Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Ken Selden talks about his "Octet" and upcoming concert at Marylhurst

Ken Selden's "Octet" will be one of the works performed this Friday at 7:30 at the Flavia Salon at Marylhurst University. The concert will also feature Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" in the version for thirteen instruments and "Chorale" (homage to Aaron Copland) by Tomas Svoboda, plus two student works. It's all part of Marylhurst's Composition Seriers, and the concert is free.

Instrumentalists featured in this concert, which will be conducted by Selden, are some of the best in the Northwest:

Zach Galatis, flute
David Hattner, clarinet
Adam Trussell, bassoon
Susan Smith, piano
Fritz Gearhart and Shin-young Kwon, first violins
Fumino Ando and Sarah Roth, second violins
Brian Quincy and Jen Arnold, violas
Hamilton Cheifetz and Valdine Mishkin, cellos
Ted Botsford, bass

Tomas Svoboda's "Chorale," a quintet for clarinet, piano and strings, is played without conductor.

Selden, who teaches music at Portland State University, is currently on sabbatical. I peppered him with a few questions:

Are you teaching music at Marylhurst as well as PSU?

Selden: I've never taught at Marylhurst, but each spring they bring professional musicians to perform for their Composition Series, and I've been the conductor all three years. John Paul and Bob Priest, who were the composition professors back then, came up with a great educational concept: the idea was to introduce students to a major work from the twentieth century, and then using the knowledge gained from analysis and study, the students would then develop their own compositions, featuring the same instrumentation. The conclusion of this project is for the student compositions to be placed on a program with the major work, performed by professional musicians.

The first year we did Stravinsky's "Soldier's Tale," and last year we did Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire." In addition to the student compositions, we've also featured works by John Paul and Wynton Marsalis. This year, with the thirteen instrument version of "Appalachian Spring," it is our biggest event yet. We are performing in the Flavia Salon at the university, which is a rather informal and intimate space, with no space between audience and performers, so I am expecting it to be a rare and unusual experience. John Haek has been working with the composition students, and he has done a great job helping them organize their materials.

When did you write your octet piece? Did you write it during the summer when you don't have to teach?

Selden: I've been composing since I was a kid. I studied orchestration and composition quite intensely in college, but it's the one thing I haven't had time for since coming to Portland in 2006 to direct the PSU orchestra program. As you know, every ten years or so, we get a sabbatical from teaching (this is my first sabbatical, and it goes from January to September), so I decided to use this opportunity to travel, and to write some music. Now that I've started composing again, I'm finding it personally rewarding, which makes me think I will have to find a way to balance it with the requirements of my job as a conductor and teacher.

I tend to be one of those people who think about things for a long time before actually writing anything. I wrote my "Octet" in about a week, in January, but it was something I had been thinking about for a long time.

The "Octet" features a single improvisatory stream of unaccompanied eighth notes, in which both the harmonies and contrapuntal material are embedded into the intervallic structure. As a violinist, I often think this way, in the tradition of certain solo violin movements of J.S. Bach, where the arpeggiation of the line implies both harmony and counterpoint.

I composed my "Octet" with fragments of dance rhythms from "Appalachian Spring" in the back of my mind, but the basic musical concept (in which all pitches are played in unison) actually goes way back to my first experience with the music of John Cage when I was still a violin student. In 1992 Cage visited New England Conservatory, where students and faculty presented a series of concerts in a festival devoted to his music. One of the Cage pieces that I performed in was the ensemble version of his Cheap Imitation. The rhythmic material for "Cheap Imitation" is identical to Erik Satie’s "Socrates,: but Cage replaced Satie’s pitches with those he chose himself using a chance process, hence the title. Originally composed for solo piano in 1969, "Cheap Imitation is a quiet, meditative piece consisting of a single melodic line with no harmony or accompaniment. In the ensemble version, the melody is passed gently among the various instruments.

In the midst of that John Cage Festival, I had an idea of writing my own piece that would feature the distribution of a single line, but in terms of character it would be the opposite of "Cheap Imitation." I imagined an energetic, virtuosic piece in a toccata style, with sudden instrumental juxtapositions, unexpected doublings and octave displacements. I did not expect to wait this many years before finally writing the piece, but since the idea had been in my subconscious for so long, the actual compositional process was quite brief, taking about one week in January of 2015.

Do you intend to keep writing music? What is the next piece that you will be working on?

Selden: Two of my most recent compositions are being premiered this month. Momoko Muramatsu and Maria Garcia just performed my "Dialogues for piano four hands" last week, and my "Octet" is this week. Those are both short pieces, but at the moment, I'm also working on a full length ballet score called "Scandal in the Deep," as well as a large scale sacred work for string orchestra, "Tenebrae." Those are both major works that I'm hoping to complete during my sabbatical.

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