SOUTH BEND — The piano will be loaded with pingpong balls, the flute will imitate humpback whale songs, and the ghosts of Bach, Brahms and Strauss will be invoked Thursday at Indiana University South Bend.
Suffice it to say the IU South Bend New Music Ensemble’s debut concert won’t be the same old song for classical music performances in the area.
Founder Jorge Muñiz believes the New Music Ensemble will fill an open niche in area concert programming — as well as serve his educational goals as an assistant professor of composition and theory at IUSB, where he has taught since August 2006.
“There’s a pocket there that I think we can cover,” he says. “I looked at the repertoire that is offered in different concerts around town, and I think we can expand it.”
The ensemble, which is offered as a course at IUSB, will give one concert each semester and will occasionally feature music from the first half of the 20th century but will focus primarily on the latter half of the century to the present. For Thursday’s concert, performers will include a cellist, violinist, flutist, violist and three pianists, including Muñiz and his wife, Jennifer, an adjunct assistant professor of music at IUSB, executive director of the South Bend Youth Symphonies and member of the University of Notre Dame’s music faculty.
Titled “American Revolutions: 1950-1970,” Thursday’s concert’s program includes Bohuslav Martinu’s Sonata No. 1 for Viola and Piano, John Cage’s Six Melodies for Violin and Piano, George Rochberg’s “Nach Bach,” George Crumb’s “Vox Ballenae,” and works by two IUSB composition students, Richard Threet’s “Vita Movendis” and Michael Nolan’s “Transparency on Cello Sonata No. 1 by Johannes Brahms.”
“We’ll try to use this music in a cultural way and in an educational way,” Muñiz says. “Regarding the concert, hopefully, it will be interesting for the audience, but they should expect to come out of the concert with a new perspective and new appreciation for this music. That’s my goal.”
He has other goals for the New Music Ensemble, too.
According to his program notes, Muñiz founded the New Music Ensemble to promote new music and create new audiences, to provide the student performers with the practice and tools to perform the most current music, and to provide student composers with the opportunity for their works to be performed.
“It is very important to have a platform for that … to try out things,” he says about programming students’ works. “These are works that may be only 10 bars, but we can try things and change things as we see necessary.”
Muñiz practices what he teaches.
Born in Switzerland in 1974 and raised in Spain, Muñiz earned his master’s degree in composition from Carnegie Mellon University and his doctorate in composition from the Manhattan School of Music, where he then taught for four years after graduating.
He currently is at work on the opera “Germinal,” based on the novel by Émile Zola and commissioned by the Opera Festival of Oviedo, Spain. Also, this month alone, two of his works will receive their premiere performances: On March 4, the Spanish String Quartet gave his Fourth String Quartet its premiere at the XVII Festival Internacional de Primavera in Salamanca, and on March 29, his “Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah” for Soprano and String Quartet will receive its premiere at the College Music Society, Great Lakes Chapter conference at Illinois State University in a performance by Alicia Purcell, lecturer in voice at IUSB, and the Avalon String Quartet, the former quartet-in-residence at IUSB.
As a pianist, he released the CD “Cantos del Emigrante” in 2007 with Spanish tenor Joaquín Pixán. With his compositions, Muñiz says, he seeks most to “communicate” with an audience, although without rejecting any appropriate styles or techniques for a given piece.
“I believe it is very important to write music that will get to an audience,” he says. “I have no problem using many different techniques while maintaining my own voice. … I think the biggest problem we have is a lack of exposure and understanding. It’s just another technique. The purpose of the technique is to serve the piece.”
That stands in contrast to the attitude of many composers from the 1950s to the 1970s, which, Muñiz says, alienated audiences with their experimentation.
“During the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, I think, there was a movement of composers moving away from the wider audience and to select groups,” he says. “Many concerts were sometimes looking forward to outrage the audience and move away from them. That isn’t the case now, and there is a lot of wonderful music from that time. If we present it well, hopefully, we will create an audience for this music.”
To that end, Muñiz will introduce each work before it is performed.
“I understand that more recent music, some music, needs to be explained to the audience,” he says. “We also need to talk about the music, explain the music to the audience, so that their experience is more fruitful. … (I will) just give a few pointers so the audience can look for different aspects in a piece and follow it from there.”
Written in 1950, Cage’s “Six Melodies,” Muñiz says, opened doors for the minimalists of the ’60s.
“It’s a new direction that Cage is taking regarding time and form,” he says. “He’s experimenting with freezing sonorities, so there’s no real development to the piece. …There are changes, but the changes happen in a very small way.”
He included Martinu’s Sonata for Viola and Piano on the concert’s all-American program, Muñiz says, because the Czech composer immigrated to the United States in 1941.
“He does bring something interesting, to me, which is linking the past traditions — I hear Brahms in this sonata — into a new language, a new voice in the 20th century,” he says about the piece and adds that he can hear its influence in Rochberg’s “Nach Bach.” “Rochberg is using a partita by Bach in direct quotations, but they are transformed and seen from a new angle.”
Crumb’s “Vox Ballenae” was inspired by recordings of humpback whales and calls for the stage to be bathed in deep blue light.
“George Crumb, in the ’60s, the ’70s, also brings elements from the past, but in this piece, he quotes different elements — ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ — but in this piece, he brought a new search for color in the way you play inside the piano,” Muñiz says. “The flute also uses new techniques, as does the cello. … It’s a call to ecology and nature, but to me, the most important thing, and I think it has influenced composers immeasurably, is this search for new color.”
Nolan’s “Transparency” involves indirect quotations from Brahm’s Cello Sonata No. 1.
“The approach was more of having listened to the cello sonata (and asking), what themes are sort of floating around in your mind a couple of hours later?” he says. “I actually wrote the context, outlined the piece and had the structure and had a good deal of what was going on before I did much quotation.”
Muñiz, Threet says, wanted him to get “out of my comfort zone, tonal music, to explore other types of music so that I can have a more contemporary vocabulary.”
Inspired by the birth of Jorge and Jennifer Muñiz’s first child, “Vita Movendis” is a programmatic experimental work that depicts life from birth to adulthood to old age.
“It was challenging because I thought first and foremost I needed something that resembled a complete arc rather than a series of six unrelated movements and to do something that was different but still have it linked together,” Threet says. “It was more exploratory, and the abstract part of the brain was happy with this. Sitting down at the piano, the only rule is that you can’t play it traditionally, with your fingers on the keyboard, and you’re finding all the other ways to make music.”
As a result, the pianists strum the strings of the piano in the first movement and use mallets in the second movement, while the fourth movement makes use of marbles and pingpong balls applied to the strings. All of the movements include specific instructions for the lighting and sound technicians, when available.
Threet, however, also makes use of familiar elements: the pentatonic scale to represent mother and child, a tango to represent adulthood.
“The final movement borrows material from several other movements,” he says. “One of the players puts chains on top of the strings, and that changes the nature of what is heard. It gives a brittle and even piercing sound, which is part of old age. … Parts of this are ‘forgotten’ or ‘mis-remembered.’ It’s all written out, but they can eliminate notes or be late or early. It talks about memory and how it can fail us.”
For “Vita Movendis,” Muñiz challenged Threet to employ techniques he hadn’t before.
“It’s a difficult balance to give them the freedom they need to compose the projects they’re really passionate about while at the same time making sure that if they become too comfortable with a particular style, they should question that,” Muñiz says.
“As a creative artist, I think it’s important also to keep advancing and looking forward to the possibilities in your voice. … If something gets too comfortable, something probably needs to be learned.”