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NEW MUSIC : Composers Showcased

April 15, 1993|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Since he took his post on the UCSB faculty last year, composer William Kraft has been making good on his promise to do some moving and shaking. He has worked toward championing the cause of new music based out of his academic roost.

Next week, from Sunday through Thursday, comes the second annual edition of Kraft's New Music Festival, an affair of lectures, panel discussions and concerts.

Last year, the formidable American composer Milton Babbitt was flown in from New York as the featured guest of the inaugural New Music Festival. This year's festival plays host to visiting composers Mel Powell and Charles Wourinen, both of whom have won Pulitzer prizes for their work.

But there is also an emphasis on composers who call Santa Barbara home, from Kraft to UC Santa Barbara faculty members Emma Lou Diemer and Joanne Kuchera Morin.

Of primary interest is an April 22 concert of two works by Santa Barbara-based Henry Brant at the Episcopal Church in downtown Santa Barbara. Brant is the renowned "space music" composer whose works entail situating performers in a space in various non-frontal settings.

But the star of this year's agenda is Powell. The Cal Arts faculty member turned 70 this year and, in 1990, earned the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his powerful piece "Duplicates: A Concerto for Two Pianos." (Available on CD on the Harmonia Mundi label.)

At UCSB, Powell's "Three Madrigals for Flute alone" and "Settings for Soprano and Chamber Orchestra" will be performed April 20 at the Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall, and Powell will be on campus Wednesday for tutorials and a panel discussion.

Born in New York City, Powell's resume includes stints as a jazz pianist with Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller before plunging into composition. He studied with Paul Hindemith and founded the electronic music studio at Yale University before settling at Cal Arts in 1969, where he has taught since.

In conversation, Powell has the flair of a natural-born, engaging teacher. He is, by turns, witty and incisive, but never bitter, despite the fact that his atonal brand of music prospers only in a small, select circle of the music world.

Can you give a little background on the pieces to be performed at UCSB: "Three Madrigals for Flute alone" and "Settings for Soprano and Chamber Orchestra?"

"Settings for Soprano and Chamber Orchestra" I wrote in '79, after about eight or 10 years away from composing. Before that, I was busy being provost and vice president at Cal Arts.

Then I resigned and appointed myself back to the faculty, with the admonition that I may never again attend a committee. It was something like Ford pardoning Nixon, except that I pardoned myself.

That piece was written for my colleague Morton Subotnick's wife, Joan La Barbara. The "Settings" was one of the first of what I've called the "overnight pieces."

A couple of years ago, I decided that I was the slowest composer in the world--or maybe the second slowest. I started writing these "overnight pieces" so I could accommodate friends, wonderful performers who would from time to time flatter me by asking for a piece.

As naturally happens, sometimes a work like that turns out to be strong and attractive and all those nice things that works that I spent more time on lack.

Is that rooted in the concept of working well under a deadline, albeit self-imposed?

I tell you, there are only artificial deadlines today. There once were real deadlines. That is to say, Bach had to bring a cantata to church for a specific liturgical purpose.

There is no major institution in chamber music, orchestral or opera that really requires new music. These institutions are sustained by masterpieces that belong to the 18th and 19th Century.

We have every reason in the world to fuss over a piece for years and years, since no one is standing on line, ready to stampede the place if Verdi's next opera isn't ready in time. We could tinker forever.

Is there any residual effect of having earned a Pulitzer, or is it just a peripheral event for you?

I've been told that it's the most prestigious award available. There are other awards that are more financially "enlightening." But the residual effects are very direct and immediately in operation. They entail commissions, people calling and wanting work, and/or having an easier time getting funding for works.

Is there a kind of missionary zeal that you find you have to operate from as a contemporary composer whose music doesn't have easy appeal to a wide audience? Are you a crusader of sorts?

No, I'm not. I'm much more withdrawn than I appear to be. The task of the teacher in musical lectures and lessons is a very ample task, and I've sustained the task for many years. I give to that. Then the task of composer is an ample one, that I give as much as I can to. Then there are the tasks of the husband and the father.

That seems to me to be enough crusades to take care of themselves, without any other excessive efforts on my part.

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