we also play at the Sterling Hotel, the Crest Theatre and the Crocker Art Museum.”
But the bulk of performances will take place at CSUS, mostly in rooms inside the music department’s Capistrano Hall, or in the recital hall there. Kennedy, a percussionist, will be among those performing.
Among the festival’s highlights are Tuesday, Nov. 7, when Crumb will preside at a noontime composer’s forum; that evening at 8 p.m., he will perform, on percussion, with guitarist David Starobin. Then, on Thursday, Nov. 9, composer Reich will give the keynote address at noon; at 3 p.m., a CSUS music ensemble will perform a selection of Reich’s pieces.
While the festival’s performers range from solo acts, symphonic and brass ensembles and string quartets to minimalist or textural groups that borrow from world-music styles such as Indonesian gamelan, all share a forward-looking aesthetic.
“I think that music, as with any of the arts, is a reflection of our society,” Kennedy says. “In some cases, it’s making a statement about society before it happens, or it’s a preview of what’s going to happen artistically, like a lot of early 20th-century composers who were writing music that was difficult to understand, now it’s easier to understand them—because they were writing music that was ahead of its time.”
As Edgard Varèse, a composer Kennedy cites as an example, once put it: "The present-day composer refuses to die." The late Frank Zappa ran that quote in the liner notes of nearly all of his albums. Gene Savage and Daniel Kennedy would agree.