Update, October 2014 by Scott Ordway

Northern Maine, March 2014

Northern Maine, March 2014

Heading to Boston this weekend for the premiere of North Woods, a new multi-movement work for women's chamber choir. After returning from the Detroit performances in Berlin, I spent the remainder of the summer creating this piece. It was commissioned by Beth Willer and the Lorelei Ensemble, Boston's incomparable women's vocal octet, with some key support from a NewMusicUSA Project Grant. More on the piece, including audio excerpts, after the premiere this weekend.

Two updates on the professional front:

First, I accepted an invitation earlier this year to join the faculty at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and I am happily into my first semester working with the students there. It is truly a remarkable community of musicians and I'm so excited to be a part of it.

And second, I've begun working with a very cool organization in Philadelphia called Network for New Music. Founded in 1984, it's one of the oldest contemporary chamber ensembles in the country and has worked directly with a ridiculous number of composers, from Luciano Berio back in the 90s to Bernard Rands and Michael Hersch and Stephen Hartke and a million others more recently, as well as some glamorous guest performers like Leon Fleisher, Peter Serkin, and Christoph Eschenbach. Just this weekend we unveiled a new $30,000 commissioning fund that we'll grow during years to come. By making commissioning a permanent and public part of our annual operating budget, we hope to demonstrate to other ensembles that both audiences and institutional funders appreciate and expect to hear new works on a regular basis. I've been involved with several ensembles before (as a conductor), but I've never had the chance to support other composers and the rest of the new music community on this scale before. Very excited.

Berlin, June 2014 by Scott Ordway

Club Gretchen, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Club Gretchen, Kreuzberg, Berlin

I am in Berlin this week for a performance of Detroit, presented in a new staged version by the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler and directed by Alexander Scholz. The performance, which took place last night at Club Gretchen in Kreuzberg, embodied many of the trends which I believe make our time the most exciting period for classical music since the turn of the last century.

The venue, which one enters through an active junkyard / auto body repair shop, is a former carriage house; in it's present incarnation, it is a nightclub with a surprisingly warm, resonant sonic environment for acoustic music. On the surface, we're as far as possible from the ossified ambiance of a city-center flagship concert hall.

I would guess that the median age of the capacity crowd was 30, perhaps younger. The crowd was stylish, but nobody was dressed for a slightly formal business lunch, the way American opera patrons often are. The bar (of course there was a bar) was open as people arrived, and many took a drink with them to their seat. When the show began, though, the bar closed (attn: Brooklyn alt-classical scene).

This last bit is a critical detail. For all of the unimpeachable informality of the venue itself, the purpose of the physical space was—as it would be in any Wagnerian concert hall—to facilitate deep and focused listening to the music itself. The concept of undivided attention for a limited span of time is, in my opinion, a definitional aspect of the experience of Western classical music and its postmodern progeny. Because (most) composers are counting on it when they conceive of the work, it can't be relinquished at the moment of performance, whether the show takes place at the Philharmonie or in the junkyard.

The performance itself was spectacular, a surreal blend of my piece and Stravinsky's Histoire du Soldat, with a fixed cast of characters seamlessly moving between both works. The director's vision for the evening effectively created an autonomous third work that explored the sense of loss and nostalgia that pervades Detroit and Stravinsky's classic tale of a soldier whose life is shattered after he carelessly makes a deal with the devil.

Danielle Zuber and Alexandra Schulz, the former having just sung Agathe in Der Freischütz at the Gewandshaus Leipzig and the latter fresh from a series of engagements with the Berlin Staatsoper, gave a brilliant reading of Detroit, accompanied sensitively by the Berlin pianist Ralph Zedler. And the chamber orchestra for the Stravinsky, led by Yu-An Chang, was comprised of students from the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler, but sounded better than many professional groups I've heard play the work. It was a rhythmically precise, joyous performance.

Stealing the show, however, was Pia Seiferth, the young German actress who played Joseph, the soldier in Stravinsky's eponymous work. The role requires almost 90 minutes of impassioned monologue, portraying a constantly shifting array of characters in English, French, and German. Seiferth tore up and down the aisles, leaping from post to post and responding beautifully to the musical environment against which the text is declaimed. The work is tricky and the narrative diffuse, but it never lost momentum or it's clarity of focus. Seiferth was applauded thunderously at the work's conclusion, and it was richly deserved.

Tunis, June 2014 by Scott Ordway

I am in Tunis this week, working with the Tunisian-Algerian writer Meryem Belkaïd (Slate, Huffington Post) on a new project called Spring. It's in the early stages of development, but will ultimately be an evening-length exploration of the Arab Spring and its ramifications through text and music. We've spent the week meeting with performing artists and other Tunisians who were active during the 2011 revolution and continue to play a vital role in the cultural and political life of the country.

This is a complex place with a complex history, and I'm learning that even the best-intentioned western narratives about the revolution and its aftermath are miserably imprecise. Three years after Ben Ali fled his opulent palace here for exile in Saudi Arabia (having been refused by the French), the cultural and infrastructural landscapes of this country reflect French colonial rule, twentieth-century dictatorship, and resurgent Islamism. These intertwined histories behave like massive bodies in space, each exerting its own gravitational pull, but each influenced by the others as well.

With critical support from Bates College, Meryem and I are in Tunis designing the formal architecture of an intercultural dramatic work that explores these issues. Meryem's text, which combines original narrative in English with source material in French and Arabic, reflects another major influence on the region: the Anglophone international community which includes the American government, the UN, and the byzantine network of NGOs that are productively and counter-productively active throughout North Africa and the Arab world more broadly. More on this project as it develops.

Click on the image above to see more pictures.

the sky itself was in this very room: Philadelphia, march 2014 by Scott Ordway

Arneis Quartet: Heather Braun, Rose Drucker, Daniel Doña, Agnes Kim.

The Arneis Quartet gave the premiere of The Sky Itself Was In This Very Room (2014) last weekend in Philadelphia. The sold-out event was the first concert presented in James Turrell's new installation, "Greet the Light." Above is a clip from their rehearsal in that space. Complete recording below, paired with some train / plane video that I think resonates nicely with the music.  

Book Review: The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt by Scott Ordway

My review of The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt is now published at MAKE, a Chicago literary magazine.


Arvo Pärt is a paradoxical figure in contemporary music: his work is widely performed, but almost never studied; it presents itself as disarmingly simple, but is fiendishly difficult to perform; it is meant to be heard in concert, though most know it only in recorded form; it is unabashedly sacred in a profoundly secular age.

For those unfamiliar with the composer, Pärt is known globally as the prolific creator of luminous choral and instrumental music that blends the gestural language of Medieval chant with the rigor of academic serialism. The composer devised his signature technique, “tintinnabulation” – which takes it name from the Latin word for “bells” – during a period of personal artistic crisis in the 1970s. In so doing, he established a radical aesthetic agenda, both with respect to his contemporaries and his own prior work. It is worth recalling that in the dogmatically modernist mid-twentieth century, composing simple, emotionally arresting music using the affective language of the distant past was itself a radical gesture. Working only with the triad, the most fundamental musical building block, Pärt unexpectedly married the procedural techniques of minimalism and high modernism with the tonal materials and gestural language of ancient church music, in the process becoming simultaneously one of the twentieth century’s most arcane, but also performed, recorded, and appreciated composers.

Click through for the full text. 

missa brevis for the virgin of guadalupe by Scott Ordway

John Corrie and the Bates College Choir commissioned a new version of my 2010 Missa Brevis for the Virgin of Guadalupe. They gave two beautiful performances of the new version this past weekend at the Olin Arts Center in Lewiston, Maine.

It was paired with Haydn's "Lord Nelson" Mass (1798), one of the great masterworks in the concert mass repertoire and a longtime favorite piece of mine. There are many fantastic recordings out there, but I think Trevor Pinnock's 1987 performance with the English Concert (including Felicity Lott's stunning soprano solo) is a standout. Listen here.

commissions by Scott Ordway

When composing on commission, one can't follow all paths: one must choose a single path and follow it. That's why I've decided to write a few pieces "for the drawer", as they say, something I've always considered an act of pure professional heresy. There are some paths I'd like to follow, but I'm not at all sure that they lead to an art that should be set before the public. Best to follow them anyway, I should think, even if they lead to aesthetic ruin or, worse, mediocrity.