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PERFORMIING ARTS

On the Frontiers of Virtuosity

New York's Speculum Musicae ensemble is here to help young composers learn and expand the limits of technical possibility in an intense workshop.

July 07, 1996|Justin Davidson | A composer and graduate of Columbia's School of the Arts, Justin Davidson is classical music critic at Newsday

NEW YORK — "I like the idea of being a pioneer," said clarinetist Allen Blustine one recent morning, stirring skim milk into his oatmeal in a coffee shop on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "What could be more exciting than trying to make a piece of music happen for the first time?"

Blustine is a member of Speculum Musicae, an elite ensemble of new music specialists that is in Los Angeles for a two-week residency at the California State University Summer Arts Festival in Long Beach.

In a concentrated series of rehearsals and master classes with a dozen young composers, the group will whip together 15 new pieces (some of them still in progress) in as many days, and present them in three public concerts. (The first was Saturday night, the second will be presented Wednesday and the third on Saturday.)

For the musicians, it is a period of total immersion in the work they do best: translating a score from a composer's paper fantasy to acoustic reality. To young composers on the cusp of their careers, it is a rare opportunity to hear what they have wrought and meet players who won't balk at the most formidable technical challenges.

"For many young composers, it represents a first step into the profession," said composer Mario Davidovsky, whose annual two-week practicum at Wellesley College in Massachusetts is the model for the CSU program. (Davidovsky, a Harvard professor of music, will also teach at Long Beach.)

The members of Speculum Musicae have long experience in teaching young composers how to write for real, rather than ideal, instruments. A course at Columbia University, which they have taught for 15 years, is a sort of laboratory where students discover that often what looks on paper like an elegant filigree of notes may produce a labored sawing, or that an ingenious and elaborate notation may stand for nothing but an unpleasant squawk.

Actually, the danger in learning practical limitations from the virtuosos of Speculum Musicae is that a passage they deem eminently doable will be quixotic nonsense to more ordinary players. But that is precisely the goal: to help composers trace--and expand--the limits of technical possibility. "The point," Blustine said, "is to bring the reality closer to the dream, not the other way around."

When scouting new artistic territory there is safety in small numbers, and Speculum Musicae's dozen members cover a full range of instrumental timbres, from trumpet to guitar--the 20th century's budget version of a symphony orchestra. They have a no-frills system of self-governance: The players take turns conducting, divide administrative duties among them and make programming decisions by committee.

"This is the last of the communist organizations," said Blustine, whose title of president is really more onerous than honorific.

The comment has another, unintended sense, for the ensemble is also a holdover from an era of True Believers.

During the 1960s, when an artistic Cold War broke out over the right to claim the mantle of the avant-garde, composers and performers cleaved into two embattled camps, the philosophical chasm between them literalized by the 100 or so blocks of New York City that separate "uptown" from "downtown." "Uptown" music was modernist, abstract, bristling with difficulties and written by elder statesmen with faculty appointments, such as Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter. "Downtown" music was tonal, repetitive and composed by such academically unaffiliated young Turks as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. "Downtown" composers often performed their works themselves; "uptown" composers let the professionals--such as Speculum Musicae--grapple with the daunting intricacies of their scores.

Geographically, "uptown" refers to the Upper West Side, a neighborhood bounded by the establishment institutions of Lincoln Center and Columbia and densely populated with musicians (including Blustine and most of his bandmates). It is here that Speculum Musicae was born in 1971, the brainchild of three young virtuosos who lived in the same building on West 95th Street: cellist Fred Sherry, pianist Ursula Oppens and percussionist Richard Fitz.

(The name, which is Latin for "mirror of music," came from the "Harvard Dictionary of Music." It was only when a doctor sent Sherry a plastic medical instrument in the mail that they realized the word 'speculum' has another, less evocative, meaning.)

The three neighbors were also friends, but their association produced more than just a casual music club: It was a self-selected corps of crack musicians who threw themselves into the thorniest of contemporary scores with exhilaration and youthful swagger: "We were sailing, it was great," Sherry reminisced. "We rehearsed like crazy. This was the most challenging music we could get our hands on. There was a sense that we were going to kick some butt, that we were going to play it better than anybody else. And we did: We set very high standards."

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