Cabrillo Festival 2015: Young Composers, Diverse Inspirations

Brett Campbell on August 5, 2015
The Cabrillo Festival (Photo by RR Jones)
The Cabrillo Festival (Photo by RR Jones)

In its 53rd season, Santa Cruz’s annual Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music is looking younger than ever. Since its early days under its guiding spirits, Lou Harrison and Robert Hughes, the annual summer extravaganza has provided a snapshot of today’s leading composers. But in recent years, music director Marin Alsop has also been turning the festival’s ear toward tomorrow’s voices.

This month, the festival offers music by a passel of emerging under-40 composers — along with today’s established composers like Mason Bates, Christopher Rouse, and James MacMillan. The best known emerging composer, Huang Ruo, will be in town on August 8 for the West Coast premiere of his concerto for sheng, The Color Yellow, featuring Wu Wei, the leading exponent of new music for that traditional Chinese, mouth-blown, reed instrument. The following Saturday, August 15, includes music by three rising stars (alongside works by well-known composers Philip Glass and Nico Muhly): Missy Mazzoli, Sean Shepherd, and Hannah Lash. We spoke to them, and Huang Ruo, to get a sense of where tomorrow’s composers are looking for inspiration, and what directions they may be exploring next.

Hannah Lash: The Past as Palette

Hannah Lash (Photo by Bob Handelman)
Hannah Lash (Photo by Bob Handelman)

“I’m probably the outlier,” laughs Hannah Lash. We hear all the time that today’s composers are looking to the vast world of music, from indie pop to global rock, for inspiration. But Lash tends to gaze within: to classical music itself, the instruments she’s writing for, and her own inclinations.

“My case is unique in that I grew up with absolutely no pop music,” the New York native recalls. “My dad was a real classical music buff and had a lot of recordings of classical music. I have vivid memories of sitting listening to Bach cantatas and Beethoven symphonies when he came home from work.”

Growing up home schooled in a rural area of New York in the 1990s, and with an uncle who was a conductor and worked at a radio station, she had a direct line to contemporary classical recordings. “I didn’t have the experience of pop music until grad school,” she explains. “At first, I didn’t really like it, but I knew I had to expand my horizons, so I had to research it in a dorky way.”

But it’s the classical masters of a century ago who provide continuing inspiration. “Always Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe and orchestrations of his piano pieces, and [Debussy’s] La Mer, some Rimsky-Korsakov for colors … those are the pieces I always return to, for that sense of magic.” Both French composers wrote masterfully for her instrument, the harp, and their influence is evident in much of her music.

In fact, in writing her Cabrillo premiere, Eating Flowers, “I imagined the music I loved from the past looking like flowers,” she remembers, “and I was eating the flowers and digesting them.” The commission from the festival, sponsored by John Adams’ Pacific Harmony Foundation, specified a rich instrumentarium including triple winds and full percussion, “and that gave me a lot of inspiration,” she says. “I was imagining blending the colors in this beautiful palette to create a form that would respond to the colors in my mind.”

Lash, who’s collected numerous major prizes for young composers and has received many orchestra commissions, admits she’s been fortunate and is happy to see more orchestras interested in developing younger composers these days. “It’s my favorite thing to do,” she says, “and probably my greatest strength.” She credits a year spent with the L.A. Chamber Orchestra’s Sound Investment program, which allows promising young composers to work directly with the musicians and on audience engagement, for helping her develop the ability to write orchestral music that connects with audiences. “I’m so happy to see this model being used by more and more orchestras,” she says.

In her teaching at Yale University, she finds that even younger generation of composers drawing inspiration from novel, diverse sources. But classical music will probably always have room for inward-looking composers like Lash.

Sean Shepherd: Musical Geographer

Sean Shepherd (Photo by Jamie Kingham)
Sean Shepherd (Photo by Jamie Kingham)

Sean Shepherd shares Lash’s affection for early 20th-century French music as a primary musical catalyst, and like her, he feels that he doesn’t know enough about pop music (though he listens to it and explores it “in a sheepish, trolling way”). But where she often looks inward for further inspiration, the native of Reno, Nevada, looks outdoors.

“I have this fascination with places, geographical places,” Shepherd explains. “I like thinking about places and they have infected certain pieces a lot.” A recent work for the Cleveland Orchestra, where he won a composer fellowship, drew inspiration from Ansel Adams’ photography of Yosemite.

He’s also motivated by the geography of the orchestra itself. “I love the orchestra,” he says. “[Finnish composer] Magnus Lindberg has a great quote — it’s a ‘typewriter with all the keys.’ You’ve got 60-80 instruments that can reach from octave below bass clef to two octaves above treble, all those colors, so many moving parts. I like the spatial challenges of it. I’m one of those people who can memorize a map and know where I’m going and I love the challenge the orchestra provides in terms of getting things in the right place at the right time, right context with right message. I played a lot in orchestras. I studied bassoon, so I spent a lot of time sitting in the middle of an orchestra so I got to hear it all. It’s this elephant twirling around on one toe; it’s amazing the things it can do. I’m always happy to write for it, and I’ve been lucky to be able write a few pieces a year,” which have been performed by, among others, the New York Philharmonic, the National, BBC, and New World symphony orchestras, and his hometown Reno Philharmonic.

Shepherd’s Cabrillo composition, Blue Blazes, uses 35 unpitched percussion instruments and opens quietly before erupting into this “spectacular cacophony of sound.” Since he knew that Christoph Eschenbach and the National Symphony Orchestra, which commissioned it, would be taking it on a South American tour, “in my mind I connected it with Latin America.”

He’s also excited by the personal geography of returning to his native West for the Cabrillo Festival. Although he explored the European avant garde in his studies at Indiana University, Juilliard, and Cornell, “I’m 36 now and that’s when you find where your actual roots are,” he said. “Every time I come home or come out back west, there’s something about that flavor of experimentation and open-mindedness toward anything new and esoteric that I find so fascinating.” Moreover, “my family can come!”

Missy Mazzoli: Exploring History and Culture

Missy Mazzoli (Photo by Marylene Mey)
Missy Mazzoli (Photo by Marylene Mey)

A very specific place inspired Missy Mazzoli’s Cabrillo composition River Rouge Transfiguration: the city whose orchestra commissioned it in 2013. “I knew instantly I had to write a piece about the landscape or history or culture of Detroit,” Mazzoli recalls. “I had performed there with my band [Victoire] a lot and fell in love with the city and its history, the good and bad parts of it.”

In a 1927 photograph, Ford’s colossal (mile and a half wide and more than a mile long) car manufacturing plant, which encompassed 93 buildings and made, among other things, the Mustang, “looks like a giant pipe organ,” she explains. “What would that sound like? How could I translate that into orchestra? That became the inspiration for the work itself.”

In her historical research “I noticed that Henry Ford spoke of himself in quasi religious terms, positioning himself as a god-like figure,” she says. “Around the same time, I discovered the photographs of Charles Sheeler and saw the religious symbolism in the way he photographed factories, especially River Rouge.”

Such big historical and cultural themes inform much of Mazzoli’s acclaimed work since she came to Cabrillo as a student composer in 2006. Now one of the most acclaimed composers of her generation, she teaches at New York’s Mannes School of Music. “I love writing for orchestra,” she says. “There’s very few composers who don’t enjoy making a huge, loud sound and collaborating with 80 people. There’s something very thrilling about that. I think the process of writing for orchestra is different from the way I write most of my music,” in settings where she can work with musicians one on one.

Although Mazzoli insists that “each piece is completely different; I feel like reinventing myself with each piece,” RRT does contain an element common to some of her other recent works. “The intersection of religion and technology is an idea I’ve been exploring in my last few pieces,” she says. “What is the role of belief and faith in technology in our lives?”

Huang Ruo: The Colors of Music

Huang Ruo (Photo by Wenjun Miakoda Liang)
Huang Ruo (Photo by Wenjun Miakoda Liang)

“For Chinese people, the color yellow has a deep meaning,” explains Huang Ruo. “The Yellow river, Yellow Mountains, yellow is the central color of the earth. It’s not just a color.”

It’s also the subject of the Hainan Island-born composer’s 2008 concerto The Color Yellow, which the Cabrillo orchestra will perform in a revised version at this year’s festival.

The cultural connection between color and meaning may help explain Huang’s tendency to draw on visual inspirations for his music. “I’m inspired by many different things, most of the time not music,” he says. “One of my many inspirations comes from visual art and architecture. I have this technique to create music called dimensionalism where I create sonic space. To me, contemporary architecture is an extension of modern music, where I’m painting with sound.”

“Composers need to look beyond just the music genre,” he tells his students at the Mannes College. “I tell my students the story that one time I was in supermarket, doing some shopping, and I saw this rotisserie chicken rotating in an oven. I thought, ‘this is fascinating, I’ve never seen something like that before.’ I was writing a violin concerto at the time and somehow I was inspired to rotate the colors of the instruments, using the same chords but, for example, putting the flute on top at one moment in the orchestration and rotating through different instrumental colors. Staring at the rotisserie, I was inspired — maybe I was very hungry!”

Another inspiration is drama. Like his older colleague Tan Dun, Huang early on experienced traditional traveling troupes of Chinese opera performers at an outdoor theater in his village. When he came to the U.S., he was surprised to see how Western music divided music from theater. “I don’t come from a tradition that has that division, so when I write for musicians, I don’t think of them as just musicians playing from the score but also as actors who are part of a theatrical experience. That’s where my root is.”

Nor does his tradition include pitting the orchestra against the soloist as in so many classic concertos. In The Color Yellow, “the soloist is like a guiding guardian who’s leading the orchestra through one landscape to another, different one,” he says. “The orchestra create a theater along with the soloist. They’re working together in one theatrical set up, so I want to bring drama into the piece. The musicians don’t just play their instruments; they also use vocalizations, play unusual instruments, and use theatrical tricks. The sheng is a very sacred instrument for me. It makes an otherworldly sound and visual experience for the audience.”

While he’ll always carry the memory of his Chinese origins, Huang also draws inspiration from various forms of Western music from pop to classical, which he encountered all at once, with no sense of hierarchy, when Western influences flooded China while he was growing up in the 1980s. While his music has been played by prestigious ensembles like the New York Philharmonic, he also plays in a folk rock band, and composes for film, opera, dance, multimedia, theater, sound installations, and more.

His musical output is as varied as its inputs. As he tells his students: “Composers can be inspired by anything — by owls, by the Colorado River, by people walking on the street, by the yellow cabs in New York, by broken glass in a bar. An artist’s influences are what you train yourself to see. You create a frame inferno in front of you and look at the world from your own perspective and create from that perspective.”