The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

Student composers to get world-class debut at Mandel Hall tonight

This year, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra held a competition to determine which student works would be performed in one of its public performances at Mandel Hall. Chicago Maroon talks to the two winning composers.

Since its first three-year residency at the University of Chicago began in 2005, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has held a number of informal reading sessions of works composed by students in the Music Department. But this year, the first year of its second residency, the orchestra held a competition to determine which student works would be performed in one of its public performances at Mandel Hall. I had the chance to talk to the two winning composers, Alex J. Berezowsky and Jacob Bancks, both University of Chicago graduate students. Berezowsky’s two-minute piece is called Celestial Dance; Bancks’s 11-minute work is called Ruach.

Chicago Maroon: What does winning this contest do for you?

Jacob Bancks: It’s like gold for young composers.

Alex Berezowsky: As soon as you mention that your work is being played by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, people pay attention.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your pieces—the inspiration, the themes?

JB: There are two static musical images. First thing you hear is a violin solo. There’s a source of action—an active thing. Then there’s an inactive thing, which the active thing infuses. “Ruach” in Hebrew means “breath,” “wind,” or “spirit.” I make my own landscapes. I began composing by imagining two stark landscapes: one formless and dark, the second dry and deserted—with sparse woodwinds, radioactive strings, and a soaring horn solo.

AB: I came about this in an odd way. I had a piece read last February called Constellations. I was told I could do another piece. Since I was very busy during the summer getting married, I decide I’m only going to write a short piece. I got back to school, and I heard about Asher [Goldman, an undergraduate at the University, who passed away on September 8, 2008]. I had lunch with him a couple days before at Ex-Libris. One thing I liked about him was his perverse sense of humor—like strange, crazy computer parts and 12-bar blues. That broke the gridlock I was experiencing. I looked to how other composers dealt with the problem of writing really short orchestral pieces. I drew a lot of inspiration from a piece by [Edgard] Varèse. I took chords and sounds from Constellations and mapped them onto rhythms, forms, and structures inspired by Varèse.

CM: What should people listen for in your pieces, particularly if they don’t have a music composition background?

JB: Listen for action and inaction. Lines that move and have life in them and lines that need life. It’s clear to me; hopefully it’s clear to the listeners. I had thought one piece I wrote was very straightforward, and yet some people were baffled and perplexed. This time I tried to be as straightforward as possible.

AB: I do tend to write short pieces, or long ones with rapid mood changes. I identify with the rapid pacing of television.

JB: If you listen to a Tom and Jerry cartoon, it’s amazing when you realize how they did that before there were computers to sync things up.

AB: Listeners may be disappointed if they’re expecting cosmic answers because of the name [Celestial Dance]. Instead, think of a party, where the cheese platter goes around. It’s a strong cheese. Not everyone wants a whole plate, but one [taste] is really good.

CM: Do you “visualize” while composing or listening?

JB: Writing for orchestra is a very three-dimensional activity. There’s foreground and background inherent in the orchestra. I think of the depth of the panorama. There are so many possibilities; you always have to think in 3-D.

AB: Definitely you have to be aware of the spatial characteristics when you write the piece. I’m inspired by natural phenomena. It’s important to have a wide variety of density. There are a few stars in the sky, but a lot of black. I’ll alternate a quieter, less busy, thinner texture with the overwhelming volume of really loud orchestral tuttis. It’s like in grunge music where you get the quiet bits and the wall of guitars.

CM: Jake, why pick a Hebrew word [for “breath”] for your title?

JB: I’m not Jewish but I spoke with a rabbi about it. She explained the multiple meanings of ruach, what it’s meant throughout history.

AB: For eighth blackbird, I composed a piece called Albion, which is the name for Great Britain, an astronomical clock in the 14th or 13th century, and a street I grew up on. I’m very interested in origins of words, layers of meaning. I would hope that there is a metaphysical or spiritual layer of meaning.

CM: Is your work informed by art?

JB: My work is mostly informed by poetry, literature. The history of ideas. A painting of Picasso I love is “Violin and Guitar.” It’s a fantastic mishmash of elements—the familiar element of the f-hole of a violin surrounded by unfamiliar elements.

AB: I don’t usually give titles to my pieces until they’re done. I’ll get a sense of what I’ll call it when I’m most of the way done. My biggest inspiration is respect for the composers that preceded me. A lot of my work was born out of thoughts like, “If Varèse and Stockhausen had a bizarre love child, what kind of music would come out of it?” In this case, the offspring would come from Varèse and my former piece Constellations. Hence, Celestial Dance.

CM: Karlheinz Stockhausen?

AB: Yep, good ol’ Karlheinz. He’s on Sgt. Pepper’s album cover you know! Part of why I compose is to make more of pieces, which I think should be out there.

CM: Any advice for aspiring composers?

AB: The more you write, the better you get.

JB: Write lots of music. It’s easy to spend a lot of time thinking about it.

AB: It’s like those people: “Oh, I’ve got a great idea for a screenplay”. Everybody has an idea for a screenplay. You can’t set out to write a masterpiece.

JB: If you’re going to get in, get in it for the long haul. Six or seven years ago I had thought I needed to make my orchestral piece awesome. It was terrible. Only after writing 10 or so orchestral pieces was I able to get that out of my system. You want something sustainable—the life of an artist.

AB: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

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