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Fall Residencies at Bates and Binghamton

The Momenta Quartet rounded out its Fall 2014 season with a fulfilling and action-packed pair of college residencies! We made a return visit to Bates College in Maine and our very first to Binghamton University in upstate New York. Our immense gratitude goes to Bates music faculty members Gina Fatone (director of the Bates Gamelan ensemble) and Hiroya Miura (who conducted the gamelan), and Bates Olin Arts Center manager Seth Warner for their endless assistance. At Binghamton, we owe many thanks to the hospitality of music faculty member Daniel Thomas Davis, as well as the fantastic crew of composition students who helped take care of us during our visit. We feel incredibly lucky to have so many talented and generous friends in so many places.

Momenta at Bates with Hiroya Miura

Both of these residencies explored pursuits that Momenta considers most rewarding: working with student composers and performers; presenting thought-provoking programs that reach across cultural and temporal boundaries; and exploring music inspired by non-classical, folk, or indigenous traditions. (And we always make room for new and unusual collaborations…with the photos to prove it!)

The main purpose of our visit to Bates this time was to collaborate in concert with the Bates College Gamelan, headed by professor Gina Fatone. We’ve already visited Bates twice before in a performing/teaching/collaborative capacity, but this was our first time working with their gamelan. Momenta has extensive past experience playing with gamelan, including with the New York-based Gamelan Dharma Swara and Gamelan Son of Lion. In addition, we’ve encouraged several additions to the gamelan-strings repertoire through our recurring residency at Cornell University and our work with the gamelan there. And in fact it’s one of those pieces, originally dedicated to us and the Cornell gamelan, that we brought to Bates: Jesse Jones‘ “NONAME” (2012).

NONAME has a propulsive energy provided by minimalist rhythmic figures, and a clustered bouquet of multiple microtonal tunings in the strings which lends it a unique halo of mixed resonances. Woven throughout are long-breathed, improvisational-sounding string melodies reminiscent of the rebab (a bowed spike fiddle with Middle Eastern origins, often used to accompany gamelan). The other gamelan-strings selection featured our violist extraordinaire Stephanie Griffin in Lou Harrison’s elegiac “Threnody for Carlos Chavez” (1979) for solo viola and gamelan. It was fascinating to see how differently these two Western-trained composers treated the medium. In the Harrison, the viola’s soulful, lyrical, seemingly eternal melody stood at the forefront, supported and occasionally punctuated by the gamelan’s canvas of effects and colors.

Gina did a first-rate job of preparing the student gamelan ensemble prior to our arrival, even transferring the entire Jones work into gamelan cipher notation—no small task! Hiroya Miura (Bates music faculty and conductor of the Bates Orchestra) conducted the Jones and provided helpful, encouraging guidance throughout. The students were a fantastic bunch of collaborators. Thanks to all!

The gamelan at Bates

If you’re curious about this program and wish you could have heard (or seen) it, you’re in luck. The entire Bates concert was webcast and the video can be viewed at this archive online: http://new.livestream.com/accounts/10792319/events/3585395

Momenta rounded out the Bates program with two string quartet works that explored, in their own ways, the intersections of folk music traditions with Western classical music. Reza Vali’s lush and sweeping Nayshâboorák (Calligraphy No. 6, 2006) was written with the standard string quartet in mind, but can optionally be performed by a quartet of kamancheh(an Iranian bowed stringed instrument). The work explores microtonal pitch bends derived from the Persian modal system, in contrast against other sections that are in clearly diatonic tuning. It channels the spirit of improvisation through the use of intricate ornamentations that swirl, riff-like, around a central theme, while in other sections the quartet employs driving minimalist-inspired figurations or moves in an almost chorus-like unison.

Our final selection was Leoš Janáček’s gripping, emotionally-charged “manifesto on love,” a cornerstone of the 20th-century quartet canon, his String Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”, 1928). Here, too, the work is suffused with elements of the composer’s Czech folk music tradition. There are plenty of full-blooded lyrical melodies, highly chromatic ornamentations, and energetic rhythms. Janáček loves the repetition of melodic subsections within a movement, maybe for dramatic emphasis or to simulate the obsessive reiteration (or re-reading) of a thought. But the effect is also similar to the rhymes in a story or folksong, where multiple stanzas have the same music repeated below them.

Just 2 days after our return from Maine, Momenta continued on to upstate New York for our first residency at SUNY Binghamton. We were treated with the utmost of Southern hospitality by our wonderful friend and esteemed professor of composition, Daniel Thomas Davis.

It was a busy and productive 3 days, starting on the afternoon of our arrival with rehearsals with the student composers selected for inclusion on our concert program: Daniel Romberger, Masakazu Kurihara, Jibron Harris, James Budinich, and Richard Hugunine. We were deeply moved by the experience of working with all of these composers. They shared a great enthusiasm for music and much support for one another. For a number of them, this residency with Momenta was their first opportunity to hear their music rehearsed and performed by a string quartet and we were honored to be a part of their experience. Daniel Thomas Davis sat in on the rehearsal and we were all touched by his gentle, Socratic manner of helping his students get what they wanted out of us performers.

After the rehearsal with the composition students we enjoyed a delicious home-cooked Southern dinner by the wood-burning stove in Daniel’s idyllic country home and went back to school to give a chamber music master class.

African shirt selfie at Binghamton

The following day was our concert. We rehearsed more with all five student composers and then prepared for our first ever collaboration with African drumming and dance. Binghamton ethnomusicology professor James Burns made a very effective arrangement of some funeral songs from Ghana in the Ewe drumming tradition. Our string parts stood in for the vocals, and we played alongside the SUNY Binghamton African drumming and dancing ensemble. We had one rehearsal with the group and then we were on stage, closing the first half of our concert program with a lively (and sonorous!) performance in full African attire. James Burns loaned us all colorful dashikis for this part of our concert. It was Momenta’s Dashiki Debut. (We’ve performed in sarongs before, in Indonesia, so this was not too much of a stretch!)

In addition to the Ewe drumming piece and the five student compositions, we also performed the same pieces by Persian American composer Reza Vali and Leoš Janáček that we included on our concert at Bates. The result was a dynamic and varied exploration of a musical vernacular, showcasing popular and folk elements from Africa, Persia and Czechoslovakia alongside works by emerging American composers. Over the years, Momenta has done a number of concerts as part of college residencies. This concert distinguished itself by the size, warmth and enthusiasm of its audience. There truly is a wonderful spirit in the music department at SUNY Binghamton.

After the concert, Daniel Thomas Davis showered us with further hospitality with a party at his house, featuring sheets of local Binghamton pizza and red wine. It is not every day you get to eat pizza in sheet form….

The next morning we returned to SUNY Binghamton to read pieces by more student composers before heading back home to New York City.

It was a true pleasure to work with dedicated faculty and talented students both at SUNY Binghamton and at Bates College, and we hope to visit both schools again in future concert seasons.

Momenta with Daniel Thomas Davis and his students